Monday, September 05, 2011

"The vocabulary of machines": Three kinda-related things on technology and human connectedness

Yves Jeason, The Noosphere Sculpture. Image found here.

First, a couple of things from the Technium section of Kevin Kelly's website. Kelly is the author of What Technology Wants, the title of which I think is a pretty succinct way of capturing both the promise and the peril we saw Hannah Arendt (and me) going on about a few days ago; though I'd heard him interviewed last year on NPR and immediately added his book to my Amazon Wishlist, it was only today that I bumped into his website via Andrew Sullivan's blog. I've had a couple of hours of pleasure this morning reading around his place. Kelly's great appeal to me is that he's very clear-eyed about technology. He's not just extraordinarily knowledgeable; he really has thought about it, as I hope a rather lengthy passage below will show.

The first bit I'd like to share is "Theological Chatbots," in which Kelly interviews the Cornell researchers who had the bright idea of having two chatbots converse with each other and came up with this video, now making the rounds (be sure to watch it if you haven't already):

The interview itself is relatively short; here, for me, is the interesting part:

What about all the talk about God? And why are the bots so quick to call the other a liar?

"We think this is because the database of replies in Cleverbot is compiled from the questions and responses of human users, and apparently, humans will often accuse the bots of lying, or will query the bots about their origins, so when they start talking to each other, they mimic what humans say to them."

Our bots ask theological questions because we do. So far, our bots are made in the image of their creators.

This is an odd little moment, a healthy reminder that we too are machines that process and act on information from our environment . . . except these chatbots' information is second-hand. They "know," if that's the right word, what they've been told, as opposed to what they've independently observed and wondered about. So, that little "so far" creates space for a question: if/when we have genuine AI devices that can create genuinely original thought, will these machines also have a capacity for wonder when encountering something unknown; will they have an aesthetic sensibility or a sense of transcendence? Or will AI have no capacity for pondering or experiencing the irrational? Some would say that our capacity for such things gets us into trouble, more often than not, and I would agree in part, but surely the irrational also plays some role in shaping intelligence of the human variety.

Or, alternately, I can hear a committed atheist say that perhaps religious people, just parroting what belief and cultural custom have to say about such matters without ever investigating to determine their truth, are no wiser in their questions about God than these chatbots are.

Here is a bit from another of Kelly's Technium pieces, a meditation on our ever-increasing interconnectedness and the resulting exponentially-increasing rate of invention and innovation, "Why the Impossible Happens More Often":
I think we'll be surprised by how many things we assumed were "natural" for humans are not really, and how many impossible ideas are possible. "Everyone knows" that humans are warlike, and like war, but I would guess organized war will become less and less attractive over time as new means of social conflict and social conflict resolution arise at a global level. Not that people will cease killing each other; just that deliberate ritualistic battle over territories will be displaced by other activities -- like terrorism, extreme sports, subversion, mafias, and organized crime. The new technologies of social media will unleash whole new ways to lie, cheat, steal and kill. As they are already doing. (Nefarious hackers use social media to identify corporate network administrators, and their personal off-time hobbies, and then spoof a gift of a cool new product from their favorite company, which when opened, takes over their computer and thence the network they are in charge of.) Yes, many of the impossible things we can expect will be impossibly bad.

They will be beyond our imagining because the level at which they are enabled is hard for us to picture. In large groups the laws of statistics take over and our brains have not evolved to do statistics. The amount of data tracked is inhuman; the magnitudes of giga, peta, and exa don't really mean anything to us; it's the vocabulary of machines. Collectively we behave differently than individuals. Much more importantly, as individuals we behave differently in collectives.

This has been true a long while. What's new is the velocity at which we a[re] headed into this higher territory of global connectivity. We are swept up in a tectonic shift toward large, fast, social organizations connecting us in novel ways. There may be a million different ways to connect a billion people, and each way will reveal something new about us. Something hidden previously. Others have named this emergence the Noosphere, or MetaMan, or Hive Mind. We don't have a good name for it yet.

Along these lines, here's something from Adam Frank's piece on, "Fear of the TwitterBook: When to Adopt or Reject New Tech", in which he compares the ubiquity of social media to the relatively quick adoption of mechanical clocks in late-medieval Europe
It is the open-ended brilliance of Facebook and (as I am learning) Twitter in creating ever-shifting, ever-nested webs of connection that take them beyond themselves. Both sites may eventually be replaced by something newer. But by creating technological norms for a particular kind of connectivity, the electronic social networks they embody are transforming our historical moment as completely as mechanical time metering changed life in [the] 15th century.

Culture sees itself and the cosmos as a whole through the lens of its technological capabilities. That fact may explain when adoption grows beyond mere choice. Once a technology settles in to the point where it begins shaping the dominant metaphors of a society (the 17th century's "clockwork universe" for example), then there is no going back, no opting out. You and everyone you know will be assimilated.

There's much to say about this, but I've taken you away from your Labor Day long enough. Go and have some fun.


R. Sherman said...

No fun for me, as I'm at the office.

There's a lot going on here, but in thinking about social networks facilitated by technological advances, I've come to the conclusion that they are more distracting than anything else. That is, true contemplation of the world, our place in it and is made ever more difficult by the unsolicited interruptions of members of these social networks, to which we feel obligated to respond. For example, think about whether you've posted something which you believe to be especially good only to be disappointed that the blogosphere did not immediately rise as one and shout, "hallelujah!" [Insert smiley emoticon thingy "here."] I suppose what I'm saying is that the technology of instant communication seems to become an end in itself, more than a means of communication.

Toss in the benign Orwellian "Newspeak" of these media and we are slowly developing generations who are incapable of formulating complex ideas. Once the language goes, the ideas can take no form and the ideas can no longer be conceived. Then we truly all wind up like nothing more than chat bots yelling at each other.


John B. said...

Hey, Randall. Actually, I had work to do yesterday, too (grading, of course); I actually got most of it done, too.

You said: I suppose what I'm saying is that the technology of instant communication seems to become an end in itself, more than a means of communication.

I remember thinking that while reading Frank's piece. Twitter, though (via some of the folks the Mrs. follows) it brings me the occasional smile, and its ability to help organize Iranian street rebellions aside, seems to my mind to be the apotheosis of interconnectedness for the sake of interconnectedness: not just Twitter posts themselves but also the whole "re-Tweet" thing. Perhaps in more specialized circles Twitter serves as a sort of aggregator of information, but that seems to happen more by accident than by design. In the exchanging of ideas, ideas run the risk of getting shortchanged by the act (and speed) of exchanging them.

But then again, you and I both have blogs that reach a daily audience of tens every day. And didn't the invention of movable type also enable a whole lot of self-indulgence over the centuries? Speaking for myself, I have a couple of different, more-or-less lofty ways of rationalizing this blog, but "self-indulgence" is always lurking about even the loftier reasons. True, I think blogs are more mediated than Twitter and Facebook are; my self-indulgence gets filtered by the time it takes for me to pull together a halfway decent post. (I have any number of drafts of posts that have died quiet deaths due to good old fashioned rethinking.)

In short: I have to keep reminding myself that a little over seven years ago, I had trouble seeing The Point of blogging. I tend to be a late-adopter of all kinds of stuff and thus rather conservative in that sense: the old ways of doing things still work just fine, thank you. Maybe my big thing, with Arendt and these links here, is promoting the value of self-awareness as we engage with whatever technology. How does this make me (and people generally) a better person, improve my life?

R. Sherman said...

Maybe I'm an idealist, but I view blogging as different. I've long since passed the time where I post something just to post something, though I admit it may seem like that. For me, the blog is like a journal which people happen to read. Twitter and Facebook status updates are cute, and valuable for telling your friends "Party at my place at 8:00ish" but contemplate condensing Plato into 140 characters.


emawkc said...

I like and enjoy Twitter (Facebook… not so much). And I absolutely sympathize with your concerns of the vapidity of it's nature.


Isn't that true of any communications medium? Be it a dime novel, an afternoon soap opera, a televangelist radio broadcast, two-paragraph blog post or a 140-character dissertation on how much Monday's suck, can you rally judge a medium by the content that is broadcast?

My defense of Twitter is that we each select who we want to "listen to." Much like in the blogging world, I "follow" people who are interesting (i.e. this guy) or I can follow complete numbskulls (to be generous).

Twitter (and other such technologies) is a much more efficient means for distributing information than your local evening newspaper, and even you local paper's website).

Also, I don't think every 14-character tweet has to have a world-changing impact. There's still room for idle water-cooler chit-chat, right?

John B. said...


Thanks for joining in.

The last first: I'm working hard on the idle water-cooler chit-chat thing. I seem never to have been especially good at small talk; fortunately for me, though, I've married into a sports-crazy family, so I'm getting more adept at that. But, as we Kansans have learned this summer, to my mind there are only so many ways one can say "Hoo-wee, it's hot today!" and keep it interesting. But I also recognize that this is my problem and not the world's. The Mrs. is enamored of some reality-TV programs; I, considerably less so. But she and I have had some meta-discussions about them, what need(s) they apparently fill in their audiences beyond or within the catch-all role of "entertainment." It's strange how asking questions about these things is taken by some to be implicit criticizing; my responses to that would be 1) I genuinely want to know--interconnectedness is clearly the way we're headed and I'm clearly signed on to this in my own little way, but I want to try to understand what's at work here and not feel just swept away on the floodwaters; 2) the defensiveness of some is one reason why I want to understand. Why feel that way?

I will admit that one clear advantage of social media over traditional broadcast is that their audiences are more selective and self-selecting than those for traditional radio and television. I suppose that that's why I've found blogging to be satisfying: those who visit here regularly have chosen to do so. They influence the things I post on only insofar as I casually think, Oh, So-and-so might find this interesting, but more often than not I'm surprised by who comments on what. In the case of the Arendt post, I'm completely surprised that it took off in the comments section as it did. Those who visit aren't captive audiences. They vote with their feet. Though I like my job very much, I'm fully aware that my students are there listening to my yammering because, degree requirements being what they are, they have to be there.

In short: Yes to everything you've mentioned (and Randall, too, by indirection).

R. Sherman said...

EMAWKC, my criticism, such as it is, of Twitter and Facebook (as well as e-mail, text messaging, etc.) is that those media don't lend themselves to the expression of very complex ideas. I suppose it's a chicken/egg question, but does imagination require a suitable medium to breath life, whether that idea is technological or philosophical? I would say, "Yes, more often than otherwise."

(Of course, the counter argument is Homer who was blind and sang The Iliad from memory.)


Nick said...

When I first really got adept at keying morse code, lo those many decdes past, I could rattle off about 40 error free words per minute.

Sometimes I would chatter back and forth through long night watches (on base) with other operators. And though the service used morse code for decades to transmit instuctions/news, and though morse code was taught to every boy scout in the country, and though affeciandos set up home keys (long before the HAM systems), nothing much of import was said, all things being equal.

When I read a twit I always think of a key operator sitting out in a pine shack somewhere in Montanna (don't ask why there - no idea) keeping warm by an old cast iron wood fed stove, quietly keying information about his day to another operator down the line, Wyoming: warm rain...train arrived but missing a passenger...the bledsoe girl had her baby...healthy boy...stop.

Twitter is trivial, Facebook is vanity and the both of them are being subsumed by the social media types. That is too say, advertising.

It's never the technology, per se. It's always the use. It only seems like we're overwhelmed by technology because of the ever present roar of the media hawking it along with every other little thing you should be buying (into).

Turn off the idiot box. Don't peruse any news site on the Innertubez. Listen to just one hour, in total, of news via the radio a day. I think you'll find we're no more or less interconnected than we use to be. It's just that we talk about the trivial more now.

John B. said...


Sorry for the belated thank-you for your comment. Darned self-absorption.

You are right about the ham radio types and, indeed, about any form of communication and the devices that facilitate it. John and Abigail Adams' quill-pen letters to each other during his time on the Continental Congress are as filled with news of household matters and family illness as they are with philosophical discussions about a nation that hadn't yet even declared its independence, much less won it (and, in case you're wondering, each talks about all these things). And it was Socrates who said, "A multitude of books distracts the mind." Already worried about surplus reality's effects on us. Thoreau had no need of newspapers, he says in Walden; read them for a few months and, aside from some swapping around of names and places, you already know all the news there is to know, French Revolutions not excepted. And on and on.

I think that much of our collective teeth-gnashing has to do with the newness of the Internet and the swiftness with which the social media that utilize it have appeared. Yahoo! isn't even 20 years old yet, yet one gets the sense that its time has all but passed (and who among us ever thinks to visit poor old Grandpa AOL in the nursing home?). Meanwhile, we see all this capacity filled up with chit-chat and trivia, and it feels very very hard to avoid it. I know more about the Kardashians than I think it healthy for your average sentient life-form to know, not because I've sought that information but because Yahoo!, my e-mail provider, sees fit to post information about them on its homepage at regular intervals.

Even Walden Pond has wi-fi service, I'm willing to bet. You are right when you say that we can choose to unplug as easily as we can choose to rail about these media via the very means that enable those media. Perhaps the 'Nets will come to seem rather dull before too long. Already, you know, it's only middle-aged people who still think it's cool to blog.

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