Thursday, October 1, 2009

No Bikini Atoll

I must warn you in advance, gentle reader, that this is a roller-coaster read. I want to tag subjects normally not strung together in a single piece. To be honest, I'm having a lot of trouble writing it, keeping what I want to say under control and steady in my post-modern jumpy mind.

I'm going to try to help you out by hyperlinking all my reference jumps, but to keep you on the same page, I'll make them pop up in a different tab - you do have tabs, don't you? - and you can see where I get some of my thinking from. I mean, if you care to. And I do just have to say this writing in the ether now is almost as fun as my already-ancient-when-I-inherited-it IBM Selectric (r) typewriter used to be. Yay technology!! Finally something new under the sun since movable type and word processors.

I want to talk about intelligence, about what it is and isn't, and about the real prospects for making simulated artificial thinking. I will remember along the way that statistical regression analysis got fully developed with IQ testing actually. By that same species of damned lies which helps computers to act like thinking machines, or determines relative position for unpinnable particles.

I want to point out the time when some fictitious quality called little g got reified; as if the act of measurement could conjur metaphoric tenors into actual existence. As if intelligence is not something dialogic, communal, emotional, and real. You'd think we'd have learned our lesson from the big G already.

I'll write also about the mistakes made still even now in the supersized IT industry, and among the sprawl population of first worlders on planet earth. Much of our activity still seems premised on the quaint notion that all good people must always want slaves to do our work.

People still buy snake oil. Hucksters still get rich on it. Work is not necessarily a burden, and no-one will ever live forever. You wouldn't even want to, trust me.

Most of us been awakened to the fact that race is not a proper taxonomic category - relevant for breeding maybe, but not for evolution, where miscegenistic true love might give us our best shot.

We still live in a modernistic hangover, excitedly hoping that by making machines which we don't care for, we can get them to do our work without compromise to our moral integrity. Maybe we can grow meat without sentience. And maybe our perfected Turing contraptions can be made to think for us too, without our ever having to care about them in their learning.

I need to write about why we can't have it both ways, why when we let machine processes do the hard part of our thinking and decision-making, we've already lost a large part of what it means to be human. That sometimes even paying someone for their work robs them of their dignity.

I want to have some fun too, at your expense and mine, regarding machine sex which as everybody knows, or ought to, is still a part of what drives technological innovation. That, along with warfare. OK, maybe music too.

And I will identify myself at the outset as someone who does wonder if things are really getting better anymore. I don't believe in golden ages, that's for sure, and am not looking to go back to something we might once have had, or thought we did, since at least some among us projected it - the apple pie living - from their public selves, whatever they were really up to in private.

I will relate how, late in the twentieth century - that bloody century during which everything changed - I was a young and dumbly innocent headmaster for a tiny school called Calasanctius, in Buffalo, NY. Buffalo was then already descended to Rustbelt status, which made it an un-cool venue for this path-breaking experiment in global education for "gifted" children.

St. Joseph Calasanctius is a patron of Catholic education. By the time I joined its faculty, Calasanctius, the school, had very little to do with Catholic anything, except for some lingering and kindly, mostly irrelevant, old priests. There might have been some malingering too among semi-retired faculty still living on campus, or so the jealous teachers' union thought, and at least one young priest got stared down into moving on.

I only learned details of St. Joseph Calasanctius' life well after the school had closed for good. It seems the Piarist Fathers, founded by St. Joe, provided some foreshadowing of late second millennium Church history. A recent book called Fallen Order details early pederasty scandals in the time of Galileo, when the Piarists were on a school development and expansion spree.

The Church decided right from that beginning to protect Christ's Body above His spirit. Karen Liebreich, Fallen Order's female author, had to pass by the kindly Cardinal Ratzinger, keeper at what used to be called the Inquisition, in order to access partially preserved documentary evidence about those earlier scandals.

This may even have been when school as we now know it got its start; open to everyman and not limited to the elite as it always had been previously. How ironic that the American "common school" movement was inspired at least in part by a desire to marginalize dangerous "papist" schooling. How very obvious that these young innocents would be preyed upon, since they had no good family to protect them.

My school thrived in the age of Sputnik, where to be gifted and bright was thought to be good for the country, and necessary to cultivate. But by the time I got there, "everyone was gifted" and Buffalo's infrastructure far outpaced its shrinking population. We were another untaxed property in competition for dwindling elite dollars. The city fathers, with whom I so carefully populated our board, had to let some institutions go.

It must be difficult for the Church to negotiate these difficult times for its Institution. You have to credit their commitment to more openness and light in at least this case of allowing the young author to complete her investigations. Though they do so much better statistically by following conservative or even reactionary directions. The liberal Dioceses shrink and must import seminarians from South America, say, while arch conservative districts grow and thrive.

The Piarists were also friends of Galileo, who was on the outs for different reasons. You also have to credit the third millenium Church for tangling honestly with such difficult topics as get brushed aside by think-by-numbers Big Box Church Creationists. Though both seem to be splitting the same infinity when they use science as authority for demarcation of life's conception.

As with the hackneyed Church now, so my school formed a sort of strange amalgam of freethinking Progressivism and Chicago-school Allan Bloom Great Books retro chic.

Toward the school's final year, willing to try most anything, I found myself in negotiation with Bruce R. Powers, Professor at nearby Niagara University. He had convinced me that we could redesign our curriculum around something he had introduced to me called media studies.

Dr. Powers was a friend and collaborator of Marshall McLuhan, the erstwhile public patron saint of WIRED! magazine. You'd think I'd know this stuff, since I've been laboring in the tech support galleys for maybe fifteen years already. I've never known if I was cool or just a geek, but I did know that WIRED! was just too hot to touch.

I don't do fashion well, and WIRED! set out to normalize the world of geekiness with cool. I felt like I should read it, which is a kiss of death for someone raised on guilt in the Catholic context of Buffalo.

Medium as message had already become old before my time, just post-psychedelics, just post free-love. I think Bruce was attracted to Calasanctius' path-breaking commitment to a cross cultural and global curriculum. We emphasized instruction in a wide array of languages.

Media Studies was a way to run a fiber through all the curriculum, much in the way so many Charter Schools now try to counter the never-ending proliferation of topics for full coverage of detailed state-sanctioned curricula.

Experimental schools now take on themes, like technology, maritime trades, even fashion - imagine investigations of cool as the basis for a curriculum! Hell, I did. By providing that kind of lens, I believe they demonstrably get children further in toward the various traditional disciplines than was ever done in my time. I went to school when almost all teaching was abstracted from anything students might be interested in, and only college bound types like me were destined to succeed, in school if not in life.

I started as Calasanctius's Chinese language teacher, a talent I discovered on one side track from my own many droppings in and out from courses in Physics or Engineering. We'd been among the very first schools nationwide to offer Chinese Language instruction, as well as Advanced Placement testing. There'd been a lapse, and I brought new grant funding to restart this "critical language."

For our final graduation I invited Harpo Hanson to be the speaker, a man instrumental in the development of Advanced Placement testing and curricula. I was proud when he accepted, and he even remembered the school well, though I was and remain deeply conflicted about the direction of acceleration for what intellectual giftedness might mean.

The school was deep in trouble then, having barely weathered the great post-stagflationary warm up recession of the 1980's. Buffalo's economy was in very much worse decline than the nation was more generally.

Dr. Powers and I thought we might bring the school back some life. He also thought that there was more to McLuhan than was being credited at that time.

I was more than game. I got that we could not do everything; neither the students nor the budget could stretch across our ambitions. We made room, critically, for "field study" which meant rambling real-world school bus expeditions of discovery and exploration across our land. All the School met weekly for "Colloquium" which meant teachers and students sparring as equals on reads of writings which no one was good enough to pin down. We tried for all the AP courses, in an Upper School now dwindling well below 100 students.

Media Studies made a perfect fit, if we were to accept media as the superset for technology as just one aspect. Words, then, are also technologies to extend our human reach. It matters lots how you fix them, and how you let them flow. Science as the method, words trued along the way, with techniques resulting for getting acts together.

Unfortunately, Dr. Powers and I were both a little bit ahead of our times. Not because we were prescient or precocious. We just were. I understand Chinese language teaching is now in great demand. And who knew then about WIRED! around the corner, and McLuhan's partial rehabilitation toward the coming Geek Rapture.

Who knew then that our skin had already been blown off, and our souls released from slimy bodies? Who knew that the bomb that had already exploded was not the one we were struggling MADly to contain.

Who knew that all that could be revealed would be those obscene plasticized real bodies, advertised now at the Buffalo Museum of Science? Television spots highlight discreetly unveiled shots of over-bare dancers' bodies, weightless breasts showing perfectly in fuzzy silhouette. I doubt I'm the only one to notice, even consciously, the choices the advertisers make.

Sex always sells, as we know from the pornographic profit margins which power our blessed Internet. It's what cutting edge technology has always been powered by, along with advantages in warfare.

I, for one, can still not decide if the museum display is itself obscene. Sure, these people, or so once they were, all signed off. But still, I think it might be my privacy that's being invaded, not really wanting to look that closely inside, myself. In the event, I was made queasy, and found nothing more amazing than livid cadavers, expertly flayed and posed. Kind of puts me back a few ages I know.

Well, I understand the public spaces are suffering now more than ever, and have to sell sponsorships to businesses, and tickets to special events. A well off fellow I recently met had to leave behind his fund-raising business, because, so he told me, ever since 9/11 parents won't let their little leaguers travel door to door. I feel his pain.

And who really believed way back in the 20th century that the bikini costume, already so diminutive, might actually define naked better than naked did? I mean, we all knew that, but who knew about the implants? We have now perfected the internalization of that bikini superstructure, so that the skin inside the supports can be moved to their outside. And pussy beard shaved away to make primitive all powerful and all knowing ayatollah share his simple smile.

Architecture had been moving the other way for some time already, putting its skin on the inside, though who outside some ivory tower could tell what Postmodern might come to mean?

Who knew then that we would all learn to buff our bodies if we wanted to get ahead; to look better clothed and more powerful while naked - or imagined naked - than royalty once did fully draped? That social distinctions could also be that fully internalized to distinguish government subsidized corn sweeteners from the less refined and perversely more expensive kind. That personal trainers would one day be required - as personal dressers and groomers once were - to define our socially constructed and reconstructed still stratified new roles. That branding our equipment could set off our inner elite, but branding our very bodies might leave us Mini Pearl.

Until branding our bodies got expropriated too. Who can keep up with cool?

Would patron Saint McLuhan call the Internet both hot and cool? I might be the only one now to browse these pastures with a machine not capable of video. I am that kind of broke, and opt for Open Source not quite so much because it costs nothing as because I can make it work on garbage picked machines. Which cost, well, nothing. Stripped down nearly naked.

I'm not really sure if it's lack of personal trainer, the wrong taste in food, eating only what the government subsidizes, or Buffalo beer tastes in aperitif, but I came by my big gut naturally, the old fashioned way, with age. I'm not that into naked really, and think we could all stand a unionism comeback, speaking of beer guts and not cool. I agree with almost everything Michael Moore stands for, come to think of it.

That's how I started at my school, president of a teacher's union which was run way more democratically than those so recently scapegoated. Those just imitate what they're theoretically adversarial to, I guess. In any case, we should be careful what we mock, or it might come around and bite us in our tail. I don't think its very funny that we have recently had so many pretenders in our thrones, King George whatever-number-you-were.

I like Microsofted chic just fine, might sport body art if it wouldn't look so stupid on me, thank you very much. You wouldn't care for it either. I don't sport logos, don't brand my body or pierce its parts, and still think patriotic for America means anti-elite, depending on where and how you place the boundaries.

But I don't think intellectualism is elite at all, and if anyone tells you it is you tell them I'll have my honors student beat up their sports star any day of the week. Provided weapons are allowed. Elite is as elite does, I'd say.

Way back then as head of that misunderstood wannabe elite school, I found myself at once too young to have quite caught on to Dr. McLuhan's message (sic) and way too old to want to frequent those places where the heads all turn to see how much time I've spent looking as though I've spent none.

As if to resurrect perfect hotness from its carny sense of style, Buffalo now is floating up, like those weightless breasts on that skinless upthrust downfalling dancer. Relatively speaking, compared to everyone else's collapse, we're standing still and the world drops all around us. Our bubble never really did inflate; the gas too well contained beneath our flaccid once buff now aging skin? I'm pretty happy to be without athletic injuries, nor injuries to class, come to think of it.

But now when Google helps China "protect its citizens from porn", we should all at least wonder which profit margins it's defending and on whose labor. Which power structure calls which shots? When I write emails to my closest friends, and notice Google's ads off to the side reading my mind, offering to sell me Chinese language texts in Chinese when I complain that my favorite Chinese bookstores were no longer there in Toronto's Chinatown. When I sign on to do my search, and care little about what noise I'm injecting my identity into, just simply because I don't live in China or in South America. . .

. . . it might be time to pay some more attention to what's really going on.

There was much hype, way back when, about movable type and then about fixing peoples' thoughts. You'd think that old printing press would have wiped out completely already the Latin preaching relic of monarchical elites, the Church. Or is that Reformation still not complete, and it's the Superstar which still awaits dethroning? How very odd that it would take still fuller disclosure of deeper and darker secrets, to finally bring that Church right to its knees.

And now plenty of people have noticed that printing circuits on silicon chips in those CPU maker's commodity fabs, looks a lot like Gutenberg redux. This time the people get to publish and not just read mass reproduced tracts. There's supposed to be hope in that.

This time the reading before your reading gets done by machine, code on code, Hardware on software - though who can tell the difference anymore - so people get to talk. For free? Really? Then how come loudmouth psychopaths yelling "fire" in our crowded theater of love get all the airtime? Why haven't polite people been able to talk back?

Is there even room for earnest any more? My favorite new author, David Foster Wallace, introduced to me only too lately, also wanted to know. Well, Mistah Wallace, he dead, and it's a damn crying shame. He was probably the reigning champion of irony, and he died pleading for earnesty in writing.

Back at my school, I used to muse that measuring intelligence was about as dumb as measuring, say, beauty. We used the codes appropriately most of the time I think. It was a way to find those troubled souls, whose acting out in school might be symptomatic of some trouble with a stupid system. And some fit well with our more challenging aspirations for them. For most, the trick was to treat these children as human beings, as likely to be right as were their teachers. Imagine that! They've done pretty well for themselves, I now can know through Facebook.

It always did sadden me back then when some of the kids took to heart their "genius" designation. They learned that trick of never committing, lest their own dark fear become real: That they were only ordinary, and troubled, and without useful discipline just like, well, their teachers.

I wonder why that never happens to the athletes, the gymnasts, or even the gifted and talented musicians. Why must intelligence be singled out for suspicion? There must be some hidden motive, right?

Now that the software hardware equations have turned all inside out. Now that the printed hardware violently and with unthinkable passion interprets the stagnant code. Now that exoskeletons equal alien terror, while too soft skin must be protected from even the sun's blankened stare. Now then, what are we to do?

I understand most beauty queens are practically the opposite inside. Perhaps like poor and dear young Michael Jackson, they must out perform and perpetually remake themselves to feel any good at all. How great is great in a world of superstars and everybody else?

Intelligence, it seems, is also in the eye of its beholder. And I can only imagine what grotesque monsters would be created if we were to abide by some beauty score in our breeding games, the way we do in school. School so utterly disconnected in its measures from performances in life. Hitler once foisted his insanity on an entire people by taking full advantage of confusion between breeding and evolution. It's the environment, stupid, and not your will upon it. We now have self-inflated talking heads who do the same with shortcuts to thought, fanning the idiot winds.

Take Bill Gates, for instance, or Steve Jobs. They never finished college. No, I mean, please take them! I think they have far too much power for my liking. I'll take David Foster Wallace, with all his mis-schooled brains, keeping quiet with me in an old-school read. Taking on even Infinity, with charm and readability. Our economy too would heal itself, if only we'd leave off trying to patent even our genes. (Jeans make us naked too now, have you noticed?)

If the term media can be made to encompass all technology, as I think, praise all saints, it can, then the message has become us. Our skin has been off for some time now. Our boundaries all transgressed.

Here in the West, I'm sick to death of Big Box Churches, Big Box Stores, and Eating manufactories, where even our food is logoware, where even God has become some kind of trivial icon. God, who is a now a perfect reified object, precisely like the object of IQ testing, the general intelligence factor, "g".

That doesn't mean that God doesn't work. Hell look at how the Mormons and the Scientologists invented theirs out of whole cloth. By all evidence, He works as well as the Christian God, especially for bimbo actors. I'm pretty sure that the Scientology protocol makes for pretty good method acting. Almost human, these machines become.

It is no wonder that the thinking which now controls the earth with its master narratives' master control is all machinelike, with buttons to push and usage guides to consult, for things like grace and love and passion. It is no wonder that the freest among us are ready to strap themselves with bombs rather than to submit to technocratic controls over what they might believe. It is also no wonder that we stand, most all of us, terrorized inside some cage, checking out the outside now and then, from our womb's still flickering view.

Inside truly has become outside in this topsy-turvy mediated world of always new. It is the ticking of my very heart which terrorizes me most now, having no reset button for it. How long before people prophylactically insert the mechanical kind, or has that begun already, and I just wasn't paying attention?

It hardly matters, does it, if the picture is highly defined or fuzzy? Does it even matters if the signal is mediated by some cloud or by some wire? I frankly simply wonder why I would spend that much more money to despoil my illusion that the airbrushed face is the real one. I wonder how many more pixels it can take before the differences between analog and digital become a zeno's paradox distinction without a difference. Or is it the other way 'round?

Who the hell really does care what's meant by earnest cool? We do already know which powers hold which buttons, and the limits to what David now can do against which Goliath.

The very first of McLuhan's Thunders was East poised versus West. I believe that in that book they collaborated on - I must have left it behind along with what else of my personal belongings got auctioned off on the school's behalf, oh woe is me, for I can't find it now - McLuhan and Powers find us back at that beginning. The West visual. The East acoustic. drawing toward the final punctuation mark (must it be warfare?) which was the turning point always, of these mediated epochs.

I was able to hone my keyboarding skills on a word processor long before you were born. A friend in the industry, let's say, lent me his CP/M machine, factory demo, well before its time. Right before the Mac. Right before the decades long fiasco of pretenders endlessly becoming leaders. Or was it merest travesty? Projected life becoming real.

And what I found then still holds true now; that East and West will require some truing before they can be joined (back?) together.

I carried myself away back then (I'm so much calmer now!), comparing Western metaphor to the root Chinese poetic figure, the couplet. In Chinese tradition, I would later tell my students, there is no need to impose random meaninglessness on what exceeds the mind. Connections which can't be made causal need not be therefore accidental. There isn't necessarily a pointing, either, to what must remain beyond words. So no-one really expects any there there where nothing, really, is.

There is no need to point, metaphorically, in some ultimate direction. There are, rather, scintillating couplings of nature-written patterns - language in the largest sense - which alone are neither here nor there. The Chinese form of writing makes these relations come more readily to mind. There's less acoustic coding, and more cognitional gestalt.

The couplet enriches what could be read or seen or realized without it. A word for God was never needed in that language - the classical one I studied in school - and everyone knows the Eastern cosmos cycles, where our Western one has beginnings and endings.

Much later, in the West, at about the same time that we discovered speed to be the actual limiting static quality of flailing reality out there - a constant among relative motion - we found that the measurer could not be removed, even in principle, from what he measured.

Leaving the relationships, well, radically undetermined.

And so, Dr. Strangelove, our bomb was born, and our medium's message got delivered.

But I did notice then, as you must now, that these conceptual relations, which must be therefore held in some mind before they get collapsed into that outer reality by touch, do also and must exist outside ourselves, just as, well, our words do.

Or our hair, or our toenails, or even, if you cut them off, various other body parts, which however, often leave behind their phantom feelings.

So, while I think it might be true that we can go on rocking and rolling into some night for just a little while longer, these machines we meant to be our slaves will never do our thinking for us. They are only big long levers, giving us better grip on what we could destroy. Or save in its true season.

In my book, thought is but rationalization for what was felt beforehand. Functional MRI now proves that our brain had already made its move, before we made our conscious decision. Our feelings fish from schools of stimuli beyond imagining, for those which fit our pre-conceived patterns.

Our emotions are thought to be inside us, somewhere beneath our skin. Very gifted researchers seek that seat in our brains, and are making, so I understand, lots of very fine progress. Our feelings - metaphorically, and not the ones mediated by our literal skins - are all about the relations between and among things. Music of the spheres, for instance, or immeasurable love as interconnection. It's my body which rocks, I understand, to music that I care for.

When our skin is off, then, what happens to our feelings? Boundary issues, for sure, like borderline personality disorders, where saying the wrong thing the wrong way might set off a murderous response. There are no longer any defenses.

Or maybe there are no feelings at all, and so deadpan we might walk off to jail, considering the deal a pretty good bargain, all in all, after seventy some years of making off with other peoples' money. Or other peoples' lives, as that strangely normal BTK guy did.

The beats I like go right through my skin, and need no tympanic internal membrane to mock them. My body moves of its own accord, turn off, dear brain, allow it. If only I had the discipline to get in line with qi.

But our words still do intertwine, and implicate us each among the others. There's something different between cool implied and militant cool imposed. Over in China now, they're dealing with all different kinds of meltdown. Perhaps the Middle Kingdom's center will not hold, although let's hope it does. I think they need a little heart back in to their renewed state religion.

We here in the West are no less subject to promises of riches in return for keeping docile, still grinding away at meaningless work, anticipating easier times ahead.

I wonder if the promises of technology are a dream already gone up in smoke, when calculations are done now only in service to various kinds of gaming of various systems. I think that's how Google makes its money. It sure is how Walmart is making its.

Or are there only a very few among us would take advantage of the rest. Why do we let them, I wonder? Why do we follow our own lowest common denominator moves all the time?

I don't think there's any better form of American authenticity than "color" gotten from black v. white. Digital moves but it doesn't rock. For that you need stage presence. You need touch. You need something beyond the perfected Turing machine (apologies, dear abused Alan, deepest apologies).

And I'm very sorry all you media moguls, but I just can't feel that digital freeloading is any kind of equivalent to theft. I recognize your power, and will do my very best to stay your kind of legal, but give me a break already. I'll pay for live, and you can only make me want it more no matter how perfect is the reproduction.

The elites are almost always wrong, and vested in whatever system made them so elite. Sometimes they condescend, though. When not gaming with your money, they're certain to be lecturing you on why it would be wrong for you to get something for nothing. It's the system, you see, which needs you to behave. Prozac is cheap. Mind altering drugs will land you in jail. Corn will addict you to the medical industrial complex.

Oh crap, now I'm sounding like one of those nutjob crazies who get all the readership.

Well, I'm keeping my clothes on, and laboring for that kind of polite which represents the best of each of us when we raise our beings to the level of artifice. I'll leave naked authenticity to the young ones. Again, according to old McLuhan, it was the enclosure of our private parts which stimulated our very first catastrophe. Sounds almost Biblical, doesn't it?

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