The Algorithms Are Coming!

Attack of the Blob

It might not make a great b-movie from the late 50’s, but the rise of the algorithms over the last decade has been just as thrilling, spectacular, and yes, sometimes even scary.

I was first turned on to the rise of algorithms by the founder of the gaming company Area/Code , Ken Slavin, and his fascinating 2011 talk on the subject at TED.  I was quickly draw to one Slavin’s illustration of the new power of algorithms in the world of finance.  Algorithms now control more than 70% of US financial transactions meaning that the majority of decisions regarding the buying and selling of assets are now done by machines. I initially took, indeed I still take, the rise of algorithms in finance to be a threat to democracy. It took me much longer to appreciate Slavin’s deeper point that algorithms have become so powerful that they represent a new third player on the stage of human experience: Nature-Humanity-Algorithms. First to finance.

The global financial system has been built around the electronic net we have thrown over the world. Assets are traded at the speed of light. The system rewards those best equipped to navigate this system granting stupendous profits to those with the largest processing capacity and the fastest speeds. Processing capacity means access to incredibly powerful supercomputers, but the question of speed is perhaps more interesting.

Slavin points out how the desire to shave off a few milliseconds of trading time has led to the hollowing out of whole skyscrapers in Manhattan. We tend to think of the Internet as something that is “everywhere” but it actually has a location of sorts in the form of its 13 core root servers through which all of its traffic flows. The desire to get close to route servers and therefore be able to move faster has led not only to these internally re-configured skyscrapers, but the transformation of the landscape itself.

By far the best example of the needs of algorithms shaping the world is the 825 mile fiber optic trench dug from Chicago to New York by the company Spread Networks. Laying the tunnel for this cable was done by cutting through my formidable native Alleghenies rather than following, as regular communications networks do, the old railway lines.

Slavin doesn’t point this out, but the 13 milliseconds of trading advantage those using this cable is only partially explained by its direct route between Chicago and New York. The cable is also “dark fiber” meaning it does not need to compete with other messages zipping through it. It’s an exclusive line- the private jet of the web. Some alien archaeologist who stumbled across this cable would be able to read the economic inequality endemic to early 21st century life. The Egyptians had pyramids, we have a tube of glass hidden under one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth.

Perhaps the best writer on the intersection of digital technology and finance is the Wall Street Journal’s  Scott Peterson with books like his Quants, and even more so his Dark Pools: The Rise of the Machine Traders and the Rigging of the U.S. Stock MarketIn Dark Pools Peterson takes us right into the heart of new algorithm based markets where a type of evolutionary struggle is raging that few of us are even aware of. There are algorithms that exist as a type of “predator” using their speed to out maneuver slow moving “herbivores” such as the mutual funds and pension funds in which the majority of us little-guys, if we have any investments at all, have our money parked. Predators, because they can make trades milliseconds faster than these “slow” funds can see a change in market position- say selling a huge chunk of stock- and then pounce taking an advantageous position relative to the sale leaving the slow mover with much less than would have been gained or much more than would have been lost had these lightning fast piranhas not been able to strike.

To protect themselves the slow moving funds have not only established things like “decoy” algorithms to throw the predators off their trail, but have shifted much of their trading into non-public markets the “dark-pools” of Peterson’s title. Yet, even these pools have become infected with predator algos. No environment is safe- the evolutionary struggle goes on.

However this ends, and it might end very badly, finance is not the only place where we have seen the rise of the algorithms. The books recommended for you by Amazon or the movies Netflix informs you might lead to a good movie night are all based on sophisticated algorithms about who you are. The same kinds of algorithms that try to “understand” you are used by online dating services or even your interaction with the person on the other end of the line at customer service.

Christopher Steiner in his Automate This  points out that little ditty at the beginning of every customer service call “this call may be monitored…” is used not so much as we might be prone to think it is- a way to gauge the performance of the person who is supposed to help you with your problem as it is to add you to a database of personality types.  Your call can be guided to someone skilled in whatever personality type you have. Want no nonsense answers? No problem! Want a shoulder to cry on? Ditto!

The uber-dream of the big technology companies is to have their algorithms understand every element of our lives and “help” us to make decisions accordingly. Whether or not help should actually be in quotes is something for us as individuals and even more so as a society to decide with the main questions being how much of our privacy are we willing to give up in order to have smooth financial transactions, and is this kind of guidance a help or a hindrance to the self-actualization we all prize?

The company closest to achieving this algorithmic mastery over our lives is Google as Steven Kovach points out in a recent article with the somewhat over the top title Google’s plan to take over the world. Most of us might think of Google as a mere search company that offers a lot of cool compliments such as Google Earth. But, as its founders have repeatedly said, the ultimate goal of the company is to achieve true artificial intelligence, a global brain covering the earth.

 Don’t think the state, which Nietzsche so brilliantly called “the coldest of all cold monsters”  hasn’t caught on to the new power and potential of algorithms. Just as with Wall Street firms and tech companies the state has seized on the capabilities of advances in artificial intelligence and computing power which allow the scanning of enormous databases. Recent revelations regarding the actions of the NSA should have come as no surprise. Not conspiracy theorists, but reputable journalists such as the Washington Post’s Dana Priest  had already informed us that the US government was sweeping up huge amounts of data about people all over the world, including American citizens, under a program with the Orwellian name of The Guardian.  Reporting by James Bamford of Wired in March of last year had already informed us that:

In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net.

The NSA scandals have the potential of shifting the ground under US Internet companies, especially companies such as Google whose business model and philosophy are built around the idea of an open Internet. Countries have even more reason now to be energetic in pursuing “Internet sovereignty”, the idea that each county should have the right and power to decide how the Internet is used within its borders.

In many cases, such as in Europe, this might serve to protect citizens against the prying eyes of the US security state, but we should not be waving the flag of digitopia quite yet. There are likely to be many more instances of the state using “Internet sovereignty” not to protect its people from US snoops, but authoritarian regimes from the democratizing influences of the outside world. Algorithms and the ecosystem of the Internet in which most of them exists might be moving from being the vector of a new global era of human civilization to being just another set of tools in the arsenal of state power. Indeed, the use of algorithms as weapons and the Internet as a means of delivery is already well under way.

At this early date it’s impossible to know whether the revolution in algorithms will ultimately be for the benefit of tyranny or freedom. As of right now I’d unfortunately have to vote for the tyrants. The increase in the ability to gather and find information in huge pools of data has, as is well known, given authoritarian regimes such as China the ability to spy on its netizens that would make the more primitive totalitarians of the 20th century salivate. Authoritarians have even leveraged the capacity of commercial firms to increase their own power, a fact that goes unnoticed when people discuss the anti- authoritarian “Twitter Revolutions” and the like.

Such was the case in Tunisia during its revolution in 2011 where the state was able to leverage the power of a commercial company- FaceBook- to spy on its citizens. Of course, resistance is fought through the Internet as well. As Parmy Olson points out in her We Are Anonymous it was not the actions of the US government but one of the most politically motivated of the members of the hacktivist groups Anonymous and LulzSec, a man with the moniker “Sabu” who later turned FBI informant that was able to launch a pushback of this authoritarian takeover of the Internet. Evidence if there ever was any of that hacktivism even when using Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDOS) can be a legitimate form of political speech

Yet, unlike in the movies, even the rebels in this story aren’t fully human. Anonymous’ most potent weapon DDOS attacks rely on algorithmic bots to infect or inhabit host  computers and then strike at some set moment causing a system to crash  due to surges in traffic. Still, it isn’t this hacktivism of groups like Anonymous and LulzSec that should worry any of us, but the weaponization of the Internet by states, corporations and criminals.

Perhaps the first well known example of a weaponized algorithms was the Stuxnet Worm deployed by the US, Israel, or both, against the Iranian nuclear program. This was a very smart computer worm that could find and disable valuable pieces of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure leaving one to wonder whether the algo wars on Wall Street are just a foretaste of a much bigger and more dangerous evolutionary struggle.

Hacktivist groups like Anonymous or LulzSec have made DDOS attacks famous. What I did not know, until I read Parmy Olson, is that companies are using botnets to attack other companies as when Bollywood used the company AiPlex to attack the well known copyright violators such as Pirate Bay by using DDOS attacks. What this in all likelihood means is that AiPlex unknown to their owners infiltrated perhaps millions of computers (maybe your computer) to take down companies whose pirated materials you might never have viewed. Indeed, it seems the majority of DDOS attacks are little but a-political thuggery- mobsters blackmailing gambling houses with takedowns on large betting days and that sort of Sopranosesque type of thing.

Indeed, the “black-hats” of criminal groups are embracing the algorithmic revolution with abandon. A lot of this is just annoying: it’s algorithms that keep sending you all those advertisements about penis enlargement, or unclaimed lottery winnings, but it doesn’t stop there. One of the more disturbing things I took away from Mark Bowden’s Worm the First Digital War   is that criminals who don’t know the first thing about programming can buy “kits”, crime algorithms they can customize to, say, find and steal your credit card information by hacking into your accounts. The criminal behind this need only press a few buttons and whola! he’s got himself his very own cyber-burglar.

 The most advanced of these criminal algorithms- though it might be a weapon of some state or terrorist group, we just don’t know- is the Conficker Worm, the subject of Bowden’s book which was able to not only infects millions of computers by exploiting a whole in Windows- can you believe it?!- but has created the mother of all botnets, an algorithm capable of taking down large parts of the Internet if it chose, but for whatever reason just sits there without doing a damned thing.

As for algorithms and less kinetic forms of conflict, the Obama Campaign of 2012 combined the same mix of the capability to sort huge data sets combined with the ability to sort individuals based on psychological/social profiles that we see being used by tech companies and customer service firms. Just like the telemarketers or CSRs the Obama campaign was able to tailor their approach  to the individual on the other end of their canvasing – amplifying their persuasive power. That such mobilizing prowess has not also led to an actual capacity to govern is another matter.

All this is dark, depressing stuff, I know. So, I should end with a little light. As Steiner points out in his Automate This, our new found power to play with huge data sets, and,  in what sounds like an oxymoron, customize automation, promises a whole host of amazing benefits. One of these might be our ability to have a 24/7 personal AI “physician” that monitors our health and drastically reduces medical costs. A real bone for treating undeserved patients whether in rural Appalachia or the develping world.

Steiner is also optimistic when it comes to artists. Advanced algorithms now allow, and they’ll just get better, buyers  to link with sellers in a way that has never been possible before. A movie company might be searching for a particular piece of music for their film. Now, through a service like Music-Xray  the otherwise invisible musician can be found.

Here I have to put my pessimist cap back on for just a minute, for the idea that algorithms can help artists be viable, as of this writing, is just that a hope. Sadly, there is little evidence for it in reality. This is a point hit home by the recent Atlantic Online article: The Reality of the Music Business Today: 1 Million Plays = $16.89. The algorithm used by the Internet music service, Pandora, may have helped a million people find musician David Lowery and his song “Low”, but its business model seems incapable of providing even successful musicians with meaningful income. The point that the economic model we have built around the “guy with the biggest computer” has been a bust for artists of all sorts is most strongly driven home by the virtual reality pioneer and musician Jaron Lanier. Let’s hope Lanier is ultimately wrong and algorithms eventually provide a way of linking artists and their patrons, but we are far, far from there yet. At the very least they should provide artists and writers with powerful tools to create their works.

Their are more grounds for optimism. The advance of algorithms is one of the few lit paths out of our current economic malaise. Their rise appears to signal that the deceleration in innovation which emerged because of the gap between the flood of information we could gather, the new discoveries we were making, and our ability to model those discoveries coherently, may be coming to an end almost as soon as it was identified. Advanced algorithms should allow us to make potent and amazing new models of the natural world. In the long run they may allow us to radically expand the artistic, philosophical and religious horizons of intelligence creating visions of the world of which we can today barely dream.

On a more practical and immediate level, advanced algorithms that can handle huge moving pieces of information seem perfect for dealing with something like responding to a natural disaster or managing the day to day flows of a major city such as routing traffic or managing services- something IBM is pioneering with its Smart Cities Projects in New York City and Rio De Janeiro.

What algorithms are not good at, at least so far, and we can see this in everything from the Obama campaign in light of its political aftermath, to the war on terrorism, to the 300,000 person protests in Rio this past week despite how “smart” the city, is expanding their horizon beyond the immediate present to give us solutions for the long term political, economic and social challenges we confront, instead merely acting as a globe- sized amplifier of such grievances which can bring down governments but not creating a lasting political order.  To truly solve our problems we still need the mother of all bots, collective human intelligence. I am still old fashioned enough to call it democracy.

Of Art, Algorithms and Humanity

Lascaux

We are at the strangest of crossroads, a series of changes that challenge and upend what have been the core elements of the human experience since the beginning of our species. Nothing perhaps cuts so close to that core as what is happening and will happen to the meaning and place of art in our lives. Art here understood as everything from the music we compose to our paintings and drawings to the stories we tell or the films and videos we create.

For all of our history it has been we ourselves who created art, and perhaps we might even twist Ben Franklin who defined us as a “tool making animal”  to say that humankind is an art making animal. Just now we are beginning to have companions and competitors in these acts of creation. Joining us are increasingly intelligent machines- art creating algorithms that are not only already producing art, but are daily getting better at it. It’s a good time, then, to stop and wonder what the rise of these algorithmic artists will mean.

Human beings have been making art seemingly since our very beginning. We didn’t need the rise of complex human societies in the form of cities to create it.  Like the lost sketches of our childhood, most of our initial art didn’t make it into the future succumbing to dissolution by the elements, creating a great gap of silence between us and our prehistoric forebears, a fact that made the discovery of the Lascaux caves in 1940 all the more astounding. Today, you couldn’t see the Lascaux caves even if you had the wherewithal to get yourself to southern France- they have been sealed off for the caves’ protection. Modern humans with our numbers and our groping are rightly considered a new form of destructive element that can destroy what it loves through its very curiosity. But, thanks to the miracle of the Internet one can visit the wondrous caves without ever leaving the comfort of one’s home.

What strikes me as question begging in seeing the caves if only in this limited way is just how clearly its artists were versions of us. Their drawings putting me in mind of nothing so much as the chalk sketches of my daughters. And yet, we are so different from these artists in terms of the world we live in and the understanding we have of it that the gap between us is a chasm. Or better, we can understand, even if to a limited extent these artists but were we able to rip them from the past and bring them into the present it is very unlikely that they would ever understand us.

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Over and above human biology, what it seems we share most with the artists of Lascaux is the natural desire to create these sorts of representations. No human society has ever existed without art. We are born with the desire to create these strange models of our world. From the moment my daughters could pick up a crayon they were drawing, from the instant they could hit one object off of another they were making music. With sentences came incredible stories and “plays”.

There is a debate currently raging as to whether one form of art, literature, makes us more moral the best response to which I have seen is that it makes us more human. But perhaps we should say more than human. Art, or good art at least, has the capacity to expand human consciousness far out beyond the boundaries of the self and therefore is part and parcel of those other endeavors of our intelligence such as mathematics, science, philosophy,  history and religion that allow us to spread out the fabric of our awareness over all that we can see. The creation and even consumption of art is a mark of our intelligence and it can therefore be assumed that as our machines become more intelligent they will become more artistic as well. It is already happening.

Algorithms already shape our artistic choices. A program at Amazon suggests what books you should buy, and similar algorithms at Pandora or Netflix knows your tastes in music or movies as well or perhaps better than you do. It isn’t only that algorithms guide our artistic choices in some cases they are used to decide what gets made or heard.

As pointed out by Christopher Steiner in his Automate This a company like Epagogix is being used by film production companies to decide what movies get made or how much to invest in particular films allowing movie companies to recognize a flop before the director even shouts “action”. (75) Steiner shows us how the same thing is being done for music with a company like Music X-Ray which allows musicians to upload their songs into a huge database that can be searched by music producers for, among other things, potential hits. Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber beware. (87)  I have little doubt that similar technologies will eventually be applied to books allowing publishers to find the “Harry Potters” among the flood of manuscripts they receive every day.

In the most basic sense the way in which these film and music sorting algorithms work is that some target criteria is defined, say films grossing over a certain amount, and then the massive data searching capacities of artificial intelligence are applied. At least at this stage technology seems to have empowering potential for individual artists. Their work still exists within a sea of other creations but now at least can be found.

At the moment, on account of its expense, this AI sorting only benefits those producing hits- that is work with the broadest commercial appeal, which most of us hopefully realize is not necessarily the best or most groundbreaking art. We can at least hope that as the cost to create and run these sorts of algorithms decline they will be used to sort for artistic criteria beyond mere commercial appeal.

That’s how algorithms are being used to sort art, but what about actually making it? Music, perhaps because it so closely resembles the mathematics of intelligent machines has been the first to fall here. As only one example: in 2012 on the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth the London Symphony Orchestra performed Hello World! a set of musical pieces composed purely by an algorithm named IAMUS. It does not seem a huge step from algorithms sorting through really big data sets to find hit songs to them being used as tools to allow artists to create hit songs or other productions in the first place or even composing such songs themselves.

The next few decades are likely to experience a tension regarding the question of what these artistic algorithms are actually for?  This will not be another version of the tired  neo-luddite vs technophile dispute but a debate over how to use technology based on different interpretations of its meaning. Are artistic algorithms tools to help human beings create art and find audiences or are they artists themselves? I have no good answer to the question.

Two seemingly contradictory things seem clear to me. The first is that algorithms and artificial intelligence will further expand the fabric of our consciousness. As Jeff Hawkins put it in a recent interview about the future of AI:

When I ask myself, What’s the purpose of life?, I think a lot of it is figuring out how the world works. These machines will help us do that. Many, many years from now, we’ll be able to build machines that are super-physicists and super-mathematicians, and explore the universe. The idea that we could accelerate our accretion of knowledge is very exciting.

Such expansion seems unlikely to be be limited to our models of the universe,  biology or social structure, but will embrace our artistic horizon as well.

The second thing that rings true is that as long as we continue to posses the type of intelligence that defines us as humans we will continue to create art for we are born artists just as we are born scientists and spiritual seekers. How those two aspects of our artistic future resolve themselves is beyond me but perhaps a hint at the major possibilities can be found in the caves of Lascaux.

Perhaps, as in the caves, we will establish places where we can practice our art free from the threat of dissolution that comes from contact with the world. However, the world against which our art will need to be preserved will not be the natural world but what Andrew McAfee calls the New Machine Age we are entering. Art is for human beings to create machines are tools.

Another possibility is that we will have a version of Stanislaw Lem’s Incommunicability Thesis. Machines will become extremely proficient in composing music or perhaps even writing books but they will just be running sophisticated algorithms and have no idea what these productions actually mean. Likewise,for the majority of human beings who are not high level programmers the art the machines create will provide no reflection whatsoever of the internal states, the “thoughts” of the machine. If Lem had been an anthropologist he would have been the strictest of cultural relativists. In this view, not only could the artists of Lascaux never understand us, we could never understand them. You need to live in the worldview of a culture to understand it beyond the level of a nearly empty abstraction.

As a last possibility, maybe the coming age of artistic algorithms will so expand our imaginative horizons that it will appear that our past was nothing more than being trapped in a cave of shadows. That we will have at long last emerged into the sublime brilliance of the light.

 

Science Fiction and the occulted canvass of time

Leonardo Davinci's Inventions

In a recent interview the ever insightful and expansive Vernor Vinge laid out his thoughts on possibility and the future. Vinge, of course, is the man who helped invent the idea of the Singularity, the concept that we are in an era of ever accelerating change, whose future, beyond a certain point,- we cannot see. For me, the interesting thing in the Vinge interview is just how important a role he thinks imagination plays in pulling us forward into new technological and social possibilities. For Vinge, our very ability to imagine some new technological or social reality signals our ability to create it in the near future. Imagination and capability are tied at the hip.

One of his own examples should be sufficient to explain. It was a lack of imagination, not so much technological as social, which prevented the ancients from seeing Hero’s steam engine as something better than an amusing toy.  “For what,” an ancient anchored to the past of what had seemingly always been “ could be a more productive and efficient a system than slavery?”

The ancients were tied to the short chain of the past, we have a very different orientation to time- our gaze is forward not backward. In part, the accelerating rate of technological change today emerges out of this change in our imaginative orientation away from the past and towards the future. Many of us are both thinking about the future seriously, and have a broadened perspective on what is possible because we have learned how to dream. We are, in Vinge’s words “grabbing the fabric of reality and pulling it towards us” a great change in the attitude towards the future than could be found a mere 500 years ago.

Vinge is right about this, the idea of imagining the future as something fundamentally different from the past is a relatively recent human habit of mind. If the future was a painting one might say that for most of human history the painting remained monotonously the same with the new only added very slowly to it. To continue with this analogy, what one started to see beginning around the late 1200s was the appearance of blank space on an expanded canvas to which the new could be added, something that would eventually happen at an accelerating pace.

And it has been the kinds of imagination we associate with Vinge’s craft -science-fiction- that has played a large role in producing despite Ecclesiastes “new things under the sun”.  Science-fiction, its progenitors and its derivatives were one of the main vectors by which the new could be imagined. We merely had to await the improvement in our technical skill, our ability to “paint” them- to bring them into being. Here is one of the first and maybe the most powerful example. Way back in the late 1200s Roger Bacon in his Epistola de Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae Magiae predicted the future with an accuracy that would make Nostradamus blush. Predicting:

Machines for navigation can be made without rowers so that the largest ships on rivers or seas will be moved by a single man in charge with greater velocity than if it were full of men. Also cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity… Also flying machines can be constructed so that a man sits in the midst of a machine revolving some engine by which artificial wings are made to flap like a bird… Also a machine can easily be made for walking in the seas and rivers, even to the bottom without danger.” (Aladdin’s Lamp  417-418)

Now, Roger Bacon seems to disprove part of Vinge’s ideas regarding imagination and the future, namely; the idea that if we can dream of something we are likely to make it happen right away, for it would take another seven centuries for us to be driving in cars or flying in airplanes. Yet this gap would disappear, in fact it would be measured in decades rather than centuries, for almost all of the history of science-fiction, up until recently that is. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Leonardo Da Vinci also still belongs to the age when the ability to imagine ran far out in front of our capacity to create in the real world. Da Vinci in  imagining flying machines or submarines or tanks- such as the speculative inventions pictured above- might be said to be practicing an early type of science- fiction, expanding the realm of what was imaginable and therefore potentially possible, but like the possibilities sketched out in Bacon they would take a long time in coming.

Related to this expansion in imaginative possibilities that began in early modern Europe that same region also experienced an expansion of the world itself.  During the Age of Exploration Europeans came face-to-face with the true size of the world, but it would be sometime before they knew the details about the human societies that inhabited it. This was a recipe for the imagination to run wild and provided an arena of fantasy in which European anxieties and hopes could be played out. One got all sorts of frightening stories about “cannibals”, but one also had Utopian lands presented as ideal cities rediscovered. These stories allowed Europeans to imagine alternatives to their own societies. After the discovery in the same period that the moon and planets were also “earth-like” worlds you get the birth of that staple of science-fiction- intelligent life on other planets- with works such as Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds that allowed brave writers to explore alternative versions of their societies in yet another landscape.

By the 1800s the gap between what we dreamed and what we could do was closing incredibly fast. Not only was the world being transformed by industrialization it was also clear that technology was steadily improving and thus revolutionizing and expanding the prospects for human societies in the future – we now call this progress. Our canvas was being filled in, but was also being even further stretched out to allow for yet more possibilities. Science-fiction writers were to play a large role in driving  this expansion both of what we could do and what, because it was imaginable was deemed possible.

To name just a few of these visionaries: even if predicting the future of technology wasn’t his intention, Jules Verne expanded our technological horizon by dreaming up trips to the moon and undersea voyages. Then there was the cultural sensation of Edward Bellamy and the incomparable H.G. Wells.

Bellamy, in his futuristic Looking Backward 2000-1887 was just one of many who thought the new landscape of human flourishing would be found through the proper organization of the enormous powers of industrialization. Bellamy got a number of things right about the future, from department stores and credits cards to a version of the radio and the telephone that lay less than a century into the future.

H.G. Wells was even better, his trope of a time machine in lieu of a Rip-Van Winkle type sleep to get one of his protagonists into the future notwithstanding, he got some pretty important, though sadly dark, things from atomic bombs to aerial warfare essentially correct. Less than half a century after Wells had imagined his nightmare technologies they were actually killing people.

For a time the solar system itself, not because it contained living worlds resembling the earth as Fontenelle had imagined, but because it was at last reachable seemed to hold the hope of yet another canvas upon which different versions of the future could be drawn. The absolute master in presenting the sheer enormity of this canvas was Olaf Stapledon who in works like Last and First Men and Star Maker placed humanity’s emigration into space within the context of the history of life on earth and even the universe itself giving such a quest what can only be called a religious dimension.

Stapledon was thinking in terms of billions of years, but the technologies to take us into space spurred forward by the Second World War- Nazi V rockets, and then the Cold War “space race” seemed to be bringing his dreams into reality almost overnight.

This was the perfect atmosphere not only for pulp science-fiction and comics based around the exploration and settlement of space, but for much deeper fare such as that of Stapledon’s great heir, Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote his own religious versions of the meaning of the space race.

Yet,  it was our future in space where the narrowing gap between what we can dream and what we could do began to not only stop narrowing but actually to widen.  Clarke was eerily on the money when it came to the development of telecommunications and the personal computer, but wide off the mark when it came to our immediate future in space. His 1968 novel and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey has us taking manned missions to Jupiter in that millennial year which, sadly, has come and gone without even having men return to the moon.  Despite his hopes, his beautiful fiction did not inspire the creation of actual space ships twirling space stations and missions, but a whole series of big budget films and television series based in outer space. More on that in a minute.

Right around the time American astronauts were setting foot on the moon science-fiction  was taking some other and ultimately introspective turns more aligned with the spirit of the times. In the words of the man Fredric Jameson in his Archaeologies of the Future called the “Shakespeare of science-fiction”, Philip K. Dick:

Our flight must be not only to the stars but into the nature of our own beings. Because it is not merely where we go, to Alpha Centaurus or Betelgeuse, but what we are as we make our pilgrimages there. Our natures will be going there, too. “Ad astra” — but “per hominem.” And we must never lose sight of that. (The Android and The Human)

It would be a while until we’d make it to Alpha Centaurus or Betelgeuse, for humanity’s rabbit leap movement into the solar system sputtered to a turtle-like crawl with the end of the Apollo missions in 1972. Like the picture of our big blue marble from space seemed to tell us, we, serious science-fiction writers included, were going to have to concentrate on the earth and ourselves for a while, and no question here was as important perhaps than that implied by Dick of what exactly was our relationship with the technological world we had built and how to react in light of this world changing into something new with both promise and danger?

Even if the 70s and 80s were a period of retreat from the actual human settlement and exploration of space they were a heyday of dreaming about it. I was a kid then, and I loved it! There was Star Wars and Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and a new Buck Rogers.  Special effects, even if they seem primitive by today’s standards had gotten so good that one felt, at least if you were 10, like you were really there. And yet, we were nowhere near the things that could be dreamed stuck instead in low-earth orbit like David Bowie’s Major Tom.

This very ability to produce such vivid dreams of what could be was itself driven by technological changes that actually were happening a fact that became even more the case with the development of computers that were fast enough and cheap enough to make realistic computer animation possible- CGI- possible. Our waking dreams will become even more lifelike given the resurrection and inevitable improvement of 3D.

This new gap between our dreams and reality has resulted in a weird sort of anxiety in the generation, and no doubt mostly men of that generation, who grew up with the idea “the year 2000” would be some magical technological era of cites in space and the next stage of our interstellar adventure. No one, perhaps, has been more vocal in expressing this mindset than the technologists and billionaire, Peter Thiel who in a 2011 interview in the New Yorker stated the case this way:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction,” Thiel said. “Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

Doubtless, Theil downplays the importance of the revolution in computers and telecommunications that occurred in this period- a revolution he himself helped push forward. While states provide incapable or unwilling or both of pursuing Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of our future in space, a generation of bohemians and tech geeks succeeded in making his dreams about personal computers and a global communications network which had rendered location irrelevant come true. Here is Bill Gates in his Spock- like hyper-rational yet refreshingly commonsensical way on Peter Thiel’s slogan for technological pessimism:

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

I feel sorry for Peter Thiel. Did he really want flying cars? Flying cars are not a very efficient way to move things from one point to another. On the other hand, 20 years ago we had the idea that information could become available at your fingertips. We got that done. Now everyone takes it for granted that you can look up movie reviews, track locations, and order stuff online. I wish there was a way we could take it away from people for a day so they could remember what it was like without it.

Yet, Thiel and the cohort around him are not ones for technological resignation or perhaps even realism. Instead, they are out to make something like the sci-fi space fantasies they were raised on as kids in the 70s and 80s come true. Such is the logic behind what, so far at least, has been the first successful foray of a private company into space exploration- Elon Musk’s Space X. Believe it or not, two companies plan to send missions to Mars in the very near future: Inspiration Mars which hopes to launch a manned orbital probe and the even more ambitious Mars One which hopes to send a human crew to Mars that will not return- permanent settlers- in 2023 with an unmanned mission sending supplies to be sent only three years from now.

In a twist that I am not sure is a dystopian space version of The Truman Show or a real world version of Kim Stanley Robinson’s thought provoking Mars Trilogy the whole experience of the deliberately marooned Mars colonists of Mars One is to be broadcast to us earthlings safe on our couches. If this ends up like the Truman Show what we’ll have is the reduction of Stapledon’s or Clarke’s vision of space as a canvas upon which human destiny is to be written to a banal and way too expensive version of interstellar product placement that would be farcical if it wasn’t ultimately also a suicide mission. Though, instead of virgins in heaven the Martian marooned will see their families made rich by advertising royalties with the only price that they will never see them in person and given the distance will never be able to speak with them in real time again. Yet there are reasons to be optimistic as well.

Perhaps the Mars One mission, if it is successful, will result in something  Robinson’s Mars Trilogy as described in Archeologies of the Future. According to Jameson, Robinson has provided us with a tableau in the form of human colonies on Mars upon which different definitions of what it means to be human and what the ideal society and what we should most value are played off against one another in a way that can never be finally and satisfactorily resolved. Mars One and missions of its type might give us a version of real-world science-fiction, where, as Philip K. Dick suggested it should be, the question is not where we are and what we can do but what we should be? Such adventures might help restore the canvass of the future, both by luring us away from our enticing versions of it which are too far from our grasp, and by allowing us to find some fate other than falling into the black pit of Vinge’s Singularity where our own still human future has been rendered irrelevant.

Then there is the future of science-fiction itself. As David Brin recently pointed out, his fellow science-fiction writer, Neal Stephenson, has launched a fascinating endeavor, Project Hieroglyph that encourages collaboration between science-fiction authors, artists and engineers in creating positive visions of the near human future.

Yet, there is another, even more important role I believe science-fiction can play.

Part of the reality of science and technology today is that it can be used to build radically different forms of society. As Douglas Rushkoff pointed out in this brilliant impromptu speech many of us thought the spread of the Internet was going to rise to one form of society- a society of free time and digital democracy, but instead the Internet has been used as a tool for the disappearance of the distinction between life and work, the application of ubiquitous surveillance by corporations and the government. In a time such as ours when the same technology can be used to pursue very different ends and used to support very different sorts of societies perhaps the primary role of science-fiction is to give us the intellectual and emotional skills necessary to negotiate our technological world- both as individuals and as a society. In this sense science-fiction, which seems to many just “kids’ stuff” is the most serious form of fiction we have, a tried and true road to the future.

Capitalism, Evolution and the Attack of the Giant Fungus

Armillaria ostoyae

One of the stranger features of our era is its imaginative exhaustion in terms of the future, which I realize is a strange thing to say her. This exhaustion is not so much of an issue when it comes to imagining tomorrow’s gadgets, or scientific breakthroughs, but becomes apparent once the question of the future political and economic order is at stake. In fact, the very idea that something different will almost inevitably follow the institutions and systems we live in seems to have retreated from our consciousness at the very time when the endemic failures of our political and economic order has shown that the current world can not last.

Whatever the failures of government in Washington no serious person is discussing an alternative to the continued existence of the United States or its constitutional form of government now over two centuries old. The situation is even more pronounced when it comes to our capitalist economic system which has taken root almost everywhere and managed to outlive all of its challengers. Discussions about the future economy are rarely ones about what might succeed capitalism but merely the ironing out of its contradictions so that the system itself can continue to function.

It’s not just me saying this, here is the anthropologists and anarchist philosopher David Graeber in his wonderful Debt the first 5,000 Years on our contemporary collective brain freeze when it comes to thinking about what a future economy might be like:

It’s only now, at the very moment when it’s becoming increasingly clear that current arrangements are not viable, that we suddenly have hit the wall in terms of our collective imagination.

There is very good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism itself will no longer exist-most obviously, as ecologists keep reminding us, because it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet, and the current form of capitalism doesn’t seem to be capable of generating the kind of vast technological breakthroughs and mobilizations that would be required for us to start finding and colonizing any other planets. Yet faced with the prospect of capitalism actually ending, the most common reaction-even from those who call themselves “progressives”-is simply fear. We cling to what exists because we can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn’t be even worse. (381-382)

There are all sorts of reasons why our imagination has become stuck. To begin with the only seemingly viable alternative to capitalism- state communism- proved itself a failure in the 1980s when the Soviet Union began to kick the bucket. Even the socialist alternatives to capitalism were showing their age by then and began pulling themselves back from any sort of direct management of the economy. Then there is one word- China- which embraced a form of state capitalism in the late 1970s and never looked back. To many of the new middle class in the developing world the globalization of capitalism appears a great success and can be credited with moving millions out of poverty.

Yet capitalism has its problems. There is not only the question of its incompatibility with survival on a finite earth, as Graber mentions, there are its recurrent financial crises, its run away inequality, its endemic unemployment in the developed and its inhuman exploitation in the developing world. One would have thought that the financial crisis would have brought some soul searching to the elites and a creative upsurge in thinking about alternative systems, but, alas, it has not happened except among anarchists like Graeber and the short-lived Occupy movement he helped inspire and old school unrepentant communists such as Slavoj Zizek.

At least part of our imaginative atrophy can be explained by the fact that capitalism, like all political-economic systems before has managed to enmesh itself so deeply into our view of the natural world that it’s difficult to think of it as something we ourselves made and hence can abandon or reconfigure if we wanted to. Egyptian pharaohs, Aztec chieftains, or Chinese emperors, all made claims to rule that justified themselves as reflections of the way the cosmos worked. The European feudal order that preceded the birth of capitalism was based on an imagined chain of being that stretched from the peasant in his field to the king on his throne through the “angelic” planets to God himself- out there somewhere in the Oort Cloud.

The natural order that capitalism is thought to reflect is an evolutionary one which amounts to a bias against design and control. Like evolution, the “market” is thought to be wiser than any intentional attempts to design steer or control in could ever be. This is the argument one can find in 19th century social Darwinist like Thomas Huxley, a 20th century iconoclast like Friedrich Hayek, or a 21st century neo-liberal like Robert Wright, all of whom see in capitalism a reflection of biological evolution in that sense. In the simplest form of this argument evolution pits individuals against one another in a competition to reproduce with the fittest individuals able to get their genes into the next generation. Capitalism pits producers and sellers against others dealing in similar products with only the most efficient able to survive.  History seemed to provide the ultimate proof of this argument as the command economy of the Soviet Union imploded in the 1980s and country after country adopted some sort of pro-market system. The crash, however,  should have sparked some doubts.

The idea that the market is a social version of biological evolution has some strong historical roots. The late Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay “Of bamboos, cicadas and the economy of Adam Smith” drew our attention to the fact that this similarity between evolution and capitalism might hold not because the capitalist theory of economics emerged under the influence of the theory of evolution but the reverse. That the theory of evolution was discovered when it was because Darwin was busy reading the first theorist of capitalism- Adam Smith. I am unable to find a link to the essay, but here is Gould explaining himself.

The top down mercantilist economy Smith attacked in his Wealth of Nations, according to Gould, must have seemed to Darwin like the engineering God of William Paley in his Natural Philosophy. Paley was the man who gave us the analogy of God as “watchmaker”. If you found a watch on the beach and had never seen such a thing before you could reasonably assume it was designed by a creature with intelligence. We should then reason from the intricate engineering of nature that it was designed by a being of great intelligence.

Adam Smith was dealing with a whole other sort of question- how do you best design and manage an economy? Smith argued that the best way to do this wasn’t to design it from the top down, but  to let the profit motive loose from which an “invisible hand” would bring the best possible economic order into being. In the free market theory of Smith, Darwin could find a compelling argument against Paley. The the way you arrived at the complex order of living things was not to design it from on high but to let the struggle for reproduction loose and from an uncountable number of failures and successes would emerge the rich tapestry of life which surrounds us in words of a much later book on the topic by Richard Dawkins, the “designer” of nature was a Blind Watchmaker.

The problem with thinking our current economic system reflects the deep truth of evolution is not that the comparison lacks a grain of truth, and it certainly isn’t the case that the theory of evolution is untrue or is likely to be shown to be untrue as something like the Great Chain of Being that justified the feudal order was eventually shown to be untrue. Rather, the problem lies with the particularly narrow version of evolution with which capitalism is compared and the papering over of the way evolution often lacks the wisdom of something like Smith’s “invisible hand”.

Perhaps we should borrow another idea from Gould if we are to broaden our evolutionary analogy between evolution and capitalism. Gould pioneered a way to understand evolution known as punctuated equilibrium. In this view evolution does not precede gradually but in fits and starts with periods of equilibrium in which evolutionary change grinds to a halt are ended by periods of rapid evolutionary change driven by some disequilibrating event- say a rapid change in climate or the mass appearance of new species such as in the Columbian Exchange. This is then followed by a new period of equilibrium after species have evolved to best meet the new conditions, or gone extinct because they could not adapt and so on and so on.

The defining feature of late capitalism, or whatever you chose to call it, is that it is unable to function under conditions of equilibrium, or better, that its goal of ever increasing profits is incompatible with the kinds of equilibrium found in mature economies. This is part of the case the financial journalist Chrystia Freeland makes in her engaging book Plutocrats. The fact that so much Western money is now flowing into the developing world stems from the reality that the rapid transformation in such places makes stupendous profits possible. Part of this plethora of potential profits arises from the fact that areas such as the former Soviet Union China and countries that have undergone neo-liberal reforms- like India- are virgin territories for capitalist entrepreneurs. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out during the last great age of globalization at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century capitalism was the first system “that was calculated for the whole earth”.

To return to the analogy with evolution, it is like the meeting of two formerly separated ecosystems only one of which has undergone intense selective pressures. Capitalist corporations whether Western or imitated are the ultimate invasive species in areas that formerly lived in the zoo- like conditions of state socialism.   In the mature economies such as those of the United States, Europe, and Japan the kinds of disequilibrium which leads to the ever increasing profits at the root of capitalism have come in two very different forms- technological change and deregulation. The revolution in computers and telecommunications has been a source of disequilibrium upending everything from entertainment to publishing to education. In the process it has given rise to the sorts of economic titans, and sadly inequality,seen in a similar periods of upheaval. We no longer have Andrew Carnegie, but we do have Bill Gates. Standard Oil is a thing of the past, but we have Google and Facebook and Amazon.

The transformation of society that has come with such technological disequilibrium is probably, on net, a positive thing for all of us. But, we have also engendered self-inflicted disequilibrium without clear benefit to the larger society. The enormous growth in the profits and profile of the financial industry came on the back of the dismantling of Depression era controls making financiers and financial institutions into the wealthiest segment of our society. We know where that got us. It is as if a stable, if staid, island ecosystem suddenly invited upon itself all sorts of natural disasters in the hope of jump starting evolution and got instead little but mutants that threaten to eat everything in sight until the island became a wasteland. Late capitalism is like evolution only if we redact the punctuated equilibrium. It is we ourselves who have taken to imposing the kinds of stresses that upend the economy into a state of permanent disequilibrium.

The capitalism/evolution analogy also only works under conditions of a near perfect market where the state or some other entity not only preserves free competition at its heart but intervenes to dismantle corporations once they get too large. Such interference is akin to the balancing effect of predation against plants or animals that exhibit such rapid reproduction that if the majority of them were not quickly eaten they would consume entire ecosystems.  Such is the case with the common aphid which if left to its devices would have one individual producing 1,560,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1 heptillion, 560 hexillion) offspring!

The balance of nature is a constraint that every species is desperate to break out of just as at the root of every corporation lies the less than secret wish to have eliminated all of its competition. Most of the time predation manages to prevent the reproductive drive of any one species from threatening the entire ecosystem, but sometimes it fails. This is the case with the giant fungus Armillaria ostoyae whose relentless growth kills the trees above it and smothers the diverse forest ecosystem from which it had emerged.

We can complain that the failure of the government to break up giant corporations has let loose the like of Armillaria ostoyae. Calls to dismantle the big banks after the financial crisis fell on deaf ears. Big banks and mega-corporations can now point to their global presence and competition against other behemoths to justify their survival. We couldn’t dismantle Google if we wanted too because everything left would be swallowed by Baidu.

And it’s not only that the government is failing to preserve market competition by letting companies get too big, it’s also distorting the economic ecosystem to favor the companies that are already there. The corruption of democracy through corporate lobbying has meant that the government, to the extent that it acts at all, is not preserving free competition but distorting it. To quote from Plutocrats:

“Most lobbying seeks to tilt the playing field, in one direction or another, not level it.” (262)

Another, and for my part much more galling oversight of the capitalism/evolution analogy is that it tends to treat any attempt at design, guidance or intention on the part of the society at large as somehow “unnatural” interference in what would otherwise be a perfectly balanced system. What this position seems to conveniently forget is that the discovery of Natural Selection didn’t somehow lead to the end of Artificial Selection- instead quite the opposite. We don’t just throw a bunch of animals in a room and cross our fingers that some miracle of milk or egg production will result. What we do is meticulously shape the course of evolution using some constraint based on our hoped for result.

It we who have established the selective criteria of maximizing and increasing profits and growth to be the be all and end all of a corporation’s existence when we could have chosen a much different set of selection criteria that would give rise to completely different sorts of economic entities. Governments already do this when they force industries to comply with constraints such as health and safety or environmental requirements. Without these constraints we get the evolution of economic entities that are focused on maximizing profits and growth alone, man made creatures which giant fungus like care little for the people and societies underneath them.

Related to this is another evolutionary assumption shared by proponents of the unfettered free market, this one with somewhat dubious scientific validity. Those who believe capitalism can run itself seem to subscribe to an economic version of James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis”.  Recall, that Lovelock proposed that the earth itself was a kind of living organism that had evolved in such a way as to be self-regulating towards an environment that was optimal for life. Human beings, if they were crazy enough to challenge this Gaian equilibrium were asking for extinction, but life itself would go on until it faced a challenger it would be unable to best- the earth’s beloved sun.

Belief that the technological world is a kind of superorganism can be found thought like these of the journalist Robert Wright that I have quoted elsewhere:

Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution — both the biological evolution that created an intelligent species and the technological evolution that a sufficiently intelligent species is bound to unleash — has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain? Kind of in the way that the point of the maturation of an organism is to create an adult organism?”

In this quote can be found both of the great forces of disequilibrium unleashed by late capitalism, both the computer and communications revolution and globalization. But it seem that this planetary brain lack the part of our neural architecture that makes us the most human- the neocortex, by which we are able to act intentionally and plan.

The kinds of hair-trigger threads we are weaving around society are good in many respects, but are not an answer to the problem of our long term direction and can even, if they are not tempered by foresight, themselves lead to the diminution of long term horizons in the name of whatever is right in front of our nose, and spark crises of uninformed panic lacking any sense of perspective. Twitter was a helpful tool in helping to overthrow Middle Eastern dictators, but proved useless in actually establishing anything like democracy.

Supercomputers using sophisticated algorithms now perform a great deal of the world’s financial transactions in milliseconds,  and sometimes lead to frightening glitches like the May 2010 “flash crash” that may portend deeper risks lying underneath a world where wealth is largely detached from reality and become a sea of electrons. Even if there are no further such crashes our ever shortening time scale needs to be somehow tempered and offset with an idea of the future where the long term horizon extends beyond the next financial quarter.

 Late 21st century capitalism with its focus on profit maximization and growth where corporations have managed to free themselves from social constraints and where old equilibriums are overturned in the name of creating new opportunities is just one version of a “natural” economic system.  We are free to imagine others. As Graeber hoped we would start to wonder what different kinds of economic systems might be possible besides the one we live in. The people we would do best turn to when it comes to imagining such alternatives are unlikely to come from the ranks of economists who are as orthodox as any medieval priesthood, or our modern fortune-tellers- the futurists- who are little better than “consultants” for the very system we might hope to think our way beyond.

No, the people who might best imagine a future alternative to capitalism are those who are the most free of the need to intellectually conform so as to secure respectability, tenure, promotion or a possible consulting gig, and who have devoted their lives to thinking about the future. The people who best meet this description today are the authors of science and speculative fiction. It will be to their success and failure in this task that I will turn next time…