World-Makers, World-Owners

Charles Mudede’s explanation for why the slave becomes the thesis of the next order dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is surprisingly straightforward and elegant (“Marxism and Insects: Slave-Making Ants,” SLOG, The Stranger, 13 May 2010):

Hegel argues that because the world is more and more made and shaped by slave labor — serving, building, putting “all to rights” — the world makes more and more sense to slaves and less and less sense to the masters (“so utterly helpless are the masters”). The masters only know how to destroy; the slaves know how to create.

If you follow the link and read the entire post, know that it is the latest installment in Mr. Mudede’s recent ant phase. His explanation of Hegel quoted above is a takeoff from a description of slavery amidst the ants found in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. For the slave revolt among the ants, definitely read the article that commenter @10 recommends (Rodríguez, Álvaro, “Enslaved Ants Revolt, Slaughter Their Captors’ Children,” DiscoBlog, Discover, 18 August 2008).

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The Last Days of Nature

In reaction to last week’s The New Yorker article on synthetic biology (Specter, Michael, “A Life Of Its Own,” 28 September 2009, pp. 56-65):

The objective of synthetic biology is the final subsumption of the logic of nature into the logic of capitalism. Capitalism being the logic of human desire, the objective of synthetic biology is — as with the whole of the technological endeavor — the elimination of all intercession between desire and its fulfillment. It is the attempt to return to the purity of the hallucination of the breast, to do away with despised reality testing, the creation of a world of pure subjectivity.

For a cyberpunk rereading of Hegel: Freud as the last of the Young Hegelians.

One Ping Only, Vasili

A few weeks ago I met up with some friends and we were walking through the busy Gallery Place / Chinatown area, all three of us heads down studying our various hand-helds (two iPhones and an Android). I joked that the app that we need is something like the range-finders from the Alien movies, only that does picture-in-picture on our phones so we can see what’s coming without having to look up from our immersion in our respective virtual worlds as we walk through heavy pedestrian traffic.

The absurd extent of the anxiety of influence: not only if you’ve had a good idea can you count on someone having already had it, but if you make a joke about something absurd, you can rest assured that someone is already doing that too. It turns out there is already a sonar app for the iPhone (Frucci, Adam, “iPhone’s Sonar Ruler App Measures Distance Using Sound,” Gizmodo, 21 August 2009).

(Jokes about iPhone apps follow the same formula as jokes about hitherto unnamed but always Johnny-on-the-spot when convenient members of the Smurf village: think of an absurd or inappropriate function, append “smurf”; e.g. Cuckolding Smurf finds life in the Smurf village paradisiacal; or sumrfs keep themselves free of tropical disease by regularly licking Quinine Smurf; In the case of iPhone apps, name an absurd function, then say “There’s an app for that.”)

Sociobiology as the Transcendence of Biological Ecology

The central idea of sociobiology is that the emergence of social creatures (herd animals) coincided with the creation of what might be termed a socio-cultural environment. The socio-cultural environment is as much an environment that social creatures inhabited as the material environment. As social creatures evolve, two things happen to the socio-cultural environment:

  1. As with evolution of species morphology, the maximum complexity of socio-cultural environments increases (there is selection pressure on the entire socio-cultural environment as, say, predators develop way of thwarting or exploiting the social aspect of their prey and the social species evolve to countervail this development, e.g. parasitic cordyceps and ants; that is, there is species-level selection, since a social characteristic unrecognized by a counterpart comes to nothing; consider this as an analogy for fourth generation warfare).

  2. Subsequent generations of herd animals come to rely ever more heavily upon social cohesion — as opposed to horns, honed perceptive apparatus, efficient digestion, et cetera — as their primary means of survival.

As this socio-cultural environment becomes more sophisticated and intricate and increasingly important as a means of survival, the socio-cultural environment grows in importance as the universe of factors shaping the evolution of social animals, while the objective, geological, hydrological and biological environment recedes in its evolutionary force.

Sexual selection (a type of sociobiological selection, as opposed to natural or Malthusian selection) is the sort of selection pressure that a species faces when its fellows, rather than the environment becomes the main challenge to getting its genes into the future. The shifting balance of natural selection and sexual selection in the play of evolutionary forces is meta-evolutionary. Evolution is recursive, with developments in the subjects of evolution backpropigating into the mechanism itself. In this respect every new thing in the universe (or at least in the effective realm) can potentially alter the functioning of the evolutionary dynamic. In this broadened perspective, the idea of machine or meme evolution supplanting biological evolution should not be so surprising.

Among a certain sector of the wildly technologically enthusiastic (among whom I count myself, though Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work is presently doing a lot to kick the piss out of this pretention), there is a notion that humans are rapidly disencumbering themselves of the material world and constructing for ourselves a world of pure ideas, information, mind-stuff. At some point in human history saber-toothed tigers, virulent microbes, droughts and tar pits ceased to be the primary challenge to humans seeking to survive and reproduce. Such extra-human threats were replaced as the primary danger by human-originating threats such as careening contraptions, shoddy construction techniques, insufficient precaution with the kitchen fire, marauding hoplites, jilted dagger-wielding lovers, corrupt institutions and flawed regimes of succession in governance. It is at the point where today it is plausible that the human socio-cultural environment has attained a level of preponderance where even the level of environmental catastrophe such as an asteroid strike that caused the mass extinctions of the past might be thwarted by the constituents of the human socio-cultural environment (on the other hand, the complexity of our socio-cultural environment might be just the sort of run-away biological factor that caused past mass extinction such as the oxygen catastrophe or the Canfield ocean thesis of the Permian–Triassic extinction event). In this conception, it is usually the the information revolution, the invention of the computer — a brain-like device — that is the cause of this transcending of matter. The advent of technology was not the key turning point. The recognition of sociobiology is that this trend is an aspect of evolution; that it long predates not only technology, but also even predates humans. In this way, we are not unique, not the penultimate branch of the tree of life, but only the latest in a succession of forms.

Update, 15 September 2009: It’s worth noting that while computers are not the revolution, nor the source of the revolution, they do form a paradigm, shaping our conceptualizations in ways that allow us to perceive the revolution.

Singulitarian Panic Goes Mainstream

Last week both the New York Times and New Scientist featured articles seriously speculating about the danger posed to humans by intelligent, belligerent robots. This week The Telegraph follows suite (Markoff, John, “Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man,” The New York Times, 26 July 2009, p. A1; Campbell, MacGregor, “Artificial Intelligence Researchers Confront Sci-Fi Scenarios,” New Scientist, 29 July 2009; “Military Killer Robots ‘Could Endanger Civilians’,” The Telegraph, 3 August 2009). Also this week, an older story made the rounds about a Swedish company that was fined 25,000 kronor ($3,000) after a malfunctioning robot lashed out and nearly killed a maintenance worker (“Robot Attacked Swedish Factory Worker,” The Local, 28 April 2009). The prosecutor stated that, “I’ve never heard of a robot attacking somebody like this,” but as Matthew Yglesias points out, it’s not just the proletariat that’s under attack: Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was attacked by a robot in 2005 (“Robot Attacks Aren’t Just for Comedy, ThinkProgress, 29 July 2009; “Robot Attacks Japanese Prime Minister,” we make money not art, 21 August 2005). Finally, not only do we fret and fantasize over disaster, we make satire of it as well, as in this extreme anti-smoking video (Woerner, Meredith, “Smoking: It’s Only Enabling The Machines,” io9, 3 August 2009).

That’s a lot of fretting over robots for one week. Even 25 years after The Terminator (IMDB | Wikipedia), the robot apocalypse has remained a pretty geeky fantasy / disaster, but I would say that it’s approaching NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) / CERN accidentally creating a mini-black hole level consciousness as a destroyer of humanity. Now if we could just gin up a little more fear over nanotech / grey goo / ecophagy / ice-9.

The Internet is Still Very, Very New

The Stranger “reviews” twitter and makes the obvious, though necessary point (Constant, Paul, “Paul Constant Reviews Twitter,” The Stranger, 30 June 2009):

So I’m going to say something that might strike you as weird and naive, but it’s true. Listen: The internet is still very, very new.

Most people haven’t even been on the internet for 10 years yet. Ten years! Every technology is lawless frontier after just 10 years.

Television was still radio with scenery 10 years after its inception. People pointed, awestruck, at planes 10 years after Kittyhawk.

We’re just learning what the internet can do, and we’ll learn a lot more once children born today grow up with today’s internet.

For the first three years of twitter, it was easy to lampoon the service as the ultimate medium for whining about first world problems. But then the Iranian election happened and overnight it became a tool for unleashing social transformation and the indispensable news medium. The Internet is still new. Many potential services lay as yet unimplemented. Many will at first seem trivial or demeaning of this or that high value (“Is Google making us stupid?”). They will seem so until the moment when they transform into something utterly other than their original intention, specification, design.

Good point aside, can we have no more articles about twitter written entirely of 140 character paragraphs. It was cute at first, but now it’s just very gimmicky. It was worth it once for the style of the thing, but now to do so only detracts from your larger point. The 140 character message has its place and it is not the short-form essay.

Kurzweil Will Die

Apropos the latest Terminator film, The New York Times has a decent rundown of singularitarianism, transhumanism, A.I. and so on that touches on most of the figures in the field (Markoff, John, “The Coming Superbrain,” 24 May 2009). The conclusion:

Kurzweil will probably die, along with the rest of us not too long before the ‘great dawn,'” said Gary Bradski, a Silicon Valley roboticist. “Life’s not fair.”

Moses never gets to enter the Promised Land. Such a shame — to be the last generation to die.