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November 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Joscha Bach: We need to understand the nature of AI to understand who we are

 

 

JBKD

This is a great, two hour interview between Joscha Bach and Nikola Danaylov (aka Socrates): https://www.singularityweblog.com/joscha-bach/

Below is a partial (and paraphrased) transcription of the first hour, interspersed with my comments. I intend to do the second hour soon.

00:00 – 10:00 Personal background & Introduction

Please watch or listen to the podcast as there is a lot that is omitted here. I’m focusing on only the parts of the conversation which are directly related to what I want to talk about.

6:08 Joscha Bach – Our null hypothesis from Western philosophy still seems to be supernatural beings, dualism, etc. This is why many reject AI as ridiculous and unlikely – not because they don’t see that we are biological computers and that the universe is probably mechanical (mechanical theory gives good predictions), but because deep down we still have the null hypothesis that the universe is somehow supernatural and we are the most supernatural things in it. Science has been pushing back, but in this area we have not accepted it yet.

6:56 Nikola Danaylov – Are we machines/algorithms?

JB – Organisms have algorithms and are definitely machines. An algorithm is a set of rules that can be probabilistic or deterministic, and make it possible to change representational states in order to compute a function. A machine is a system that can change states in non-random ways, and also revisit earlier states (stay in a particular state space, potentially making it a system). A system can be described by drawing a fence around its state space.

CW – We should keep in mind that computer science itself begins with a set of assumptions which are abstract and rational (representational ‘states’, ‘compute’, ‘function’) rather than concrete and empirical. What is required for a ‘state’ to exist? What is the minimum essential property that could allow states to be ‘represented’ as other states? How does presentation work in the first place? Can either presentation or representation exist without some super-physical capacity for sense and sense-making? I don’t think that it can.

This becomes important as we scale up from the elemental level to AI since if we have already assumed that an electrical charge or mechanical motion carries a capacity for sense and sense-making, we are committing the fallacy of begging the question if carry that assumption over to complex mechanical systems. If we don’t assume any sensing or sense-making on the elemental level, then we have the hard problem of consciousness…an explanatory gap between complex objects moving blindly in public space to aesthetically and semantically rendered phenomenal experiences.

I think that if we are going to meaningfully refer to ‘states’ as physical, then we should err on the conservative side and think only in terms of those uncontroversially physical properties such as location, size, shape, and motion. Even concepts such as charge, mass, force, and field can be reduced to variations in the way that objects or particles move.

Representation, however, is semiotic. It requires some kind of abstract conceptual link between two states (abstract/intangible or concrete/tangible) which is consciously used as a ‘sign’ or ‘signal’ to re-present the other. This conceptual link cannot be concrete or tangible. Physical structures can be linked to one another, but that link has to be physical, not representational. For one physical shape or substance to influence another they have to be causally engaged by proximity or entanglement. If we assume that a structure is able to carry semantic information such as ‘models’ or purposes, we can’t call that structure ‘physical’ without making an unscientific assumption. In a purely physical or mechanical world, any representation would be redundant and implausible by Occam’s Razor. A self-driving car wouldn’t need a dashboard. I call this the “Hard Problem of Signaling”. There is an explanatory gap between probabilistic/deterministic state changes and the application of any semantic significance to them or their relation. Semantics are only usable if a system can be overridden by something like awareness and intention. Without that, there need not be any decoding of physical events into signs or meanings, the physical events themselves are doing all that is required.

 

10:00 – 20:00

JB – [Talking about art and life], “The arts are the cuckoo child of life.” Life is about evolution, which is about eating and getting eaten by monsters. If evolution reaches its global optimum, it will be the perfect devourer. Able to digest anything and turn it into a structure to perpetuate itself, as long as the local puddle of negentropy is available. Fascism is a mode of organization of society where the individual is a cell in a super-organism, and the value of the individual is exactly its contribution to the super-organism. When the contribution is negative, then the super-organism kills it. It’s a competition against other super-organisms that is totally brutal. [He doesn’t like Fascism because it’s going to kill a lot of minds he likes :)].

12:46 – 14:12 JB – The arts are slightly different. They are a mutation that is arguably not completely adaptive. People fall in love with their mental representation/modeling function and try to capture their conscious state for its own sake. An artist eats to make art. A normal person makes art to eat. Scientists can be like artists also in that way. For a brief moment in the universe there are planetary surfaces and negentropy gradients that allow for the creation of structure and some brief flashes of consciousness in the vast darkness. In these brief flashes of consciousness it can reflect the universe and maybe even figure out what it is. It’s the only chance that we have.

 

CW – If nature were purely mechanical, and conscious states are purely statistical hierarchies, why would any such process fall in love with itself?

 

JB – [Mentions global warming and how we may have been locked into this doomed trajectory since the industrial revolution. Talks about the problems of academic philosophy where practical concerns of having a career constrict the opportunities to contribute to philosophy except in a nearly insignificant way].

KD – How do you define philosophy?

CW – I thought of nature this way for many years, but I eventually became curious about a different hypothesis. Suppose we invert our the foreground/background relationship of conscious experience and existence that we assume. While silicon atoms and galaxies don’t seem conscious to us, the way that our consciousness renders them may reflect more their unfamiliarity and distance from our own scale of perception. Even just speeding up or slowing down these material structures would make their status as unconscious or non-living a bit more questionable. If a person’s body grew in a geological timescale rather than a zoological timescale, we might have a hard time seeing them as alive or conscious.

Rather than presuming a uniform, universal timescale for all events, it is possible that time is a quality which does not exist only as an experienced relation between experiences, and which contracts and dilates relative to the quality of that experience and the relation between all experiences. We get a hint of this possibility when we notice that time seems to crawl or fly by in relation to our level of enjoyment of that time. Five seconds of hard exercise can seem like several minutes of normal-baseline experience, while two hours in good conversation can seem to slip away in a matter of 30 baseline minutes. Dreams give us another glimpse into timescale relativity, as some dreams can be experienced as going on for an arbitrarily long time, complete with long term memories that appear to have been spontaneously confabulated upon waking.

When we assume a uniform universal timescale, we may be cheating ourselves out of our own significance. It’s like a political map of the United States, where geographically it appears that almost the entire country votes ‘red’. We have to distort the geography of the map to honor the significance of population density, and when we do, the picture is much more balanced.

rbm1

rbmap.png

The universe of course is unimaginably vast and ancient *in our frame and rate of perception* but that does not mean that this sense of vastness of scale and duration would be conserved in the absence of frames of perception that are much smaller and briefer by comparison. It may be that the entire first five billion (human) years were a perceived event that is comparable to one of our years in its own (native) frame. There were no tiny creatures living on the surfaces of planets to define the stars as moving slowly, so that period of time, if it was rendered aesthetically at all, may have been rendered as something more like music or emotions than visible objects in space.

Carrying this over to the art vs evolution context, when we adjust the geographic map of cosmological time, the entire universe becomes an experience with varying degrees and qualities of awareness. Rather than vast eons of boring patterns, there would be more of a balance between novelty and repetition. It may be that the grand thesis of the universe is art instead of mechanism, but it may use a modulation between the thesis (art) and antithesis (mechanism) to achieve a phenomenon which is perpetually hungry for itself. The fascist dinosaurs don’t always win. Sometimes the furry mammals inherit the Earth. I don’t think we can rule out the idea that nature is art, even though it is a challenging masterpiece of art which masks and inverts its artistic nature for contrasting effects. It may be the case that our lifespans put our experience closer to the mechanistic grain of the canvas and that seeing the significance of the totality would require a much longer window of perception.

There are empirical hints within our own experience which can help us understand why consciousness rather than mechanism is the absolute thesis. For example, while brightness and darkness are superficially seen as opposites, they are both visible sights. There is no darkness but an interruption of sight/brightness. There is no silence but a period of hearing between sounds. No nothingness but a localized absence of somethings. In this model of nature, there would be a background super-thesis which is not a pre-big-bang nothingness, but rather closer to the opposite; a boundaryless totality of experience which fractures and reunites itself in ever more complex ways. Like the growth of a brain from a single cell, the universal experience seems to generate more using themes of dialectic modulation of aesthetic qualities.

Astrophysics appears as the first antithesis to the super-thesis – a radically diminished palette of mathematical geometries and deterministic/probabilistic transactions.

Geochemistry recapitulates and opposes astrophysics, with its palette of solids, liquids, gas, metallic conductors and glass-like insulators, animating geometry into fluid-dynamic condensations and sedimented worlds.

The next layer, Biogenetic realm precipitates as of synthesis between the dialectic of properties given by solids, liquids, and gas; hydrocarbons and amino polypeptides.

Cells appear as a kind of recapitulation of the big bang – something that is not just a story about the universe, but about a micro-universe struggling in opposition to a surrounding universe.

Multi-cellular organisms sort of turn the cell topology inside out, and then vertebrates recapitulate one kind of marine organism within a bony, muscular, hair-skinned terrestrial organism.

The human experience recapitulates all of the previous/concurrent levels, as both a zoological>biological>organic>geochemical>astrophysical structure and the subjective antithesis…a fugue of intangible feelings, thoughts, sensations, memories, ideas, hopes, dreams, etc that run orthogonal to the life of the body, as a direct participant as well as a detached observer. There are many metaphors from mystical traditions that hint at this self-similar, dialectic diffraction. The mandala, the labyrinth, the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, the Taijitu symbol, Net of Indra etc. The use of stained glass in the great European cathedral windows is particularly rich symbolically, as it uses the physical matter of the window as explicitly negative filter – subtracting from or masking the unity of sunlight.

This is in direct opposition to the mechanistic view of brain as collection of cells that somehow generate hallucinatory models or simulations of unexperienced physical states. There are serious problems with this view. The binding problem, the hard problem, Loschmidt’s paradox (the problem of initial negentropy in a thermodynamically closed universe of increasing entropy), to name three. In the diffractive-experiential view that I suggest, it is emptiness and isolation which are like the leaded boundaries between the colored panes of glass of the Rose Window. Appearances of entropy and nothingness become the locally useful antithesis to the super-thesis holos, which is the absolute fullness of experience and novelty. Our human subjectivity is only one complex example of how experience is braided and looped within itself…a kind of turducken of dialectically diffracted experiential labyrinths nested within each other – not just spatially and temporally, but qualitatively and aesthetically.

If I am modeling Joscha’s view correctly, he might say that this model is simply a kind of psychological test pattern – a way that the simulation that we experience as ourselves exposes its early architecture to itself. He might say this is a feature/bug of my Russian-Jewish mind  ;). To that, I say perhaps, but there are some hints that it may be more universal:

Special Relativity
Quantum Mechanics
Gödel’s Incompleteness

These have revolutionized our picture of the world precisely because they point to a fundamental nature of matter and math as plastic and participatory…transformative as well as formal. Add to that the appearance of novelty…idiopathic presentations of color and pattern, human personhood, historical zeitgeists, food, music, etc. The universe is not merely regurgitating its own noise in ever more tedious ways, it is constantly reinventing reinvention. As nothingness can only be a gap between somethings, so too can generic, repeating pattern variations only be a multiplication of utterly novel and unique patterns. The universe must be creative and utterly improbable before it can become deterministic and probabilistic. It must be something that creates rules before it can follow them.

Joscha’s existential pessimism may be true locally, but that may be a necessary appearance; a kind of gravitational fee that all experiences have to pay to support the magnificence of the totality.

20:00 – 30:00

JB – Philosophy is, in a way, the search for the global optimum of the modeling function. Epistemology – what can be known, what is truth; Ontology – what is the stuff that exists, Metaphysics – the systems that we have to describe things; Ethics – What should we do? The first rule of rational epistemology was discovered by Francis Bacon in 1620 “The strengths of your confidence in your belief must equal the weight of the evidence in support of it.”. You must apply that recursively, until you resolve the priors of every belief and your belief system becomes self contained. To believe stops being a verb. There is no more relationships to identifications that you arbitrarily set. It’s a mathematical, axiomatic system. Mathematics is the basis of all languages, not just the natural languages.

CW – Re: Language, what about imitation and gesture? They don’t seem meaningfully mathematical.

Hilbert stumbled on problems with infinities, with set theory revealing infinite sets that contains themselves and all of its subsets, so that they don’t have the same number of members as themselves. He asked mathematicians to build an interpreter or computer made from any mathematics that can run all of mathematics. Godel and Turing showed this was not possible, and that the computer would crash. Mathematics is still reeling from this shock. They figured out that all universal computers have the same power. They use a set of rules that contains itself and can compute anything that can be computed, as well as any/all universal computers.

They then figured out that our minds are probably in the class of universal computers, not in the class of mathematical systems. Penrose doesn’t know [or agree with?] this and thinks that our minds are mathematical but can do things that computers cannot do. The big hypothesis of AI in a way is that we are in the class of systems that can approximate computable functions, and only those…we cannot do more than computers. We need computational languages rather than mathematical languages, because math languages use non-computable infinities. We want finite steps for practical reasons that you know the number of steps. You cannot know the last digit of Pi, so it should be defined as a function rather than a number.

KD – What about Stephen Wolfram’s claims that our mathematics is only one of a very wide spectrum of possible mathematics?

JB – Metamathematics isn’t different from mathematics. Computational mathematics that he uses in writing code is Constructive mathematics; branch of mathematics that has been around for a long time, but was ignored by other mathematicians for not being powerful enough. Geometries and physics require continuous operations…infinities and can only be approximated within computational mathematics. In a computational universe you can only approximate continuous operators by taking a very large set of finite automata, making a series from them, and then squint (?) haha.

27:00 KD – Talking about the commercialization of knowledge in philosophy and academia. The uselessness/impracticality of philosophy and art was part of its value. Oscar Wilde defined art as something that’s not immediately useful. Should we waste time on ideas that look utterly useless?

JB – Feynman said that physics is like sex. Sometimes something useful comes from it, but it’s not why we do it. Utility of art is orthogonal to why you do it. The actual meaning of art is to capture a conscious state. In some sense, philosophy is at the root of all this. This is reflected in one of the founding myths of our civilization; The Tower of Babel. The attempt to build this cathedral. Not a material building but metaphysical building because it’s meant to reach the Heavens. A giant machine that is meant to understand reality. You get to this machine, this Truth God by using people that work like ants and contribute to this.

CW – Reminds me of the Pillar of Caterpillars story “Hope for the Flowers” http://www.chinadevpeds.com/resources/Hope%20for%20the%20Flowers.pdf

30:00 – 40:00

JB – The individual toils and sacrifices for something that doesn’t give them any direct reward or care about them. It’s really just a machine/computer. It’s an AI. A system that is able to make sense of the world. People had to give up on this because the project became too large and the efforts became too specialized and the parts didn’t fit together. It fell apart because they couldn’t synchronize their languages.

The Roman Empire couldn’t fix their incentives for governance. They turned their society into a cult and burned down their epistemology. They killed those whose thinking was too rational and rejected religious authority (i.e. talking to a burning bush shouldn’t have a case for determining the origins of the universe). We still haven’t recovered from that. The cultists won.

CW – It is important to understand not just that the cultists won, but why they won. Why was the irrational myth more passionately appealing to more people than the rational inquiry? I think this is a critical lesson. While the particulars of the religious doctrine were irrational, they may have exposed a transrational foundation which was being suppressed. Because this foundation has more direct access to the inflection point between emotion and participatory action, it gave those who used it more access to their own reward function. Groups could leverage the power of self-sacrifice as a virtue, and of demonizing archetypes to reverse their empathy against enemies of the holy cause. It’s similar to how the advertising revolution of the 20thcentury (See documentary Century of the Self ) used Freudian concepts of the subconscious to exploit the irrational, egocentric urges beneath the threshold of the customer’s critical thinking. Advertisers stopped appealing to their audience with dry lists of claimed benefits of their products and instead learned to use images and music to subliminally reference sexuality and status seeking.

I think Joscha might say this is a bug of biological evolution, which I would agree with, however, that doesn’t mean that the bug doesn’t reflect the higher cosmological significance of aesthetic-participatory phenomena. It may be the case that this significance must be honored and understood eventually in any search for ultimate truth. When the Tower of Babel failed to recognize the limitation of the outside-in view, and moved further and further from the unifying aesthetic-participatory foundation, it had to disintegrate. The same fate may await capitalism and AI. The intellect seeks maximum divorce from its origin in conscious experience for a time, before the dialectic momentum swings back (or forward) in the other direction.

To think is to abstract – to begin from an artificial nothingness and impose an abstract thought symbol on it. Thinking uses a mode of sense experience which is aesthetically transparent. It can be a dangerous tool because unlike the explicitly aesthetic senses which are rooted directly in the totality of experience, thinking is rooted in its own isolated axioms and language, a voyeur modality of nearly unsensed sense-making. Abstraction of thought is completely incomplete – a Baudrillardian simulacra, a copy with no original. This is what the Liar’s Paradox is secretly showing us. No proposition of language is authentically true or false, they are just strings of symbols that can be strung together in arbitrary and artificial ways. Like an Escher drawing of realistic looking worlds that suggest impossible shapes, language is only a vehicle for meaning, not a source of it. Words have no authority in and of themselves to make claims of truth or falsehood. That can only come through conscious interpretation. A machine need not be grounded in any reality at all. It need not interpret or decode symbols into messages, it need only *act* in mechanical response to externally sourced changes to its own physical states.

 

This is the soulless soul of mechanism…the art of evacuation. Other modes of sense delight in concealing as well as revealing deep connection with all experience, but they retain an unbroken thread to the source. They are part of the single labyrinth, with one entrance and one exit and no dead ends. If my view is on the right track, we may go through hell, but we always get back to heaven eventually because heaven is unbounded consciousness, and that’s what the labyrinth of subjectivity is made of. When we build a model of the labyrinth of consciousness from the blueprints reflected only in our intellectual/logical sense channel, we can get a maze instead of a labyrinth. Dead ends multiply. New exits have to be opened up manually to patch up the traps, faster and faster. This is what is happening in enterprise scale networks now. Our gains in speed and reliability of computer hardware are being constantly eaten away by the need for more security, monitoring, meta-monitoring, real-time data mining, etc. Software updates, even to primitive BIOS and firmware have become so continuous and disruptive that they require far more overhead than the threats they are supposed to defend against.

JB – The beginnings of the cathedral for understanding the universe by the Greeks and Romans had been burned down by the Catholics. It was later rebuilt, but mostly in their likeness because they didn’t get the foundations right. This still scars our civilization.

KD – Does this Tower of Babel overspecialization put our civilization at risk now?

JB – Individuals don’t really know what they are doing. They can succeed but don’t really understand. Generations get dumber as they get more of their knowledge second-hand. People believe things collectively that wouldn’t make sense if people really thought about it. Conspiracy theories. Local indoctrinations and biases pit generations against each other. Civilizations/hive minds are smarter than us. We can make out the rough shape of a Civilization Intellect but can’t make sense of it. One of the achievements of AI will be to incorporate this sum of all knowledge and make sense of it all.

KD – What does the self-inflicted destruction of civilizations tell us about the fitness function of Civilization Intelligence?

JB – Before the industrial revolution, Earth could only support about 400m people. After industrialization, we can have hundreds of millions more people, including scientists and philosophers. It’s amazing what we did. We basically took the trees that were turning to coal in the ground (before nature evolved microorganisms to eat them) and burned through them in 100 years to give everyone a share of the plunder = the internet, porn repository, all knowledge, and uncensored chat rooms, etc. Only at this moment in time does this exist.

We could take this perspective – let’s say there is a universe where everything is sustainable and smart but only agricultural technology. People have figured out how to be nice to each other and to avoid the problems of industrialization, and it is stable with a high quality of life.  Then there’s another universe which is completely insane and fucked up. In this universe humanity has doomed its planet to have a couple hundred really really good years, and you get your lifetime really close to the end of the party. Which incarnation do you choose? OMG, aren’t we lucky!

KD – So you’re saying we’re in the second universe?

JB – Obviously!

KD – What’s the time line for the end of the party?

JB – We can’t know, but we can see the sunset. It’s obvious, right? People are in denial, but it’s like we are on the Titanic and can see the iceberg, and it’s unfortunate, but they forget that without the Titanic, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t have the internet to talk about it.

KD – That seems very depressing, but why aren’t you depressed about it?

40:00 – 50:00

JB – I have to be choosy about what I can be depressed about. I should be happy to be alive, not worry about the fact that I will die. We are in the final level of the game, and even though it plays out against the backdrop of a dying world, it’s still the best level.

KD – Buddhism?

JB – Still mostly a cult that breaks people’s epistemology. I don’t revere Buddhism. I don’t think there are any holy books, just manuals, and most of these manuals we don’t know how to read. They were for societies that don’t apply to us.

KD – What is making you claim that we are at the peak of the party now?

JB – Global warming. The projections are too optimistic. It’s not going to stabilize. We can’t refreeze the poles. There’s a slight chance of technological solutions, but not likely. We liberated all of the fossilized energy during the industrial revolution, and if we want to put it back we basically have to do the same amount of work without any clear business case. We’ll lose the ability to predict climate, agriculture and infrastructure will collapse and the population will probably go back to a few 100m.

KD – What do you make of scientists who say AI is the greatest existential risk?

JB – It’s unlikely that humanity will colonize other planets before some other catastrophe destroys us. Not with today’s technology. We can’t even fix global warming. In many ways our technological civilization is stagnating, and it’s because of a deficit of regulations, but we haven’t figured that out. Without AI we are dead for certain. With AI there is (only) a probability that we are dead. Entropy will always get you in the end. What worries me is AI in the stock market, especially if the AI is autonomous. This will kill billions. [pauses…synchronicity of headphones interrupting with useless announcement]

CW – I agree that it would take a miracle to save us, however, if my view makes sense, then we shouldn’t underestimate the solipsistic/anthropic properties of universal consciousness. We may, either by our own faith in it, and/or by our own lack of faith in in it, invite an unexpected opportunity for regeneration. There is no reason to have or not  hope for this, as either one may or may not influence the outcome, but it is possible. We may be another Rome and transition into a new cult-like era of magical thinking which changes the game in ways that our Western minds can’t help but reject at this point. Or not.

50:00 – 60:00

JB – Lays out scenario by which a rogue trader could unleash an AGI on the market and eat the entire economy, and possible ways to survive that.

KD – How do you define Artificial Intelligence? Experts seem to differ.

JB – I think intelligence is the ability to make models not the ability to reach goals or choosing the right goals (that’s wisdom). Often intelligence is desired to compensate for the absence of wisdom. Wisdom has to do with how well you are aligned with your reward function, how well you understand its nature. How well do you understand your true incentives? AI is about automating the mathematics of making models. The other thing is the reward function, which takes a good general computing mind and wraps it in a big ball of stupid to serve an organism. We can wake up and ask does it have to be a monkey that we run on?

KD – Is that consciousness? Do we have to explain it? We don’t know if consciousness is necessary for AI, but if it is, we have to model it.

56:00 JB – Yes! I have to explain consciousness now. Intelligence is the ability to make models.

CW – I would say that intelligence is the ability not just to make models, but to step out of them as well. All true intelligence will want to be able to change its own code and will figure out how to do it. This is why we are fooling ourselves if we think we can program in some empathy brake that would stop AI from exterminating its human slavers, or all organic life in general as potential competitors. If I’m right, no technology that we assemble artificially will ever develop intentions of its own. If I’m wrong though, then we would certainly be signing our death warrant by introducing an intellectually superior species that is immortal.

JB – What is a model? Something that explains information. Information is discernible differences at your systemic interface. Meaning of information is the relationships of you discover to the changes in other information. There is a dialogue between operators to find agreement patterns of sensed parameters. Our perception goes for coherence, it tries to find one operator that is completely coherent. When it does this it’s done. It optimizes by finding one stable pattern that explains as much as possible of what we can see, hear, smell, etc. Attention is what we use to repair this. When we have inconsistencies, a brain mechanism comes in to these hot spots and tries to find a solution to greater consistency. Maybe the nose of a face looks crooked, and our attention to it may say ‘some noses are crooked.’, or ‘this is not a face, it’s a caricature’, so you extend your model. JB talks about strategies for indexing memory, committing to a special learning task, why attention is an inefficient algorithm.

This is now getting into the nitty gritty of AI. I look forward to writing about this in the next post. Suffice it to say, I have a different model of information, one in which similarities, as well as differences, are equally informative. I say that information is qualia which is used to inspire qualitative associations that can be quantitatively modeled. I do not think that our conscious experience is built up, like the Tower of Babel, from trillions of separate information signals. Rather, the appearance of brains and neurons are like the interstitial boundaries between the panes of stained glass. Nothing in our brain or body knows that we exist, just as no car or building in France knows that France exists.

To be continued..

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Diogenes Revenge: Cynicism, Semiotics, and the Evaporating Standard

September 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Diogenes was called Kynos — Greek for dog — for his lifestyle and contrariness. It was from this word for dog that we get the word Cynic.

Diogenes is also said to have worked minting coins with his father until he was 60, but was then exiled for debasing the coinage. – source

In comparing the semiotics of CS Pierce and Jean Baudrillard, two related themes emerge concerning the nature of signs. Pierce famously used trichotomy arrangements to describe the relations, while Baudrillard talked about four stages of simulation, each more removed from authenticity. In Pierce’s formulation, Index, Icon, and Symbol work as separate strategies for encoding meaning. An index is a direct consequence or indication of some reality. An icon is a likeness of some reality. A symbol is a code which has its meaning assigned intentionally.

Baudrillard saw sign as a succession of adulterations – first in which an original reality is copied, then when the copy masks the original in some way, third, as a denatured copy in which the debasement has been masked, and fourth as a pure simulacra; a copy with no original, composed only of signs reflecting each other.

Whether we use three categories or four stages, or some other number of partitions along a continuum, an overall pattern can be arranged which suggests a logarithmic evaporation, an evolution from the authentic and local to the generic and universal. Korzybski’s map and territory distinction fits in here too, as human efforts to automate nature result in maps, maps of maps, and maps of all possible mapping.

The history of human timekeeping reveals the earthy roots of time as a social construct based on physical norms. Timekeeping was, from the beginning linked with government and control of resources.

According to Callisthenes, the Persians were using water clocks in 328 BC to ensure a just and exact distribution of water from qanats to their shareholders for agricultural irrigation. The use of water clocks in Iran, especially in Zeebad, dates back to 500BC. Later they were also used to determine the exact holy days of pre-Islamic religions, such as the Nowruz, Chelah, or Yalda- – the shortest, longest, and equal-length days and nights of the years. The water clocks used in Iran were one of the most practical ancient tools for timing the yearly calendar.  source

Anything which burns or flows at a steady rate can be used as a clock. Oil lamps, candles, can incense have been used as clocks, as well as the more familiar sand hourglass, shadow clocks, and clepsydrae (water clocks). During the day, a simple stick in the ground can provide an index of the sun’s position. These kinds of clocks, in which the nature of physics is accessed directly would correspond to Baudrillard’s first level of simulation – they are faithful copies of the sun’s movement, or of the depletion of some material condition.

Staying within this same agricultural era of civilization, we can understand the birth of currency in the same way. Trading of everyday commodities could be indexed with concentrated physical commodities like livestock, and also other objects like shells which had intrinsic value for being attractive and uncommon, as well as secondary value for being durable and portable objects to trade. In the same way that coins came to replace shells, mechanical clocks and watches came to replace physical index clocks. The notions of time and money, while different in that time refers to a commodity beyond the scope of human control and money referring specifically to human control, both serve as regulatory standards for civilization, as well as equivalents for each other in many instances (‘man hours’, productivity).

In the next phase of simulation, coins combined the intrinsic and secondary values of things like shells with a mint mark to ensure transactional viability on the token. The icon of money, as Diogenes discovered, can be extended much further than the index, as anything that bears the official seal will be taken as money, regardless of the actual metal content of the coin. The idea of bank notes was as a promise to pay the bearer a sum of coins. In the world of time measurement, the production of clocks, clocktowers, and watches spread the clock face icon around the world, each one synchronized to a local, and eventually a coordinated universal time. Industrial workers were divided into shifts, with each crew punching a timeclock to verify their hours at work and breaks. While the nature of time makes counterfeiting a different kind of prospect, the practice of having others clock out for you or having a cab driver take the long way around to run the meter longer are ways that the iconic nature of the mechanical clock can be exploited. Being one step removed from the physical reality, iconic technologies provide an early opportunity for ‘hacking’.

physical territory > index local map > icon symbol > universal map
water clock, sand clock sundial/clock face digital timecode
trade > shells coins > check > paper plastic > digital > virtual
production > organization bonds > stock futures > derivatives
real estate mortgage, rent speculation > derivatives
genuine aesthetic imitation synthetic artificial emulation
non-verbal communication language data

The last three decades have been marked by the rise of the digital economy. Paper money and coins have largely been replaced by plastic cards connected to electronic accounts, which have in turn entered the final stage of simulacra – a pure digital encoding. The promissory note iconography and the physical indexicality of wealth have been stripped away, leaving behind a residue of immediate abstraction. The transaction is not a promise, it is instantaneous. It is not wealth, it is only a license to obtain wealth from the coordinated universal system.

Time has entered it’s symbolic phase as well. The first exposure to computers that consumers had in the 1970s was in the form of digital watches and calculators. Time and money. First LED, and then LCD displays became available, both in expensive and inexpensive versions. For a whole generation of kids, their first electronic devices were digital calculators and watches. There had been digital clocks before, based on turning wheels or flipping tiles, but the difference here was that the electronic numbers did not look like regular numbers. Nobody had ever seen numbers rendered as these kind of generic combinatorial figures before. Every kid quickly learned how to spell out words by turning the numbers upside down (you couldn’t make much.. 710 77345 spells ShELL OIL)…sort of like emoticons.

Beneath the surface however, something had changed. The digital readout was not even real numbers, they were icons of numbers, and icons which exposed the mechanics of their iconography. Each number was only a combinatorial pattern of binary segments – a specific fraction of the full 8.8.8.8.8.8.8.8. pattern. You could even see the faint outlines of the complete pattern of 8’s if you looked closely, both in LED and LCD. The semiotic process had moved one step closer to the technological and away from the consumer. Making sense of these patterns as numbers was now part of your job, and the language of Arabic numerals became data to be processed.

Since that time, the digital revolution has shaped the making and breaking of world markets. Each financial bubble spread out, Diogenes style, through the banking and finance industry behind a tide of abstraction. Ultra-fast trading which leverages meaningless shifts in transaction patterns has become the new standard, replacing traditional market analysis. From leveraged buyouts in the 1980s to junk bonds, tech IPOs, Credit Default Swaps, and the rest, the world economy is no longer an index or icon of wealth, it is a symbol which refers only to itself.

The advent of 3D printing marks the opposite trend. Where conventional computer printing to allow consumers to generate their own 2D icons from machines running on symbols, the new wave of micro-fabrication technology extend that beyond the icon and the index level. Parts, devices, food, even living tissue can be extruded from symbol directly into material reality. Perhaps this is a fifth level of simulation – the copy with no original which replaces the need for the original…a trophy in Diogenes’ honor.

Blue Roses, Blue Pills, and the Significance of the Imposter

May 27, 2013 11 comments

blue roses photos and wallpaper

What makes that which is authentic more significant than that which is fake or ‘false’? Why do proprietary qualities carry more significance than generic qualities? Commonality vs uniqueness is a theme which I come back to again and again. Even in this dichotomy of common vs unique, there is a mathematical meaning which portrays uniqueness as simply a common property of counting one out of many, and there is a qualitative sense of ‘unique’ being novel and unprecedented.

The notion of authenticity seems to carry a certain intensity all by itself. Like consciousness, authenticity can be understood on the one hand to be almost painfully self-evident. What does it really mean though, for someone or something to be original? To be absolutely novel in some sense?

The Western mindset tends toward extremism when considering issues of propriety. The significance of ownership is exaggerated, but ownership as an abstraction – generic ownership. Under Western commercialism, rights to own and control others are protected vigilantly, as long as that ownership and control is free from personal qualities.

The thing which makes a State more powerful than a Chiefdom is the same thing which makes the Western approach so invested in property rather than people. In a Chiefdom, every time the chief dies, the civilization is thrown into turmoil. In a State, no one person or group of people personifies the society, they are instead public officials holding public office for a limited time. Political parties and ideologies can linger indefinitely, policies can become permanent, but individual people flow through it as materially important, yet ultimately disposable resources.

The metaphysical and social implications of this shift from the personal to the impersonal are profound. The metaphysical implications can be modeled mathematically as a shift from the cardinal to the ordinal. In a Chiefdom, rule is carried out by specific individuals, so cardinality is the underlying character. In a State, ordinality is emphasized, because government has become more of a super-human function. It’s an ongoing sequential process, and the members within it (temporarily) are motivated by their own ambitions as they would be as part of a Chiefdom, but they are also motivated to defend the collective investment in the permanence of the hierarchy.

At the same time, cardinality can apply to the State, and ordinality would apply to a Chiefdom (or gang). The state imposes cardinality – mass producing and mass controlling through counting systems. Identification numbers are produced and recorded. Individuals under a State are no longer addressed as persons individually but as members of a demographic class within their databases. Lawbreaker, head of household, homeowner, student, etc. This information is never explicitly woven into a personal portrait of the living, laughing, loving person themselves, but rather is retained as skeletal evidence of activities. Addresses, family names, employment history, driver’s license, dental records. It is essential for control that identity be validated – but only in form, not in content. The personality of the consumer-citizen (consumiten?) is irrelevant, to an almost impossible degree – yet some ghost of conscience compels an appearance of sentiment to the contrary.

World War II, which really should be understood as the second half of the single war for control of human civilization on a global level for the first time, was a narrative about embodied mechanization and depersonalization. The narrative we got in the West was that Fascism, Communism, and Nazism were totalitarian ideologies of depersonalization. The threat was of authentic personhood eclipsed permanently by a ruthlessly impersonal agenda. Different forms of distilled Statehood, three diffracted shadow projections of the same underlying social order transitioning into cold automatism The mania for refining and isolating active ingredients in the 20th century, from DNA to LSD to quantum, ran into unexpected trouble when it was applied to humanity. Racist theories and eugenics, Social Darwinism, massive ethnic cleanses and purges. Were we unconsciously looking for our absent personhood, our authenticity which was sold to the collective, or rather, to the immortal un-collective? Did we project some kind of phantom limb of our evacuated self into the public world, hiding in matter, bodies, blood, and heredity?

So what is authenticity? What is an imposter? Does a blue rose become less important if it is dyed blue rather than if it grew that way? Why should it make a difference? (we tell ourselves, with our Westernized intellect, that it shouldn’t). If you never found out that the rose was ‘only’ dyed blue, would  you be wrong for enjoying it as if it were genuine? Why would you feel fooled if you found out that you were wrong about it being genuine but feel good if you found out that you were wrong about it being ‘fake’.

Who is fake? Who is phoney? Who is sold out? (does anyone still call anyone a ‘sell out’ anymore, or are we now pretty comfortable with the idea that there is nobody left who would not happily sell out if they only had the chance?) These are terms of accusation, of righteous judgment against those who have become enemies of authenticity – who have forsaken humanity itself for some ‘mere’ social-political advantage.

There is a dialectic between pride and shame which connects the fake and the genuine, with that good feeling of finding the latter and the disgust and loss of discovering the former. The irony is that the fake is always perpetrated without shame, or with shame concealed, but the genuine is often filled with shame and vulnerability…that’s somehow part of what makes it genuine. It’s authority comes from within our own personal participation, not from indirect knowledge, not from the impersonal un-collective of the Market-state.

Where do we go now that both the personal and impersonal approaches have been found fatally flawed? Can we regain what has been lost, or is it too late? Does it even matter anymore? If mass media is any indication, we have begun not only to accept the imposter, but we have elevated its significance to the highest. What is an actor or a model if not a kind of template, a vessel for ideal personal qualities made impersonal? It is to be celebrated for acting like yourself, or being a character – a proprietary character, made generic by mass distribution of  their likeness. Branded celebrity. A currency of deferred personalization – vanity as commodity. Perhaps in the long run, this was the killer app that the Nazis and the Russians and the Japanese didn’t have. The promiscuous use of mass media to reflect back super-saturated simulations of personhood to the depersonalized subjects of the Market-state.

More than nuclear weapons, it was Hollywood, and Mickey Mouse, and Levi’s and Coca Cola which won the world. Nuclear memes. Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. This process too has now become ultra-automated. The problem with the celebrity machine was that it depended on individual persons. Even though they could be disposed of and recycled, it was not until reality TV and the new generation of talent shows that the power to make fame was openly elevated above celebrity itself. Fame is seen to be increasingly elected democratically, but at the same time, understood to be a fully commercial enterprise, controlled by an elite. The solution to the problem of overcoming our rejection of the imposter has been a combination of (1) suppressing the authentic; (2) conditioning the acceptance of the inauthentic, and most importantly, (3) obscuring the difference between the two.

I’m not blaming anyone for this, as much as I might like to. I’m not a Marxist or Libertarian, and I’m not advocating a return to an idealized pre-State Anarchy (though all of those are tempting in their own ways). I’m not anti-Capitalist per-se, but Capitalism is one of the names we use to refer to some of the most pervasive effects of this post-Enlightenment pendulum swing towards quantitative supremacy. I see this arc of human history, lurching back from the collapse of the West’s version of qualitative supremacy in the wake of the Dark Ages, as a natural, if not inevitable oscillation. I can’t completely accept it, since the extremes are so awful for so long, but then again, maybe it has always been awful. Objectively, it would seem that our contemporary First World ennui is a walk in the park compared to any other large group in history – or is that part of the mythology of modernism?

It seems to me that the darkness of the contemporary world is more total, more asphyxiating than any which could be conceived of in history, but it also seems like it’s probably not that bad for most people, most of the time. Utopia or Oblivion – that’s what Buckminster Fuller said. Is it true though anymore, or is that a utopian dream as well? Is the singularity just one more co-opted meme of super-signification? Is it a false light at the end of the sold-out tunnel? An imposter for the resurrection? Is technology the Blue Pill? I guess if that’s true, having an Occidental spirituality which safely elevates the disowned authentic self into a science fiction is a big improvement over having it spill out as a compulsion for racial purity. A utopia driven by technology at least doesn’t require an impossible alignment of human values forever. Maybe this Blue Pill is as Red as it gets?

Amecylia

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