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.

 

Galaxies Cheek by Jowl & Other Tales of Space

Occasionally there's news from elsewhere that has the potential to change our outlook on things. Our stance toward our planet and the biosphere rely on certain ideas that we take as an unquestioned foundation. No news story could undo these foundations; that process takes hundreds of years. But reading planet news from time to time can help keep things in perspective.

We call it “Space” or “Outer Space” because for some reason we believe it to be mostly empty. It's a vacuum, a void, a vast nothingness — it's a stark contrast to the thing-filled existence we partake of here on planet earth. On the other hand the Hubble Telescope photograph of 10,000 galaxies makes the universe seem downright crowded. Depending on scale and perspective, the thing we all “space” might more accurately be called “full”. The cosmic void shows itself to be more of a moral and psychological entity than a feature of the universe. Our imaginations are given a certain kind of shape through the use of the word “space” and its implied emptiness.

We assume we will travel through space to other planets, solar systems and potentially to other parts of the galaxy. And, as movies tell us, we will travel to other galaxies via wormholes in the space-time fabric that will allow us to traverse vast expanses in much the same way that a movie cuts from one scene to another.

One thing we've recently learned is that in these early stages, as we think and plan for extended space flight, we probably don't want extroverts on board. While extroverts make excellent protagonists for movies, they would create unacceptable levels of interpersonal friction on long space flights. It's interesting that a desirable human quality for exploring outer space is a highly developed inner space. When we leave our biosphere, our ecological systems, earth-scale gravity and our social relations to travel within an exclusively technical and pragmatic space craft, all that's left to ground us is our inner space. There's a weird connection between the inner and the outer that seems downright Kantian in nature.

The philosopher Giorigio Agamben, in an interview with Verso, thinks about light that is always already sheathed in darkness for humans. As the universe expands, there exists light that travels towards us, reaches out to us, but will never be seen. It will never reach us. Through our reason, we posit that this light must exist, but we will never experience it. There isn't even the possibility of experience, and yet there it is — an object of our thought. Just as the cosmic void plays a role in our inner ecology, this forever unseen light seems to have a place as well.

Verso: According to you, to be contemporary means to perceive the darkness of one's epoch and not its light. How should we understand this idea?

Agamben: To be contemporary is to respond to the appeal that the darkness of the epoch makes to us. In the expanding Universe, the space that separates us from the furthest galaxies is growing at such speed that the light of their stars could never reach us. To perceive, amidst the darkness, this light that tries to reach us but cannot – that is what it is to be contemporary. The present is the most difficult thing for us to live. Because an origin, I repeat, is not confined to the past: it is a whirlwind, in Benjamin's very fine image, a chasm in the present. And we are drawn into this abyss. That is why the present is, par excellence, the thing that is left unlived.

The adaptability of humans to different environmental conditions on earth seems to our ace in the hole as a species. Even as we permanently reconfigure the climate of the earth through global warming, global trade and agrilogistics, we seem to have faith in our ability to adapt to whatever earth, whatever biosphere that the future holds. We even look toward other planets and speculate about how we might migrate should this earth become intolerable.

One thing we've learned about space and space travel that we don't like to talk or think about is that space doesn't want us. It isn't good for our physical bodies to live in zero gravity. Human bodies are made up of numerous organs, circulatory and sensory systems. Each of these start to adapt to zero gravity in they're own way. They don't coordinate, the body isn't singular in that way. Astronauts begin to experience blurred vision because the eye depends on gravity as an essential part of its functioning. Bones depend on gravity to remain dense and strong. A simple way to think about this is to imagine what a human would look like if it had evolved in zero gravity. For instance, can you imagine what giving birth in zero gravity would entail?

In our fantasies about space travel we've solved the problem of gravity. Somehow earth-like gravitational force is simulated and we can run, jump and throw a punch just like we do on our home planet. In the fantasy of space flight we delete the inconvenient parts of being a human, the non-adaptable parts, and imagine what human-created heaven might be like. Someday soon we may need to think about the limitations of our adaptability. In our movies we imagine this Achilles Heel through unstoppable deadly plagues, zombies, revolutions by intelligent apes and chimpanzees and alien invasions. When there's a solution, it generally involves turning science and technology up from 10 to 11. Somehow our limitations are always erased instead of embraced.

 

Someone’s Been Messing with My Feed

It was an experiment in “happier” and “sadder”. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Facebook collaborated with some researchers on a psychological experiment on 700,000 of its users. It went something like this: add 20% more happiness and see what happens; add 20% more sadness and see what happens. The subjects of the study appeared to go with the flow, creating happy posts when fed happiness, and sad ones when fed an extra helping of sadness.

The internet explodes in outrage. How could Facebook abuse its position and add extra emotional shading to the newsfeeds of unsuspecting users? All of the big data merchants have this power. All of them assure us that they would never do such a thing. They are completely neutral, simply a transparent medium. Think of them as the Switzerlands of big-time data technology. (And as long as you don't know too much about the history of Switzerland, that'll seem just fine.)

The newsfeed is an interesting animal. It's the personalized stream of items that has been theorized over for a long time. If only we could give people what they want at the exact moment they need it, it wouldn't be perceived as advertising. Each person's newsfeed is unique, made of of selected interests, social graph and radiating out to a couple degrees of separation. Because of the personal nature of the selections that make up the newsfeed, it has the feel of an internal stream of consciousness. Your stream is unlike the stream of any other person. There are common elements, and there are moments where the streams cross, but each one is unique. As “individuals”, we identify strongly with our own feed; it's like no other.

The violation Facebook is charged with is similar to one we encountered in the 1970s — with subliminal advertising. Someone is airbrushing sex and death images into the ice cubes of liquor ads in magazines. Advertisers are intentionally targeting our unconscious minds, and there's no defense. We become like sleepwalkers, buying products without conscious intent. In our pragmatic, utilitarian society what could be more sinful?

We feel violated, some big corporation is messing with our insides — that feed is ours. It “is” us. All the while we walk through shopping malls filled with positive images designed to flatter and make us feel good. We watch television dramas that reinforce our moral values. We read magazines filled with an extra helping of happiness. The world as a feed that enters our ears and eyes is chock full of extra happiness. We already live inside a world that conditions our desires and provides positive reinforcement when we purchase the correct brands.

Facebook's error was to believe that it was an external feed like all the rest. In Bradley Kaye's book on Zen and Critical Theory called “The Boundless Open Sea” he describes the relationship between the internal newsfeed and the self.

Most Buddhists believe that actions are a direct result of a thought behind the action. Unethical actions are a direct result of untrained and messy thoughts. For the vast majority of people on this planet, thoughts pop up and appear as if they were completely natural. The vast majority of people never reflect on these thoughts. They come into the mind, make a cameo appearance and then leave without ever fully grounding themselves in anything solid or real. These untrained thoughts appear so natural they often unreflectively burst out as a set of spoken words. Habits and conditioning supersede the pathway to enlightenment and there is a way that people identify themselves with these untrained immature thoughts. There is no detachment from the thought process going on in these minds. The mind-images, or the mind-movies that are playing continue on as if they are an unstoppable force.

The streams of thought that Facebook appears to be contaminating with its extra helpings of happiness or sadness are already contaminated. Or rather, they are comprised largely of external memes and entities that make up the flow of thoughts rushing though our minds. The word “contamination” implies that there could be a pure state of cleanliness — as though we could take few squirts of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer and somehow massage our brains to remove the alien thoughts.

Bradley Kaye goes on to discuss how one might separate one's self from the flow of noise. The method does not involve prohibiting Facebook from adding or subtracting emotional shading to our newsfeeds.

The first step to liberating the mind is having an awareness that you are not your thoughts. To be aware that there is a voice in the mind and that this is the ego, not the true self. By sitting quietly, reflecting, and listening to the stammering voices that exist in the mind you diminish the Clamor of Being and can become completely detached from this white noise. It never completely stops because in modern society we are completely saturated with noise.

 

Annette Peacock: Solving for the Unknown Known

If you've lived long enough and you look back on the trends and history of recorded music, you sense that something's missing. In that era of the late 60's when music was undergoing so many changes and revolutions, there's a space where there should be a groundbreaking female avant-garde musician. Perhaps someone who tripped with Leary, performed as a hologram in a Salvador Dali installation and a pioneered the use of the Moog Synthesizer in treating vocals. A person who changed the politics of avant-garde jazz improvisation by creating the “free form song.”

Annette Peacock was thinking about gender and the politics of jazz improvisation while most of us were having our minds blown by what appeared to be a free jazz improvisational structure. Free jazz was so new and such a different way of making music that we didn't know how to think about it, how to critique it. We barely knew how to appreciate it. Here's Peacock on how it was:

I came back to New York at the time I started my career – if you can call it that – in the world of avant-garde jazz, everything had broken loose. Everyone was blowing, improvising together simultaneously in the lofts. It was totally free. It was an aggressively masculine texture assaulting you. I’m not male and I wasn’t involved in it so I could see it from an objective perspective. And it seemed like I had to carve space out… to slow things down. So I started writing ballads, with two notes basically, just intervals. No chords. Very minimal. Musicians had no idea what to play on it. Drummers had no idea what to play on it. I felt at the time my responsibility was to create environments that improvising musicians could perpetuate; to create an architecture basically. ECM, the record label, built a very successful label on the concept of those ballads that I wrote.

Peacock's first recording, “Revenge” wasn't released by the record label. And that's why there's a hole in the history of recorded music. “Revenge” was an incredibly influential record that never made it on to the turntable. Peacock explains the choice she was forced to make:

Oh yeah, they didn’t release it. There was a problem with going over budget. Paul (Bley) had recorded some music in Boston with his trio but they weren’t interested in releasing it. So they gave me a choice: release the record and the musicians won’t get paid or pay the musicians and the record won’t get released. So I said pay the musicians because that’s the kind of guy I am! But it was devastating. It was agony. It broke my heart.

Annette Peacock has recently released a remastered version of what she calls “the right album, in the wrong century.” The new title is “I belong to a world that's destroying itself.” The white hot radicalism of the recording is still there, but from this distance we can begin to hear it. We can connect the dots and understand the missing sound that influenced so many threads of music. More importantly, the music still challenges us. We haven't progressed as much as we'd like to think. The ecology she sang about, is the ecology we've yet to sing about. All her recordings are worth listening to, but in this first one Peacock is still out ahead of us all these years later. Still avant-garde. Still a visitor from the future.

Yeah, she's the one.

Word is that there's a new record coming soon. And the great Anil Prasad of Innerviews says he's been in contact with Ms. Peacock about an in-depth interview when her new recording is completed. Happy days are here again. You can buy some of Annette Peacock's records artist direct. You should do that.

 

 

Previous Entries Next Entries