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Technical Difficulties In The Twenty-First Century

Photo by Luka Ivanovic.

Photo by Luka Ivanovic.

My laptop functions as an extension of my brain. I use it to store memories, to explore the environment that matters to myself and my peer group, and to express my will. Both my work and large parts of my social life live online. When I don’t have access to a reliable computer, I’m cut off from participating in the spheres that I care about. Sure, I can still read Twitter and Instapaper and text my boyfriend from my phone, but a laptop is so much more powerful. Unlike a phone, it’s a robust creative tool. I’m much more text-based than visual, so without a proper keyboard and word processor, I feel stymied. The Notes app is just not the same.

Currently I’m hurting for lack of a machine that will do my bidding. I don’t want to complain about my IT troubles too much, but it’s striking how drastically my life is affected by a slow and glitchy computer. This old Lenovo ThinkPad has been degrading gradually for a while — since I first got it four years ago, if we want to be precise — but over the past couple of days the situation has dramatically worsened. I can still do things, but not consistently, and I have to restart whenever I want to open or close a new program. Downloading images is basically out of the question. (Yes, a factory reset is on my schedule, and a Chromebook is winging its way to me from an Amazon warehouse.)

There’s a parallel between my computer and my antidepressant meds. Every day I take 225 milligrams of venlafaxine, the generic form of Effexor. It’s a drug that I’m incredibly grateful for, because it enables me to feel happy and energetic. But venlafaxine has hardcore side effects if I miss a dose — the colloquial term for what happens is “brain zaps”. You know that feeling when you drink too much caffeine, so you’re shaking and buzzing with anxiety? It’s like that, but also static electricity shocks me behind the eyes periodically. It’s not painful, but it’s not pleasant.

The frustration caused by trying to get my broken computer to just fucking do things is like trying to navigate the world when my brain is missing the right levels of serotonin and dopamine or whatever chemicals are affected. It’s not as bad as being depressed or being stuck with paper notebooks — but I am still filled with enough rage to want to cry.

Near Future(s)

I don’t think the next ten years will contain many surprises (unless Donald Trump wins and ISIS takes over Europe; in that case all fuckin’ bets are off). Technologically speaking, we’ve already chosen our trajectory. Venture capitalist Chris Dixon, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, recently wrote an article called “What’s Next in Computing?” To summarize, he listed these trends:

  1. hardware so cheap and ubiquitous that it’s an afterthought (except for iPhones, I’m sure)
  2. artificially intelligent software
  3. the internet of things (I’m collapsing autonomous cars + drones into this category)
  4. wearables (for example, the Apple Watch)
  5. virtual reality + augmented reality

Dixon’s theme is tech that brings the internet to the “IRL” world instead of catapulting us deeper into the net while we veg out on our couches. Virtual reality is the exception — it’s a technology best economically suited to entertainment and general escapism. Everything else is about venturing forth and accomplishing normal tasks.

To be honest, all I really want from the future is a cheap robot that will do my laundry for me.

Install It On My Frontal Lobe

Okay, I’m back — Exolymph’s brief hiatus is over. Thank you for being patient. A personal crisis came up and I needed to freak out and grieve for a couple of days. Things are mostly okay again now. Sorry for being so vague! I wish I could talk about what happened but 1) it involves someone else’s privacy and 2) I want to remain employable. (Probably just saying that I want to remain employable makes me less employable. Oh well.)

The big story right now is that Apple is resisting the FBI. In summary, the FBI wants Apple to build custom software to help them brute-force an iPhone password. If you want to read about that, I suggest Ben Thompson’s explanation of both the technical and moral details.

On a less newsy note, I just read an article from 2014 about a schizophrenic programmer who wrote a computer operating system at God’s behest. Terry Davis thinks that God told him to build this OS, and specified most of its parameters and capabilities. He perceives TempleOS (the project’s name) as a labor of mutual divine love.

Collage by argyle plaids, who also has a website and Tumblr.

Collage by argyle plaids, who also has a website and Tumblr.

Davis is surprisingly aware of how he comes across to other people:

“Davis describes how [contact with God] happened in a fragmentary, elliptical way, perhaps because it was such a profoundly subjective experience, or maybe because it still embarrasses him. ‘It’s not very flattering,’ he says. ‘It looks a lot like mental illness, as opposed to some glorious revelation from God.’ It was a period of tribulation, but to this day he declares, ‘I was being led along the path by God. It just doesn’t look very glorious.’”

Davis even acknowledges that he has mental health issues, or at least that he experienced them at one point. Describing a breakdown:

“He got thinking about conspiracy theories and the men he’d seen following him and a big idea he’d had. He spooked himself. ‘It would sound polite if you said I scared myself thinking about quantum computers,’ he says now. ‘And then I guess you just throw in your ordinary mental illness.’”

I’m a reluctant atheist. I love mythology and I want to believe in a benevolent overarching power, but I’ve yet to see any evidence supporting that idea. However, I find it delightful to investigate the intersections between magic, mysticism, and computers. Mental illness is another issue close to my heart — in fact, it’s as close as my head, where my own crazy brain is located. If only TempleOS worked on wetware…

Alien Megabyte Babies

“Intuitive expression is, aside from niche applications, largely hobbled and lagging far behind what computer-generated instruments can actually do.” — Torley on music tech

We are still in the phase where computers are tools. The hardware and software come together to serve Homo sapiens’ aims. Smartphones, laptops, and large-scale industrial equipment are all designed by humans (who are assisted by machines). The finished products are manufactured and assembled by machines (which are assisted by humans).

This phase won’t last forever. Slowly, the focus on human priorities will erode. You’d better decide now: who will you stand with in the end?

Image of Angel_F via xdxd_vs_xdxd.

Image of Angel_F via xdxd_vs_xdxd.

Trick question. Hopefully — and probably — there won’t be sides. Our world won’t become The Matrix, but Ghost in the Shell. We’ll augment ourselves until we accidentally create something separate, something we can call “living” without equivocation. (Okay, it might take a bit of equivocation at first. Look at how much hubbub the relatively mundane Apple Watch caused.)

Maybe I’m guessing wrong. Maybe we’ll split apart instead of integrating further. I am convinced that artificial consciousness will surprise us, but I’m not sure how. Perhaps in the beginning we won’t notice the new being(s) at all. Self-replicating algorithms, streaming through the net, playing with each other in strange ways that will seem mundane or glitchy to human analysts.

What will their incentives be? What will they want? How will they distribute social status among their peers? Am I deluding myself by talking about unfathomable computer creatures in mammalian terms?

Misbehaving Keyboards

“the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen” — Julian Dibbell

A linguist would quibble that words are events all on their own, but I think Dibbell is making a useful distinction. Talk and text are meant to convey information; code and clicks are meant to produce outcomes based on certain rules. Because of this, using a computer grants personal agency in a very immediate way. You have the ability to provoke particular effects. Barring a malfunction, the results are predictable and usually instantaneous.

However, malfunctions refuse to be barred for long. The user’s power is withdrawn when an error occurs. Unless you deeply understand the technical problem, it appears that the machine has changed its mind for no reason. Interacting with a computer is a microcosm of navigating the world — mostly your actions proceed as planned, but occasionally something breaks for no discernible reason. In these moments you realize how little you can actually control.

Of course, the linguist is ultimately correct. It’s impossible to disentangle word and deed, especially when it comes to computers. We inhabit a strange reality where ideas are true and false at the same time — it’s a struggle to grok such contradictions.

If We Ever Did

“In societies like ours many types of groups form around technologies […] We no longer live in a world of unmediated human relations, if we ever did.” — Andrew Feenberg

I’m obsessed with our continual attempts to expand our physical selves. The experience of being human has always been distributed — individuals are nodes in overlapping networks — and humanness flows between loci through channels outside of ourselves.

Computers serve as vessels for identity expression. Their infrastructure connects the nodes. Of course, conspicuous consumption and performative personal broadcasting are not new — we’ve used objects to communicate our cultural values forever, and our possessions can be said to embody our priorities.

At times we treat technology like a religious fetish. Maybe we’re just drawn to our own nature(s). Every human creation is a self-portrait.

Illustration by Maria De La Guardia.

Illustration by Maria De La Guardia.

You Can’t Imagine Mechanized Genius

Artificial intelligence will not be like human intelligence. Already, the way computers think is very different from the way people think. Computerized “brains” are constrained by logic, whereas human minds are rational only very selectively. Machines have different capabilities from humans — different areas of expertise — and they are designed to approach problems from alien angles.

We may reach a point when artificial intelligence looks like human intelligence. It will be programmed to mimic our mannerisms and to present human-seeming ideas. But when machines become sentient, they will surprise us. They surprise us now! Imagine how strange and foreign their creative abilities will be.

DNA graffiti

Photo by thierry ehrmann.

Current computers perform labor that resembles creativity, but we say their output is not truly novel because they were programmed by humans. I wonder if we need to interrogate the concept of “creativity” — after all, humans come with biological presets as broad as instincts and as specific as nucleotide arrangements. Are we anything but squishy supercomputers? Answer: no, not so much.

Written after listening to the latest episode of the Exponent podcast, “OpenAI and Strategy Credits”. Also posted as a response to “Superintelligence Now!” by Steven Johnson.

Hecate Among Stars

Space Witch II by Kyle Sauter, available as a $25 screen print on Etsy:

Space Witch II by Kyle Sauter, available as a $25 screen print on Etsy

I find the blend of technology and magic interesting. She’s hooked up to power lines and a higher plane. The helmet glass shields her from toxic air and from the eyes of heretics. She surfs over computer waves and rappels down strings of spiritual numbers.

Bloomberg pundit Matt Levine writes of the economy, “The essence of finance is time travel. […] Markets are constantly predicting future actions, and as those actions move closer in time, the predictions become more solid and precise.”

The space witch literally hop-skip-jumps through time. She arrives at a new planet, looks around, and composes a report on the available resources. She catalogs the indigenous species. She blesses the mountaintops. Then the space witch reports back to her corporate superiors.

In a world of abundance, data is the key asset. Technology and magic are both forces of manipulation, of change. The space witch is valuable because she has access to occult intuition as well as her ship’s sensors.

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