Thursday, May 28, 2015

[Culture of Chaos I] Watching the Defectives

Copyright 2010 Thomas James Hardman, Jr, all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. References to real places and things may be included but their usage is fictional in nature and intent. Any similarity to real persons or parties is coincidental and should be seen as fictional in nature and intent.

Surrealism combines a blend of reality and unreality. Any person unable to sort the fiction and fantasy from the factual is strongly advised to seek professional help.

Drinking too heavily isn't good for the liver, but sometimes it's good for the soul. It all depends on what sort of drunk you are... and why exactly it is that you're drinking.

I've read a lot of great science fiction, and I try to keep modern. Back in the day I loved Robert A Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, and lesser-known yet no less influential and original writers such as Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson. Later, the so-called Cyberpunks came along, writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Greg Egan, and many more. There are so many modern writers out there now, producing so much excellent work, you could spend a lifetime reading and being plunged into new depths of thought in spectra of the colors beyond imagination. Nowadays, I'm working my way through Charles Stross and Peter Watts.

Stross likes to throw a little bit of mindfuck at the reader, now and then. For example:
An ancient hypothesis of the original pre-Singularity civilization, a zimboe [as opposed to a zombie --ed] was a non-self-conscious entity that acted just like a conscious one: it laughed, cried, talked, ate, and generally behaved like a real person, and if questioned, would claim to be conscious -- but behind its superficial behavior, there was nobody home, no internalized model of the universe it lived in. (Singularity Sky, Stross, Charles)

The Singularity, of course, in case you hadn't been paying attention, is a tipping point, or point of no return, in which the world changes to the point where nothing that comes after can be quite understood by anyone who came before that point. That the Singularity is coming isn't science fiction, except to people who've never thought about it. Zimboes, in other words. Anyone who actually has an internalized model of the universe they live in, however incomplete or inaccurate that model, has noticed that things are changing -- changing fast! -- and having noticed that, has to wonder where all of this change will lead, and what other changes may come.

This sort of speculation has gone mainstream quite long ago, first becoming doctrine of the US think-tanks since the time of Vannevar Bush and his seminal book Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy . Bush didn't describe the Singularity, and indeed may have somewhat blunted the onset of that. Atomic energy could have been expected to launch the Singularity, but the way it has been used is not transformative. A hydrogen bomb is still a bomb, and people can understand a bomb. Nuclear electrical power generation is really just a better heater driving the same sort of turbines that have been used since the very first steam-powered electrical generation plant came online.

Yet things are coming that will transform life beyond our present comprehension, possibly beyond our ability to comprehend.

There is nothing in our modern life that could not be comprehended -- in gestalt if not in detail -- by a Roman from the days of the Early Republic. They almost certainly would not understand the engineering, and the materials would be unfamiliar, yet the uses of things and the tasks performed would be comprehensible, although likely seen as legends become real.

A television is clearly a scrying glass; the internet, an oracle (however daft an oracle), and the modern cellphone is a combination of the two. A lorry or tractor-trailer are simply very large wagons, moved by magic rather than crass horses. The Honda ASIMO robot is a metal servant, and the vacuuming robot Roomba is a mechanical snuffling hound that breathes dust into itself, instructed by sorcery as it has been, to the task of cleaning. A 747 Jumbo jet taking off for a flight beyond the horizon at an altitude barely glimpsed? Chariot of the gods, without a doubt, though strangely harnessed to transporting women and men and their goods. The point being, long before any such things were possible, people have told tales in which such magics were commonplaces to the gods, and often encountered by lucky or unlucky mortals. They are not beyond human ken, not even to someone freshly returned from the Trojan War.

Far more confusing would be the way that people lived. Such things as the division of labor and the size of cities would take a lot of explaining, but they could be explained. Literacy could be taught, and some degree of mathematics; logic and rhetoric are respectively older than mankind and as old as the capacity for articulation and grammar. YouTube needs no explanation, yet elicits such a sense of wonder and excitement: ten million plays by ten million playwrights, for better or for worse, available to be seen by an audience of hundreds of millions. Theater, in some form or another, is possibly older even than grammar.

Yet one thing will certainly be passing strange to the man brought forward in time from ancient Athens: how small indeed has become the world, and how many are the people in it.

Since a widespread understanding of the approach of the Singularity has entered the academic mainstream, science fiction is taking a limited number of thematic tacks cutting across a variety of headwinds blowing at us from the future.

Yet there's really only one beginning to any history of any fictional future... the Singularity. And almost all of science fiction written after we heard of the coming Singularity starts out concerned with the lives of people who are still (more or less) human being only because they were, or are descended from people who were, far from the Singularity when that line was crossed.

Peter Watts has been writing some truly excellent stuff. I strongly recommend his novel Blindsight, which was on the short list for piles of awards and which he has graciously decided to share with us online. A warning to the audience: if you aren't fairly well-versed on everything from philosophy through neurochemistry to abnormal psychology and beyond, it's quite possible that this book will make little sense. If, on the other hand, you're a well-rounded post-grad whose favorite day of the week is the day your subscription to Nature arrives chock-full of submissions (for peer-review) written by your lab-partners from back in Uni, if you read this book and it doesn't punch your timecard for you, you've probably had tenure since the Great Depression and your sole pleasure in life is crushing the enthusiasms of the young-and-earnest with merciless critiques of footnoting stylistic errors.

To make the long story short, much of the theme might be summarized as "perhaps our notions of the utility of mainstream self-awareness are a trifle overvalued", with a strong undercurrent of "when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro".

Mr Watts also does a really quite fascinating take on the vampire, well worth reading for that reason alone, if you're a fan of the genre. The vampire knows fighting and predation in the same way that an idiot-savant autist knows numbers. The autists don't think about numbers, they don't do calculations in their head, they don't look a pile of sand and "guesstimate" sand-grain density and pile size... they know those numbers and they know them like you know the sun is shining on you. The vampire can juggle with its eyes closed, similarly, because it doesn't have to see the balls, it knows how hard it tossed them and in what direction; and there's only on place the ball could be at any given time, and such is the vampire's physique and coordination that it can just reach out directly to the only place the ball could be in its trajectory, and launch it again into another trajectory, which trajectory thereafter the vampire will also know rather than calculate.

The Zimboes (as opposed to the more-traditional Zombie) from Mr Stross's work -- they pass the Turing Test but live in the world without understanding it in a thoughtful and reflective way -- aren't too far from Mr Watt's vampires, at least in the matter of understanding why they do what they do, and how that relates to anything other than the instant act.

Yet these are all fictional creatures, aren't they? Aren't they totally unlike anything in the real world?

Perhaps they are, and perhaps, not so much.

I've known people who got good enough grades, got a job, got a life and got married, raised kids, and their kids have kids and so it goes. Life is life, and you don't need to be self-actualizing or even self-aware to be an evolutionarily successful species. Yet some of these people are full of questions about life, the universe, and their place in it. Many, and these are the ones that worry me, have no such questions and indeed could be said to be filled with a cold and unyielding certainty about life, the universe, their place in life and the universe, about everything.

Yet if you try to ask them what they believe, how they conceive the world, how do they understand the universe, eventually they will be forced to confront their own self-unawareness and their lack of an internalized model. It's a rare admission you'll get from them once you manage to put them into that corner, and it's even more rare in that anyone or anything has actually gotten through to them. They don't offer an explanation, a theory, an admission of ignorance, or even a request that you stop bothering them. If you're astute, this is the point where you realize that they've failed the Turing Test and that you're talking more to a very well-equipped simulation than to another actual person. They don't challenge what you're saying, they don't agree or disagree. It's tempting to anthropomorphize and say "they've realized that they've reached their intellectual limits", but that is anthropomorphism, they haven't actually realized anything. That is the whole problem.

When they say "I don't know what to tell you", that's the same thing as if your computer tells you "file not found". It's not that they're stumped or baffled and words have failed them, that's just their way of saying that they have no pre-programmed response and also don't have the conceptual tools to create a comprehensive situationally-appropriate response. 404. File not found.

I see this more and more often, in more and more people: 404, file not found. You can talk about politics and you can talk about the economy and you can talk about the sports teams and then you can ask some question such as "how does that make you feel, and why". 404. File not found. Ask them any question that requires them to create an internalized model of their world or the people in it, to perform operations in that model, and to give you back results of operation on that internal model.

Do it to them enough times, and instead of a blank look and "I don't know what to tell you", and you'll get back something like anger accompanied by the statement "I don't want to talk about it". That last bit bothers me. It means that they had to create enough of an internalized model to understand that they are being tested and that this was enough of a strain to make them angry. Or perhaps they've created enough of an internalized model to understand how very different they are from "real" people.

Like a lot of people, I can feel the Singularity coming.

Are these people firewood for Hell at the end of The Day Everything Changes? Are these the ones with the best hope for survival?

What concerns me the most is not that these people may perish, or survive, the Singularity.

I think that they may be what's bringing it.