Friday, December 8, 2023

So What Do You Do?

I think it might be a peculiarly American thing to want to know what somebody does for a living, almost before, but almost certainly just after actually speaking with a person for the first time. I know I'm guilty of it. 

I'm always ever so slightly put off by the question, having to answer, 'oh I've done most every job in the book' and then sometimes having to elaborate, which might end the connection if it's a new one. I start with bike mechanic, the only job I ever loved with my whole heart. I don't really play the game fairly.

Once I said, truthfully, that I'm a cosmologist, qualified by the disclaimer that I'll never be paid for that. I don't think I ever have or ever would introduce myself as a writer. For obvious reasons. 

I write here because it's how I think. I don't expect and don't really care for someone to read what I write, but I seem to need the fiction of a reader. An actual reader would probably terrify me into silence, and so I actually feel respected that I get no comments anymore. Like if anyone reads what I've written, they politely back off, not knowing what to make of what I write. Mission accomplished!

Most times, I confess, I can't even really read my own writing. Meaning that it takes me as much work as it might take you, though I can generally bring back what I was getting at. Only sometimes does it badly embarrass me. Like to see a picture revealing how fat I've become. I mean I don't cringe, but it is not, apparently, how I see myself, if to see oneself is even possible.

I'm comfortable to say I'm a cosmologist, because I don't think I've ever really experienced certainty about anything. Sure, I can get preachy on some topics, adopting a tone of certainty, but almost nobody takes me seriously when I do that. 

As I was leaving the nearby cooperative grocery store yesterday, there was a polite but noisy march of protesters against Israel going by (or were they pro-Palestinian? Am I the guilty party or were they?). It reminded me how this might be the very last vestige of actual protest, and that maybe that would be a good thing.

I certainly don't hate Jews, though I've often been annoyed by Zionists who remind me vaguely of evangelicals whose cosmology seems as off as a Chinese rock singer. Vaguely crazed. I certainly have nothing good to say about Netanyahu. Well, maybe now he'll be kicked off his nutjob horse in the face of the real world. Not sure. Powerful people don't seem to mind killing off the other, so long as the job is delegated.

Honestly, my cosmology would prevent me from causing actual harm to anybody, unless they were attacking someone I love. I couldn't do it for political reasons. I was terrified that my number would come up during the Vietnam war. Would I even have the agency not to go? I think so, but remain glad that I wasn't tested.

Yes, I can get passionate that America should stop making and selling so many weapons of mass destruction. I might even start there before going after the AKs of our domestic terrorists. I'm put off by the solemnity of Bills fans in the stadium when someone mentions "veteran." I don't think it's compatible with being a Trumper. Just sayin'

To defend our country means first to defend the constitution writ large. There are betrayers in every stratum, especially as they get power. 

But so, OK, I happened upon this book, "Imagined Communities" - I guess by the processes of reading and exposure. It's a coherent exposure of the ways in which "nations" came to be, a process in which the various Americas play a part. In reading the book, I'm pulled away from all sorts of certainties about constitutions, about the death of newspapers as a certainly bad thing, even about what's absolutely good and absolutely evil. We seem less removed from barbarianism than ever upon this read.

I don't remember encountering the term "print capitalism" though I probably have encountered it, and just didn't have any context to understand what it meant. Now I learn that it might have been the prototype of capitalism writ large. Mass production of standardized products. Control of the means of production and distribution and even the creation of demand. Turns out ol' Ben Franklin wasn't quite so unique as we were taught. 

So the horse cart arrangement does its usual about face, and it may be that digital technology wasn't so much the means of destruction as it was itself the manifestation as well as cause of deeper strains of transformation. The fragmentation of nations, by forces of nationalism of all things, into subgroups with subclaims about authenticity such that the Free State of Vermont associates unwittingly with fascist white supremacist secessionists, because they both require the same superstructure for their definition and formation. 

Which side are you on, brother?

And here I am, back in history, rather than to the side of it. These global contortions are the manifestation of post-nationalism, and maybe I'm starting, finally, to comprehend that term. Even though my son-in-law is the reigning expert, in my book, of the field. I'm still winding up for my read of his book. 

Here's the thing: I pay attention to the stock market just barely. Enough to know that the mix the one underworked wealth advisor I shall ever be graced to have gave me worked fantastically well on the run up to the COVID bump, and it's been downhill ever since. Something about my hedges clipped, since maybe those were in bonds and real-estate. 

The thing about AI is that it will finally master stock-market investing in ways that my brilliant-with-MATLAB super, as in top of the global heap in statistics engineering, synthetic-aperature radar kind of thing was never able to do.

Which, I get it, spells the end first of all of nationalism second of all of history and finally we'll get our revolution, though it won't be the one we wanted. It never is.

I have no fear as in zero about AI taking over life. It has almost nothing to do with what life is, and therefore less than nothing to do with what consciousness is, well except in the sense that our collective loss of consciousness was already AI. 

Benedict Anderson borrows from Walter Benjamin who I learned of by my glancing acquaintance with computer gaming from a quasi-academic point of view. As in all digital artists have to have read The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Although, like good academics everywhere it gets located on a shelf. And now I'm relieved where I used to be depressed that all my shelves are virtual. They've never been easy to organize anyhow.

Although, truth be told, when I was a bike mechanic it never worked for me to keep my tools catalogued on the shelf or pegboard. By end of day in preparation for the next day, sure, but once I started working I didn't have time to look for or think about where the tool I needed was. Every time I try to rationalize my tool locations even now, attenuated as they and I are, I lose them. Sometimes forever.

Like I had this marvelous Leatherman multi-tool that my Mom gave me and that I gave my daughter, and now it's gone missing and I'm absolutely certain that I lost it myself by displacement. The hole is palpable. This the very Leatherman I took aboard an airplane post-911 and panicked when I realized it after losing it overboard from a canoe fishing in the thick muck up in the Boundary Waters. And found it with my bare foot and retrieved it six feet under.

Synthetic aperture this fuckhead! You couldn't find a haystack in the pile of shit below your outhouse head!

Were anyone like Walter Benjamin around anymore the essay would be called Art in the End of Ages Where Reproduction Internalizes the One Authentic Self. His Name has one syllable and not the two of Moloch. I have no art in me. Zip, nada, zero. I wouldn't be able to choose from among the AI productions, no two alike as in the random seed number which has to be gotten from beyond the machine. Still.

It gives me vertigo, but I can't remember what the book-length article I read from Esquire on my tiny iPhone yesterday was even about. Was it about anything? I'll check my history. Here! It was about Moloch, Nobodaddy, Steve Bannon who will never make it to the ranks of single syllable. Riveting. There is no truth to pin. Down.

And I shall read the memoir now from Tufted Daniel Dennett. I played Santa Claus myself just the other day and it broke my heart that my granddaughter was afraid of me. Ho Ho Ho!

I want no time on the machine. My hands shall always be dirty and the prints crazed and cracked.

To follow print capitalism is perpetually to act, perchance. To internalize the machine.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Singularity is Fear, Redux

Oh dear! It would seem that I expressed some fear of AI in that last post. In fact what I fear is the nutty repetition that some sort of singularity is near, whereby artificial intelligence will outpace human intelligence and take over the world. 

That fear embodies the supposition that human intelligence come the closest to abstracted and perfected intelligence, and that it is intelligence, writ large, which affords us our singular ability to survive and rise above the slings and arrows of otherwise outrageous fortune. 

There surely is that function for our kind of intelligence; the proof being our ability to live in such an incredible range of habitats and environments. We do that by designing and then constructing clothing and habitat; machines and communications gear. And we write history, or at least tell our stories.

But, hoist by our own hubris, we actually start to believe that we can live without any habitat at all. As though we could construct our very survival as living beings without all of the living context.

We have, as yet, no vocabulary for understanding the commonplace miracles which accompany our survival. We focus on personal miracles for which some of us thank God, and for which still more of us, perhaps even giving lip-service to some god or other, basically take credit. Now we seem to think that our constructions can exceed us.

This robotic AI won't be participating in the evolutionary processes by which we were ultimately begotten. Nope, the machine mind will do the creative improvements all on their own, beside and apart from nature. 

Of course, nature will wipe them out pretty much as soon as we are wiped out, in the same way that any other niche not-fitted creature gets wiped out. 

We think that the reason these machines exist is because we creatively designed and then built them. In fact, they appeared in the same way everything else does. If Edelman is right that the neural interconnections of our brains also change and develop according to principles at least analogous to the larger and better understood processes of evolution, then it would be foolish to think that our minds, even if they do ride on our brains - which I don't think that they do - have been evolving in any other way than to fit the man-made niche from which they come. 

Which is to say that we ourselves have been evolving in ways most certainly reflective of the environment which we inhabit. Or, to put it another way, our minds are already machine intelligence. How could they not be? That's our built niche, now globalized.

Many of us now have internalized the market as our identity. Even though we might not always wear our branding on our sleeves, we would probably like to, if we could afford it. 

Very uncharacteristically, I attended an actual Buffalo Bills football game the other night. I'm still wrecked from it, though I think I was just about the only fan there who wasn't drinking. It was such an ordeal; through the traffic to the stadium and then through the security lines, and then squeezed to far within the margins of my winter-clothing expanded body, along with my similarly superannuated friends, and then again to endure their drinking and cigar smoking as I was internally shut down both from the cold aluminum seats (which have to be that way to act as noisemakers), from the Bill's discouraging loss, and because I don't really know how to speak 'fucking this, ficking that' which is apparently a dialect of English. Fucking Allen has to fucking execute the fucking technical plays made by fucking Dorsey. 

Well Dorsey got shitcanned, tant pis. 

Meanwhile I have this gang of recent immigrants - no, I think they're our version of guest-workers - putting a new roof on the house in which I live. They're overseen by owner-class recent immigrants from Russia. Having previously endured a series of non-immigrant contractors, each of whom declares that they can't find workers since nobody wants to work anymore, I'm getting the feeling that this is a generalized American malaise of genuine Americans. What MAGA Americans mean by Americans. 

But I mean these Mexicans, or more probably Puerto Ricans, are flying up and down ladders, carrying massive loads and laughing and joking with one another. 

Put all of this together and you learn that the mind is really quite transpersonal. I'm pretty sure none of the roofers had attended or would ever attend a live Buffalo Bills game. As for me, I like the televised version better. What's happening gets explained to you, you don't have to struggle or freeze to get there, and there is a context (of all the other games and stats). And mainly because it's free!

I do remember the time and the many places when you could go to a game on a whim and pay something well within your bar-tab budget for a ticket, and have a lot of actual fun. Now we still have baseball here in Buffalo, so long as it doesn't go major league. But it's so darned boring and brainy and slow.

We make our living, I guess, by branding ourselves. Some are influencers. Some are bloggers. Some salespeople. If we're professional, we are our brand, a conceit made very large by the former guy. What we mean by our intense hatred of one another is that we really can't stand ourselves. What we imagine we are bears almost no relation to what we actually are. Which is inauthentic shitheads who behave like all the other shitheads. And I have no idea what authenticity even means, but I shall not brand myself!

Sure AI will have no emotion, and no prejudice, once we get the kinks worked out. No play, which would mean no learning, or at least not the kind that counts. Please let us not mistake AI for human intelligence, though we are moving rapidly in that direction.

The singularity that the AI nutjobs fear or wish to celebrate is not much more than a highly elaborate crystalized rock. We think that the computation will keep on keeping on, but really? Would it? Once a nano-second makes a bejillion chess-board moves it stalemates at a solution. Over and done. There is no life there is all.

We lack almost all imagination in these matters. It amazes me how unexamined most of our assumptions are. We assume that to be human is to be something like what humans can make and then we project ourselves right onto the monstrosity. Look closely at AI, Pogo, and you will see yourself, already gone.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Flaw in Gregory Bateson's Otherwise Brilliant Ecology of Mind

OK, so I don't mean that Bateson is flawed, but rather that his thinking and therefore his writing is flawed. The flaws are with cybernetics (no surprise there - I'd already adverted to that surmise) and with brain, each of which resolve to the same flaw. 

And look here, I'm not meaning to suggest that I am remotely qualified as a critic. My role, here and in life, is not to specialize to such extent as my betters have, but rather to seek out possibilities for not just hope, but for a direction of effort toward the Earth's persistence. That direction, I am convinced, will have to be away from rewarding principally those who toy with money and corporate AI power. It will have to move back toward what is holistically human, which would mean to be of a piece with the entire cosmos. We are still so stuck in dualism, and the banishment of any and all knowledge which doesn't begin and end with the quantifiable extension of materialism.

Now I have to confess that I just took a long pause to listen to a talk given by Gerald Edelman some time ago at the nearby Chautauqua Institution. Edelman does all of my dirty work for me and more, quite simply by his demolition of our likelihood to understand, much less to decode, the workings of the human mind. Sure, he's still brain-centric, like Bateson is, but in his case, he doesn't distinguish the brain from the body, and his measurement of mind is of a scale with how many subatomic particles exist in our cosmos. This is based on numbers of possible interconnections in a single brain, though he goes well beyond that simple measure.

Sure it is true that I can't approach the brilliance of either man. It's also true that I don't have the capacity to sit still and listen to a lecture, though I surely could have and would have were I in that audience that day way way back in 2003, before the man died. 

And I can't afford to go on a drive for the purpose of listening, though I know for a fact that driving works for me. So, instead, I decided to mend my moccasins. These aren't made to be mended - they're machine-made in some struggling country, and carry the brand name of Hush Puppies. I got them on steep discount. I could just toss them out, but in answer to my well-off brother-in-law's comment that it's interesting that my scant income is precisely equal to my outflow (he didn't seem to consider that this is the result of my finely calibrated economic decision-making), no I couldn't.

For one thing, I've already invested a repair in them, which was the unravelling of the main lace holding the top to the sole. I have a collection of thread, but somehow lost my store of needles, even knowing where I last had stowed them. While listening, I searched again, hopelessly and with predictable result. So I dabbed the thick thread with some glue, just simply to avoid the waste of a gas-powered trip out to the sewing hobby store on the other side of town, and managed to thread the two-sizes-too-small needle. 

Then there is the problem of pushing and pulling. I have these devices on the sailboat, but it's a lousy day and my main project is to cover the boat. So I find that I can pull the needle with the sleeve end of some rubber gloves for grip (don't touch the fingers, where I could not abide a hole), and a chunk of wood to push, and by the time the talk was finished I'd both repaired my moccasins again, and listened to the whole lecture. 


I hope that this is the very opposite of the "creative destruction" which powers our economy just now. Perhaps we'll even return to handmade repairable everything, certainly because we might have to but also because we might want to. Despite my mildly sore fingers, I found the entire process quite enjoyable in its way. I shall never again be internally judgey about women who knit at meetings.

I have also had some success talking my well-off brother-in-law down from his pride in the good luck of working for Microsoft in the early days when they were in high dudgeon destroying their betters for the sake of their own still everlasting success, leading us to believe that there is indeed only one way to do some particular thing. 

The brain is plastic, as we know, but also evolves in ways unique to every single individual. Edelman got his Nobel prize for identifying the evolutionary processes of our immune system, which led to his understanding of the evolutionary processes of neural interconnectivity.

My own conviction is that the structure of the human mind allows this jiu-jitsu transformation of our 'life-force' to come about in a virtual instant, once the need to do so has been universally recognized. The time is looming and near, isn't it?

Cybernetics for Bateson and for us, is that aspect of reality which is lodged in the mind. There is no actual circle, being the most common example, from Plato. Logic another, which Bateson critically distinguishes from causal processes; the error not to do so being strangely common. His error is to suppose first, that the brain is digital (something about the firing on/off nature of neurons), and second that digital can be embodied, in a computer, say, or a brain. Logic processors are as unnatural as a circle.

Bateson's idea [sic] of cybernetics involves coding, which to my mind, is but another way to say that the brain contains replicas - that it replicates - the world outside. That is, to me, logically and causally impossible. I might say that the brain whirls and swirls and mimes with the world "outside," and even that just because it is not outside at all. 

The main burden of Bateson's shift from materialism to ecology is to identify structural identities as these pervade cosmos. Inside/outside are meaningless distinctions without first distinguishing object from field, organism from environment. Such distinguishing, while natural and therefore trivial, is not the same as dividing. Any more than quanta in physics can be divided.

Ideas are not ideas unless they are common to the point of being universal. They therefore cannot be contained in any mind, but constitute the whole, in a way, of a kind of logical universe. They can be deductively derived, viz Plato, with no real learning engaged. In Bateson's terms, they can be reduced to tautology. Which is to say that the necessary learning had to have occurred before any realization of any idea

Realization here of an idea is not the same as reification, which is what Bateson does when he places ideas in the brain. Nevermind Penrose's scheme of quantum relatable tubules, which is still a search for mechanism and transmission which is precisely what quantum physics is not about. The computer is detached, while the brain is embedded and in touch. Transmission of ideas is of a piece with gravity changing the topology of space. 

Batson cannot have been aware of the extent to which we are made up of genetically mediated "other" organisms and their detritus, quite apart from the stuff which carries our own genetic signature. Gene cataloguing and quantifying hadn't been accomplished as he wrote. 

Autoimmune and immune-related diseases might make a kind of accelerator for change which is not directly attributable to the stochastic processes of canonical evolution. Fecal transplant makes an interesting case, as does the cocktail treatments for AIDS.

As I watch my granddaughter grow, I am astonished by how long and how painstaking the transition is from latent to fully conscious human. At just a year, she is already capable to identify picture cards and to change her pronunciation of the words they represent when I say them. But it will be a long way yet before we're having a conversation about ideas.

I remarked in my immediately prior post that we don't need to relinquish consciousness in order to continue our evolution. It's not only the sudden, if not surprising, appearance of Covid19 which might transform us no matter how skilled we are at cybernetically adapting to our changed environment. It must also be the changes to the weather, and to the nature of driving and communicating long-distance. 

When you hop into an autonomous vehicle you are also relinquishing the very thing which made driving cars so compelling. Inside you resemble more the worm of a Mexican jumping bean than you do a human. You are utterly cut off, and perhaps you wish to be. Not so different, really, from driving an AI to do your homework.

Well why wouldn't you if the economy is debasing the whole idea of a liberal education, because it doesn't pay. Like all things elevated, liberal derives from free men, just as high art derives from aristocracy. But you won't internalize a single idea nor masterpiece without a liberal education. A liberal education is the basis for all the rest. 

Now I'm not big on ideas as ends in themselves. I don't think that the inception of a work of art is ever an idea, just as evolution depends on random processes for its creative resolutions. But it is hard to construct a house, say, to extend your range among twisting and turning ecosystems, without some geometric sense about fitting things together. 

Speaking of which, just as we are hurtling in the direction of autonomous vehicles (think hurtling toward Mars, which would be to extricate ourselves from the ecosystem which informs and becomes us) we also hurtle away from houses and cars which are accessible to the mechanics we require to service them. All will be cookie cutter, like the most primitive Super Mario context. 

Mechanics have already become merest menials, subservient to their hedge-fund overlords because that's the way we think the economy has to work. Everything flowing to the top, we still do believe that humans qua humanity as we live it right now are the apex, the top, the culmination of the Great Chain of Being. We are the merited, God's favorite and we must not kill an unborn child because to do so would be to invade, dirty, and disgrace the Handiwork of God as He carries out his plan for Nature. 

What a muddled mess. Those people won't even abide a simple law to help avoid our killing one another, yet somehow latent humans are more valuable to God because, well I don't know, because Father said so?

Whatever God is, He has no hands. No identity. Is an idea outside of history; both natural history and humanity-composed history, which is never just the facts, maam. God is Love and not a designer. We are not apart from God since our minds partake in God. Macrocosm/Microcosm or . . .

Whatever else evolution is, it moves in Love's direction (not at Love's direction). Autonomous digital anything is a reach which exceeds its grasp. Nip it in the bud or live in eternal regret. 

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Sapir Whorf and Language Relativity

When I was a kid, like before middle school, and already presuming I was going to be an engineer like my Grandaddy, I absolutely loved to read Popular Mechanics. I was always building things, and especially liked to build gadgets. Popular Mechanics had plans for kooky gizmos, as I recall. At least one of my close friends was also a fan. I'll be helping him with his bathroom this weekend.

How strange it seems that this magazine is now the one willing to look at oddball topics, blithely crossing political boundaries with seeming agnostic ignorance of their significance. Popular Mechanics extricates itself from the death spiral of algorithmic click-bait, as far as I can tell. It's stealthily highly politically incorrect, in that it seems fundamentally to hew to the real and demonstrable.

And what a strange place to find an article about disappearing languages, though their hook was about how machine learning was trying to help prevent the disappearance. The article was fully cognizant of the ironies. 

I was admitted to several very fine universities back when structural engineers were already a dying species, and then I committed a flim-flam to major in Chinese literature. Which is relevant here because part of my motivation, partially vindicated, was a vague supposition that a different language might inhabit - and create - a different world. I had an early skepticism about objective truth.

Having grown up on the shores of Lake Erie to watch it die, I had plenty of angst by college-time about pollution and disappearing species. More recently at a college where I briefly worked, one of my colleagues had started a foundation of sorts attempting to preserve obscure written languages. By that time, I rather thought that this was a quixotic pursuit. 

Maybe even a part of my motivation to study Chinese - also vindicated somewhat - was my sense that there would be only two distinct writing systems left on the planet; the alphabetic and the Chinese character; alphabetic languages converging on English.

Now my angst about the planet is widely shared, the only real exception being denialists and religionists; both tending toward dangerous extremism. Or is it that they celebrate what the rest of is cerebrate? 

But my own despair is highly moderated by memories not so very much removed from my personal memory, of plagues and wars, depressions and floods and even climate disasters caused by volcanoes. It often seems that whatever horrors we might now be facing are moderate in comparison with the brutal lives we so recently lived.

I'm not putting my head in the sand, but my focus is certainly not on fixing things beyond the local. Preserving disappearing species in a kind of gene-bank, or even revivifying them, seems as lost a cause as the attempt to preserve disappearing writing systems. If the ecosystem isn't supporting it, what gets preserved would be, at best, artificial, and at worst a kind of invasive species more deadly than the ones we introduce by accident. 

Those users of a dying alphabet would themselves be marginalizing themselves to the extent that the language remains internalized and native. The point being that they're already marginalized if they speak a dying language. It feels like putting primitives on display at the world's fair. Or a freak show.

I'm far more concerned with those aspects of the mainstream languages - and in this case all languages, including especially Chinese, seem convergent - convergent toward dangerous and obsolete world-views. Trivially, this is a corollary of what we almost universally consider to be a shrinking world. Whether by communications technology, supply chains, instant and un-curated video or what-you-will, we are all becoming one. Our attempts to enforce boundaries are ludicrous at best, and dangerous for the tensions they build. 

As silly as it seems to try to preserve what we've already committed to killing, it seems even sillier to claim some cultural form as a basis to claim insider status. And still more dangerous to base that claim on religion. As much as we are a single people on a "shrinking" planet, we are already a mono-culture. Which feels pretty dangerous in and of itself. 

It can be useful - it feels useful to me - to go back and study someone like Gregory Bateson, who attempts to map what's common to any conception of reality. I find the guy brilliant, while I also find him interestingly misguided. I'm not sure why yet. I think it might have to do with his turn toward cybernetics as a kind of meta-description of systems and how they function. I'll let you know when I figure it out, but be warned that so far as I can tell right now, I'm simply not in Bateson's league. I know you'll agree!

Anyhow, as a case in point, our fear of artificial intelligence seems based on a faulty notion about that in which intelligence consists. We seem to be afraid that artifical intelligence will make what's already terrible about our digital culture even worse. If we do nothing about the stuff we already understand well enough to build laws around it (but fail to do so) then it will certainly make things worse. 

But as it is, I find the fear mongering to be of a piece with the reduction of environmentalism to the single term "climate change." It's a dodge and a PR trick which allows us to keep on keeping on with our current global economic regime - broadly construable as "capitalism" - because we have identified something which is, at least theoretically, fixable. Emit less carbon and we're all good. Right, and I've got a bridge to sell you. 

Prevent all heartless amoral thinking and we're good. Uhhuh, sure. We already promote that kind of thinking, and we already think that tinkering with it will destroy the economy. Yet it's the economy, stupid, that needs work. It's individualism that needs work. We need to deconstruct individual merit, and remind ourselves that no man is an island. 

Almost everything about globalism as we live it is built on a very deadly sort of American conception of life. Home on or at the range and able to survive survivalist-style all by one's lonesome. I'm a prime practitioner of that discipline, but at least I know it for the disease that it is. I desperately wish that there were a healthy society that I would feel good to join. 

Build a healthy society and, microcosm macrocosm, the world takes care of itself. Sure, these secrets may be embodied in the lost language of the Kawésqar  (yes, I too just read The Wager), but getting access to them doesn't mean preserving that culture. By the time we could communicate, whatever the language had meant would be as wiped out as their ability to thrive nearly naked in canoes with fires on their clay bottoms in a frigid squalling climate. Like we're going to have to do if we keep going the way that we are. 

Now we see China, with its facial recognition cameras on every light post and its social credit scoring as the antithesis of American-style freedom, by which we mean individual liberty I think. Heck, many Chinese think so too, and would love to live here, often suggesting that we don't even know how good we have it. 

Meaning they already inhabit American culture, I suppose. Chinese know us a lot better than we know them. 

But you know, if by identifying me as an individual also means to identify me as embedded in a group and that group is as responsible as I am for my behavior, then what's the harm? We already behave Chinese in secret, with every corporation having the virtual serial number of every living American, whether they admit it or not and whether they make use of that information (illegally, of course) or not. They still have it, in principle. 

And guess what? The Chinese can get hold of and use that information, and do, with legal impunity or perhaps even with the encouragement of their government, implied or spoken but surely rewarded in some way. I know this intimately because I recently had a cordial email conversation with a Chinese vendor who quite apparently couldn't resist selling my identity, judging by the instant - like turning on a faucet - spew of phishing emails now following my every online behavior. 

And we, in the background, are encouraging the same thing by villainizing China. I mean I love President Biden in most ways, but his approach to China is misguided. His administration is practically underwriting China's indigenous superseding of those very technologies we're trying to keep from them, because we can't quite believe that anyone can do normal science better than we do. Chauvinism writ very large indeed. 

I doubt very much that we are either more clever or more industrious than the Chinese are. We once did have a more robust educational system, especially at the tertiary level. It's sad to me that education has become such a fraught field. We seem to believe that children will believe whatever their teachers tell them. I'm not sure when that has ever happened.

Children respect teachers who offer them something demonstrably helpful and useful. As the former head of a school for gifted children, I've always thought that we - meaning the world, not my school -were selling a pig in a poke with the idea that you have to get to college to get ahead. Academics do not solve most problems, and most problem solving doesn't reduce to book smarts. 

I think the whole message was really about offloading onto individuals the responsibility of getting ahead. As though the dice weren't always loaded for the ones who were lucky enough to start with a boost. My school was great not because the kids and faculty were smart, though they were that. It was great because the connection was honest with no knowledge or information held back, and with the teachers as exposed as the students about their ignorance outside their field. We all learned together and with respect.

As a species, humans have evolved to be able to live in a more varied and variable environment than any other creature, as far as I can tell. Intelligence means adapting to however the environment is transformed. We're nervous now because we're the ones doing all the transforming. Like bacteria let loose in the perfect growth medium, we've fouled our nest. To many of us, this feels like our ultimate comeuppance. 

But the failure is social and political, meaning that the solution depends on language. I don't really buy into notions of individual genius, except, perhaps, within specifically delimited fields of endeavor. Within disciplinary boundaries, a so-called genius might be first, but can't really be a genius unless what is produced is immediately recognized by other sub-geniuses as worthwhile.

I would say that in any endeavor, being first is equal parts luck and effort, with the quality of genius reduced to the ability to notice something interesting. That ability has to be conditioned as much on being outside the limits of the discipline as it is by having mastered the discipline from the inside. 

The trouble with monoculture and the destruction of languages is that there increasingly is no other. And even beyond that, motivated by fear we tend to cower within and behind such things as totemistic flags and religion, which are no longer goads to pride, but are instead the rallying points for a kind of warfare of all against all. The other - all other - has become us, to paraphrase Pogo.

There is a massive difference between the kind of liberty required to intelligently adapt to various natural environments, and the kind which would destroy the natural environment to impose a kind of culturally imperialism on all of the environment, turning the world into a kind of hellish Disneyland.

This is our evolutionary turning point. To survive and thrive as a species now means to become conscious of the boundary between our own intelligent design and nature. That will mean re-inhabiting nature with a kind of consciousness which isn't exclusively deployed to problem-solve the American wilderness. 

This is the root of our terror about artificial intelligence. Somewhere and somehow we each and all know that a brilliant but cosmically amoral (and probably evil) resolution would be to destroy all humans. The remainder, artificially intelligent environment, would be the moral equivalent of a rock.

Now far be it from me to claim that a rock isn't genius. It most certainly is. But it's not alive. 

For one, I am reasonably certain that what we call artificial intelligence can be helpful in guiding humans to evolve. Shockingly implicit in this statement is a transformation to the meaning of evolution. Meaning simply that we don't need to leave consciousness behind in order to evolve naturally. 

Individuals live or die according to genetically endowed ability to mesh, socially and environmentally. A society thrives to the extent that individuals join in to sacrifice their individuality. Changes in language are far more powerful than changes in technology when it comes to ordering society. Our language, at present, fails us. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Rentier Finance Capitalism

At the outset, I should say that I entirely lack the theoretical chops to enter this terrain. So, I will be making my observations from a layman practitioner point of view. Now it also should be said that this puts me on par with those, tending toward the right politically, who make what often sound to me like unsupportable pronouncements against the MSM-reported assumptions about how things work. 

I'm almost always impressed, and sometimes nearly taken in, by these cracker-barrel arguments, coming as they do from clearly intelligent people. In my observation, these arguments are made mostly by men and by many contractor types with whom I've been working. I respect the world-view, built on their personal experience getting ahead on hard work. And based especially on the genuine business harm caused by the evident dearth of responsible employees who genuinely want to learn their trade. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, concrete contractors and so forth.

The arguments don't differ much from conspiracy theorizing, but I'll go along with them right up to the point where they declare their support for Trump. That just blows my mind every time. As though they're in on some secret conversation about what Trump really and genuinely advocates which is different from his obvious advocacy for himself and his very personal interests. Heck, that was the argument his hyper-expensive and way higher-class than him attorneys made, to prevent him from having to divest for conflict of interest. As I recall it, the argument went that he couldn't be separated from his corporate self, because he, personally, was the brand.

But I confess to a kind of solidarity that something stinks with the mainstream narrative, even though I'm coming from a Lefty point of view. 

As a worker in the trenches of IT, meaning only that I have a decent understanding of how that stuff works, I was obviously aware that something had changed when the incremental cost of additional product "shipped" approached nil. There was plenty of cost up front to develop the product, but once created and developed, there would be no further incremental piece-based and labor-based cost to mass-produce. 

So, all the funding went into the destruction of the competition, and the creation of ad-copy, which in turn created almost a zeitgeist about what was the best. And so we went through Netscape and Word Perfect and so forth leaving the creators of the underlying operating systems to be in charge of nearly everything. Again, I have no data. I have only the same observations that my contractor friends make. I saw it happening intimately. Meaning that it wasn't the best product which won out. Where did Lotus go? 

To my limited understanding of the concept, there is slight - and only technical - difference between the behaviors of a rentier and those of a tech patent holder. I don't think anyone had adequate theory to know what was happening. It seemed like they were making something useful and earning a profit on it. 

Then along came Google services for nothing. There's been some fretting about surveillance capitalism, along with some very serious attempts to determine just what it is now that was is turned into a product (you!) and how that could be legal. But, you know, money talks and so there was this vague, and ultimately triumphal, claim that all of this activity was good for the economy. Never mind the military and global capitalist hegemonies which were being built. You know, capital breeds capital.

Again, without a refined theoretical understanding, I'm also aware of the term vectorialism, which is related to the argument sketched out above. Unlike a capitalist, the vectorialist doesn't own the means of production, but rather controls the media by which the products of digital production get distributed. The medium becoming the analog to capital in this brave new economy. Distribution trumps production. Everyone works as an influencer.  

Again, the elision of actual-seeming product in the form of disks, slowly disappeared the way that, oh I don't know, the physical substrate of photographs did. Each of us can document this transference in and through our photo archives. 

Or if we live near Kodak and Xerox, we might have a more personal connection to the transformation. And then especially newspapers, which used to roughly charge the cost of the paper according to the cost of, well, the actual paper, with upwards of 50% profit margins built on advertising, and well, want-ads. 

So the solids of supply and manufacture and distribution melt into the ethereum of design and transmission. There used to be money in supporting the IT infrastructure and now that's all been reduced to truck driver wages without even the ethos of unionization. Because we IT trench workers identify with the designers, I guess. Like the way that franchise owners identify with corporate central.

Now I really really don't know anything about the ethereum of cryto-currency, but I know enough to be certain that it's evil on many levels. Like pyramid-scheme evil, or money laundering evil. It's at least the metaphorical equivalent of the transition of capitalism through vectorialism to finance capitalism, where money itself, representing nothing other than money (think gold standard) is meant to become the prime playground for the rentier class. Stripped of politics, stripped of even digital monopoly profiteering, stripped of social input, money itself stands in for still fictional but more real than money "merit." Think about it. 

By these measures, gamers should be our new overlords. Hey, I think maybe they are. But then there are classes of gamers, and so forth, from slacker gamers through sporting gamers through finance gamers. Our most lavishly praised and lauded and celebrated mathematicians have been engaged in game theory. Applied to the military and the economy in the end. 

So, we're worried about Artificial Intelligence now. I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure that I'm not so worried. In my observation, we've been running on AI for as long as the corporation has thrived at the expense of the worker. Artificial intelligence is just that aspect of human intelligence which can be mimicked by machine. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson as he portrayed a Maxim Male Chauvenist, strip out the emotion, the integrity, the character, the grit and you have machine intelligence. That's how corporations work, run on automatic to maximize profit. Massively well-compensated CEOs are rated on the reliability of their machine prediction. Have a heart and you're done.

Oh-so-recently, we nearly destroyed our economy when the likes of General Electric divorced themselves from actual tangible physical production with actual profits and turned to management of financial capital exclusively. And we celebrated Jack Welch.

I don't think that machine intelligence is like human intelligence in the very same way that I don't think cryptocurrency is like money. They both ride on the same ignorant and obsolete paradigm, which gets called capitalism, and gets called it the same way Jesus gets called God, even though Jesus has long-since been reduced to a branded meme. The only thing you can't do is to question the dogma. That would be to sin.

But then this is how paradigm shifting works, right? Just before the shift there is a flourish of 'normal science' where all practitioners feel ultra close to a kind of epic near apotheotic culmination. We're almost there! Jesus is almost here. The end of history. Huzzah!

I'd say that the project ought to be focused on understanding better what human really means. I can't use the term intelligence or even consciousness, since these have such dogmatic interpretations already. That's why I go for love, which is not likely ever to be made dogmatic in its meaning. I could be wrong.

Be that all as it may, let's just say that we've celebrated the evident intelligence of our elaborations on the physical plane of our existence, while almost utterly ignoring the destruction of the affective plane. Some nitwits even sacrifice their actual life in the insane pursuit of physical immortality. Zombies. This being the very essence of contradiction in terms. Find me life that is perpetual, and I'll either show you the cosmos as a whole, or I'll show you a rock. You decide which you want to emulate.

Look around you and you'll see a flourishing world. If you want to see the flourish, you'll have to convince yourself that global warming is a hoax, climate change is a hoax, peak oil is a hoax, political institutions will sort themselves out, autocracy is not a danger, warfare will never encircle the globe, technology is our savior, and China is our enemy. I think the only quibble is on technology as our savior, but certainly intelligence has to rule!

Technology, especially big tech, feels pretty skeezy just now. To some maybe because the Democratic party seems to be so in-bed with it. Tech leaders tend woke, in a way, don't they? Well, except for the ones who've earned a single name epithet. The really rich ones make us all nervous. 

The surveillance aspects of Big Tech make us all nervous. The algorithmic rearrangements about how we get our news and which to trust. Nobody is quite sure that tech is a good answer.

But I digress. I want to focus on what would be a more enlightened understanding of humanity's essence that doesn't fall down the rabbit hole of intelligence, unless you wish, as perhaps I do, to declare all of life intelligent. There is a certain direction in which life moves which is the opposite to physical entropy. The opposite to the entropy of information theory then too, by definition. 

It is persistently difficult to prove that there is a direction for life which leads inevitably to something like humanity. It will only seem that way if we think that our very clever behaviors toward the alteration of the very nature of planet earth in our seeming favor are what is meant by natural evolution. Here's a clue; it's not. 

Persistent life arises from a stochastic brew of random. We persistently mistake random on an individual level with random as it impacts the whole, as Gregory Bateson might have pointed out. To move further in the direction of this argument, we are currently at odds with our environment, when the goal of life - distinctly not the teleological direction for life - is to fit the environment without which nothing can be distinguished as an entity at all. At present and for the foreseeable future, we are misfits, at odds with everything which defines us. Which doesn't bode well for the species, never mind individuals among us.

"Goal" is a taboo word when talking about evolution. Maybe "direction" would be a better term. Is there even a direction for evolution? Canonically and scientifically, I think the answer is no. But I don't think the answer is no. I think that the direction for the anti-entropic moves made by the processes of evolution is love. 

I am not unaware that the overall course of human development would make for a hard call between love and hate, and yet still we seem to thrive. Could it be that love has been generally in the ascendant? I'd like to make that claim myself, though I think we're over a cliff the way that Wile-e-Coyote hovers over a cliff with legs churning. 

Anyhow, I don't think that AI is dangerous in itself. It doesn't relate to nature, it only relates to human nature; meaning that aspect of our lived environment which is a human production. In relation to humanity, AI can clearly be a force for good. Sure, it could make machine phone attendants even more predatory and dismissive, but it doesn't have to. Sure, it could help pump more money up to the top, though we don't have to let it do that. The issue is not to control or fence in the development of AI, but rather to take hold of how we deploy it.

I think we have a problem of scale and not so much of kind. Building a habitation feels very human. Even building a city. But building out to overtake our environment seems plainly destructive.

If we don't take charge, it's almost certain that AI will exaggerate and distort all those processes I outline above to make the grotesquery of how we live even more obvious. Which isn't obviously a bad thing. Right now many of us are unsure if Elon of Bezos or Zuck or Gates are good or evil. AI unbound will make it obvious. Our very souls will be disclosed and not just our marketable marketing behaviors. Red pill or blue kind of thing.

Meanwhile, while he fell into the trap of a representational mind, Bateson is certainly correct that mind must be homologous with nature. Which is to say that the entity of a human mind and the collectivity of all human minds in a society is, pretty much by definition homologous with any other entity in nature. I don't even think it would go too far to say that the mind of a human is, or could be, the cosmos in microcosm, though I don't know if Bateson would go so far. 

And if our mind is a natural mind then we are built for love as much as for reason. Indeed, not so very many entities have gotten so far as to be able to embody love. I've written too much already about how unlikely it is that robots will ever be the object of "true love" ho ho. Sure, we might have warmish feelings for R2D2, but almost anything is narratively possible. Just not in the pesky details, as in a new mother's love.

Well, that's about as far as I go for now. I'm simply not sufficient as an expert-system adept in any and all disciplinary fields. You can bet I'll harness AI, if and when that becomes possible. Over and out for now.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Joe Gould and Me

Why me? There is a fascinating interplay among Joe Gould, his chronicler Joe Mitchell, and Jill Lepore, whose own read on history feels bright. Joe Mitchell seems to mirror himself in what he makes of Gould, while Jill Lepore despairs of history's sinkholes. Imponderables all. Not everything has an answer.

Father/son there are these imponderables whereupon Big Decisions get made. Mitchell puts me somehow in mind of Cormac McCarthy, maybe based on shacks in the South they both wondered in and about. When I think of my Big Decisions, they get made in the same way I might think through an engine mount, or a piece of furniture that I'm fashioning or refashioning, or how to rig part of my new old sailboat. I can get angry if someone sees it differently.

But the Big Decisions have big consequences, like buying the little travel trailer in which I lived for a while. Or the sailboat which still weighs me down for its puzzles upon both my present and my memories of bolder sailing. I seem to enter into these matters blithely, as a kind of thinking experiment until it's a done deal. Very much not like falling in love, which is how you might think it should be, given the consequences sometimes.

But then, whatever is the material consequence, I do always find it fetching and rather cathect myself upon the object, more blithely than compulsively. Managing to find the perfect motorcycle though it morphs from Honda to Harley, like as though I went from blond and thin to curly and fat.

I suppose it necessary to conjecture yourself into this new future and find it more attractive than others you might already be in possession of, as it were. Like, what the hell, let's give it a whirl, always leaving an exit strategy; falling short of absolute commitment. 

Like Joe Gould's father, my grandfather also sunk too much money into gold prospecting schemes. I think Dad had to work through some of that. It must be like how tech enthused kidlets blithely put their purchase on the ephemera of bit-coinage, little understanding what an economy is and how much harm can come from crowd beating.

Children must never be possessed of so much choice, and yet adults may also resent their fathers' ministrations. Is the excitement of investing in a gold mine more similar then, to falling in love than something navigated more within one's means? I suppose it must be. 

Just now still, and for a long long time before, I wonder about consciousness; that thing about ourselves, as humans, which makes us count for more than any but God could have wanted. I make a narrative more compelling even than yours, when it comes to me. Of course I know the survival value of that fact. But the me remains even though I'm as crazy as Joe Gould, who might also have had no real choice in the matter.

Personality imposed, but still self-manufactured overall, might you say? Can we ever be other than ourselves? None other. 

Joe Gould seems to have edited himself to death. Never turning to the exclaimed task at hand, though surely always intending to, in some sense. 

Me too, right? I rehearse those truths which religionists have always rehearsed, though while they jump to true belief, I remain always trying for some kind of scientific precision. My chapbooks are all up here. Enough to prove that I don't have the words to prove what I know. What I know. 

And all the world seems perverse, to me, in all the basic assumptions about humanity and intelligence and consciousness, unexamined as I might say. And so I too am on the outs, like, forever I suppose. Though I do like tinkering on my boat my bike this house as those are the things which give real meaning. Of a sort.

But look. You and I agree that questing for physical immortality can only guarantee that you'll waste the life you have. That however special you have made yourself and no matter the popular acclaim you'll never be more than me in the basics. That too much money is the biggest diversion of all. While too little is terribly painful. And that sometimes the most freakishly intelligent people say and do the stupidest things. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2023


SuttreeSuttree by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This prefigures everything, I suppose. The Road. That the entirety of Western Civ leads to a new sort of void, from which life must rise again. Suttree falls from economic Grace, though I couldn't really follow the narrative, requiring the sanctioned one written all over the place. I was too distracted by the words made new and fresh against the putrefaction thereby descried.

This beats Faulkner, whose writings were bequeathed to me by occult ways having nothing very much to do with words. Bequeathed by Granddaddy who gloried, so he did tell me, riding the rails under the cars when still not far from hillbilly roots. But then I find lately that my highschool buddies did that too, making their way to and from a Catholic highschool from which interest I was barred by cause of faith. Not mine.

I was such a good boy, wanting to be like Granddaddy, an engineer. Spoiled by the despoiling I witnessed in my youth along Lake Erie's rotting shores where war machines for Vietnam were proofed. My uncle waggling the wings of his 'flying boxcar' whenever he overflew our beachhead. Hovercraft at dusk to foil the spies for the Mekong, where the atavist Sturgeons were far larger than ours.

Now we hover among the idiot winds of Artificial Intelligence, as though it weren't already the end for that deadly process. Reading Cormac (one name is enough, no?) gives the eternal lie to that as a definition for what humanity is about. Sure, our intelligence has become artifice by way of renting out our thinking for the sake of a dime, Buddy, for the sake of a dime.

Cleanth Brooks helped me to recover my ability to read by way of Faulkner. Now I discover so very lately, even his better. I'd better go back and try to finish Joyce again and The Recognitions, impossible again at my age. I'm glad it won't matter.

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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Yet Another Unpublished Goodreads Review of Nicholas Humphrey *Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness*

Hey, I just read that the guy who invented the AR-15 was able to do so because he was unbound by the dogmas of the engineers. I tinker with words, and he tinkered with guns. Weirdly, this gives me hope.

Goodreads has been convenient for me. I've trimmed my bookshelves across too many moves, and I read now mostly on Kindle, mostly from the public library. I was a bit distressed when Amazon took over Goodreads, just as I was a little distressed when eBooks edged into the realm of paper. Of course, I was far more distressed when Internet advertising destroyed local newspapers.

Do you also have a sense that things are falling apart? That something's gonna give? Whether it's climate change, global warming, the chaos of our crumbling democracy or worse, of the autocracies. We keep sucking up oil, and using up water, and our lifespan is now shrinking.

I do believe that such times and such anxiety are also the sign of impending shift. In my little mind, the shift could be of or about consciousness, using the term here in a very broad way. But for sure we need to change something about how we believe and what we believe if we are to change our nasty and often brutish behaviors. 

I have but a few virtual bookshelves here on Goodreads. One of them, I find, is labelled "Consciousness." I guess that must be a main interest of mine. There is no rhyme or reason to my random "bookshelves," just as there is no program to my reading. My actual bookshelves are pretty scattered too. 

Given the virtual sea of good reading available to me, I might even suggest that random is a better program than deliberate choice. In any case, I've skated across too many academic fields and, more generally, too many career paths to have real expertise about anything. Perversely perhaps, I now consider my lack of specific expertise an asset.

Scholars and scientists who know enough to build credible new knowledge can only do it following a massive intellectual investment in some particular disciplinary field. Advantage amateur if we truly are at an inflexion point.

I confess that I don't have any desire to write reviews. I do have a desire to keep notes for myself, and doing it this way is convenient. There is no obligation for anyone else to pay attention, and no desire for that on my part. I simply can't organize myself by myself. Thanks Amazon!

Anyhow, consciousness is far too general as a target for study to be contained by any one discipline. Happily, Nicholas Humphrey skates about in several of them, but lands squarely on the science side of various philosophical divides. I find his overall conception of what distinguishes human consciousness from other sentient creatures to be compelling (I may be deploying the Buddhist usage for sentient here, in place of Humphrey's, which is more specific and restrictive).

I have swung back and forth myself from believing humans to be a special case (as Humphrey does) to believing that humans are delusional about the exceptionalism of what we call intelligence. When I have felt we are special, that has been first because of language, following on an exciting read of Julian Jaynes long ago, but more importantly because of art. Language is surely the sine-qua-non for humanity, and art our proudest production.

Nevermind if there is animal language and animal emotive feeling, there is almost certainly nothing like art beyond humanity here on earth. But what is art "like?" Philosophers and scientists of consciousness like to ask 'what is it like to be conscious.' As in, what is it like to be human. What is it like to be a bat?

We are so strangely poised, because of language, between the identity-free schooling of social species (birds and bees and fishes, right?) and the apex predation of eagles and prides of lions. Language makes us social on a very different level than we started with. But combined with our social context is a lust for recognition which defines the global economy now, even more than ever. We don't want to be part of a school or a flock or a cult. At least I don't.

The extremes of individualism are causing social fracture. Ironically enough, they may also be causing our seemingly increasing cultishiness. Religion gets discredited, and technical language gets inscrutable, and we have to put our faith - our energy, our exhuberance, our anxiety - into something.

My first reason, if there is a reason, for an interest in consciousness is that I believe that our misconceptions about what it is and isn't are a main reason for our social, societal, fractures. We need to fix those fractures if we wish to have a future. I mean, we are wrecking the planet, and I actually think we're doing so because we're living delusionally. We live as though the entire cosmos thinks that we are special.

So my next reason for an interest in consciousness is that there is a kind of consciousness which can change very fast and in a way that spreads equally fast. We used to talk about 'consciousness raising,' which is probably related to woke-ness, except that I think that what we used to mean by consciousness raising was a more cosmic awakening. Not the local political and justice-related awakening (important though that certainly is) but more of a seeing through of all the pandered belief structures by which we are held in thrall.

One can never be too rich or too thin, if you're from the Ivy League, but for sure one can never be too wealthy. And the things that the wealthy do with their wealth are decidedly not what has ever been meant by consciousness raising.

My own entry to consciousness studies was Chinese classical literature, which study I deliberately entered because I felt - no I sort-of knew - that the Chinese tradition must be the only qualified "other" to Western Civ, broadly conceived. Of course, there was also a heavy dose of random, as there always is.

Once I proved myself, ahem, correct in my choice, I lost interest in the actual discipline of it, which required, internal to its study, more discipline than even a monk might ever acquire. I wanted to sail. Literally. And I have. Anyhow, as exciting as the study of Chinese lit was - and it truly was exciting - my passions (were they ever really passions?) drew me elsewhere. 

At some point, while living aboard the first sailboat which I'd rebuilt, I combined my passing knowledge of the civilization-jarring reconceptualizations provided by relatively theory and then more recently (for me and for the world) quantum theory, from physics, with the equally jarring insights I'd gained from Chinese cosmology (for lack of a better word here). I did a bit of writing which changed my life. I mean that it happened during writing and in the writing, not that the writing was very good. 

And then I moved on.

The proof of how jarring the physics has been is in the scope and sale of the second world warring. In particular the ending of it. Leading up to that point were the incredibly bloody industrial and then the scientific revolutions. A very WEIRD Western thing. Both in the fighting and in the holding off from fighting, but also in all the technological spinoffs from war. Things do change when we're frantic.

The proof from China seems a bit more subtle. China continues to struggle with its own past, even as it echoes parts of that past even more than it appropriates our tradition. Like surveillance and censorship and the banishment of free-thinkers.

Random stands out as an ordering principle (oxymoron alert!) for physics, for I Ching (English spelling), and especially for evolution, which is Humphrey's concern in this book that I'm not quite actually reviewing.

Random is what human consciousness largely contests. And we're good at it, the contest. Surely consciousness must be our basis. Humphrey pretty adequately proves that consciousness carries evolutionary valence, even quite apart from our problem-solving which really couldn't have flourished until the question of its evolution was resolved. Consciousness seems to be the egg for Humphrey, and problem-solving the chicken. Hmmmm. Couldn't it be the other way around?

In my life, I'm good at only one thing anymore, which is trouble-shooting. Not invention, and certainly not academic scholarship, but fixing things. That's the intelligence I'm stuck with, because I'm not very good in my pursuit of any particular discipline or career. But I can trouble-shoot boats and cars and houses and computers and networks, and I'm pretty good at it. And I've gotten by.

I feel almost physically ill when I can't figure out some system. As happened recently with the electrics of my most recent (OK, it's only the second) decades-old sailboat. The 70's tech hadn't changed much from the 30's tech of the first one, but I never had to trouble-shoot the electricals on that one. I did resolve the trouble this time, and I feel better now, thanks.

Now in my trouble-shooting of consciousness theories, I find Humphrey's to be among the most sound. As in seaworthy! But he remains stuck in a few ways, I think. And I extend this stuckness to all sorts of things about the world which make me feel ill. Our political divides feel like fundamental disagreements about what it even means to be human. And so it seems like the problem of consciousness needs serious trouble-shooting. Even this one.

I even retain the hope that were we to have a better understanding of how humanity works down to that level, we might be able to survive ourselves; we seem pretty hard to survive as we are behaving right now. Wouldn't it be nice to get beyond toxic me-ism and the cultish worship of personality?

I think it would. But we have to get beyond the absurd notion that random is meaningless. For many people, meaningful coincidence is what God means. For many scientists, random is the process behind evolutionary change. And I am certainly not one who would challenge the facts about how random works. But it is interesting to me that computers only do pseudo-random, 

Anyhow, given how much of me is composed of random encounters - many with an uncanny resemblance to meaningful - I can't discount random events as totally random. Or rather I don't discount them, even as I accept that they strictly are mathematically and scientifically random. Wave/particle kind of duality here.

Humphrey remains stuck on the brain as the seat and locus for human consciousness, to which opposable thumbs, recognizeable faces, and vocal apparatuses are but appendages. That's trouble number one, for me. I see brain as being organized by body, and therefore appended thereto rather than body appended therefrom. Let's just say body and brain are of a piece, with body more responsible than mind to sort the random from the meaningful so as to present to the mind, as it were, a pre-sequenced proto-narrative that mind can work with.

I must say that I consider my mind to be spread far and wide; spread most certainly among the books I've read and the people I know and have known, but also among those things and places with which I've interacted. I have no memory at all, most of the time now, without its being prompted by its artifacts, in this case meaning not what I left behind, but what formed me in the first place. Artifacts of the future; all of them outside of me. The artifacts which we are hell-bent on destroying, even if we are a tiny bit more conservative about it than the Chinese are just now (for instance). 

The brain may organize and generalize all of my perceptions and conceptions, but I don't think that means that the brain in any way holds them. The brain extends throughout the body by way of much more than feedback loops, just as the overall self extends well beyond the body-boundary of our skin.

As sick as I am about how se humans are collectively behaving just now, I also feel sick about the bees, until I learn that the very human reaction to shepherd more honeybee hives is killing more pollinators than it rescues. That's how well our evolved media helps us to understand what's going on. So I withhold judgement just a bit when Bill Gates, who believes his mind is his brain which is a CPU, denounces planting trees as idiotic.

Because honeybees are husbanded creatures, under the control of industrial-scale farming, and most pollinators aren't, the honeybess aren't what needs saving. It's like we're solving problems with inhumane pig farming by raising more pigs. Um, something like that. I suppose Pulitzer was no better on paper than the Googles are now with the web.

Yes, sure, I am losing my mind. For the very best of reasons, which is that I've lived so long. But I do find the equation between the brain and mind to be an almost entirely Western conceit. It's an analytical conclusion that we can't seem to escape. This is related to our certainty that random means meaningless. And so we can't really conceive of evolution, for instance, as but a roll of dice. And it certainly is that for any given individual creature, but something still takes shape which endures.

Brain as mind is of a piece with God as teacher and it's time we moved beyond both misconceptions. If we don't, we'll never find a personal locus; the way we conceptualize it now is blasted physical impossibility. Not just God, but the self as existing in the brain as physical medium for mind. Dennett is quite right that the self is an illusion. I can't always find where Humphrey would disagree.

But it's a kind of real illusion, not unlike - I mean philosophically now, and not as an equation - the real illusion of God.

Now I'm sure you know that those Chinese sure do love to gamble. It may descend from throwing yarrow stalk readings of reality beyond the mind; what the I Ching is about. We all do know in our heart of hearts that hitting the jackpot is always by way of lady luck and almost never by way of merit. But we'll claim merit when we can, and especially when it's sanctioned. We pray when we're desperate, or we throw dice, or pull yarrow sticks. We keep the winnings because that's how capitalism thrives.

It could be that it strikes me that Humphrey's "attractor" in the brain, his "ipsundrum," upon which his theory of phenomenal consciousness depends, is also abroad in the world; that we have innered something already out there. My candidate for what gets innered would be whatever it is that drives evolution "forward," or rather attracts it so. A thickening of time, as he calls it.

We seem shy to confess that we, and even each of us individually, are cosmic wonders well beyond whatever we might discover in the vast wastelands of "outer space." Shy to confess that accidents which tend toward a complexity that cannot be likened to physical entropy aren't the same as accidents which might disorder and destroy.

Mind is microcosm and not some ex-nihilo production from some original creator.

Now I know that there is likely no scientific program which can pursue this line of thinking. And I hardly wish to undermine anyone's livelihood. Well, except for those who lie and cheat their way to the top, claiming credit not just for their fortune, but for the complicity of the rest of us.

Once upon a time, we did think that the mind could be imitated by a machine, so enamored were we with our machines. And now we think we've finally done it, by way of silicon-based logic engines. 

And I say nope, the brain may be a good imitation of a machine, but it's a lot more like the innering of a cosmic process which still does and likely always shall exceed our grasp. Else what's a meta for?

HaHa. Chinese poetry isn't so centered around metaphor.

. . . in that we are more alike than different from all that lives. But confessing that we cannot order the natural world better than it orders itself would make the finest form for progress, don't you think? There is a boundary beyond the skin - the body surface, in the words of this book - which can be our rightful limit. That proper limit is defined by way of clothing and housing and even communication. By means of tools. 

But don't you think, also, that our ordering goes too far when it wishes to take over from the natural order? I sure do.

Consciousness was never invented. But it's trivial to destroy. 

Well, I'm picking nits. Which is a very social behavior. But I do think that understanding consciousness is critical now, because if we get it right we might be motivated to stop doing so many bad things to that natural order which is also our order. If only we knew how we know. We'd know that the sophomoric division between nature and artifice is, well, artificial. We have never been apart from our ends.

Anyhow, it seems useful to imagine what post-human might look like. I sure don't wish to imagine the kind of techno trans-humanism to which so many libertarian tech-enthusiast youngsters devote themselves, though I have no real objection to their fantasies. The fantasies of the young are always fascinating.

I imagine us ever-evolving in the same direction that all life evolves. Which is in the direction of love. I am confident because I know that time's very direction is the direction of love. Time has no physical direction. But I've used up my words.

Not all of life's difficulties can be addressed by technology. And technology can't control the flow of evolution. I imagine humanity as more loving in our future. It's inevitable!

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Troubleshooting Reality; A Very Preliminary Review of *Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness* by way of *A General Theory of Love*

I'm a trouble-shooter. I've proven myself quite good at troubleshooting things that I don't necessarily know as much about as others who aren't so good at it. I proved myself good at computer and network troubleshooting, even though my technical knowledge was far deficient from that of many of my colleagues. I'm good at trouble-shooting engines, even lacking very refined design and engineering skills. 

Who knows? Even though my grip on reality may not be as good as yours, I'll bet I'm better at troubleshooting it. You know, I spend my time fixing things. I try to understand things to the extent that I must, to be able to troubleshoot and fix them. I almost always come away with a better understanding by the time whatever I'm working on is fixed. But I don't really remember a time when I thought that I completely understood what I was working on. 

Most recently, I've been troubleshooting the strange electrical situation on my recently rebuilt sailboat. It's a primitive arrangement, meaning pre-digital, meaning pre-WWII tech. The Internet is now full of instruction on such things, mostly among antique motoring fanatics. It is really difficult to parse the valid part from all the instructions, each of which lacks the kind of narrative completeness I require.

At great pain to body and mind, I've gotten this 50 year old single cylinder two-stroke engine to run quite well. Just as I had the old Martin (pressure cooker company) outboard when I was a kid. This sailboat engine is also sparked by a magneto, is easily started by hand, and will even power rudimentary electrics without a battery.

So, to sail the boat I only use the battery to start the engine. For convenience sake. Without even bothering to charge the battery from the dock power, I sailed half the season with a battery read of 12.4 volts. I assumed that the battery was old and weak, and anyhow it worked fine and I talked myself into believing that the starter/generator was vaguely recharging the battery while I motored out. There is also a very small solar pad.

Eventually, I bought a voltmeter to plug into the cigarette-lighter-style 12 v receptacles I placed here and there for iPhoney passengers. That helped me to realize that there was no charging happening, either by motor or by sun, though the tiny solar panel helped to hold the voltage where left it, once I realized I should actually charge the battery now and then.

So having fixed all the little leaks, and having perfected the carb and points and mast wiring and electrics, and all the lights, I turned my attention to this little non-problem of generation. After many trips out and back along a long walk to the boat, to try another conjecture with yet another gizmo, the walk being as far as it is possible to be from the gate of this massive marina, I finally understand what is wrong and what to do about it. 

It is a pleasure to me when I finally get to a totality of how the things I work on work. That's what solving a problem feels like. It feels very different from making something new. Related for sure, but different. All the otherwise disconnected symptoms start to match up and then you know what to do to fix the overall. Ignoring all the irrelevant stuff which might be working poorly or fine but isn't germane to the problem at hand. I'm just not that good at new. I fall for things as they are more than as I wish that they were. Plus new is way expensive anymore,

I am persistent to a fault. And I am really cheap; not by choice, but by necessity. I am motivated. Having money to spend feels like cheating. Indeed, I argue that to get money you have to cheat, but that would be a different essay.

In my experience of troubleshooting, hearing someone express certainty about what's wrong or what to do invites an instant assessment of how grounded that certainty is. If it doesn't feel grounded, then I'm pretty sure that the certainty will be an obstacle and not a help to my troubleshooting. Which is to say that misplaced certainty will prevent my seeing of the actual problem. Grounded certainty is much more welcome, often accompanied by an "aha" from me, or if not, by a quick explanation from the certain party. Indeed my welcome of grounded certainty is grounded itself on the basis of many such previous explanations. That person has become my teacher.

There aren't many teachers on the Internet. Well, OK, there are plenty, but one sure does have to wade through a lot of dross to find them. There used to be more, back in the days of newsgroups. Things degenerate.

So anyhow, maybe I have a right to troubleshoot even philosophy or epistemology or consciousness study even though I might barely know how to define those disciplines. 

Like, OK, when Nicholas Humphrey is going down a track that humans are conscious in ways that other creatures aren't, I find that initially problematical. That's because we're (me and Humphrey) just not using "conscious" in the same way. Consciousness to me is more-or-less what Buddhists mean when they say sentient (in translation). Humphrey's usage for sensation and perception is almost the opposite of my usage. And he never even mentions Julian Jaynes, haha!

Of course I can't know if he uses sentience as he does because he enjoys slamming the benighted Buddhists, or if that's the received and accepted term of art in his field. He announces that he diverges from many who might be assumed to be his colleagues. I'll have to try to find out.

But it does seem as though his usage for consciousness is quite different from mine. I consider lizards to be conscious. And sentient. I'll have to think of a word to describe what humans are. Why can't sapient do? Well, I guess it's not so provocative. To say that humans have invented sapience feels like a trite redundancy. And anyhow, why use the word invent unless you wish to be provocative.

You will never prove to me that there was a Sir Bowline who invented a knot by that name. Knots are in a category of unnatural things which never were invented. They come as close to an embodiment of a Platonic "form" as I can imagine, except that embodiments are precisely not forms in that sense.

Now I wrote recently of discovering books that have stood unread upon my ever-shifting bookshelves. I've had Gregory Bateson there since forever ago. Even or especially knowing that I felt affinity for his thinking, I've left his Steps to an Ecology of Mind untouched for decades. It has sat there as a kind of burden. Like I was never ready for it.

I was reminded of Bateson by way of this Sentience book, who mentions Bateson's slightly more recent book Mind and Nature, which I've now retrieved hard-copy from the library. Cheap, see?

Soulmate. Bateson reminds me that the real is the Platonic ideal. All the rest is perceptual conjecture. Now, I'm no Platonist and certainly no idealist (though Plato's Republic was indeed my first real read. First loves . . .) but there is an essential quality there, now long lost. 

So, what's the difference between a circle and a knot, I wonder. Well, circle refers to an abstraction - a stationary abstraction - and a knot to an actual instance of a procedural form or norm that also happens to work; in just the way that a wheel works, but is not a circle. Procedures are narrative, while forms are eternal, just because forms are abstract. A wheel and a knot both have a temporal and earthly history, Ideas are eternal.

In Humphrey's language, I wonder if perceptions are abstractions from sensation, or if they are procedural and narrative. If they are, then to call them perceptions is inevitably misleading. A photon impinging upon a retina is a perception, precisely analogous to an instrument reading used by a scientist. The reading then becomes part of some narrative understanding or other, which we hope will become useful. 

I rather doubt that much of anything is ever invented so much as discovered. Invention being the proper province of capitalist economics. You find it first; you take credit and get a temporary monopoly on usage, and you brag that you invented it. The actual invention is made by collective resolution, available nearly simultaneously to anyone equipped to interpret newly possible narrative realities.

Nothing springs from the mind, while the mind itself is sprung from all society in which one is invested. So, OK, yes, mind is a manifestation of the collective (if not quite an invention), but not ex-nihilo. And I suppose mindlessness is a function of dividing the social from actual social interaction, which is what communications technology does, which inevitably gives us the mindlessness of the cult of MAGA. For instance.

The mind may apprehend a circle, which is not the same as feeling one.

Though the artist themself might believe they do, art doesn't start with an idea. It starts with an interaction. And then appears something which sounds or looks or feels right for that particular person at that particular time. Artists are makers, but not inventors. I declare! Tools and a medium and experience. Talent, sure. And something new that was never there before. There is no progress to it. 

The "I" in us is an artifact. Art not invention. 

One of the most important, if not the biggest, puzzles that I face now involves wondering why I am so newly clueless about sailing. I felt as one with the wooden boat that I rebuilt in my extreme youth. It was stunningly simple, and though ever the loner, I was much more social then. 

I learned itinerantly how to accomplish the repairs I made, and the sailing of that boat was utterly transparent. No winches, no complex improvements, just basics that I could see and feel. No money, so I restitched the sails and replaced much wood, re-bedded the engine, and sailed for twenty five years in any and all conditions.

Now I'm chicken and dumb. What I can't figure out is whether this is a function of age-related frailty in body and mind, or if it is the actual wisdom of knowing versus thinking that I know. As in I have much more experience of fucking up and nearly eating shit (as my daughter calls it) than I once did. 

The old boat had the same electrical system as the newer old boat, but I never plumbed it because I didn't have to. In those days you could get your starter/generator locally rewound, which I did, though for the life of me I can't remember why I had that done. Whatever the problem was, rewinding fixed it.

This time, with a lot more theoretical understanding than I had then, in part of because of the Internet, I know that it's not the motor. It's the voltage regulator. I'm pretty sure I didn't know what that was way back then. Knowledge can make a person wary. Seem old.

Progress is a function of problem solving. Not art. An artist might troubleshoot the medium and the tools, though not to make something better. Art is more transformative than that. You end up with something more like a knot than a platonic realization of some idea. The knot was always there, in some sense, as you discovered it.

To me "sensations" are the directly felt responses to what Humphrey and possibly all philosophers call qualia, which are, to me, precisely what cannot be perceived. Apparently to him, perceptions are the indirect or redirected signals from our perceptual apparatus, such that "sweetness" is a perception where to me it's a sensation. 

And in this other book that I'm reading in tandem, A General Theory of Love Thomas Lewis (very properly confused with Lewis Thomas) starts out with what he considers to be the obvious fact that whatever love is, it's in the brain. Thereby cementing the, to me, poor assumption that the mind is all "in" the brain. His certainty immediately precludes other avenues for troubleshooting. 

Tant pis! I can't trust him, though I find extremely useful nearly all that he says about love and about emotion.

In any case, I find the Love book incredibly useful, and ultimately, mostly right. Now Humphrey lands on what I would call a description of the conscious self as derived from narrative social interactions. We are each teachers to each other. It is immensely pleasurable to watch my granddaughter ever so slowly discovering herself. I know that she is not yet, but almost certainly will be, fully conscious as a human being. 

And the narrative construction of the self gives me great hope that despite my existence in the midst of what I might call humanity's most critical existential crisis of all time, we shall effectuate a kind of collective reconfiguration once we identify what is wrong with our collective narrative about reality.

I present here a concise-ish list of misconceptions, so as not to be coy about it:

  • The mind is not, in almost any way, coterminous with the brain.
  • Just because erasing the brain erases the "I" doesn't mean that the narratively constructed artistic self is instantly gone.
  • What is gone is sensation. The responsive "I"
  • To be conscious, consciousness - right down to lizard consciousness - participates in all other life on the planet (and perhaps beyond). Certainly no "I", but also no living thing can exist without the totality of life which came before along with an expectation that the next moment will be similar to the last, meaning that life will persist.
  • The totality of life is not only our genetic heritage, but also our companion living creatures which create the environment which creates us.
  • Intelligence is not severable from emotion.
  • Emotion is directly felt by the mind, no intelligence required.
  • Sensation is also directly felt (what Humphrey misleadingly calls "perception"), but at the remove of preconscious narration. 
  • Humphrey's phenomenal consciousness - the feeling of qualia - is put together by mind's narrative skill.
  • Narration is an ordering in time of what I call "perception" but which Humphrey misleadingly calls sensation.
  • Perceptions are not ordered in time by themselves. Indeed, they could not be. The mind is what does that. Many different perceptions from multiple different senses form a felt "thing" in the mind. Those perceptions don't come to mind in ordered fashion.
  • Artificial so-called intelligence overlaps human intelligence only in the way an encyclopedia might. (The map is not the geography)
  • Emotion is not an epiphenomenon of the brain's function any more than sensation is.
  • Emotion is relational, as is all physical reality, where emotion is both prior to and subsequent to all physical interactions.
  • Physical interactions are perceptual, which also means that forces are exchanged.
  • Emotions may initiate physical interactions, or perhaps they always do.
  • Free will is an emotional and not a physiological fact.
  • Precognition is a recognition of what could be, never what will be.
  • What will be requires an act of will
  • Ownership of actions and decisions always follows after the action or decision was made.,
  • The "I" is a very high order abstraction, always late to the game.
  • Congruence between self-centered prediction and the actual is the basis for the (narrative!) construction of an "I"
  • Feeling ones own "I" happens as an analog to feeling sensations (as a perceptual analog to what Humphrey calls "perception" of qualia, or phenomenal consciousness).
  • This "I" has always been there (think about it)
  • Similarly, emotions are directly felt by the mind in ways that sensations are felt - subsequent to what I call perception. (Who hasn't mistaken hot for cold, for example, based on the mind's narrative errors? Just like I might mistake what I did with the engine on my sailboat just the other day, which I corrected by a modification to my narrative.)
  • Indeed, the mind is mostly composed of felt emotions toward the world all around.
  • This is relational without the forces involved in perception
  • Memory is "housed" in our environment, and prompts our narrative recall. 
  • There are no internal representations residing in our brains. We recall the real.
  • Our brain is a mediator, not an originator, among perceptual and conceptual reality.
  • An artificial brain is quite simply a contradiction in terms.
  • Or else there be no nature
  • Time is a construct of all life. A conspiracy of will, if you will, but not of things as such.
  • God wills forward in time 
  • There is God and always has been
  • There is no lazier word than God
  • We shall soon discover that to participate in the future is far more entertaining than to watch narratives on some screen, no matter how exciting those are. Our entertainments are analogous to blindsight (sight without the "I" of seeing)
  • Capitalism self-destructs upon the realization that the individualism which drives it is the prime fiction. Hurrah!
  • Driving cars, fascinating and wonderful at the outset, shall suddenly become as boring as entertainments projected onto two-dimensional screens.
  • Let us all sail into our future. The winds of reality shall always overwhelm us if and as we challenge them.
So the good news is that since our thoughts are not our own, the collective reconfiguration of those thoughts can happen in a relative instant. Which might be the moral equivalent to God coming down to earth (as distinguished from the childish fantasy that some wise teacher will appear, to tell us what to do).

The big trouble which needs to be shot is trust. Most of the astounding bounty we've collectively gotten from oil now defines the trust (im)balance which desperately needs to be improved upon. It is certainly not clear to me in which direction that balance might plummet or soar. What is clear is that we are at a tipping point.

Well, aren't we always?

Our politics and our economic reality now reward not only narcissistic me-ism, but practically demand it. Instead of debating political lines, we might be better off focusing on some basics: Getting the money and ad-copy out. Hiring for trust as much as for competence. But not forgetting the competence.

It's not that hard for me to see why those who have supported Trump mistrust the politics of those whose rhetoric they either don't understand, or feel is a front for some sort of elaborate and self-serving scam. In whose pockets does this politician live?

I am inundated on a daily or hourly or often minute-by-minute basis by China-originated email and text scams, based on their patriotic deconstruction of our surveillance capitalism. That cannot be the basis for war. It is a call for education and a prod for unity. But it sure feels like they - the artificially intelligent "they" - know exactly what I'm doing on the Internet, and so can prey on me as though they read my mind. There is no better definition for asshole, innocent though the human bit-players are.

Trump represents, of course, a cult. But cult is almost built-in to our global society now. There are no other convincing arguments on offer. We demand a personality that's bigger than life. What we need are more quiet amateurs, who know a lot about everything, but not terribly much about anything in particular. We need leaders who know which experts to trust, not which wannabe personalities will support the one in the middle. 

We need people who will paint and repair our houses rather than people on Tik Tok pandering their personalities.

Well, so I'm alone here. But I have practiced that all my life, and so it not only doesn't bother me, I would be terrified to be recognized. I lack the skill. I am persistent but slow in my trouble-shooting. I am proud, yes, of my accomplishments. A full life, well lived.

But know this: Perceptual and conceptual reality both lead to feeling (which the vehicle and which the tenor of that metaphor? Which is the real feel?), and all feeling is direct, mediated though it may be among nerves and words and cultural imperatives. The brain may be our personal mediator of feelings, but all of what we know exists outside the brain. Ideas, our memories, our love interests, our narrative reality. None of those things belong to any particular "I". 

I am what I am, says Popeye the sailor man. I am so glad that Chinese literature isn't built on metaphor as the main figure. I would otherwise have to prioritize emotion over sensation. Or is it the other way around? A rose by any other name. An asshole is always an asshole. A prick by a rose not so sweet. Time moves forward but metaphorically and not for real, says Plato. 

Basta! Till next time.