Truth and Prediction in the Dataclysm

The Deluge by Francis Danby. 1837-1839

Last time I looked at the state of online dating. Among the figures was mentioned was Christian Rudder, one of the founders of the dating site OkCupid and the author of a book on big data called Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking that somehow manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and deeply disturbing at the same time.

Rudder is famous, or infamous depending on your view of the matter, for having written a piece about his site with the provocative title: We experiment on human beings!. There he wrote: 

We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook “experimented” with their news feed. Even the FTC is getting involved. But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.

That statement might set the blood of some boiling, but my own negative reaction to it is somewhat tempered by the fact that Rudder’s willingness to run his experiments on his sites users originates, it seems, not in any conscious effort to be more successful at manipulating them, but as a way to quantify our ignorance. Or, as he puts it in the piece linked to above:

I’m the first to admit it: we might be popular, we might create a lot of great relationships, we might blah blah blah. But OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Neither does any other website. It’s not like people have been building these things for very long, or you can go look up a blueprint or something. Most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out.

Rudder eventually turned his experiments on the data of OkCupid’s users into his book Dataclysm which displays the same kind of brutal honesty and acknowledgement of the limits of our knowledge. What he is trying to do is make sense of the deluge of data now inundating us. The only way we have found to do this is to create sophisticated algorithms that allow us to discern patterns in the flood.  The problem with using algorithms to try and organize human interactions (which have themselves now become points of data) is that their users are often reduced into the version of what being a human beings is that have been embedded by the algorithm’s programmers. Rudder, is well aware and completely upfront about these limitations and refuses to make any special claims about algorithmic wisdom compared to the normal human sort. As he puts it in Dataclysm:

That said, all websites, and indeed all data scientists objectify. Algorithms don’t work well with things that aren’t numbers, so when you want a computer to understand an idea, you have to convert as much of it as you can into digits. The challenge facing sites and apps is thus to chop and jam the continuum of the of human experience into little buckets 1, 2, 3, without anyone noticing: to divide some vast, ineffable process- for Facebook, friendship, for Reddit, community, for dating sites, love- into a pieces a server can handle. (13)

At the same time, Rudder appears to see the data collected on sites such as OkCupid as a sort of mirror, reflecting back to us in ways we have never had available before the real truth about ourselves laid bare of the social conventions and politeness that tend to obscure the way we truly feel. And what Rudder finds in this data is not a reflection of the inner beauty of humanity one might hope for, but something more like the mirror out of A Picture of Dorian Grey.

As an example take what Rudder calls” Wooderson’s Law” after the character from Dazed and Confused who said in the film “That’s what I love about these high school girl, I get older while they stay the same age”. What Rudder has found is that heterosexual male attraction to females peaks when those women are in their early 20’s and thereafter precipitously falls. On OkCupid at least, women in their 30’s and 40’s are effectively invisible when competing against women in their 20’s for male sexual attraction. Fortunately for heterosexual men, women are more realistic in their expectations and tend to report the strongest attraction to men roughly their own age, until sometime in men’s 40’s where males attractiveness also falls off a cliff… gulp.

Another finding from Rudder’s work is not just that looks rule, but just how absolutely they rule. In his aforementioned piece, Rudder lays out that the vast majority of users essentially equate personality with looks. A particularly stunning women can find herself with a 99% personality rating even if she has not one word in her profile.

These are perhaps somewhat banal and even obvious discoveries about human nature Rudder has been able to mine from OkCupid’s data, and to my mind at least, are less disturbing than the deep seated racial bias he finds there as well. Again, at least among OkCupid’s users, dating preferences are heavily skewed against black men and women. Not just whites it seems, but all other racial groups- Asians, Hispanics would apparently prefer to date someone from a race other than African- disheartening for the 21st century.

Rudder looks at other dark manifestations of our collective self than those found in OkCupid data as well. Try using Google search as one would play the game Taboo. The search suggestions that pop up in the Google search bar, after all, are compiled on the basis of Google user’s most popular searches and thus provide a kind of gauge on what 1.17 billion human beings are thinking. Try these some of which Rudder plays himself:

“why do women?”

“why do men?”

“why do white people?”

“why do black people?”

“why do Asians?”

“why do Muslims?”

The exercise gives a whole new meaning to Nietzsche’s observation that “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back”.

Rudder also looks at the ability of social media to engender mobs. Take this case from Twitter in 2014. On New Years Eve of that year a young woman tweeted:

“This beautiful earth is now 2014 years old, amazing.”

Her strength obviously wasn’t science in school, but what should have just led to collective giggles, or perhaps a polite correction regarding terrestrial chronology, ballooned into a storm of tweets like this:

“Kill yourself”


“Kill yourself you stupid motherfucker”. (139)

As a recent study has pointed out the emotion second most likely to go viral is rage, we can count ourselves very lucky the emotion most likely to go viral is awe.

Then there’s the question of the structure of the whole thing. Like Jaron Lanier, Rudder is struck by the degree to which the seemingly democratized architecture of the Internet appears to consistently manifest the opposite and reveal itself as following Zipf’s Law, which Rudder concisely reduces to:

rank x number = constant (160)

Both the economy and the society in the Internet age are dominated by “superstars”, companies (such as Google and FaceBook that so far outstrip their rivals in search or social media that they might be called monopolies), along with celebrities, musical artist, authors. Zipf’s Law also seems to apply to dating sites where a few profiles dominate the class of those viewed by potential partners. In the environment of a networked society where invisibility is the common fate of almost all of us and success often hinges on increasing our own visibility we are forced to turn ourselves towards “personal branding” and obsession over “Klout scores”. It’s not a new problem, but I wonder how much all this effort at garnering attention is stealing time from the effort at actual work that makes that attention worthwhile and long lasting.

Rudder is uncomfortable with all this algorithmization while at the same time accepting its inevitability. He writes of the project:

Reduction is inescapable. Algorithms are crude. Computers are machines. Data science is trying to make sense of an analog world. It’s a by-product of the basic physical nature of the micro-chip: a chip is just a sequence of tiny gates.

From that microscopic reality an absolutism propagates up through the whole enterprise, until at the highest level you have the definitions, data types and classes essential to programming languages like C and JavaScript.  (217-218)

Thing is, for all his humility at the effectiveness of big data so far, or his admittedly limited ability to draw solid conclusions from the data of OkCupid, he seems to place undue trust in the ability of large corporations and the security state to succeed at the same project. Much deeper data mining and superior analytics, he thinks, separate his efforts from those of the really big boys. Rudder writes:

Analytics has in many ways surpassed the information itself as the real lever to pry. Cookies in your web browser and guys hacking for your credit card numbers get most of the press and our certainly the most acutely annoying of the data collectors. But they’ve taken hold of a small fraction of your life and for that they’ve had to put in all kinds of work. (227)

He compares them to Mike Myer’s Dr. Evil holding the world hostage “for one million dollars”

… while the billions fly to the real masterminds, like Axicom. These corporate data marketers, with reach into bank and credit card records, retail histories, and government fillings like tax accounts, know stuff about human behavior that no academic researcher searching for patterns on some website ever could. Meanwhile the resources and expertise the national security apparatus brings to bear makes enterprise-level data mining look like Minesweeper (227)

Yet do we really know this faith in big data isn’t an illusion? What discernable effects that are clearly traceable to the juggernauts of big data ,such as Axicom, on the overall economy or even consumer behavior? For us to believe in the power of data shouldn’t someone have to show us the data that it works and not just the promise that it will transform the economy once it has achieved maximum penetration?

On that same score, what degree of faith should we put in the powers of big data when it comes to security? As far as I am aware no evidence has been produced that mass surveillance has prevented attacks- it didn’t stop the Charlie Hebo killers. Just as importantly, it seemingly hasn’t prevented our public officials from being caught flat footed and flabbergasted in the face of international events such as the revolution in Egypt or the war in Ukraine. And these later big events would seem to be precisely the kinds of predictions big data should find relatively easy- monitoring broad public sentiment as expressed through social media and across telecommunications networks and marrying that with inside knowledge of the machinations of the major political players at the storm center of events.

On this point of not yet mastering the art of being able to anticipate the future despite the mountains of data it was collecting,  Anne Neuberger, Special Assistant to the NSA Director, gave a fascinating talk over at the Long Now Foundation in August last year. During a sometimes intense q&a she had this exchange with one of the moderators, Stanford professor, Paul Saffo:

 Saffo: With big data as a friend likes to say “perhaps the data haystack that the intelligence community has created has grown too big to ever find the needle in.”

Neuberger : I think one of the reasons we talked about our desire to work with big data peers on analytics is because we certainly feel that we can glean far more value from the data that we have and potentially collect less data if we have a deeper understanding of how to better bring that together to develop more insights.

It’s a strange admission from a spokesperson from the nation’s premier cyber-intelligence agency that for their surveillance model to work they have to learn from the analytics of private sector big data companies whose models themselves are far from having proven their effectiveness.

Perhaps then, Rudder should have extended his skepticism beyond the world of dating websites. For me, I’ll only know big data in the security sphere works when our politicians, Noah like, seem unusually well prepared for a major crisis that the rest of us data poor chumps didn’t also see a mile away, and coming.


Sex and Love in the Age of Algorithms

Eros and Psyche

How’s this for a 21st century Valentine’s Day tale: a group of religious fundamentalists want to redefine human sexual and gender relationships based on a more than 2,000 year old religious text. Yet instead of doing this by aiming to seize hold of the cultural and political institutions of society, a task they find impossible, they create an algorithm which once people enter their experience is based on religiously derived assumptions users cannot see. People who enter this world have no control over their actions within it, and surrender their autonomy for the promise of finding their “soul mate”.

I’m not writing a science-fiction story- it’s a tale that’s essentially true.

One of the first places, perhaps the only place, where the desire to compress human behavior into algorithmically processable and rationalized “data”, has run into a wall was in the ever so irrational realms of sex and love. Perhaps I should have titled this piece “Cupid’s Revenge”, for the domain of sex and love has proved itself so unruly and non-computable that what is now almost unbelievable has happened- real human beings have been brought back into the process of making actual decisions that affect their lives rather than relying on silicon oracles to tell them what to do.

It’s a story not much known and therefore important to tell. The story begins with the exaggerated claims of what was one of the first and biggest online dating sites- eHarmony. Founded in 2000 by Neil Clark Warren, a clinical psychologist and former marriage counselor, eHarmony promoted itself as more than just a mere dating site claiming that it had the ability to help those using its service find their “soul mate”. As their senior research scientist, Gian C. Gonzaga, would put it:

 It is possible “to empirically derive a matchmaking algorithm that predicts the relationship of a couple before they ever meet.”

At the same time it made such claims, eHarmony was also very controlling in the way its customers were allowed to use its dating site. Members were not allowed to search for potential partners on their own, but directed to “appropriate” matches based on a 200 item questionnaire and directed by the site’s algorithm, which remained opaque to its users. This model of what dating should be was doubtless driven by Warren’s religious background, for in addition to his psychological credentials, Warren was also a Christian theologian.

By 2011 eHarmony garnered the attention of sceptical social psychologists, most notably, Eli J. Finkel, who, along with his co-authors, wrote a critical piece for the American Psychological Association in 2011 on eHarmony and related online dating sites.

What Finkle wanted to know was if claims such as that of eHarmony that it had discovered some ideal way to match individuals to long term partners actually stood up to critical scrutiny. What he and his authors concluded was that while online dating had opened up a new frontier for romantic relationships, it had not solved the problem of how to actually find the love of one’s life. Or as he later put it in a recent article:

As almost a century of research on romantic relationships has taught us, predicting whether two people are romantically compatible requires the sort of information that comes to light only after they have actually met.

Faced with critical scrutiny, eHarmony felt compelled to do something, to my knowledge, none of the programmers of the various algorithms that now mediate much of our relationship with the world have done; namely, to make the assumptions behind their algorithms explicit.

As Gonzaga explained it eHarmony’s matching algorithm was based on six key characteristics of users that included things like “level of agreeableness”  and “optimism”. Yet as another critic of eHarmony Dr. Reis told Gonzaga:

That agreeable person that you happen to be matching up with me would, in fact, get along famously with anyone in this room.

Still, the major problem critics found with eHarmony wasn’t just that it made exaggerated claims for the effectiveness of its romantic algorithms that were at best a version of skimming, it’s that it asserted nearly complete control over the way its users defined what love actually was. As is the case with many algorithms, the one used by eHarmony was a way for its designers and owners to constrain those using it to impose, rightly or wrongly, their own value assumptions about the world.

And like many classic romantic tales, this one ended with the rebellion of messy human emotion over reason and paternalistic control. Social psychologist weren’t the only ones who found eHarmony’s model constraining and weren’t the first to notice its flaws. One of the founders of an alternative dating site, Christian Rudder of OkCupid, has noted that much of what his organization has done was in light of the exaggerated claims for the efficacy of their algorithms and top-down constraints imposed by the creators of eHarmony. But it is another, much maligned dating site, Tinder, that proved to be the real rebel in this story.

Critics of Tinder, where users swipe through profile pictures to find potential dates have labeled the site a “hook-up” site that encourages shallowness. Yet Finkle concludes:

Yes, Tinder is superficial. It doesn’t let people browse profiles to find compatible partners, and it doesn’t claim to possess an algorithm that can find your soulmate. But this approach is at least honest and avoids the errors committed by more traditional approaches to online dating.

And appearance driven sites are unlikely to be the last word in online dating especially for older Romeos and Juliets who would like to go a little deeper than looks. Psychologist, Robert Epstein, working at the MIT Media Lab sees two up and coming trends that will likely further humanize the 21st century dating experience. The first is the rise of non-video game like virtual dating environments. As he describes it:

….so at some point you will be able to have, you know, something like a real date with someone, but do it virtually, which means the safety issue is taken care of and you’ll find out how you interact with someone in some semi-real setting or even a real setting; maybe you can go to some exotic place, maybe you can even go to the Champs-Elyséesin Paris or maybe you can go down to the local fast-food joint with them, but do it virtually and interact with them.

The other, just as important, but less tech-sexy change Epstine sees coming is bringing friends and family back into the dating experience:

Right now, if you sign up with the eHarmony or or any of the other big services, you’re alone—you’re completely alone. It’s like being at a huge bar, but going without your guy friends or your girl friends—you’re really alone. But in the real world, the community is very helpful in trying to determine whether someone is right for you, and some of the new services allow you to go online with friends and family and have, you know, your best friend with you searching for potential partners, checking people out. So, that’s the new community approach to online dating.

As has long been the case, sex and love have been among the first set of explorers moving out into a previously unexplored realm of human possibility. Yet sex and love are also because of this the proverbial canary in the coal mine informing us of potential dangers. The experience of online dating suggest that we need to be sceptical of the exaggerated claims of the various algorithms that now mediate much of lives and be privy to their underlying assumptions. To be successful algorithms need to bring our humanity back into the loop rather than regulate it away as something messy, imperfect, irrational and unsystematic.

There is another lesson here as well, for the more something becomes disconnected from our human capacity to extend trust through person-to-person contact and through taping into the wisdom of our own collective networks of trust the more dependent we become on overseers who in exchange for protecting us from deception demand the kinds of intimate knowledge from us only friends and lovers deserve.


Big Data as statistical masturbation

Infinite Book Tunnel

It’s just possible that there is a looming crisis in yet another technological sector whose proponents have leaped too far ahead, and too soon, promising all kinds of things they are unable to deliver. It strange how we keep ramming our head into this same damned wall, but this next crisis is perhaps more important than deflated hype at other times, say our over optimism about the timeline for human space flight in the 1970’s, or the “AI winter” in the 1980’s, or the miracles that seemed just at our fingertips when we cracked the Human Genome while pulling riches out of the air during the dotcom boom- both of which brought us to a state of mania in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

The thing that separates a potentially new crisis in the area of so-called “Big-Data” from these earlier ones is that, literally overnight, we have reconstructed much of our economy, national security infrastructure and in the process of eroding our ancient right privacy on it’s yet to be proven premises. Now, we are on the verge of changing not just the nature of the science upon which we all depend, but nearly every other field of human intellectual endeavor. And we’ve done and are doing this despite the fact that the the most over the top promises of Big Data are about as epistemologically grounded as divining the future by looking at goat entrails.

Well, that might be a little unfair. Big Data is helpful, but the question is helpful for what? A tool, as opposed to a supposedly magical talisman has its limits, and understanding those limits should lead not to our jettisoning the tool of large scale data based analysis, but what needs to be done to make these new capacities actually useful rather than, like all forms of divination, comforting us with the idea that we can know the future and thus somehow exert control over it, when in reality both our foresight and our powers are much more limited.

Start with the issue of the digital economy. One model underlies most of the major Internet giants- Google, FaceBook and to a lesser extent Apple and Amazon, along with a whole set of behemoths who few of us can name but that underlie everything we do online, especially data aggregators such as Axicom. That model is to essentially gather up every last digital record we leave behind, many of them gained in exchange for “free” services and using this living archive to target advertisements at us.

It’s not only that this model has provided the infrastructure for an unprecedented violation of privacy by the security state (more on which below) it’s that there’s no real evidence that it even works.

Just anecdotally reflect on your own personal experience. If companies can very reasonably be said to know you better than your mother, your wife, or even you know yourself, why are the ads coming your way so damn obvious, and frankly even oblivious? In my own case, if I shop online for something, a hammer, a car, a pair of pants, I end up getting ads for that very same type of product weeks or even months after I have actually bought a version of the item I was searching for.

In large measure, the Internet is a giant market in which we can find products or information. Targeted ads can only really work if they are able refract in their marketed product’s favor the information I am searching for, if they lead me to buy something I would not have purchased in the first place. Derek Thompson, in the piece linked to above points out that this problem is called Endogeneity, or more colloquially: “hell, I was going to buy it anyway.”

The problem with this economic model, though, goes even deeper than that. At least one-third of clicks on digital ads aren’t human beings at all but bots that represent a way of gaming advertising revenue like something right out of a William Gibson novel.

Okay, so we have this economic model based on what at it’s root is really just spyware, and despite all the billions poured into it, we have no idea if it actually affects consumer behavior. That might be merely an annoying feature of the present rather than something to fret about were it not for the fact that this surveillance architecture has apparently been captured by the security services of the state. The model is essentially just a darker version of its commercial forbearer. Here the NSA, GCHQ et al hoover up as much of the Internet’s information as they can get their hands on. Ostensibly, their doing this so they can algorithmically sort through this data to identify threats.

In this case, we have just as many reasons to suspect that it doesn’t really work, and though they claim it does, none of these intelligence agencies will actually look at their supposed evidence that it does. The reasons to suspect that mass surveillance might suffer similar flaws as mass “personalized” marketing, was excellently summed up   in a recent article in the Financial Times Zeynep Tufekci when she wrote:

But the assertion that big data is “what it’s all about” when it comes to predicting rare events is not supported by what we know about how these methods work, and more importantly, don’t work. Analytics on massive datasets can be powerful in analysing and identifying broad patterns, or events that occur regularly and frequently, but are singularly unsuited to finding unpredictable, erratic, and rare needles in huge haystacks. In fact, the bigger the haystack — the more massive the scale and the wider the scope of the surveillance — the less suited these methods are to finding such exceptional events, and the more they may serve to direct resources and attention away from appropriate tools and methods.

I’ll get to what’s epistemologically wrong with using Big Data in the way used by the NSA that Tufekci rightly criticizes in a moment, but on a personal, not societal level, the biggest danger from getting the capabilities of Big Data wrong seems most likely to come through its potentially flawed use in medicine.

Here’s the kind of hype we’re in the midst of as found in a recent article by Tim Mcdonnell in Nautilus:

We’re well on our way to a future where massive data processing will power not just medical research, but nearly every aspect of society. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a data scholar at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute, says we are in the midst of a fundamental shift from a culture in which we make inferences about the world based on a small amount of information to one in which sweeping new insights are gleaned by steadily accumulating a virtually limitless amount of data on everything.

The value of collecting all the information, says Mayer-Schönberger, who published an exhaustive treatise entitled Big Data in March, is that “you don’t have to worry about biases or randomization. You don’t have to worry about having a hypothesis, a conclusion, beforehand.” If you look at everything, the landscape will become apparent and patterns will naturally emerge.

Here’s the problem with this line of reasoning, a problem that I think is the same, and shares the same solution to the issue of mass surveillance by the NSA and other security agencies. It begins with this idea that “the landscape will become apparent and patterns will naturally emerge.”

The flaw that this reasoning suffers has to do with the way very large data sets work. One would think that the fact that sampling millions of people, which we’re now able to do via ubiquitous monitoring, would offer enormous gains over the way we used to be confined to population samples of only a few thousand, yet this isn’t necessarily the case. The problem is the larger your sample size the greater your chance at false correlations.

Previously I had thought that surely this is a problem that statisticians had either solved or were on the verge of solving. They’re not, at least according to the computer scientist Michael Jordan, who fears that we might be on the verge of a “Big Data winter” similar to the one AI went through in the 1980’s and 90’s. Let’s say you had an extremely large database with multiple forms of metrics:

Now, if I start allowing myself to look at all of the combinations of these features—if you live in Beijing, and you ride bike to work, and you work in a certain job, and are a certain age—what’s the probability you will have a certain disease or you will like my advertisement? Now I’m getting combinations of millions of attributes, and the number of such combinations is exponential; it gets to be the size of the number of atoms in the universe.

Those are the hypotheses that I’m willing to consider. And for any particular database, I will find some combination of columns that will predict perfectly any outcome, just by chance alone. If I just look at all the people who have a heart attack and compare them to all the people that don’t have a heart attack, and I’m looking for combinations of the columns that predict heart attacks, I will find all kinds of spurious combinations of columns, because there are huge numbers of them.

The actual mathematics of sorting out spurious from potentially useful correlations from being distinguished is, in Jordan’s estimation, far from being worked out:

We are just getting this engineering science assembled. We have many ideas that come from hundreds of years of statistics and computer science. And we’re working on putting them together, making them scalable. A lot of the ideas for controlling what are called familywise errors, where I have many hypotheses and want to know my error rate, have emerged over the last 30 years. But many of them haven’t been studied computationally. It’s hard mathematics and engineering to work all this out, and it will take time.

It’s not a year or two. It will take decades to get right. We are still learning how to do big data well.

Alright, now that’s a problem. As you’ll no doubt notice the danger of false correlation that Jordan identifies as a problem for science is almost exactly the same critique Tufekci  made against the mass surveillance of the NSA. That is, unless the NSA and its cohorts have actually solved the statistical/engineering problems Jordan identified and haven’t told us, all the biggest data haystack in the world is going to lead to is too many leads to follow, most of them false, and many of which will drain resources from actual public protection. Perhaps equally troubling: if security services have solved these statistical/engineering problems how much will be wasted in research funding and how many lives will be lost because medical scientists were kept from the tools that would have empowered their research?

At least part of the solution to this will be remembering why we developed statistical analysis in the first place. Herbert I. Weisberg with his recent book Willful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty has provided a wonderful, short primer on the subject.

Statistical evidence, according to Weisberg was first introduced to medical research back in the 1950’s as a protection against exaggerated claims to efficacy and widespread quackery. Since then we have come to take the p value .05 almost as the truth itself. Weisberg’s book is really a plea to clinicians to know their patients and not rely almost exclusively on statistical analyses of “average” patients to help those in their care make life altering decisions in terms of what medicines to take or procedures to undergo. Weisberg thinks that personalized medicine will over the long term solve these problems, and while I won’t go into my doubts about that here, I do think, in the experience of the physician, he identifies the root to the solution of our Big Data problem.

Rather than think of Big Data as somehow providing us with a picture of reality, “naturally emerging” as Mayer-Schönberger quoted above suggested we should start to view it as a way to easily and cheaply give us a metric for the potential validity of a hypothesis. And it’s not only the first step that continues to be guided by old fashioned science rather than computer driven numerology but the remaining steps as well, a positive signal  followed up by actual scientist and other researchers doing such now rusting skills as actual experiments and building theories to explain their results. Big Data, if done right, won’t end up making science a form of information promising, but will instead be used as the primary tool for keeping scientist from going down a cul-de-sac.

The same principle applied to mass surveillance means a return to old school human intelligence even if it now needs to be empowered by new digital tools. Rather than Big Data being used to hoover up and analyze all potential leads, espionage and counterterrorism should become more targeted and based on efforts to understand and penetrate threat groups themselves. The move back to human intelligence and towards more targeted surveillance rather than the mass data grab symbolized by Bluffdale may be a reality forced on the NSA et al by events. In part due to the Snowden revelations terrorist and criminal networks have already abandoned the non-secure public networks which the rest of us use. Mass surveillance has lost its raison d’etre.

At least it terms of science and medicine, I recently saw a version of how Big Data done right might work. In an article for Qunta and Scientific American by Veronique Greenwood she discussed two recent efforts by researchers to use Big Data to find new understandings of and treatments for disease.

The physicist (not biologist) Stefan Thurner has created a network model of comorbid diseases trying to uncover the hidden relationships between different, seemingly unrelated medical conditions. What I find interesting about this is that it gives us a new way of understanding disease, breaking free of hermetically sealed categories that may blind us to underlying shared mechanisms by medical conditions. I find this especially pressing where it comes to mental health where the kind of symptom listing found in the DSM- the Bible for mental health care professionals- has never resulted in a causative model of how conditions such as anxiety or depression actually work and is based on an antiquated separation between the mind and the body not to mention the social and environmental factors that all give shape to mental health.

Even more interesting, from Greenwood’s piece, are the efforts by Joseph Loscalzo of Harvard Medical School to try and come up with a whole new model for disease that looks beyond genome associations for diseases to map out the molecular networks of disease isolating the statistical correlation between a particular variant of such a map and a disease. This relationship between genes and proteins correlated with a disease is something Loscalzo calls a “disease module”.

Thurner describes the underlying methodology behind his, and by implication Loscalzo’s,  efforts to Greenwood this way:

Once you draw a network, you are drawing hypotheses on a piece of paper,” Thurner said. “You are saying, ‘Wow, look, I didn’t know these two things were related. Why could they be? Or is it just that our statistical threshold did not kick it out?’” In network analysis, you first validate your analysis by checking that it recreates connections that people have already identified in whatever system you are studying. After that, Thurner said, “the ones that did not exist before, those are new hypotheses. Then the work really starts.

It’s the next steps, the testing of hypotheses, the development of a stable model where the most important work really lies. Like any intellectual fad, Big Data has its element of truth. We can now much more easily distill large and sometimes previously invisible  patterns from the deluge of information in which we are now drowning. This has potentially huge benefits for science, medicine, social policy, and law enforcement.

The problem comes from thinking that we are at the point where our data crunching algorithms can do the work for us and are about to replace the human beings and their skills at investigating problems deeply and in the real world. The danger there would be thinking that knowledge could work like self-gratification a mere thing of the mind without all the hard work, compromises, and conflict between expectations and reality that goes into a real relationship. Ironically, this was a truth perhaps discovered first not by scientists or intelligence agencies but by online dating services. To that strange story, next time….

Edward O. Wilson’s Dull Paradise

Garden of Eden

In all sincerity I have to admit that there is much I admire about the biologist Edward O. Wilson. I can only pray that not only should I live into my 80’s, but still possess the intellectual stamina to write what are at least thought provoking books when I get there. I also wish I still have the balls to write a book with the title of Wilson’s latest- The Meaning of Human Existence, for publishing with an appellation like that would mean I wasn’t afraid I would disappoint my readers, and Wilson did indeed leave me wondering if the whole thing was worth the effort.

Nevertheless,  I think Wilson opened up an important alternative future that is seldom discussed here- namely what if we aimed not at a supposedly brighter, so-called post-human future but to keep things the same? Well, there would be some changes, no extremes of human poverty, along with the restoration of much of the natural environment to its pre-industrial revolution health. Still, we ourselves would aim to stay largely the same human beings who emerged some 100,000 years ago- flaws and all.

Wilson calls this admittedly conservative vision paradise, and I’ve seen his eyes light up like a child contemplating Christmas when using the word in interviews. Another point that might be of interest to this audience is who he largely blames for keeping us from entering this Shangri-la; archaic religions and their “creation stories.”

I have to admit that I find the idea of trying to preserve humanity as it is a valid alternative future. After all, “evolve or die” isn’t really the way nature works. Typically the “goal” of evolution is to find a “design” that works and then stick with it for as long as possible. Since we now dominate the entire planet and our numbers out-rival by a long way any other large animal it seems hard to assert that we need a major, and likely risky, upgrade. Here’s Wilson making the case:

While I am at it, I hereby cast a vote for existential conservatism, the preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust. We are doing very well in terms of science and technology. Let’s agree to keep that up, and move both along even faster. But let’s also promote the humanities, that which makes us human, and not use science to mess around with the wellspring of this, the absolute and unique potential of the human future. (60)

It’s an idea that rings true to my inner Edmund Burke, and sounds simple, doesn’t it? And on reflection it would be, if human beings were bison, blue whales, or gray wolves. Indeed, I think Wilson has drawn this idea of human preservation from his lifetime of very laudable work on biodiversity. Yet had he reflected upon why efforts at preservation fail when they do he would have realized that the problem isn’t the wildlife itself, but the human beings who don’t share the same value system going in the opposite direction. That is, humans, though we are certainly animals, aren’t wildlife, in the sense that we take destiny into our own hands, even if doing so is sometimes for the worse. Wilson seems to think that it’s quite a short step from asserting it as a goal to gaining universal assent to the “preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust”, the problem is there is no widespread agreement over what human nature even is, and then, even if you had such agreement, how in the world do you go about enforcing it for the minority who refuse to adhere to it? How far should we be willing to go to prevent persons from willingly crossing some line that defines what a human being is? And where exactly is that line in the first place? Wilson thinks we’re near the end of the argument when we only just took our seat at the debate.

Strange thing is the very people who would likely naturally lean towards the kind of biological conservatism that Wilson hopes “we” will ultimately choose are the sorts of traditionally religious persons he thinks are at the root of most of our conflicts. Here again is Wilson:

Religious warriors are not an anomaly. It is a mistake to classify believers of a particular religious and dogmatic religion-like ideologies into two groups, moderates versus extremists. The true cause of hatred and religious violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism. Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things. (154)

For Wilson, a religious groups “defines itself foremost by its creation story, the supernatural narrative that explains how human beings came into existence.” (151)  The trouble with this is that it’s not even superficially true. Three of the world’s religions that have been busy killing one another over the last millennium – Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have the same creation story. Wilson knows a hell of a lot more about ants and evolution then he does about religion or even world history. And while religion is certainly the root of some of our tribalism, which I agree is the deep and perennial human problem, it’s far from the only source, and very few of our tribal conflicts have anything to do with the fight between human beings over our origins in the deep past. How about class conflict? Or racial conflict? Or nationalist conflicts when the two sides profess the not only the exact same religion but the exact same sect- such as the current fight between the two Christian Orthodox nations of Russia and Ukraine? If China and Japan someday go to war it will not be a horrifying replay of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

For a book called The Meaning of Human Existence Wilson’s ideas have very little explanatory power when it comes to anything other than our biological origins, and some quite questionable ideas regarding the origins of our capacity for violence. That is, the book lacks depth, and because of this I found it, well… dull.

Nowhere was I more hopeful that Wilson would have something interesting and different to say than when it came to the question of extraterrestrial life. Here we have one of the world’s greatest living biologists, a man who had spent a lifetime studying ants as an alternative route to the kinds of eusociality possessed only by humans, the naked mole rat, and a handful of insects. Here was a scientists who was clearly passionate about preserving the amazing diversity of life on our small planet.

Yet Wilson’s E.T.s are land dwellers, relatively large, biologically audiovisual, “their head is distinct, big, and located up front” (115) they have moderate teeth and jaws, they have a high social intelligence, and “a small number of free locomotory appendages, levered for maximum strength with stiff internal or external skeletons composed of hinged segments (as by human elbows and knees), and with at least one pair of which are terminated by digits with pulpy tips used for sensitive touch and grasping. “ (116)

In other words they are little green men.

What I had hoped was the Wilson would have used his deep knowledge of biology to imagine alternative paths to technological civilization. Couldn’t he have imagined a hive-like species that evolves in tandem with its own technological advancement? Or maybe some larger form of insect like animal which doesn’t just have an instinctive repertoire of things that it builds, but constantly improves upon its own designs, and explores the space of possible technologies? Or aquatic species that develop something like civilization through the use of sea-herding and ocean farming? How about species that communicate not audio-visually but through electrical impulses the way our computers do?

After all, nature on earth is pretty weird. There’s not just us, but termites that build air conditioned skyscrapers (at least from their view), whales which have culturally specific songs, and strange little things that eat and excrete electrons. One might guess that life elsewhere will be even weirder. Perhaps my problem with The Meaning of Human Existence is that it just wasn’t weird enough not just to capture the worlds of tomorrow and elsewhere- but the one we’re living in right now.


There are two paths to superlongevity: only one of them is good

Memento Mori Ivories

Looked at in the longer historical perspective we have already achieved something our ancestors would consider superlongevity. In the UK life expectancy at birth averaged around 37 in 1700. It is roughly 81 today. The extent to which this is a reflection of decreased child mortality versus an increase in the survival rate of the elderly I’ll get to a little later, but for now, just try to get your head around the fact that we have managed to nearly double the life expectancy of human beings in a little over two centuries.

By itself the gains we have made in longevity are pretty incredible, but we have also managed to redefine what it means to be old. A person in 1830 was old at forty not just because of averages, but by the conditions of his body. A revealing game to play is to find pictures of adults from the 19th century and try to guess their ages. My bet is that you, like myself, will consistently estimate the people in these photos to be older than they actually were when the picture was taken. This isn’t a reflection of their lack of Botox and Photoshop, so much as the fact that they were missing the miracle of modern dentistry, were felled, or at least weathered, by diseases which we now consider mere nuisances. If I were my current age in 1830 I would be missing most of my teeth and the pneumonia I caught a few years back would have surely killed me, having been a major cause of death in the age of Darwin and Dickens.

Sixty or even seventy year olds today are probably in the state of health that a forty year old was in the 19th century. In other words we’ve increased the healthspan, not just the lifespan. Sixty really is the new forty, though what is important is how you define “new”. Yet get passed eighty in the early 21st century and you’re almost right back in the world where our ancestors lived. Experiencing the debilitations of old age that is the fate of those of us lucky enough to survive through the pleasures of youth and middle age. The disability of the old is part of the tragic aspect of life, and as always when it comes to giving poetic shape to our comic/ tragic existence, the Greeks got to the essence of old age with their myth of Tithonus.

Tithonus was a youth who had the ill fortune of inspiring the love of the goddess of spring Eos. (Love affairs between gods and mortals never end well). Eos asked Zeus to grant the youth immortality, which he did, but, of course, not in the way Eos intended. Tithonus would never die, but he also would continue to age becoming not merely old and decrepit, but eventually shrivel away to a grasshopper hugging a room’s corner. It is best not to ask the gods for anything.

Despite our successes, those of us lucky enough to live into our 7th and 8th decades still end up like poor old Tithonus. The deep lesson of the ancient myth still holds- longevity is not worth as much as we might hope if not also combined with the health of youth, and despite all of our advances, we are essentially still in Tithonus’ world.

Yet perhaps not for long. At least if one believes the story told by Jonathan Weiner in his excellent book Long for this World.  I learned much about our quest for long life and eternal youth from Long for this World, both its religious and cultural history, and the trajectory and state of its science. I never knew that Jewish folklore had a magical city called Luz where the death unleashed in Eden was prevented from entering, and that existed until  all its inhabitants became so bored that they walked out from its walls and we struck down by the Angel of Death waiting eagerly outside.

I did not know that Descartes, who had helped unleash the scientific revolution, thought that gains in knowledge were growing so fast that he would live to be 1,000. (He died in 1650 at 54). I did not realize that two other key figures of the scientific revolution Roger and Francis Bacon (no relation) thought that science would restore us to the knowledge before the fall (prelapsarian) which would allow us to live forever, or the depth to which very different Chinese traditions had no guilt at all about human immorality and pursued the goal with all sorts of elixirs and practices, none of which, of course, worked. I was especially taken with the story of how Pennsylvania’s most famous son- Benjamin Franklin- wanted to be “pickled” and awoken a century later.

Reviewing the past, when even ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs offer up recipes for “guaranteed to work” wrinkle creams, shows us just how deeply human the longing for agelessness is. It wasn’t invented by Madison Avenue or Dr Oz if even the attempts to find a fountain of youth by the ancients seem no less silly than many of our own. The question, I suppose, is the one that most risks the accusation that one is a fool: “Is this time truly different?” Are we, out of all the generations that have come before us believing the discovery of the route to human “immortality” (and every generation since the rise of modern science has had those who thought so) actually the ones who will achieve this dream?

Long for this World is at its heart a serious attempt to grapple with this question and tries to give us a clear picture of longevity science built around the theoretical biologist, Aubrey de Grey, who will either go down in history as a courageous prophet of a new era of superlongevity, or as just another figure in our long history of thinking biological immortality is at our fingertips when all we are seeing is a mirage.

One thing we have on our ancestors who chased this dream is that we know much, much, more about the biology of aging. Darwinian evolution allowed us to be able to conceive non- poetic theories on the origins of death. In the 1880’s the German biologist, August Weismann in his essay “Upon the Eternal Duration of Life”, provided a kind of survival of the fittest argument for death and aging. Even an ageless creature, Weismann argued, would overtime have to absorb multiple shocks eventually end up disabled. The the longer something lives the more crippled and worn out it becomes. Thus, it is in the interest of the species that death exists to clear the world of these disabled- very damned German- the whole thing.

Just after World War II the biologist Peter Medawar challenged the view of  Weismann. For Medawar if you look at any species selective pressures are really only operating when the organism is young. Those who can survive long enough to breed are the only ones that really count when it comes to natural selection. Like versions of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, nature is just fine if we exit the world in the bloom of youth- as long, that is, as we have passed our genes.

In other words, healthful longevity has not really been something that natural selection has been selecting most organisms for, and because of this it hasn’t been selecting against bad things that can happen to old organisms either, as we’re finding when, by saving people from heart attacks in their 50’s, we destin them to die of diseases that were rare or unknown in the past like Alzheimers. In a sense we’re the victim of natural selection not caring about the health of those past reproductive age or their longevity.

Well, this is only partly true. Organisms that live in conditions where survival in youth is more secure end up with stretched longevity for their size. Some bats can live decades when similar sized mice have a lifespan of only a couple of years. Tortoises can live for well over a century while alligators of the same weight live from 30-50 years.

Stretching healthful longevity is also something that occurs when you starve an animal. We’ve know for decades that lifespan (in other animals at least) can be increased through caloric restriction. Although the mechanism is unclear, the Darwinian logic is not. Under conditions of starvation it’s a bad idea to breed and the body seems to respond by slowing development waiting for the return of food and a good time to mate.

Thus, there is no such thing as a death clock, lifespan is malleable and can be changed if we just learn how to work the dials. We should have known this from our historical experience over the last two-hundred years in which we doubled the human lifespan, but now we know that nature itself does it all the time and not by, like we do , by addressing the symptoms of aging but by resetting the clock of life itself.

We might ourselves find it easy to reset our aging clock if there weren’t multiple factors that play a role in its ticking. Aubrey de Grey has identified seven- the most important of which (excluding cancerous mutations) are probably the accumulation of “junk” within cells and the development of harmful “cross links” between cells. Strange thing about these is that they are not something that suddenly appears when we are actually “old” but are there all along, only reaching levels when they become noticeable and start to cause problems after many decades. We start dying the day we are born.

As we learn in Long for This World, there is hope that someday we may be able to effectively intervene against all these causes of aging. Every year the science needed to do so advances. Yet as Aubrey de Grey has indicated, the greatest threat to this quest for biological immortality is something we are all too familiar with – cancer.

The possibility of developing cancer emerges from the very way our cells work. Over a lifetime our trillions of cells replicate themselves an even more mind bogglingly high number of times. It is almost impossible that every copying error will be caught before it takes on a life of its own and becomes a cancerous growth. Increasing lifespan only increases the amount of time such copying errors can occur.

It’s in Aubrey de Grey’s solution to this last and most serious of super-longevity’s medical hurdles that Weiner’s faith in the sense of that project breaks down, as does mine. De Grey’s cure for cancer goes by the name of WILT- whole body interdiction of the lengthening of telomeres. A great deal of the cancers that afflict human beings achieve their deadly replication without limit by taking control of the telomerase gene. De Grey’s solution is to strip every human gene of its telomeres, something that, even if successful in preventing cancerous growths, would also leave us without red and white blood cells. In order to allow us to live without these cells, de Grey proposes regular infusions of stem cells. What this leave us with would be a life of constant chemotherapy and invasive medical interventions just to keep us alive. In other words, a life when even healthy people relate to their bodies and are kept alive by medical interventions that are now only experienced by the terminally ill.

I think what shocks Weiner about this last step in SENS is the that it underscores just how radical the medical requirements of engineering superlongevity might become. It’s one thing to talk about strengthening the cell’s junk collector the lysosome by adding an enzyme or through some genetic tweak, it’s another to talk about removing the very cells and structures which define human biology, cells and platelets, which have always been essential for human life and health.

Yet, WILT struck me with somewhat different issues and questions. Here’s how I have come to understand it. For simplicities sake, we might be said to have two models of healthcare, both of which have contributed to the gains we have seen in human health and longevity since 1800. As is often noted, a good deal of this gain in longevity was a consequence of improving childhood mortality. Having less and less people die at the age of five drastically improves the average lifespan. We made these gains largely through public health: things like drastically improved sanitation, potable water, vaccinations, and, in the 20th century antibiotics.

This set of improvements in human health were cheap, “easy”, and either comprised of general environmental conditions, or administered at most annually- like the flu shoot. These features allowed this first model of healthcare to be distributed broadly across the population leading to increased longevity by saving the lives primarily of the young. In part these improvements, and above all the development of antibiotics, also allowed longevity increases from at older end of the scale, which although less pronounced than improvements in child mortality, are, nonetheless very real. This is my second model of healthcare and includes things everything from open heart surgery, to chemo and radiation treatments for cancer, to lifelong prescription drugs to treat chronic conditions.

As opposed to the first model, the second one is expensive, relatively difficult, and varies greatly among different segments of the population. My Amoxicillin and Larry Page’s Amoxicillin are the same, but the medical care we would receive to treat something like cancer would be radically different.

We actually are making greater strides in the battle against cancer than at any time since Nixon declared war on the scourge way back in the 1970’s. A new round of immunosuppressive drugs that are proving so successful against a host of different cancers that John LaMattina, former head of research and development for Pfizer has stated that “We are heading towards a world where cancer will become a chronic disease in much the same way as we have seen with diabetes and HIV.”

The problem is the cost which can range up to 150,000 per year. The costs of the new drugs are so expensive that the NHS has reduced the amount they are willing to spend on them by 30 percent. Here we are running up against the limits to second model of healthcare, a limit that at some point will force societies to choose between providing life preserving care for all, or only to those rich enough to afford it.

If the superlongevity project is going to be a progressive project it seems essential to me that it look like the first model of healthcare rather than the second. Otherwise it will either leave us with divergences in longevity within and between societies that make us long nostalgically for the “narrowness” of current gap between today’s poorest and richest societies, or it will bankrupt countries that seek to extend increased longevity to everyone.

This would require a u-turn from the trajectory of healthcare today which is dominated and distorted by the lucrative world of the second model. As an example of this distortion: the physicists, Paul Davies, is working on a new approach to cancer that involves attempting to attack the disease with viruses. If successful this would be a good example of model one. Using viruses (in a way the reverse of immunosuppressives) to treat cancer would likely be much cheaper than current approaches to cancer involving radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery due to the fact that viruses can self-replicate after being engineered rather than needing to be expensively and painstakingly constructed in drug labs. The problem is that it’s extremely difficult for Davies to get funding for such research precisely because there isn’t that much money to be made in it.

In an interview about his research, Davies compared his plight to how drug companies treat aspirin. There’s good evidence to show that plain old aspirin might be an effective preventative against cancer. Sadly, it’s almost impossible to find funding for large scale studies of aspirin’s efficacy in preventing cancer because you can buy a bottle of the stuff for a little over a buck, and what multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical company could justify profit margins as low as that?

The distortions of the second model are even more in evidence when it comes to antibiotics. Here is one of the few places where the second model of healthcare is dependent upon the first. As this chilling article by Maryn Mckenna drives home we are in danger of letting the second model lead to the nightmare of a sudden sharp reversal of the health and longevity gains of the last century.

We are only now waking up to the full danger implicit in antibiotic resistance. We’ve so over prescribed these miracle treatments both to ourselves and our poor farms animals who we treat as mere machines and “grow” in hellish sanitary conditions that bacteria have evolved to no longer be treatable with the suite of antibiotics we have, which are now a generation old, or older. If you don’t think this is a big deal, think about what it means to live in a world where a toothache can kill you and surgeries and chemotherapy can no longer be performed. A long winter of antibiotic resistance would just mean that many of our dreams of superlongevity this century would be moot. It would mean many of us might die quite young from common illnesses, or from surgical and treatment procedures that have combined given us the longevity we have now.

Again, the reason we don’t have alternatives to legacy antibiotics is that pharmaceutical companies don’t see any profit in these as opposed to, say Viagra. But the other part of the reason for their failure, is just as interesting. It’s that we have overtreated ourselves because we find the discomfort of being even mildly sick for a few days unbearable. It’s also because we want nature, in this case our farm animals, to function like machines. Mechanical functioning means regularity, predictability, standardization and efficiency and we’ve had to so distort the living conditions, food, and even genetics of the animals we raise that they would not survive without our constant medical interventions, including antibiotics.

There is a great deal of financial incentive to build solutions to human medical problems around interminable treatments rather than once and done cures or something that is done only periodically. Constant consumption and obsolescence guarantees revenue streams.  Not too long ago, Danny Hillis, who I otherwise have the deepest respect for, gave an interview on, among other things, proteomics, which, for my purposes here, essentially means the minute analysis of bodily processes with the purpose of intervening the moment things begin to go wrong- to catch diseases before they cause us to exhibit symptoms. An audience member asked a thought provoking question, which when followed up by the interviewer Alexis Madrigal, seemed to leave the otherwise loquacious Hillis, stumped. How do you draw the line between illness without symptoms and what the body just naturally does? The danger is you might end up turning everyone, including the healthy, into “patients” and “profit centers”.

We already have a world where seemingly healthy people needed to constantly monitor and medicate themselves just to keep themselves alive, where the body seems to be in a state of almost constant, secret revolt. This is the world as diabetics often experience it, and it’s not a pretty one.  What I wonder is if, in a world in which everyone sees themselves as permanently sick- as in the process of dying- and in need of medical intervention to counter this sickness if we will still remember the joy of considering ourselves healthy? This is medicine becoming subsumed under our current model of consumption.   

Everyone, it seems, has woken up to the fact that consumer electronics has the perfect consumption sustaining model. If things quickly grow “old” to the point where they no longer work with everything else you own, or become so rare that one is unable to find replacement parts, then one if forced to upgrade if merely to insure that your stuff still works. Like the automotive industry, healthcare now seems to be embracing technological obsolescence as a road to greater profitability. Insurance companies seem poised to use devices like the Apple watch to sort and monitor customers, but that is likely only the beginning.

Let me give you my nightmare scenario for a world of superlongevity. It’s a world largely bereft of children where our relationship to our bodies has become something like the one we have with our smart phones, where we are constantly faced with the obsolescence of the hardware and the chemicals, nano-machines and genetically engineered organisms under our own skins and in near continuous need of upgrades to keep us alive. It is a world where those too poor to be in the throes of this cycle of upgrades followed by obsolescence followed by further upgrades are considered a burden and disposable in  the same way August Weismann viewed the disabled in his day.  It’s a world where the rich have brought capitalism into the body itself, an individual life preserved because it serves as a perpetual “profit center”.

The other path would be for superlongevity to be pursued along my first model of healthcare focusing its efforts on understanding the genetic underpinnings of aging through looking at miracles such as the bowhead whale which can live for two centuries and gets cancer no more often than we do even though it has trillions more cells than us. It would focus on interventions that were cheap, one time or periodic, and could be spread quickly through populations. This would be a progressive superlongevity.  If successful, rather than bolster, it would bankrupt much of the system built around the second model of healthcare for it would represent a true cure rather than a treatment of many of the diseases that ail us.

Yet even superlongevity pursued to reflect the demands for justice seems to confront a moral dilemma that seems to be at the heart of any superlongevity project. The morally problematic features of superlongevity pursued along the second model of healthcare is that it risks giving long life only to the few. Troublingly, even superlongevity pursued along the first model of healthcare ends up in a similar place, robbing from future generations of both human beings and other lifeforms the possibility of existing, for it is very difficult to see how if a near future generation gains the ability to live indefinitely how this new state could exist side-by-side with the birth of new people or how such a world of many “immortals” of the types of highly consuming creatures we are is compatible with the survival of the diversity of the natural world.

I see no real solution to this dilemma, though perhaps as elsewhere, the limits of nature will provide one for us, that we will discover some bound to the length of human life which is compatible with new people being given the opportunity to be born and experience the sheer joy and wonder of being alive, a bound that would also allow other the other creatures with whom we share our planet to continue to experience these joys and wonders as well. Thankfully, there is probably some distance between current human lifespans and such a bound, and thus, the most important thing we can do for now, is try to ensure that research into superlongevity has the question of sustainable equity serve as its ethical lodestar.

 Image: Memento Mori, South Netherlands, c. 1500-1525, the Thomson collection

Why Europe Shouldn’t Print the Cartoons

The horrendous murders in Paris appear to have ignited a firestorm of defenders of free speech urging us to “print the cartoons”, an understandable, and likely to be unheeded plea, at least by the West’s major newspapers. That is all for the good, for contrary to claims that not re-printing cartoons inflammatory to many Muslims amounts to cowardice, (a claim I do not understand given how many journalists at these institutions have risked or lost their lives covering conflicts) printing them in seeming defiant defense of free speech is exactly what the terrorists wish we would do.

Islamists need for there to be a violent confrontation between their version of the world and the one born in the West, they need for Muslim minorities in Western countries to feel besieged, their religion disparaged, their value as human beings reduced to that of a threatening other.

France’s population of 5 million Muslims is perhaps the most secular group of Muslims in the world.  The overwhelming majority aren’t looking for a Caliphate they’re just looking for a job. They are not, as a best selling recent work of French speculative fiction, Soumission (Submission) depicts, likely to create a future Islamized France.

Rather, a handful of crazies might have managed to make a European nightmare of 21st century Ottomans at the gates of Vienna seem real, but only if Europeans let it.

It’s a nightmare that won’t benefit the Islamists much, but could greatly benefit the European right which had already identified Europe’s Muslim minority as the scapegoat for the continent’s decline. Neo-fascist parties such as Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France itself, or Nigel Farage’s UKIP in the UK. Europe is going through a very troubling identity crisis where even countries that should surely know better, namely Germany, have seen the rise of things like “Pegida” — Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West- which bring thousands to the streets in anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim marches. Islamists and the right need each other like the communists and Nazis in order to make fanatics out of the rest of us. I sincerely hope that neither the Muslims nor the non- Muslims of Europe will let them do it.

William Gibson Grocks the Future: The Peripheral

William Gibbson pencil_sketch_photo_effect 2

It’s hard to get your head around the idea of a humble prophet. Picturing Jeremiah screaming to the Israelites that the wrath of God is upon them and then adding “at least I think so, but I could be wrong…” or some utopian claiming the millenium is near, but then following it up with “then again this is just one man’s opinion…” would be the best kind of ridiculous- seemingly so out of character to be both shocking and refreshing.

William Gibson is a humble prophet.

In part this stems from his understanding of what science-fiction is for- not to predict the future, but to understand the present with right calls about things yet to happen likely just lucky guesses. Over the weekend I finished William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral, and I will take the humble man at his word as in: “The future is already here- it’s not just very evenly distributed.” As a reader I knew he wasn’t trying to make any definitive calls about the shape of tomorrow, he was trying to tell me about how he understands the state of our world right now, including the parts of it that might be important in the future.  So let me try to reverse engineer that, to try and excavate the picture of our present in the ruins of the world of the tomorrow Gibson so brilliantly gave us with his gripping novel.    

The Peripheral is a time-travel story, but a very peculiar one. In his imagined world we have gained the ability not to travel between past, present and future but to exchange information between different versions of the multiverse. You can’t reach into your own past, but you can reach into the past of an alternate universe that thereafter branches off from the particular version of the multiverse you inhabit. It’s a past that looks like your own history but isn’t.

The novel itself is the story of one of these encounters between “past” and “future.” The past in question is a world that is actually our imagined near future somewhere in the American South where the novel’s protagonist, Flynn, her brother Burton and his mostly veteran friends eek out their existence. (Even if I didn’t have a daughter I probably love Gibson’s use of strong female characters, but having two, I love that even more.) It’s a world that rang very true to me because it was a sort of dystopian extrapolation of the world where I both grew up and live now. A rural county where the economy is largely composed of “Hefty Mart” and people building drugs out of their homes.

The farther future in the story is the world of London decades after a wrenching crisis known as the “jackpot”, much of whose devastation was brought about by global warming that went unchecked and resulted in the loss of billions of human lives and even greater destruction for the other species on earth. It’s a world of endemic inequality, celebrity culture and sycophants. And the major character from this world, Wilf Netherton, would have ended his days as a mere courtier to the wealthy had it not been for his confrontation with an alternate past.

So to start there are a few observations we can draw out from the novel about the present. The hollowing out of rural economies dominated by box stores, which I see all around me, the prevalence of meth labs as a keystone of this economy now only held up by the desperation of its people. Dito.

The other present Gibson is giving us some insight into is London where Russian oligarchs after the breakup of the Soviet Union established a kind of second Moscow. That’s a world that may fade now with the collapse of the Russian ruble, but the broader trend will likely remain in place- corrupt elites who have made their millions or billions by pilfering their home countries making their homes in, and ultimately shaping the fate, of the world’s greatest cities.

Both the near and far futures in Gibson’s novel are horribly corrupt. Local, state and even national politicians can not only be bought in Flynn’s America, their very jobs seem to be to put themselves on sale. London of the farther future is corrupt to the bone as well. Indeed, it’s hard to say that government exists at all there except as a conduit for corruption. The detective Ainsley Lowbeer, another major character in the novel, who plays the role of the law in London seems to not even be a private contractor, but someone pursuing justice on her own dime. We may not have this level of corruption today, but I have to admit it didn’t seem all that futuristic.

Inequality (both of wealth and power with little seeming distinction between the two) also unites these two worlds and our own. It’s an inequality that has an effect on privacy in that only those that have political influence have it. The novel hinges around Flynn being the sole (innocent) witness of a murder. There being no tape of the crime is something that leaves her incredulous, and, disturbingly enough, left me incredulous as well, until Lowbeer explains it to Flynn this way:

“Yours is a relatively evolved culture of mass surveillance,” Lowbeer said. “Ours, much more so. Mr Zubov’s house here, internally at least, is a rare exception. Not so much a matter of great expense as one of great influence.”

“What does that mean?” (Flynn)

“A matter of whom one knows,” said Lowbeer, “and of what they consider knowing you to be worth.” (223)

2014 saw the breaking open of the shell hiding the contours of the surveillance state we have allowed to be built around us in the wake of 9/11. Though how we didn’t realize this before Edward Snowden is beyond me. If I were a journalists looking for a story it would be some version of the surveillance-corruption-complex described by Gibson’s detective Lowbeer. That is, I would look for ways in which the blindness of the all seeing state (or even just the overwhelming surveillance powers of companies) was bought or gained from leveraging influence, or where its concentrated gaze was purchased for use as a weapon against rivals. In a world where one’s personal information can be ripped with simple hacks,or damaging correlations about anyone can be conjured out of thin air, no one is really safe. It merely an extrapolation of human nature that the asymmetries of power and wealth will ultimately decide who has privacy and who does not. Sadly, again, not all that futuristic.

In both the near and far futures of The Peripheral drones are ubiquitous. Flynn’s brother Burton himself was a former haptic drone pilot in the US military, and him and his buddies have surrounded themselves with all sorts of drones. In the far future drones are even more widespread and much smaller. Indeed, Flynn witnesses the  aforementioned murder while standing in for Burton as a kind of drone piloting flyswatter keeping paparazzi drone flies away from the soon to be killed celebrity Aelita West.    

That Flynn ended up a paparazzi flyswatter in an alternate future she thinks is a video game began in the most human of ways- Netherton trying to impress his girlfriend- Desarda West- Aelita’s sister. By far the coolest future-tech element of the book builds off of this, when Flynn goes from being a drone pilot to being the “soul” of a peripheral in order to be able to find Aelita’s murderer.

Peripherals, if I understand them, are quasi-biological forms of puppets. They can act intelligently on their own but nowhere near with the nuance and complexity of when a human being is directly controlling them through a brain-peripheral interface. Flynn becomes embodied in an alternative future by controlling the body of a peripheral while herself being in an alternative past. Leaves your head spinning? Don’t worry, Gibson is such a genius that in the novel itself is seems completely natural.

So Gibson is warning us about environmental destruction, inequality, corruption, and trying to imagine a world of ubiquitous drones and surveillance. All essential stuff for us to pay attention to and for which The Peripheral provides us with a kind of frame that might serve as a sort of protection against blinding continuing to head in directions we would rather not.   

Yet the most important commentary on the present I gleaned from Gibson’s novel wasn’t these things, but what it said about a world where the distinction between the virtual and the real has disappeared where everything has become a sort of video-game.

In the novel, what this results in is a sort of digital imperialism and cruelty. Those in Gibson’s far future derisively call the alternative pasts they interfere in “stubs” though these are full worlds as much as their own with people in them who are just as real as us.

As Lowbeer tells Flynn:

Some persons or people unknown have since attempted to have you murdered, in your native continuum, presumably because they know you to be a witness. Shockingly, in my view, I am told that arranging your death would in no way constitute a crime here, as you are, according to current legal opinion, not considered to be real.(200)

The situation is actually much worse than that. As the character Ash explains to Netherton:

There were, for instance, Ash said, continua enthusiasts who’d been at it for several years longer than Lev, some of whom had conducted deliberate experiments on multiple continua, testing them sometimes to destruction, insofar as their human populations were concerned. One of these early enthusiasts, in Berlin, known to the community only as “Vespasian,” was a weapons fetishists, famously sadistic in his treatment of the inhabitants of his continua, whom he set against one another in grinding, interminable, essentially pointless combat, harvesting the weaponry evolved, though some too specialized to be of use outside whatever baroque scenario had produced it. (352)

Some may think this indicates Gibson believes we might ourselves be living in a matrix style simulation. In fact I think he’s actually trying to saying something about the way the world, beyond dispute, works right now, though we haven’t, perhaps, seen it all in one frame.

Our ability to use digital technology to interact globally is extremely dangerous unless we recognize that there are often real human beings behind the pixels. This is a problem for people who are engaged in military action, such as drone pilots, yes, but it goes well beyond that.

Take financial markets. Some of what Gibson is critiquing is the kinds of algo high-speed trading we’ve seen in recent years, and that played a role in the financial the onset of the financial crisis. Those playing with past continua in his near future are doing so in part to game the financial system there, which they can do not because they have a record of what financial markets in such continua will do, but because their computers are so much faster than those of the “past”. It’s a kind of AI neo-colonialism, itself a fascinating idea to follow up on, but I think the deeper moral lesson of The Peripheral for our own time lies in the fact that such actions, whether destabilizing the economies continua, or throwing them into wars as a sort of weapon’s development simulation, are done with impunity because the people in continua are consider nothing but points of data.

Today, with the click of a button, those who hold or manage large pools of wealth can ruin the lives of people on the other side of the globe. Criminals can essentially mug a million people with a keystroke. People can watch videos of stranger’s children and other people’s other loved ones being raped and murdered like they are playing a game in hell. I could go on, but shouldn’t have to.

One of the key, perhaps the key, way we might keep technology from facilitating this hell, from turning us into cold, heartless computers ourselves, is to remember that there are real flesh and blood human beings on the other side of what we do. We should be using our technology to find them and help them, or at least not to hurt them, rather than target them, or flip their entire world upside down without any recognition of their human reality because it some how benefits us. Much of the same technology that allows us to treat other human beings as bits, thankfully, gives us tools for doing the opposite as well, and unless we start using our technology in this more positive and humane way we really will end up in hell.

Gibson will have grocked the future and not just the present if we fail to address theses problems he has helped us (or me at least) to see anew. For if we fail to overcome these issues, it will mean that we will have continued forward into a very black continua of the multiverse, and turned Gibson into a dark prophet, though he had disclaimed the title.