Sunday, June 14, 2020

Do The Right Thing With Digital

Let's think of it this way: we can never know ourselves as well as those who love us know us. There are certain kinds of self-knowledge that we really must resist if we are going to maintain our face to the world. The self requires a little varnishing. That's why ad hominem arguments should be expunged from our protestations. There is no better way to hit a brick wall, for the purposes of changing a mind.

I suppose that's why novelists often start with variations on their own lives. Sure I know that the reason I despise FaceBook, apart from its obvious political and organizational guilt, is that I've never felt comfortable on any social scene. People often assume I'm arrogant, perhaps just because I won't join in. As a small child, I would hide to nurse some small hurt, or perhaps just because that's how I felt comfortable. It would take a while before anyone was worried, and still I didn't want to be found out. I'm sure there's medical literature about such behaviors, but I'm not sure that I want to see it.

I'm one of those people about whom glancing acquaintances often say, in a nice way, that I'm trying to find myself. I'm more and more petulant with that. No, thank you, I found myself a long long time ago and now I have work to do. Frankly the whole notion of "finding oneself" has always struck me as a loser from the get go. What could it possibly mean? No wonder the sixties were co-opted by commerce.

I am quite certain that having myriad images, moving and still, and other forms of recording, sound or writing, will almost never allow anyone to know a person better than their friends do, even while you still might know that person better than they do themselves. Sure, it has changed me to see myself on TV, but it hasn't helped me to know myself. I just cringe and look away. Sometimes fascinated as by a train wreck.

Just imagine how unlikely Trump has ever been to know himself, and then just imagine him changing his mind. Why would he? As far as he can tell from his reflection (something he apparently never does) he's on top of the world, and can gather a crowd to his pleasing at any time, even as he warns others who know themselves better never to gather for any other reason. An edited and curated stint on reality TV must really mess with a person's self-image.

I've been trying my whole life to make sense of digital. Now it feels critical. And I still have no way to talk about the dangers of the digital revolution swamping us now. Most people blithely assume that it just another step in the long path of "progress." People seem to believe that, ultimately, this progress is what being alive and human is all about. 

The thing is we don't often agree about progress to what. I would call it progress if we were to preserve those high arts once reserved for the wealthy nobility, but open the doors to the masses of producers and appreciators. I feel like we've made good progress with that, taking a look at hip hop culture. We've done less well with the pleasures of nobility and wealth. Since our culture confuses pleasure with happiness, that part is problematical. 

I've placed up here the actual writing which brought me to an epiphany of sorts when I was a much younger man. My epiphany was rather like what Barbara Ehrenreich describes in her Living With a Wild God. I was trying to make sense of what becomes different in the world through the lense of the Chinese literary tradition, along with what has changed in the world along with the then-new standard model of physics.

One might say that I had two basic insights. The one that tipped me over the edge was by way of the paradoxes introduced by quantum physics and relativistic time-dilation. Now recently with the apparent creation of a stable instance of Bose-Einstein condensate under weightless conditions on the space station, I feel a further boost for my epiphany. But it also would not have been possible without my deep dive into Chinese ways of knowing.

The relevant paradoxes involve such things as Bell's Theorem, quantum entanglement, time dilation, and more. My basic insight is that no object anywhere can be in any kind of basic contact with any other object. Of course everything depends on what is meant by "contact." The real trouble for me and for Ehrenreich is that there is no scientific theory to be disproven by my actual lived experience. There is nothing that one might do with this kind of understanding.

Or, in other words, my insights do nothing for what we call human progress. Agreement with them is not obligatory in relation to any definition for physical reality. Of course I don't really believe that. I believe that these insights make all the difference in the world to our thriving as a world community. But they don't seem to make me any more persuasive in the face of the stubborn recalcitrance demonstrated by that approximately half of our voting population which firmly believes in static and, to me, impossible truths.

So my obligation is as an educator, and indeed I have spent most of my academic life studying education, even while discouraged by actually doing it. As it is for many people who study education, part of my problem is that schooling continues to diverge from education to some terrifying extent. I would be a humble teacher if I had my druthers, but that doesn't seem to have been in the cards for me. I won't go into the reasons here, except to say that my teaching project keeps growing as I grow older. That's what I can't abandon.

I do know myself enough to admit that I arrogate to myself the really big questions. Of course I have no business doing that, but I'm not trying to be in anybody's face. Only once in my life did I ever introduce myself properly as a cosmologist, then quickly demurring that "of course I make my living in other ways." You do hair, then?

Far better to devote one's life to something interesting, like battery technology or gaming. Make a living and be humble. But for the astounding size of transnational conglomerates, and the even more astounding size of a small number of personal fortunes. In no good world would we allow so much power to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, even though I am grateful to him for introducing me to The Three Body Problem. His spoken Chinese is execrable, by the way. He sounds just like an American technocrat, all descended from Jobs.

The task to deconstruct the current order of things is just too massive. Of course global corporations aren't going to care that Black Lives Matter, but oddly they now seem to. Putting a good face on a corrupt body? Deeper change? Time will tell.

My insights involve the ways in which we are embedded in cosmos and not subject to it as object (I do love English for its tortured ambiguity, meaning, of course, that I love to torture English, even while I know that's not very nice to you, gentle reader . . .). I almost have to work backwards from our mistaken apprehension that computers approximate how our brain might work to get to what is wrong with digital. But that almost always seems to get me nowhere.

So let's start from the other end, shall we? Machines in general and digital machines in particular introduce structures which quite simply don't and can't exist "in nature." Sure, there is a continuum from our skeletal bodies as machines and through our hands to our tools as operators on the world around us, but it is at the inception of digital reality that we, literally now, lose touch. Recognizing patterns which are anomalously regular is how we recognize cognition out in the wild. We spend a lot of money on a SETI array to do precisely that. No dial-twiddling, digital requires only instruction.

In physics, of course, there is no actual touch between objects. Instead there are forces mediated by "particles" which define the interactions not of things, but of clouds of probability. Even our very own bodies can be described by those complex equations, though our accurate placement in any cosmos is hardly problematical at the scale of such huge bodily aggregations of smaller "particles." Our position scintillates, which is probably part of what it means to be alive.

We are working now on quantum computers which attempt to harness quantum entanglement for our next step in crypto. This apparently has nothing to do with breakthroughs in computational theory, but rather with the speed possible for certain types of computation. As I understand it, the speed is in turn a function of the fact that there is no time-delay for the transmission of "information" from one stateful cubit to its partner which is at some distance.

But of course, we are not talking about information so much as we are the definition for what may be considered a single "thing." The distance possible between "entangled" quanta has been experimentally shown to approach infinity. Touch "here" may be felt simultaneously "there." But what in the world does touch mean in that regard? Feeling???? Is there an emotional/physical divide too now? Yes!

I am less than an amateur with these matters. Of course, I would like to know more, but as with post-modern critical theory, there is simply not world enough and time. Each of us planes off at some point to focus on some very local problem that we find ourselves interested in. Well, if we're not black and if we have some social capital mostly. IF you're not forced to be a wage slave.

A cosmologist can't be too picky about what he chooses to study. The meanings could come from most anywhere.

I have been graced by resources not available to most of us, and feel a powerful reciprocal obligation to make something of that grace. But it is hard. I don't have the language to be native in any field. I can't get in the door. And I haven't worked hard enough for 'The Man' to be able to choose to retreat from the fray to just simply enjoy my wonderful life, although I do plenty of that. 

To simply enjoy life seems the most irresponsible choice at the moment in our history, and far worse than all the promise forsaken by my not choosing to embed myself in some one particular field. There are many kinds of regret now, aren't there? It's not that life is awful. We're not coming out of a World War. But it sure does feel like a tipping point.

As far as I know, people continue to search for some magic in the brain, as though it were the brain alone which makes us human. I am much more of a whole body (and whole earth) person. I can't separate any part from the whole. I have described elsewhere how and why I subscribe to Riccardo Manzotti's "Spread Mind" theory of consciousness. For me, it means that we are present in much more of the cosmos than the space displaced by our bodies can describe. The title for his book-form summary is The Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are One. We are not so separate, one from each other.

So the root of digital evil is that digital reality chops off the connection. Much of what we enact now in our history realizes this chopping off in the form of a very American sort of radical individualism. I don't mean that digital reality is causing radical individualism, though I'm sure that a case could be made for that. I'm suggesting that both trends realize the same underlying misapprehension about who and what we are and what is cosmos.

I speak in radically metaphorical terms in everything that I can say. That's because there terms can only be meant metaphorically. Of course physicists don't really deal with actual particles at the subatomic level, starting with the atom in one direction or the other. There is nothing very particular about anything there. And of course I can make only a metaphorical connection between the literal digital divide I'm talking about here and the other one I want to talk about. But the connection is no less real than subatomic particles are. 

I happen to believe that the American experiment is very much worth preserving. That's not because the radical individual is the way into the future, but because, despite our original sin, we are the only place where the arc of history has even a chance to bend toward the good. This is fundamentally because we are structurally not afraid of knowledge. That is a very good thing, indeed.

We still need to figure out how to decide what to do with the knowledge that we gain.

We are prevented from being a great nation (in moral terms) because of our radical individualism and the peculiar form of rampant capitalism which we've adopted as native. Our brand of capitalism tends toward the same results in relation to the open pursuit of knowledge that various forms of totalitarianism do. Even China's approach is better. In China, they're not so much afraid of knowledge as they are cautious about what can count as knowledge in the short term. My problem is that the short term is much shorter than anyone seems to realize. 

Sure, I'm talking about climate change or pandemics or species and planet extinction, but I'm not talking about what we need to do about those things. I think I'm talking more about what we need to stop doing, and I mean in our systems of knowledge and understanding, not even in our behaviors. Well, that's a chicken/egg kind of problem. The trouble is that we have to figure out how to change our minds collectively. The story of Jesus did that once upon a time. Relativity theory did that too, with a very brief sort of boom.

We've tended in the direction of disparaging mind against digital machine, just because signals along the neurons move so slowly. We confuse our mind with our brain. By our brain? By the way we think!

We can't possibly be as efficient in our rational calculations as a machine can be. Heck, we can't even rationalize the decisions we've already made quickly enough to claim to have made them ourselves, and we somehow think that might be infringing on our precious free will. Guess what, free will takes time. That thing that we're running out of.

Manzotti points out that we're conceptualizing how the brain works in the wrong way. It's not about speed. In fact it's about slowing down perceptual information even to the point of holding that information in a kind of near perpetual cycling so that we can perceive it again in the form of memory. 

I came at this realization myself lo those many years ago, but I was coming at it from the perspective of Chinese literature, which isn't so concerned with the inner person. The patterns on the surfaces are what counts, and of course, we know those we love much better than they know themselves. 

So the brain is a complex series of slowed down cycling messages and intersections. It can be repurposed if there are injuries, and the circuits are largely self-healing even as the neurons wither and die. Sleep perchance and death and dreaming are all essential for this all to work. Too much conscious attention just makes a mess of things. The brain largely wants to be autonomous. The cycling from birth to death is also an over-ordering of the brain until it just simply can't track, much in the way that I can't remember which digital article I read this morning, and no matter how good search is, I'll never find it again. 

Immortality, like literal infinity, would just crowd out every other. Not a good result.

Autonomous machines are different. Make enough racial profiling facial recognizing deadly force drones and we can end the world in a jiffy. Not by killing it off, but by the backlash disruption we've been causing to all those feeling the pain of collateral damage. It's the immune response which does the killing. That's what this moment in history means.

We have all been enabled to socially distance ourselves from trouble to the extent that we've won the lottery jackpot of disrupting someone else's industry. And we have all the right and good ideas as we amuse ourselves up to the point of death, which is inevitable in any case. That's what socially distancing social stratification means, and guess who gets left behind to pay our piper? The ones out in the streets now, being called terrorists by our terrorist in chief.

So, not only do we have to deconstruct and rebuild our policing on the model of Camden, New Jersey, but we have to do the same with our military. We create the terrorists and then, just like Vietnam all over again, they outwit us with their very human ingenuity. The end. 

Of course fascists love technology. It keeps the trains on time, and identifies everyone so that they (we) can be pinched in an instant the moment we cross whatever line they've drawn for us. We in these United States think its fine when it's done commercially, but now it's being done politically, and for sure militarily.

Of course Big Business loves technology. It allows it to grow and grow and then the business itself turns into technology, just like the economy turns into finance and a bunch of gig workers. Producing nothing of any value, no matter how pleasant it might be.

Even still the ubiquitous smartphones make it hard for the powers that be to lie. Except why then does our commander in chief get to lie out loud and often and still have his following? Well, duh, it's because of all those autonomous processes which run our newsrooms. I'm not only talking about how Facebook spoons up its newsfeeds to a level of complexity impossible for any human to keep up with. I'm also talking about the actual newsrooms which profit the same way from whatever grabs eyeballs, and then the aggregators who find out what you like to read by the same algorithms used by Google and Facebook.

How the hell can we even know what truth is? What the truth is? One lie is as good as any other, and so it comes down to the stories we like to tell ourselves. And these are nearly all impervious to being educated out once we call ourselves adults. Trust me, I've tried really hard for most of my life and it can't be done.

So, that's why I dig down to the basics. Particle physics. Quantum reality. Chaos theory. Getting rid of the mind/body subject/object dualisms. That's the only thing that can save us or else we're just not worth saving, sayeth Gaia or what-you-will. We are now in the process of stepping out from nature, and if we keep it up we will have succeeded once and forevermore. We will be as dead as an autonomous robot whose plug got pulled.

What then is the difference between the information being held in mind and the information being held in computer memory? I'm going with Manzotti's definition here for information, which is just the stuff which passes among objects which makes them perceptible. Which means to be in touch. Which means that physical information-carrying signals, in the case of animal minds, impinge on our perceptual apparatus. Which means to feel.

In a computer, or should I say for a computer, the information needs to be digitized which means conceptualized which means a static relation among conceptual objects. Ideal Platonic Numbers, say. Conceptual objects are things held in mind for the purpose of organizing perceptual objects. A kind of literal calculus takes place in and by computational representations of reality where conceptual slices are stacked together to form an approximation of actual fluid non-binary reality. 

Irony be my north star.

As with any mathematical calculus, digital reality can only be a very precise approximation of what is being measured. Again, as Manzotti would have it, there are no images in our heads any more than there are images stored in computer memory. Computers can't see. We can. And no matter how many pixels, the stored image can never be the same as the live one. The live one is felt directly.

Our brains don't store conceptual reality. They store perceptual reality, which is much richer. Since we store concepts so poorly, we must construct a narrative frame to hold them. The narrative frame of science is the best and most durable one that has ever been constructed, but it's showing its age already. It apparently can't overpower the Jesus frame. Both have been expropriated for use by the military industrial complex. We need a new frame!

Bill Gates has built his spaceship here on earth, which is the only place such a life would be viable. I'm sure it's more impregnable than Donald Trump's bunker, even given all the secret service, who might, after all, be carrying some kind of virus. The wealthy everywhere have escaped reality and deploy the police and the military to keep themselves safe. They might as well be on Mars, and good riddance!

Why not? If life is only about happiness and if you only have so much time on earth, then why not make that short time as pleasant as possible? Too bad about the marginal classes and the precariat. We'd love to have them join us for the cost of membership.

The trouble is the carrying cost to the planet though, right? 

In my book, conceptual relations are just as real as perceptual relations are. In place of information to define the relation among objects in motion, I talk of e-motion to describe non-forceful relations among objects in free-fall. Love moves through the eons in the direction of life, while hate moves toward stasis in the direction of the dead. The difference then is between the quick and the dead, and we have been moving toward the dead. 

I want to convince the likes of Bill Gates to live more modestly. The party is down in the engine room in the bowels of the ship and not up where you need black tie. 

My changes are definitional and not scientifically testable. That's a shame, really, because I won't be able to convince anyone by showing them what I'm able to do that couldn't be done before because of some new theoretical understanding which is experimentally demonstrably real. This theory requires a different kind of enactment. The kind we're watching (most of us, stuck off in some safe space in our wombs with a view) playing out right now out in the streets. 

There simply is no army powerful enough to quiet the people. That's what defunding the police state has to mean. To the extent that we hold our smartphones high, we still own the digital reality. We will depopulate our prisons by deconstructing our militarized police force. We will depolarize the world by deconstructing our obsolete notions of armed forces. We will jump back into the fray of nature be reconceptualizing what it means to be human, and we won't have to lose a thing about our humanity to do it. We won't have to become beastly. We won't have to forsake our art and our music and our dance and especially not our food and wine. These are what connect us. These are how we touch the cosmic forces. These are our expressions of love in return for the love which brought us this far.

These are the facts of life, fight them though we think Jesus wants us to do. That's not Jesus talking, that's The Man, and he only wants to grab your pussy. Defund the Church (oh, right, that's already happening), and Jesus will come to life again for real.

Numbers don't exist in nature. Numbers are an abstraction from nature, but it isn't only humans who know how to count. Humans learned how to tabulate, and that was the start of all the trouble. Tabulation led to writing as one thing leads to another and we find ourselves in over our head. We have to get it together, people!

Science can't advance without metrics. Metrics means numbers. Before science government needed metrics. Before government, agriculture needed metrics. But somehow we learned to separate the perceptual world from the world of the subject who was doing the observations and working the metrics to abstract theories which would enable ever more fruitful manipulations of the world around so that the subjects could live and rest more easily. 

But now finally we know that mind cannot be abstracted from matter; it can't be separated. We should be culturally grown up enough to know - woke enough to realize - that there is no personal God who's going to rescue us and take it from here. We should also know that we aren't even close to being equal to the complexity of the natural environment in which we live. Our science has barely gotten started, for chissakes!

Along comes digital reality to accelerate everything and we seem to understand that we're going off the rails. That we have failed morally in our development. Not only have we failed our fellow humans, but we're about to destroy the natural homeostasis that we depend on in the same way that all life depends on it. We're acting as though we can destroy nature with impunity. But nature's destruction is what happens naturally when one tries to order it. When one takes dominion. 

I think we need to rediscover balance.

These separations - heart from mind, subject from object, mind from body - they all enable a disconnect not just from life but from our neighbors. By forcing and enforcing social distancing - by wearing masks and building walls - Covid-19 and the various Donald Trumps of the world call the question; what if we were to join together? What if we were never to profit again from illness? What if we were never to prosecute a deal where someone has to be the loser so that we can win?

Numbers to enhance scientific understanding somehow transmuted into numbers to represent reality. We can't know intimately what we can only see on TV.  We can't have a discussion by texting and tweeting. Nobody even reads a long email anymore. What choice is there but to take to the streets?

Man, I sure do wish I could write more better. Well, not more. You know what I mean, by very definition.

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