Leszi on Sat, 30 Mar 2002 01:47:12 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> LL 26 The Singularity, Communication versus a future that does matter

This is really interesting.  My own thinking has run in similar lines, and
maybe I can share some stuff that could be helpful.

> Event-driven becomes almost synonymous with distraction when humans and
> computers are considered similar. When we, humans, think, we get so
> easily distracted that those who do not get so easily distracted become
> famous. When we solve a differential equation, we often get thirsty or
> develop a pseudo-philosophy about the color of the pencil used to jot
> down the intermediate steps. When we listen to music, the proverbial fly
> on the nose too easily becomes the most urgent thought. When we play
> chess for an audience, our eyes often wander to sexy examples of the
> desired sex.
> Our environment pulls the strings of our attention. We "think" in messy
> dependence, not in the computers glorious isolation. The machine
> computer extrapolates from axioms numerous consequences, the human
> computer basically reacts.

Well, that neo-cortex that humans are so all-fired proud of seems to me to
be spread like a thin layer of icing on the many layers of vertibrate and
mammalian brain development.  It's no wonder that this 'thinking' part of
our brains is continually interrupted by reminders of its existence in a
biological matrix.  This neo-cortex does not really call the shots.  
Humans can adopt all sorts of weird and impossible belief systems, but the
basic instincts override and the forces that have kept the species alive
since day one keep us alive still.  If it were not so, then sex would have
stopped under Christianity, greed would have stopped under communism, etc.  
As thinkers, we are conditioned to think of these deep forces as evil, or
at least inconvenient factors of the human condition, to be controled,
mollified, redirected, repressed, by the intellect, which is supposed to
be the master of the situation.  Well, it may be so for you and me,
(grin,) but it's easy to see that most other people play totally
animalistic games with each other about sex and dominance, and that the
role of the 'intellect' in their lives is mainly to hide all this from
others and themselves, make up lies, excuses, rationalizations.  Most of
this 'Thought,' which is discussed in such high terms, falls entirely into
this category of excuses and rationalizations, complex yarns going in
circles to explain that humans really are better than animals, in spite of
all the evidence, etc... Yikes! When did I become this cynical?  I'm not,
really.  I said MOST thought is thus.  Not ALL thought.  Maybe the pearls
are worth the oyster shells, as it were.

> This is probably due to our hardware, our brain. The larger part of the
> human brain has not developed to deal with the movement of the stars,
> musical compositions, chess, poetry or abstract logic. The brain was not
> designed to extrapolate, but to react. React to what? Well....to other
> human brains. Indeed, the main objects in our environment are people.
> The brain has adapted it's structure to this social environment.

Yes, But not really more than other social mammals.  We just have a more
complicated language and fancier tools.

> brain is not a general purpose computer. Our notions of mind, of person,
> of subjective experience may be the result of the way our brain adapts
> to other brains. All brains together may be an all-purpose computer, but
>   probably not.

Excellent point.  Still I agree with Bucky Fuller that Humanity is
Designed for Success in the Universe.  At least I can see it's wiser to
start from that assumption than its opposite, since there's a strong
tendency with humans to manifest what they expect.  It pays to _decide_ to
expect what you really want. Lewis Thomas, in The Lives of a Cell, posits
Language as being to humans what the Hive is to bees.  Like the hive,
everyone 'works on' language, adds either information, humor, innovation,
or just their thumbprint.  It's a better candidate for the hive than
cities or nations, because not everybody works on those.

> Is the singularity theorist correct in ignoring the vast differences in
> the pragmatics of computation as done by machines and as done by humans?

The whole assumption that either machines or humans 'think' strikes me as
more of a conceit than a fact.  Maybe if several computers were given
algorithms to try to seek certain kinds of interaction with each other,
simulating mating and other social behavior, they would develop, or have
to have written for them 'self-image,' or a persona.  More about persona

> It may be that they see an arrow of brain-development that is, to a
> large degree, an illusion.

> Let's inspect the development of personhood a little closer to make such
> statements credible. When we see a body we automatically infer that it
> is a person, endowed with consciousness, with feelings and subjective
> experiences. This point is made in an exquisite book by Leslie Brown
> (Friday's Footprint, 1997). Our brain is hardwired to develop the notion
> of person, she claims. The notion of person is instrumental in
> co-adjusting the behavior of a group of human bodies. That it is
> hard-wired means that we cannot see a body without seeing a mind,
> without inferring the existence of subjective experience in the other. A
> similar point has been made by Peter Strawson, who claims that concept
> person is logically more primitive than the idea of subjective experience.

Person, from persona, literally, 'to sound through.' Word originally for
MASKS worn by DRAMATISTS in Greek religious dramas. On the stage, it does
not matter who the actor is, only what mask he's wearing, what persona his
voice is coming through, to know what his Role in the drama is to be.  
Social life can be seen as constructed of dramas, discrete units of
interchange of information, status, tokens (goods or money), etc.  Most of
us 'type cast' ourselves, circumscribing the roles we'll play, conditions
under which we will accept victory or defeat in life's games.  The stories
we tell, and are handed on within our cultures, represent how different
types of characters interact, and what kinds of outcomes can be expected.

> There is nothing mysterious about this process of person construction.
> When we see a string of letters that form a word in a language we speak,
> we cannot but see it's meaning. Exactly what meaning depends on what we
> have learned, just as the rather abstract concept of person will be
> endowed with numerous characteristics based, mainly, on what is learned
> during the conversations between two or more human bodies.

And a lot of imitation.

> The notion of person is a construct of our brain. It comes to being when
> brains and bodies interact. A person is therefore a social phenomenon.
> It is not 'in' a brain, it is distributed over at least two brains.

Maybe.  I spend a lot of time alone, though, and my persona doesn't go away.
I can buy your two brains thing if one of them can be a pet, or imaginary.

> Back to our singularity theorists.
> Will smart computers, or smart computational processes, have a mind, as
> so many singularists seem to imply?

I wouldn't worry about it.  What smart computers do to dumb people will be
nothing compared to the damage dumb people can do _with_ smart computers.
Like today's news...

> The real value of singularity theory is that it is an attempt to
> transcend human existence. It does this by focussing on using a small
> part of our mental capacities, problem-solving, and on the production of
> machines that are good at it, better than humans.

Have you read McLuhan, _Understanding the Media_?  He lays out a pretty
plausible way to understand what the computer/communications net is in
relation to the human brain, and was remarkably prescient (in 1964) about
what some of the effects would be.  Coined the term, 'global village,'
predicted the Net, and that it would cause the 'collapse of time and
space.' The nettime list owes A LOT to McLuhan.

 This transcendence is
> lacking in our picture of mankind as a set of communicating brains. As
> said, brains have developed to cope with other brains. Even the notion
> of person serves an instrumental role. If, as is bound to happen, this
> insight becomes part and parcel of our cultural discourse, than all we
> can do is stare at a rather nauseating circularity; brains exist to
> understand other similar brains. It is like saying that the reason for
> my being is your being: that the reason for existence is existence. From
> essence to being.. let's not go there. Our cognitive apparatus itself
> may just be a way nature has found for one brain to make other brains
> more predictable. If this does not annoy you already, let me try to rub
> it in using an analogy.
> There are animals who have learned to develop a thick skull because
> banging heir heads against other skulls has proven it's survival value.
> Talking to other people maybe just be the human variation of banging
> each others' skulls. Survival value is highly dependent on a
> self-created context and thereby becomes utterly point-less. We
> communicate to survive. Period.

Maybe communications skills are like the peacock's plumes, connected to
survival only because they are connected to our sex-and-hierarchy rituals.

> The singularity theorists do have a way to transcend the mess (some call
> it mesh) of our existence. We, whose existence is conditioned on being a
> person, are bound to a brain that only wants to survive amidst other 
> How to transcend human existence if the cognitive way of transcendation
> leads to an incomprehensible world? And should we?

Eh, I like what Joseph Campbell said about in response to a question about
mythology as part of a 'search for meaning.' He said myths don't help you
to find meaning, but help you to realize the Experience of Being Alive.  
As long as 'transcendence' starts from a place of assuming the 'icing' of
the neo cortex is the 'real' mind, the 'real' self, the 'real' persona,
transcendence (which means, 'climbing across') is going to be a sterile
and lifleless pack of illusions.  If we are going to 'transcend' our
physical existence/limitations then we'd best get _into_ the physical and
get climbing across, rather than crawling away into further abstraction.

Pointless conversations may precisely be the
> substance of our future, if we do nothing to prevent that. This is not a
> mere academic point. Our informational environment is increasingly
> orienting our brains to pointless communicaton.  The human capacity to
> transcend the present is under serious threat. The singularity theorists
> are probably sensitive to this threat, but their solution has some
> escapist tendencies.

>From my point of view, it's not pointless.  If you understand 'pointless
conversation' as part of the generalized pecking-order drama, it always has
a purpose, maybe only as a kind of carrier wave for other information, or as
an excuse to stand close enough to each other to let the pheromones work.

> To transcend the present is to transcend personhood without abandoning
> it. Perhaps even without rewiring our brain. Since abstract personhood
> is filled in by conversations, we effectively need to transcend
> communication: we need an "uber-language". If we want one...
> Here my story probably ends.

If you think of it as a mask, it's not so hard to imagine changing it, or
taking it off...  but in practice, when you try to take it off, another
one grows back.  This is just part of being human.  We cannot stay
completely transparent, even to ourselves, for very long.  What we CAN do
is actively participate in making and chosing our masks and our roles.

Matt Komoroski

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