On Not Being There

[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read William Gibson’s The Peripheral this article contains spoilers.]

A few excerpts from a fascinating article by Rebecca Lemon in The Hedgehog Review:

Almost daily, we encounter people who are there but not there, flickering in and out of what we think of as presence. A growing body of research explores the question of how users interact with their gadgets and media outlets, and how in turn these interactions transform social relationships. The defining feature of this heavily mediated reality is our presence “elsewhere,” a removal of at least part of our conscious awareness from wherever our bodies happen to be.

I recently spent 90 minutes in a video Hangout with +Steve Brown. He was in Tucson and I was here in Jefferson City, MO in a coffee shop. That’s were our respective bodies were but I’m not sure where my awareness or consciousness was. In the cloud? Cyberspace? Somewhere other than that coffee shop. Back to Ms. Lemon’s article:

Mark Carranza—[who] makes his living with computers—has been keeping a detailed, searchable archive of all the ideas he has had since he was 21. That was in 1984. I realize that this seems impossible. But I have seen his archive, with its million plus entries, and observed him using it… Most thoughts are tagged with date, time, and location.

(This is where I would comment on that but I can’t think of anything to say)

“clickworkers, gold farmers, porn zappers” – Many of them based in suburban Manila in former elementary schools and other unlikely sites, the content moderators perform the unsavory job of repeatedly adjudicating whether images posted to Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, or other social networking sites are sufficiently offensive to be eliminated from view. Moderators at PCs sit at long tables for hours, an “army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us.” By some estimates, the content-moderating army is 100,000 strong, twice the size of Google’s labor pool, and many of its members have college degrees.

You need a little context for that and the article provides it. “The data-drive body at work and at play.”

Awesome

“Then he explained in a whisper that the plan was composed entirely of awesome. It was made and designed by the House of Awesome, from materials found in the deep awesome mines of Awesometania and it would be recorded in the Annals of Awesome—and nowhere else, because any other book would catch fire and explode from the awesome—and by its awesomeness it would be known from now until the crack of doom.”

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

sevenevesOf the half dozen or so Neal Stephenson novels I’ve read, Seveneves (pronounced seven Eves) is probably my least favorite. That might say more about how much I enjoyed his previous books. I need to make a few notes here while the book is fresh in my mind. [SPOILERS: If you haven’t read it yet, there will be a few] In no particular order:

  • If humans have any long-term future, it will involve space travel. And, if humans survive, they will evolve into beings that are different — in important, significant ways — from what we are today. Future humans will have god-like powers (genetic engineering, to name one)
  • The story brings to mind The Martian (Andy Weir); Contact (Carl Sagan) and Red Star, Winter Orbit (A short story by William Gibson). And some clear echoes of Stephenson’s Anathem.
  • Regarding the author’s choice for bringing about the end of the world: an unknown Agent blows up the moon which — within a couple of years — destroys all life on Earth. Not climate change; plague; nuclear war or alien invasion. And even though Stephenson chooses destruction by fire, he avoids the obvious Biblical reference.
  • Stephenson made the “end of the world” seem real to me in a way that other apocalyptic tales have not. I found it difficult to read. He points out that “within about 100 years” everyone who is alive today will be dead. Something I never consciously considered.
  • The story made me appreciate water and clouds and gravity in a way that I don’t think I ever have. I hope I don’t live to see the end of this world. Or the beginning of the end. Oops. Never mind.
  • Robots figure prominently in this story but they are tools, not metal “people” No mention of Artificial Intelligence in this story. I came away with a feeling that this is how things will probably go. Not the romantic vision Hollywood has provided.

I’ve read most of NS’s novels more than once. Some so often the books have started to come apart. Seveneves is a good yarn but one read will probably be enough. Excellent review of 7Eves.

Books, like love, make life worth living

If you love paper books, you’ll enjoy this essay by William Geraldi. A few snippets to prime your pump:

“What does it mean when what you own is essential to who you are? In our everyday grasp of owning things, we tag it materialism, consumerism, consumption. But I trust you’ll agree that the possession of books is not identical to the possession of shoes: Someone with a thousand books is someone you want to talk to; someone with a thousand shoes is someone you suspect of belonging to the Kardashian clan. Books are not objects in the same way that shoes are objects.’

“For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek.”

“The wise are wise only insofar as they know that they know nothing. In other words: Someone with all the answers has no use for books.”

“Like the bicycle, the book is a perfect invention, and perfection dies very, very hard. The car hasn’t murdered the bike, and the Web won’t murder the book.”

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at Mon, Apr 20, 9.37.54 AMAt no time in my life did I think I might want to be a parent. If I thought about it at all, it was brief moments of mildly guilty introspection that quickly passed, certainly not a topic of conversation. Barb might have gotten some “You’ll regret this some day” but I didn’t. From time to time someone would “compliment” me with, “You’d be a great dad.” A sentence I completed —in my head— with “and miserable every day of my life.”

I never heard or took part in discussions on the decision not to have children so this anthology was particularly interesting. Sixteen intelligent (all writers, I believe) people who chose not to have children (Thirteen women and three men). Each story a little different and deeply personal. I found these stories… up lifting.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

sapiens-book-coverAmazon: “Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this highly original book that begins about 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.”

You can scan my favorite nuggets after the jump: Continue reading

A different level of consciousness

“Today’s debate between today’s religions, ideologies, nations and classes will in all likelihood disappear along with Homo sapiens . If our successors indeed function on a different level of consciousness (or perhaps possess something beyond consciousness that we cannot even conceive), it seems doubtful that Christianity or Islam will be of interest to them, that their social organisation could be Communist or capitalist, or that their genders could be male or female.”

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Money talks. Bullshit walks.

From Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

“Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.”

This is why you can buy off a Taliban war lord or a United States Congressman. Money talks and bull shit walks. And for the most part, money doesn’t really exist:

“The sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes is less than $6 trillion. 7 More than 90 per cent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts – exists only on computer servers.”

It’s mostly in our heads. Or our collective consciousness, if you prefer. Packed in there with all the other imaginary concepts so many are willing to kill and die for.

The age of the masses is over

I’ve long suffered from the romantic notion that when things get “bad enough,” the people, the masses, will rise up and change things. That if enough people took to the streets, they could effect change. And while that pretty much held true in the 20th century, it might not in the 21st. Historian Yuval Noah Harari:

“Generally speaking, when you look at the 20th century, it’s the era of the masses, mass politics, mass economics. Every human being has value, has political, economic, and military value, simply because he or she is a human being, and this goes back to the structures of the military and of the economy, where every human being is valuable as a soldier in the trenches and as a worker in the factory.”

“But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over. The age of the masses is over. We are no longer in the First World War, where you take millions of soldiers, give each one a rifle and have them run forward. And the same thing perhaps is happening in the economy.”

Professor Harari expands on this in his conversation with Daniel Kahneman (and in his book). Another idea that really stopped me in my tracks:

“Looking from the perspective of 2015, I don’t think we now have the knowledge to solve the social problems of 2050, or the problems that will emerge as a result of all these new developments. We should be looking for new knowledge and new solutions, and starting with the realization that in all probability, nothing that exists at present offers a solution to these problems.”

Professor Harari’s book made me really consider — for the first time — that humans won’t always be around.

“It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand years from now.”

But whatever comes next will be and I’m cool with that.

The Assembly Line

I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, his first novel, published in 1952.

(Wikipedia) “It is a dystopia of automation, describing the dereliction it causes in the quality of life. The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines.”

I don’t recall the novel making much of an impact on me when I read it during college. The world just didn’t seem that mechanized to me back then. It sure seems timely 60+ years later. And it brings to mind my brief (2 weeks?) time working on the assembly line of the General Motors plant in St. Louis. Summer of 1968?

assembly-line

As I recall, every hour 62 cars passed my little work area. In that minute I put six screws into a thing around one of the headlights (1); put rubber bumpers on two little posts the car’s hood rested on (2); attached a little piece of rubber hose to… something (3); put the tire iron behind the spare tire and spread out the trunk mat (4).

I’m surprised I lasted two weeks but some of the guys on the line had been doing similar tasks for 20 years (and encouraged me to drop out of college to get a couple extra years of seniority).

Vonnegut died in 2007 so he saw some serious automation. As for the class conflict depicted in his novel, well, I think we might just be getting started.