Archive for February, 2012

Standing On Turtles, All The Way Down

I like to feel the solid earth beneath my shoes. It allows me to participate in ancient cosmologies in support of my feeling of being right. As sure as I’m standing here before you, you can believe what I’m saying. Here at the center of all things.

It was a Woody Allen movie that put me on to this train of thought, but before we get into that here are some versions of the primal story:

Let’s start with Steven Hawking’s version in his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time.”

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Then there’s the variation that appears in David Hume’s 1779 work “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.”

How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression? Let us remember the story of the Indian philosopher and his elephant. It was never more applicable than to the present subject. If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.

When the modern cosmologist attempts to decenter the solid foundation of our footing, our proxy, the little old lady, restores it with an infinite regress of turtles that go all the way down. But in order to have a solid place to stand, we want some sort of final turtle, an unmoved mover where in the buck stops. This is why scientists like to tell this story about turtles, because an infinite regress violates the laws of logic. It implies that nothing set the chain of events in motion. Many scientists choose to believe there’s a “god particle” (the hypothetical elementary particle called the Higgs boson) at the bottom of it all.

Graham Harman gets into the game of infinite regress and turtles in his book “The Quadruple Object:”

And given that an object must inherently be a unity, its multitude of qualities can only arise from the plurality of its pieces. Thus there is no object without pieces, and an infinite regress occurs. Despite the easy and widespread mockery of the infinite regress, there are only two alternatives, and both are even worse. Instead of the infinite regress we can have a ‘finite regress,’ in which one ultimate element is the material of everything larger. Or we can have ‘no regress at all,’ in which there is no depth behind what appears to the human mind. Both options have already been critiqued as undermining and overmining, respectively. And if the infinite regress is often mocked as a theory of “turtles all the way down,” the finite regress merely worships a final Almighty Turtle, while the theory of no regress champions a world resting on a turtle shell without a turtle.

If it really is “turtles all the way down”, how do we locate ourselves in this infinite regress? And this is where we get back to Woody Allen. I recently watched his film “Midnight in Paris” for the second time. It’s the story of an American writer named Gil Pender who visits Paris. He’s in a state of uncertainty with regard to his pending marriage, his career as a screenwriter, the value of the novel he’s writing and where he should make his home (Malibu or Paris). His fiance has clearly identified a ‘final turtle’ and is quite certain about where things stand and where they should stand.

Pender, who worships the ex-patriot writers and artists of Paris in the 1920s, is magically transported back to that time. It’s here that he hopes to receive the clarity that will give him a solid direction for his life. In a twist, the woman he falls for in 20s Paris longs for the era of the Belle Epoque. When the two of them are transported back to the era of her dreams, they find the artists of that time longing for an earlier time.

This dream inside a dream inside a dream structure brought to mind Christopher Nolan’s film “Inception.” Pender, in ‘Midnight in Paris’ posits an infinite regress, and comes to the realization that there’s no final turtle. The certainty his character gains is from embracing the infinite regress, not from discovering a final unmoved mover. In Nolan’s film, the dream within a dream within a dream structure serves as the landscape for an action film. The conceit of the film is that if you can place a thought deep enough into the layers of dreams within dreams it will appear as a final turtle (inception). But there’s also the implication that the dreams within dreams within dreams are an infinite regress. In both of these films, the characters run into the limitation that as humans, we can’t count to infinity. We can only descend into the dreams within dreams within dreams so far before we lose our bearings. It’s not that the infinite regress isn’t there, it’s just that we can’t empirically experience its infinity.

It’s Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” that seems to show a small change in the zeitgeist—the infinite regress of turtles all the way down neither incites vertigo nor charges of absurdity. The dream where we’re falling without end has been transformed into a clear-eyed assessment of the infinite regress of dreams and what they can tell us about the dream we’re living in.

Tales of the Network: A Moment of Privacy; A Moment of Sharing

As early adopters of technology, we like to quote William Gibson and say the “future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed yet.” We position ourselves to preview the next good thing. And from the height of our vantage point, we look out over the crowd and smile knowingly. This next new thing will eventually be much more evenly distributed. The crowd, minding its own business, seems unaware of what’s about to happen to it. In the movement of that wider distribution, some small number of people will be made very wealthy. Soon just about everyone will be using this new thing, and we’ll be on to the next thing.

Reading through the front page of the Saturday New York Times, a couple of stories struck me as auguries of coming ways of life. Neither of these stories had the sweet taste of a fruit yet unknown to the wider populace. Instead they’re bitter moments that speak to an accommodation to our environment.

In the first article, titled “Traveling Light in a Time of Digital Thievery“, Nicole Perlroth writes about the travel routine of Kenneth G. Liberthal of the Brookings Institute. When he travels to China he makes very strong assumptions about the agency of the Network in that locality. Here’s Perlroth’s description of his protocol:

He leaves his cellphone and laptop at home and instead brings “loaner” devices, which he erases before he leaves the United States and wipes clean the minute he returns. In China, he disables Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, never lets his phone out of his sight and, in meetings, not only turns off his phone but also removes the battery, for fear his microphone could be turned on remotely. He connects to the Internet only through an encrypted, password-protected channel, and copies and pastes his password from a USB thumb drive. He never types in a password directly, because, he said, “the Chinese are very good at installing key-logging software on your laptop.”

When we think about the texture of the Network, we tend to think of it as a passive medium–something we can turn on or off. We access it, it doesn’t access us. It’s only in paranoid fantasy that invisible forces invade our minds and steal our thoughts. However, as we augment our minds with hard drives, memory sticks and cloud-based storage, we create an external readable repository of our internal mental space. Our use of common wire protocols allows for broadcast over heterogeneous networks of networks. Entities large and small have the same potential to reach a mass audience.

The two-way web is described as a democratizing feature of the Network. No longer are we the passive recipients of centralized broadcasts. Each node on the Network has both receiving and broadcast capability. But once that two-way channel has been established, the Network also has access to you. A common response to this kind of environment is to say, “well, I don’t have any secrets. I don’t have anything of real value; what’s there only has meaning to me.” If we take this attitude and overlay it onto the whole of society, we conclude that it’s okay if the Network accesses our personal data because no one keeps anything of value in these repositories. And this says something very interesting about where we think value is located.

Today, we look at Liberthal’s seemingly paranoid behavior with his connected devices as an oddity. But as we look at this story, what if we apply Gibson’s maxim? The future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed yet.

The second article is by Michael Wilson and is called “In a Mailbox: A Shared Gun, Just for the Asking.” Police forensics labs are finding more and more ballistics matches for “community guns.” A single gun is used by many different criminals in many different crimes. Here’s Wilson’s description of a shared gun used in a recent murder.

Waka Flocka is the name of a rapper. But to these men, the phrase described something else.

The community gun.

Hidden and shared by a small group of people who use them when needed, and are always sure to return them, such guns appear to be rising in number in New York, according to the police. It is unclear why. The economy? Times are tough — not everyone can afford a gun. “The gangs are younger, and their resources are less,” said Ed Talty, an assistant district attorney in the Bronx.

The example of the “community gun” brings to mind John Thackara’s discussion of real-time dynamic resource allocation in his book: “In The Bubble: Designing in a Complex World.” The average power tool (a drill, circular saw, etc.) is used for ten minutes in its entire life. But to manufacture that tool takes a tremendous amount of resources. Yet, we all need our own power drill because we never know when we’ll need it.

We can imagine a world where people don’t buy individual power drills, but instead make use of a community drill. The obstacle that stands between that world and this one is generally described as a failure of moral will. We know the right thing to do, but somehow, we aren’t ready. We find ourselves in the position of St. Augustine when he prays, “God, make me good. But not yet.”

Sharing and community seem to be attributes of a positive morality. When we see the commercialization of these qualities, we believe their moral quality suffers. We react to the commercialization of Christmas by attempting to retrieve what we imagine is an historical original experience. We react to the automation of sharing and community by Facebook by turning off our connected devices and attempting a direct connection without digital mediation.

Bad people are greedy, they aren’t willing to share. They don’t form cooperative communities where resources are shared to the benefit of the whole group. To some extent, this is how we determine who is bad and who is good. What would it mean if “sharing and community” were detached from our ideas about positive morality. Both movies and murder are better with community and sharing. Perhaps we should stop for a moment and ask: what’s the meaning of the word “better” in the previous sentence?

Both of these stories made the front page of the Saturday New York Times. The story about paranoid connected device behavior was just above the fold. The community gun story was below the fold. Neither story will receive broad coverage from other media outlets. It’s unlikely that either story will achieve viral distribution over the real-time Network. Both provide a vision of a future that’s not broadly distributed yet. They’re morality tales of the Network. They tell us something about the world we’re creating for ourselves. Or instead, maybe we should say, this is the new world that is manufacturing new varieties of humans.

Close Shave: How Objects Go Time Out of Mind

At first it just seemed to be missing. Missing in the way that you’d say a person or a thing isn’t really gone, but just misplaced for the moment. But I’m finally convinced it’s not coming back. The systems that furnish and replenish my local environment with objects have written this product out of the distribution algorithms.

When I first started shaving my face as a young man, I decided to use a shaving brush and a cake of shaving soap. I’m a fan of simple solutions. Shaving soap seemed to solve the problem of shaving lather. The product innovations in this area haven’t seemed much like real improvements. The exotic flavors, textures and delivery methods of lather and foam seem more like narratives of advertising than a solution to the problem of shaving one’s face.

Fancy shaving soaps are available in all the places you’d expect. But the one that’s gone missing is called “Williams Shaving Soap.” It’s a serviceable shave soap, you might even call it ordinary. But “Williams” was available everywhere, at all the local grocery and drug stores. It was the remaining shaving soap, it held down a humble spot on the store shelves. Its disappearance from the local stores marks a significant event in the arc of this product’s existence. The soap was created in 1840 by James B. Williams. It was the first shaving soap created for use in mugs.

It’s clearly the case that “Williams” is available for order on the Network, and it may still be available on store shelves in other parts of the country. But in San Francisco, it’s vanished. A young man today, about to make some decisions about how he might want to go about shaving his face, peering at the shelves of the supermarket, won’t notice what’s missing. If that young man were to come across a cake of “Williams”, it would be in the context of a nostalgic experience. Its circulation would have no currency, it would float on the alternate currents of wet shaving “traditionalism.” We tend to think that physical presence has become less important in the era of the Network, but if you’ve never seen something, how will you know to submit a query to look for it?

Once another generation passes and this object shifts just over the horizon, it’s only a brief distance to becoming time out of mind. Even now I only experience it as an absence on a store shelf. Wet shaving and getting up a lather has its adherents, but in the era of the shave gel and the five-blade razor, will we ever recognize how the shaving technology industry is over-serving our whiskers?