Archive for April, 2013

Unsingularity: The Missing Piece

missing-piece

Something must be missing. That’s the only possible explanation. Otherwise we humans would naturally live for ever and approach a much higher level of consciousness. It’s as plain as the nose on your face. And while each of us is different, the thing each of us is missing is always imagined as a single common ingredient. It’s a special commodity that once discovered can be sold or given to the entire human race in a transformational act that will fundamentally change the course of human history.

fountain_of_youth

It might be water from a particular fountain or some kind of plant seed from deep in the darkest jungle. The first step is eternal life. Then with time and mortality taken out of the picture we can get down to the business of some kind of perfection. That moment will mark the beginning of the end of our quest.

In the age of networked cloud-based technical solutions, we see this missing piece as coming from computation. Wireless mobile computing puts vast amounts of information at our command or at least within reach. But this is an augmentation, not a filling in of a lack. In the religion of the singularity, it’s the body itself that functions as the flaw. Once the immaterial intelligence (our infinite internal space) is uploaded into an eternally existing industrial cloud computing complex, the fun gets started. The parts that wear out can now be replaced, and replaced with newer and better parts ad infinitum.

Between now and eternal life, there will no doubt be some interim steps. For instance before the body can be confidently discarded and replaced with electronic machinery, it’s likely that we’ll keep our bodies and use ever more sophisticated robots on the side. Even now the replacement of all types of workers with robotic processes is accelerating. We can easily imagine all types of work will soon be replaced with advanced robotics plus big data computation.

Imagine. At birth we’ll be given our first robot. The robot will be assigned to do whatever labor we might have had to do in the past. Credits will be deposited in our account as compensation for the robot’s labor. Everyone will receive a base model robot. Those with more means will be able to augment their robots to do more advanced and highly compensated tasks. And of course, this being the land of the free and the home of the brave, any robot has the potential to be augmented in such a way that it could do the job of President of the United States for somebody. In the eyes of God and law, all robots are created equal. The key political moment was when it was decided that every single person was to be given a robot as a basic right. Initially there was an objection based on the cost. But once robots were building robots from materials obtained and processed by robots, the cost of robots began to approach zero. There were plenty of robots to go around.

And then a day arrives, and we leave our robots behind. Our bodies stop functioning optimally and we agree that it’s time to upload ourselves into that big computer in the sky. At first people held out as long as possible, waiting until they were quite elderly before uploading. More recently, as soon as the bloom of youth is off, an upload may be considered. Our robots can then be reconditioned and assigned to the new people being born into the world. Recycling is so important.

Some people will resist this final exit from the material plane. They’ll spread nasty rumors that the reason robots have been able to replace every possible human job is that they’re actually powered by uploaded souls. The uploaded souls that we think were talking to are really just simulations based on a person’s historical tendencies as encoded in a big database. An actual soul is required to make a robot fully operational for any human capacity, whereas people living in the material world are easily fooled by a simulation of a human. Once the Turing Test was routinely cracked, it wasn’t hard to create satisfactory simulations for each of us. Even the simulations can’t tell simulations from the real thing.

hal-reads-lips

The fantasy of immortality has found various forms over the years. The singularity is just the most recent concoction. But the replacement of labor by robots / machines is a definite reality. One can think of each of the major appliances in an American home as the equivalent of a servant. Labor continues to be displaced by machines, which is a good thing until a majority of people can’t afford to buy a machine of their own.

The Bottom of the Music

janis-grace

Of course television isn’t what it used to be. Nothing is, that’s how it goes with “time” and its “it was”. The number of channels has expanded from three to infinity. With weekly magazines Life, Look, Time, Newsweek no longer consolidate a view for the entire country. There were some very bad things about such a narrow window. A lot of voices couldn’t find a national platform or any platform. But when something strange happened, everyone knew about it.

jackson-pollock

There was a very interesting moment in the late 60s and early 70s when rock music started to break through on national television. It started showing up in our living rooms pretty much full strength. Not the pre-fabricated kind, the stuff that was constructed as a simulation of rock — music but without the rebellion, sex and drugs. The simulation had to be revolutionary and at the same time not threaten consumers. They needed to feel hip when they made their next purchase. But this was the real stuff coming through the tube; the stuff that seemed to actually threaten the status quo. It’s hard to imagine a popular music that could do that these days.

Rock music was a mode of communication among the youth culture. Coded messages, visions and entire ways of life were transmitted through short pop songs. The disruption was starting to take hold when the whole thing was shut down. Any number of events could serve as the signal of the backlash, the one that struck me was the firing of the Smother’s Brothers and the cancellation of their television show by CBS in 1969.

Some technologists like to think the torch was passed from the rock generation of the 60s to the computerists of recent days. They point to technology as a force for radical disruption. When we use the word ‘disruption’ to describe a new monopoly taking over for an old monopoly, we really miss the ‘rupture’ in disruption. In the technology business some like to talk about disrupting things and changing the world. But really they’re just talking about market share, revenue and stock price. It’s disruption that doesn’t overturn the apple cart. It just moves some apples from the bottom to the top. The world isn’t really changed at all.

In a television interview with Dick Cavett, Janis Joplin talks about getting to the bottom of the music. It’s the same shock that Elvis generated with his first television appearance. The bottom of the music was suddenly being broadcast directly into the living rooms of middle class families — and without filters into the minds and dreams of the children watching those shows.

elvis_presley_mirror

These days those moments are rare. But I had a small shiver of recognition watching Brittany Howard play electric guitar on television the other night. Even if you were to turn the sound off, you could see that she was getting to the bottom of the music. In that image, worlds of possibility were transmitted.

The Internet of the Outernet of the Internet

handfixinghand

The Internet is, after all, an Outernet. The “Inter” refers to the interconnection of external networks by way of a common protocol. But there’s also a sense in which we imagine it as an external expression of our vast interior mental space. Sometimes this is called cyberspace, and it used to be described as the mental space we enter when talking on the telephone. Like our internal space, the Internet is mostly invisible to us, waiting to be uncovered through the focus of our attention. We commonly make sense of the Internet as an internal, private place. It’s a social space we project our thoughts into while in total isolation. The external digital artifacts that we produce in the course of our online activity have begun to function as an emulation of our internal space.

server-farm

Recently emulation has gone meta. Starting long ago with the steam engine and continuing with the computer we have a set of tools capable of emulating the functionality of a whole range of other tools. The meta-level of emulation is emulating an operating system within a different operating system—emulating a platform in which emulated tools run. Internally we also emulate when we have an ambition to equal or surpass another and attempt to do so through a form of imitation. We internalize a platform on which to run the programs we admire.

There are two figures recently in the news who are engaged in forms of emulation. Just two guys you might see on public transit on the way to work.

sergey-on-subway

francis-on-bus

The first is Sergey Brin. With his Google Glass project he begins to emulate Robert Downey Jr. In the film Iron Man.

sergey-glasses

ironman

The second is Jorge Mario Bergoglio. By taking the name Francis, as Pope he begins to emulate Saint Francis.

Pope-Francis-washing-feet

st-francis

Each man is attempting to change the world. Brin with a wearable network computing device to augment human capability. Pope Francis by creating a poor church that is for the poor. Brin’s activities are well known, if not very well understood. Pope Francis’s project is perhaps more obscure—but it is also a technical response to the state of the world. It’s a strategy that could be viewed as the opposite of augmentation.

One way into understanding this idea of a “poor church for the poor” is to take a trip back to the 1960s and the poor theater of Jerzy Grotowski. Faced with the competition of television, the movies and broadway shows of increasing levels of technical sophistication, Grotowski attempted to isolate what was uniquely powerful in the theater. By stripping away everything, he arrived at a Poor Theater that focused on the actor-spectator relationship. He was a Saint Francis of the avant-garde theater.

From Jerzy Grotowski’s “Toward a Poor Theater

What is theater? What is unique about it? What can it do that film and television cannot? Two concrete conceptualization crystallized: the poor theater, and performance as an act of transgression.

By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theater can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. It cannot exist without the actor-spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, “live” communion. This is an ancient theoretical truth, of course, but when rigorously tested in practice it undermines most of our usual ideas about theatre. It challenges the notion of theatre as a synthesis of disparate creative disciplines — literature, sculpture, painting, architecture, lighting, acting (under the direction of a metteur-en-scene). This “synthetic theatre” is a contemporary theatre, which we readily call the “Rich Theater” — rich in flaws.

The Rich Theatre depends on artistic kleptomania, drawing from other disciplines, constructing hybrid-spectacles, conglomerates without backbone or integrity, yet presented as an organic artwork. By multiplying assimilated elements, the Rich Theatre tries to escape the impasse presented by movies and television. Since film and TV excel in the area of mechanical functions (montage, instantaneous change of place, etc.), the Rich Theatre countered with a blatantly compensatory call of “total theatre.” The integration of borrowed mechanism (movie screens onstage, for example) means a sophisticated technical plant, permitting great mobility and dynamism. And if the stage and/or auditorium were mobile, constantly changing perspective would be possible. This is all nonsense.

No matter how much theatre expands and exploits its mechanical resources, it will remain technologically inferior to film and television. Consequently, I propose poverty in theatre.

Pope Francis employs a similar strategy when he envisions a poor church that is for the poor. Ever escalating levels of finery, technology, capital and broadcast platforms don’t get him closer to his goal. It’s only through emulating the poverty of Saint Francis that he can reach the connection he’s after. Even in an era of streaming high-definition 3D video with 5.1 six channel surround sound to any screen anywhere, for the message he’s sending, the signal is stronger from a poor church.

For Brin, the Google Glasses he wears wirelessly connect to a network of industrial cloud computing installations around the world. These external data sources are able to feed information as multiple media types into the local context to provide a highest level of personal augmentation. For the moment, Brin is one of the few who can take advantage of this new technology. The connection he’s after requires strong wireless broadband coverage and connection to a series of algorithms that send him information based on his particular personal, social and location data.

supermarket-shelf-shampoos

If we assume that every moment of life can be optimized when we are fed the appropriate sets of contextual information on which to base our moment-to-moment decisions, then the Google Glass will deliver us to a life lead to its fullest. Confronted with a shelf in a supermarket aisle filled with hundreds of brands and formulations of shampoo, we will finally be able to select just the right brand given our hair type. At last we will be able to make the right decision when choosing between Coke, Pepsi and some fancy new gourmet cola-flavored soda. The fit between Sergey’s consumption of the world and what is available to be consumed will be perfectly optimized given the existing data set. In fact, were it to reach perfection, his participation would hardly be required at all–achieving frictionless consumption.

Both Sergey and Francis have taken steps to become jacked in to the present moment. Each set of steps has an ethical underpinning—much in the way Schumacher discusses the operation of “value” in his essay on Buddhist Economics. What we accept as valuable sets the terms of the economy we live within. The same thing is true of a path to the now.