Archive for the 'time' Category

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A Particular Kind of a Cold Day

We only seem to talk about big data in terms of predicting buying patterns and targeting consumers. This kind of data analysis is about making invisible patterns visible and transferring information from much larger scales of existence into the scale of human understanding. Climate and the warming of the biosphere may be the most important way we use big data techniques. Amidst the report from the NY Times that 2014 was the hottest year since 1880, when they began to keep records, was this observation:

“February 1985 was the last time global surface temperatures fell below the 20th century average for a given month, meaning that no one younger than 30 has ever lived through a below average month. The last full year that was colder than the 20th century average was 1976.”

We've marked the successive generations based on cultural markers and consuming patterns. But this under-30 generation is the first to experience a specific kind of earth. In this earth, there are no “below average” temperatures. Of course, no one experiences an “average temperature.” One day will be colder than another, and a particular day will be the coldest one ever experienced. But this generation will live out their lives in a fundamentally different possibility space.

What the data tells us is that the set of possible temperatures is slowly moving into a higher range. It's something we can can contemplate in our understanding, but not something we can directly experience. This is the difficulty of direct action with regard to global warming. When we drive our cars, or build a fire in the fireplace it appears to have no effect whatsoever on climate. It's only when you scale it up to the whole human species across the entire planet that the effects are visible. And only then indirectly, using a complex array of sensors, a large historical data set, and a sophisticated simulation of earth's climate.

Hollywood teaches us that there is supposed to be a large explosive event that marks the turning point with climate. We perpetually imagine that event to be in the future, as though it were a ticking time bomb. There's always time for the hero to intercede and change the course of history. One day, we look up from our newspapers and realize that every human under 30 years of age is already living in that permanently changed world. The possibility of that particular kind of cold day has been foreclosed. It wasn't ever a change that we would directly feel or experience that we should have been looking for; it was a change in what it was possible to experience.


Who is the Space Traveler?

It's the hero, the astronaut. He's the man who defies all odds and travels in a tin can into the most inhospitable environment humans could imagine. There's no life there; it's empty, lifeless and dead. The tin can contains an abbreviated biosphere capable of supporting human life for a limited amount of time.

With the exception of the moon walk, there's not really been any human exploration of space. The experience is always highly mediated by the technology required to sustain human life. In the past (on earth), explorers had sensual experiences that involved direct interaction with the explored environment. Space exploration has mostly been a visual and interior experience. A more direct immersion in “space” would result in the instant death of the explorer.

The “I” who decides to on embarkation and narrates the story of space travel appears to be a cartesian subject. The astronaut must put his unconscious into abeyance for the duration. The unconscious must remain unconscious, only the trained ego of the astronaut flies, all internal demons are locked up. It's the pre-Freudian human who travels in space.

A little more difficult is the issue of the microbiome. We humans contain multitudes. We are both humans and a cooperative life form that requires a functioning of a vast internal ecology. When the human travels in space so do the hundred trillion microorganisms that live in his intestines. We do the best we can by scrubbing off the bacteria and crustaceans that live on the outside of our skin, but the creatures on the inside have to go along for the ride.

It's quite conceivable that the first life forms from earth to colonize mars will be bacteria that have hitched a ride on our rockets. Those bacteria will be the evolutionary seed that may start a whole new chain of events in a radically different biosphere. Martians will evolve to survive on mars. It's not that they'll be specifically adapted or “tooled up” to the martian environment. Evolution doesn't work that way, it's not an optimization algorithm looking for a single best solution. Multiple correct solutions can and will coexist. There are millions of right answers to the question of what a martian looks like.

Our scientists want to eliminate the possibility of “contaminating” Mars because it will complicate our search for life there. In this too we want to eliminate our unconscious. Somehow every aspect of ourselves and our voyage must be conscious and accounted for. Scientists are very good at this kind of self delusion. Once they fail at non-contamination, we'll hear about how they can keep track the natives versus the aliens.

Of course from a slightly different angle one could see human bodies as the space ships created by bacteria for transport to mars. Humans have been selected because they're quite clever with machines. Bacteria have survived in space and could easily flourish on mars. Except as transport, humans aren't very well adapted to the task.


Readings: Tabs Won’t Close

Occasionally browser tabs get stuck–they can't be closed. It's not a technical issue with the software; it has to do with the text on the web pages. Sometimes an essay creates resonances and reverberations that unfold over a long time. These ongoing echoes defeat the click that might close the tab. It's as thought the text has too much life to send it back into the darkness of the Network.

Here are a few tabs that seem to have set up permanent residence in my web browser.

“The New Inquiry” Malcolm Harris's essay “Turn Down for What?” is a thoughtful exploration of the strain of Marxist thought called Accelerationism. It's a crucial analysis because it perfectly mirrors the ecological arguments of the techno-optimists. The “Accelerate” crowd believes it's only by inflating the bubble faster that we get to the revolutionary moment when it pops. For the techno-optimists we must double-down on technos to undo the damage we've done to our biosphere. The only solution for too much speed is faster speed.

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The PoemTalk podcast's close reading of Lydia Davis's “A Position at the University” is a reminder of what writing can be and do. We encourage reading as a necessary social skill, but there's reading, and then there's reading.

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Extinction Events and the Human Sciences” by William E. Connolly and Jairus Victor Grove begins the process of finding a new footing for thought in the age of Hyperobjects. The ecological thought forces itself into discourse across the spectrum and asks us to take another look at where we're standing. Think of this as the beginning of the anti-Cartesian meditations.

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The Verso site gives us Jordan Skinner's interview with Giorgio Agamben. It's called “Thought is the Courage of Hopelessness.” Everyone should spend a few hours looking at the world through Agamben's eyes–he's that important.

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The London Review of Books publishes Judith Butler's thoughts on Jacques Derrida's “On Cruelty”. After reading David Graeber's “Debt,” Derrida's explorations continue opening up the question of the strange equivalences we perform when trying to balance the books. The amount of destruction we've unleashed to arrive at what we perceive as a “fair and balanced” equilibrium is horrifying. Forgiveness emerges out of the discourse as the impossible act that must nonetheless be performed.

‘Whence comes this bizarre, bizarre idea,’ Jacques Derrida asks, reading Nietzsche on debt in On the Genealogy of Morals, ‘this ancient, archaic (uralte) idea, this so very deeply rooted, perhaps indestructible idea, of a possible equivalence between injury and pain (Schaden und Schmerz)? Whence comes this strange hypothesis or presumption of an equivalence between two such incommensurable things? What can a wrong and a suffering have in common?’ By way of an answer, he points out that ‘the origin of the legal subject, and notably of penal law, is commercial law; it is the law of commerce, debt, the market, the exchange between things, bodies and monetary signs, with their general equivalent and their surplus value, their interest.’

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The idea of entropy suggests that the power in these tabs should eventually dissipate. Typically we lose interest when the signal becomes too weak to attract our attention. The flavor seems to be worn out of a thing and it fades into the background. When the tabs are closed on these essays it will be because their constant blazing energy will be too much to bear as I attempt to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the thoughts.


Computers Augmenting Humans: Humans Augmenting Computers

Technology writer and venture capitalist Om Malik opens a recent blog post on big data and big responsibility with the following paragraph:

“You should presume that someday, we will be able to make machines that can reason, think and do things better than we can,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in a conversation with Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla. To someone as smart as Brin, that comment is as normal as sipping on his super-green juice, but to someone who is not from this landmass we call Silicon Valley or part of the tech-set, that comment is about the futility of their future.

Malik goes on to explore the idea that, aside from some half-baked libertarian ideology, the big technologists don't really have a moral vision of the future. He doesn't come out and say it, but the powerful technology that will have a profound influence on what you see and buy is under the control of 13-year-old boys (in the bodies of adults). This technology may very well create the boundaries of your imagination and make you its plaything within them. Malik is too timid to speak truth to power, he makes vague gestures about how somebody oughta do something or some sorta bad thing might happen. He deserves some credit for bringing the issue up, but none of the titans of technology are going to lose a wink of sleep over his blog post. In the old days, we'd call his post tomorrow's fish wrap.

Imagine instead someone a hundred years in the future looking back on this moment. Think of it as a moral thought experiment. That future that Brin spoke of, a dominant Orwellian consumer-oriented big data cultural hegemony, has become the air we breathe. It's our everyday prison house.

We often talk about what we would do if given access to a time machine. A typical response has been a plan to go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler prior to his rise in Germany, thus changing the course of history, and possibly saving millions of lives.

Looking back on our day from the future, at the moment when Sergey Brin talks about the global networked computing machines that Google is in the process of building, do we think: we should have stopped it right then and there. Malik seems to think Brin and Page are “really smart guys,” but they aren't smart enough to pull the emergency break and take a good hard look at what they're doing.


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