Would AI and Aliens be moral in a godless universe?

Black hole

Last time I attempted to grapple with R. Scott Bakker’s intriguing essay on what kinds of philosophy aliens might practice and remaining dizzied by questions. Luckily, I had a book in my possession which seemed to offer me the answers, a book that had nothing to do with the a modern preoccupation like question of alien philosophers at all, but rather a metaphysical problem that had been barred from philosophy except among seminary students since Darwin; namely, whether or not there was such a thing as moral truth if God didn’t exist.

The name of the book was Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (contemporary philosophy isn’t all that sharp when it comes to titles), by Erik J. Wielenberg. Now, I won’t even attempt to write a proper philosophical review of Robust Ethics for the book has been excellently dissected by a proper philosopher, John Danaher in pieces such as this, this, and this, and one more. Indeed, it was Danaher’s thoughtful reviews that had resulted in Wielenberg’s short work being in the ever changing pile of books that shadows my living room floor like a patch of unextractable mold. It was just the book I needed when thinking about what types of intelligence might be possessed by extraterrestrials.

It’s a problem I ran into when reviewing David Roden’s Post-human Life that goes like this: while it is not so much easy, as it is that I don’t simply draw a blank for me to conceive of an alternative form of intelligence to our human type, it’s damned near impossible for me to imagine what our an alternative form to our moral cognition and action would consist of and how it would be embedded in these other forms of intelligence.

The way Wielenberg answers this question would seem to throw a wrench into Bakker’s idea of Blind Brain Theory (BBT) because what Bakker is urging is that we be suspicious of our cognitive intuitions because they were provided by evolution not as a means of knowing the truth but in terms of their effectiveness in supporting survival and reproduction, whereas Wielenberg is making the case that we can generally rely on these intuitions ( luckily) because of the way they have emerged out of a very peculiar human evolutionary story one which we largely do not share with other animals. That is, Wielenberg argument is anthropocentric to its core and therein lies a new set of problems.

His contention, in essence, is that the ability of human being to perceive moral truth arises as a consequence of the prolonged period of childhood we experience in comparison to other animals. In responding to the argument by Sharon Street that moral “truth” would seem quite different from the perspective of lions, or bonobos, or social insects, than from a human standpoint Wielenberg  responds:

Lions and bonobos lack the nuclear family structure. Primatologist Frans de Waal suggests the “[b] onobos have stretched the single parent system to the limit”. He also claims that an essential component of human reproductive success is the male-female pair bond which he suggests “sets us apart from the apes more than anything else” . These considerations provide some support for the idea that a moralizing species like ours requires an evolutionary path significantly different from that of lions or bonobos. (171)

The prolonged childhood of humans necessitates both pair-bonding and “alloparents” that for Wielenberg shape and indeed create our moral disposition and perception in a way seen in no other animals.

As for the social insects scenario suggested by Street, the social insects (termites, ants, and many species of bees and wasps) are so different from us that it’s hard to evaluate whether such a scenario is nomologically possible.  (171).

In a sense the ability to perceive moral truth, what Wielenberg  characterizes as “brute facts” such as “rape is wrong”, emerges out of the slow speed in cultural/technological knowledge requires to be passed from adults to the young. Were children born fully formed with sufficient information for their own survival (or a quick way of gaining needed capacity/knowledge) neither the pair bond nor the care of the “village” would be necessary and the moral knowledge that comes as a result of this period of dependence/interdependence might go undiscovered.

Though I was very much rooting that Wielenberg would have succeeded in providing an account of moral realism absent any need for God, I believe that in these reflections found in the very last pages of Robust Ethics he may have inadvertently undermined that very noble project.

I have complained before about someone like E.O. Wilson’s lack of imagination when it comes to alternative forms of intelligence on worlds other than our own, but what Wielenberg has done is perhaps even more suffocating. For if the perception of moral truth depends upon the evolution of creatures dependent on pair bonding and alloparenting then what this suggests is that due to our peculiarities human beings might be the only species in the universe capable of perceiving moral truth. This is not the argument Wielenberg likely hoped he was making at all, and indeed is more anthropocentric than the argument of some card carrying theists.

I suppose Wielenberg might object that any intelligent aliens would likely require the same extended period of learning as ourselves because they too would have arrived at their station via cultural/technological evolution which seems to demand long periods of dependent learning. Perhaps, or perhaps not. For even if I can’t imagine some biological species where knowledge from parent to offspring is directly passed, we know that it’s possible- the efficiency of DNA as a cultural storage device is well known.

Besides, I think it’s a mistake to see biological intelligence as the type of intelligence that commands the stage over the long duree- even if artificial intelligence, like children, need to learn many task through actual experience rather than programming “from above” the  advantages of AI over the biological sort is that it can then share this learning directly with fully grown copies of itself a like Neo in the Matrix its’ “progeny” can say “I know kung fu” without ever having themselves learned it. According to Wielenberg’s logic it doesn’t seem that such intelligent entities would necessarily perceive brute moral facts or ethical truths, so if he is right an enormous contraction of the potential scale of the moral universe would have occurred . The actual existence of moral truth limited to perhaps one species in a lonely corner of an otherwise ordinary galaxy would then seem to be a blatant violation of the Copernican principle and place us back onto the center stage of the moral narrative of the universe- if it has such a narrative to begin with.

The only way it seems one can hold that both the assertion of moral truth found in Godless Normative Realism and the Copernican principle can be true would be if the brute facts of moral truth were more broadly perceivable across species and conceivably within forms of intelligence that have emerged or have been built on the basis of an evolutionary trajectory and environment very different from our own.

I think the best chance here is if moral truth were somehow related to the truths of mathematics (indeed Wielenberg thinks the principle of contradiction [which is the core of mathematics/logic] is essential to the articulation and development of our own moral sense which begins with the emotions but doesn’t end there.) Like us, other animals seem not only to possess forms of moral cognition that rival our own, but even radical different types of creatures such as social insects are capable of discovering mathematical truths about the world, the kind of logic that underlies moral reasoning, something I explored extensively here.

Let’s hope that the perception of moral truth isn’t as dependent on our very peculiar evolutionary development as Wielenberg’s argument suggest, for if that is the case that particular form of truth might be so short lived and isolated in the cosmos that someone might be led to the mistaken conclusion that it never existed at all.

Do Extraterrestrials Philosophize?

nielsen_eastofthesun3

The novelist and philosopher R. Scott Bakker recently put out a mind blowing essay on the philosophy of extraterrestrials, which isn’t as Area 51 as such a topic might seem at first blush.  After all, Voltaire covered the topic of aliens, but if a Frenchman is still a little too playful for your philosophical tastes , recall that Kant thought the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence important to cover extensively as well, and you can’t get much more full of dull seriousness than the man from Koeningsberg.

So let’s take an earnest look at Bakker’s alien philosophy…well, not just yet. Before I begin it’s necessary to lay out a very basic version of the philosophical perspective Bakker is coming from, for in a way his real goal is to use some of our common intuitions regarding humanoid aliens as a way of putting flesh on the bones of two often misunderstood and not (at least among philosophers) widely held philosophical positions- eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory, both of which, to my lights at least, could be consumed under one version of the ominous and cool sounding, philosophy of Dark Phenomenology. Though once you get a handle of on dark phenomenology it won’t seem all that ominous, and if it’s cool, it’s not the type of cool that James Dean or the Fonz before season 5 would have recognized.

Eliminativism, if I understand it,  is the full recognition of the fact that perhaps all our notions about human mental life are suspect in so far as they have not been given a full scientific explanation. In a sense, then, eliminativism is merely an extension of the materialization (some would call it dis-enchantment) that has been going on since the scientific revolution.

Most of us no longer believe in angels, demons or fairies, not to mention quasi-scientific ideas that have ultimately proven to be empty of content like the ether or phlogiston. Yet in those areas where science has yet to reach, especially areas that concern human thinking and emotion, we continue to cling to what strict eliminativists believe are likely to be proved similar fictions, a form of myth that can range from categories of mental disease without much empirical substance to more philosophical and religiously determined beliefs such as those in free will, intentionality and the self.            

I think Bakker is attracted to eliminativism because it allows us to cut the gordian knot of problems that have remained unresolved since the beginning of Western philosophy itself. Problems built around assumptions which seem to be increasingly brought into question in light of our increasing knowledge of the actual workings of the human brain rather than our mere introspection regarding the nature of mental life. Indeed, a kind of subset of eliminativism in the form Blind Brain Theory essentially consists in the acknowledgement that the brain was designed for a certain kind of blindness by evolution.

What was not necessary for survival has been made largely invisible to the brain without great effort to see what has not been revealed. Philosophy’s mistake from the standpoint of a proponent of Blind Brain Theory has always been to try to shed light upon this darkness from introspection alone- a Sisyphean tasks in which the philosopher if not made ridiculous becomes hopelessly lost in the dark labyrinth of the human imagination. In contrast an actually achievable role for philosophy would be to define the boundary of the unknown until the science necessary to study this realm has matured enough for its’ investigations to begin.

The problem becomes what can one possibly add to the philosophical discourse once one has taken an eliminativists/Blind Brain position? Enter the aliens, for Bakker manages to make a very reasonable argument that we can use both to give us a plausible picture of what the mental life and philosophy of intelligent “humanoid” aliens might look like.

In terms of understanding the minds of aliens eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory are like addendums to evolutionary psychology. An understanding of the perceptual limitations of our aliens- not just mental limitations, but limitations brought about by conditions of time and space should allow us to make reasonable guesses about not only the philosophical questions, but the philosophical errors likely to be made by our intelligent aliens.

In a way the application of eliminativism and BBT to intelligent aliens put me in mind of Isaac Asimov’s short story Nightfall in which a world bathed in perpetual light is destroyed when it succumbs to the fall of  night. There it is not the evolved limitations of the senses that prevent Asimov’s “aliens” from perceiving darkness but their being on a planet that orbits two suns and keep them bathed in an unending day.

I certainly agree with Bakker that there is something pregnant and extremely useful in both eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory, though perhaps not so much it terms of understanding the possibility space of “alien intelligence” as in understanding our own intelligence and the way it has unfolded and developed over time and has been embedded in a particular spatio-temporal order we have only recently gained the power to see beyond.

Nevertheless, I think there are limitations to the model. After all, it isn’t even clear the extent to which the kinds of philosophical problems that capture the attention of intelligence are the same even across our own species. How are we to explain the differences in the primary questions that obsess, say, Western versus Chinese philosophy? Surely, something beyond neurobiology and spatial-temporal location is necessary to understand the the development of human philosophy in its various schools and cultural guises including how a discourse has unfolded historically and the degree to which it has been supported by the powers and techniques to secure the survival of some question/perspective over long stretches of time.

There is another way in which the use of eliminativism or Blind Brain Theory might lead us astray when it come to thinking about alien intelligence- it just isn’t weird enough.When the story of the development of not just human intelligence, but especially our technological/scientific civilization is told in full detail it seems so contingent as to be quite unlikely to repeat itself. The big question I think to ask is what are the possible alternative paths to intelligence of a human degree or greater and to technological civilization like or more advanced than our own. These, of course, are questions for speculative philosophy and fiction that can be scientifically informed in some way, but are very unlikely to be scientifically answered. And if if we could discover the very distant technological artifacts of another technological civilization as the new Milner/Hawking project hopes there remains no way to reverse engineer our way to understand the lost “philosophical” questions that would have once obsessed the biological “seeds” of such a civilization.

Then again, we might at least come up with some well founded theories though not from direct contact or investigation of alien intelligence itself. Our studies of biology are already leading to alternative understanding of the way intelligence can be embeded say with the amazing cephalopods. As our capacity from biological engineering increases we will be able make models of, map alternative histories for, and even create alternative forms of living intelligence. Indeed, our current development of artificial intelligence is like an enormous applied experiment in an alternative form of intelligence to our own.

What we might hope is that such alternative forms of intelligence not only allow us to glimpse the limits of our own perception and pattern making, but might even allow us to peer into something deeper and more enchanted and mystical beyond. We might hope even more deeply that in the far future something of the existential questions that have obsessed us will still be there like fossils in our posthuman progeny.

The King of Weird Futures

Bosch vanity Garden of earthy delights

Back in the late winter I wrote a review of the biologist Edward O. Wilson’s grandiloquently mistitled tract-  The Meaning of Human Existence. As far as visions of the future go Wilson’s was a real snoozer, although for that very reason it left little to be nervous about. The hope that he articulated in his book being that we somehow manage to keep humanity pretty much the same- genetically at least- “as a sacred trust”,  in perpetuity. It’s a bio-conservatism that, on one level, I certainly understand, but one I also find incredibly unlikely given that the future consists of….well…. an awfully long stretch of time (that is as long as we’re wise enough or just plain lucky ). How in the world can we expect, especially in light of current advances in fields like genetics, neuroscience, artificial intelligence etc, that we can, or even should, keep humanity essentially unchanged not just now, but for 100 years, or 1000s year, 10,000s years, or even longer?

If Wilson is the 21st century’s prince of the dull future the philosopher David Roden should perhaps be crowned the king of weird one(s). Indeed, it may be that the primary point of his recent mind-bending book Posthuman Life:Philosophy at the Edge of the Human, is to make the case for the strange and unexpected. The Speculative Posthumanism (SP) he helps launch with this book a philosophy that grapples with the possibility that the future of our species and its descendents will be far weirder than we have so far allowed ourselves to imagine.

I suppose the best place to begin a proper discussion of  Posthuman Life would be with explaining just exactly what Roden means by Speculative Posthumanism, something that (as John Dahaner has pointed out) Roden manages to uncover like a palimpsest by providing some very useful clarifications for often philosophically confused and conflated areas of speculation regarding humanity’s place in nature and its future.

Essentially Roden sees four domains of thought regarding humanism/posthumanism. There is Humanism of the old fashioned type that even absent some kind of spiritual dimension makes the claim that there is something special, cognitively, morally, etc that marks human beings off from the rest of nature.

Interestingly, Roden sees Transhumanism as merely an updating of this humanism- the expansion of its’ tool kit for perfecting humankind to include not just things like training and education but physical, cognitive, and moral enhancements made available by advances in medicine, genetics, bio-electronics and similar technologies.

Then there is Critical Posthumanism by which Roden means a move in Western philosophy apparent since the later half of the 20th century that seeks to challenge the anthropocentrism at the heart of Western thinking. The shining example of this move was the work of Descartes, which reduced animals to machines while treating the human intellect as mere “spirit” as embodied and tangible as a burnt offering to the gods. Critical Posthumanism, among whom one can count a number of deconstructionists, feminists, multicultural, animal rights, and environmentalists philosophers from the last century, aims to challenge the centrality of the subject and the discourses surrounding the idea of an observer located at some Archimedean point outside of nature and society.

Lastly, there is the philosophy Roden himself hopes to help create- Speculative Posthumanism the goal of which is to expand and explore the potential boundaries of what he calls the posthuman possibility space (PPS). It is a posthumanism that embraces the “weird” in the sense that it hopes, like critical posthumanism, to challenge the hold anthropocentrism has had on the way we think about possible manifestations of phenomenology, moral reasoning, and cognition. Yet unlike Critical Posthumanism, Speculative Posthumanism does not stop at scepticism but seeks to imagine, in so far as it is possible, what non-anthropocentric forms of phenomenology, moral reasoning, and cognition might actually look like. (21)

It is as a work of philosophical clarification that Posthuman Life succeeds best, though a close runner up would be the way Roden manages to explain and synthesize many of the major movements within philosophy in the modern period in a way that clearly connects them to what many see as upcoming challenges to traditional philosophical categories as a consequence of emerging technologies from machines that exhibit more reasoning, or the disappearance of the boundary between the human, the animal, and the machine, or even the erosion of human subjectivity and individuality themselves.

Roden challenges the notion that any potential moral agents of the future that can trace their line of descent back to humanity will be something like Kantian moral agents rather than agents possessing a moral orientation we simply cannot imagine. He also manages to point towards connections of the postmodern thrust of late 21st century philosophy which challenged the role of the self/subject and recent developments in neuroscience, including connections between philosophical phenomenology and the neuroscience of human perception that do something very similar to our conception of the self. Indeed, Posthuman Life eclipses similar efforts at synthesis and Roden excels at bringing to light potentially pregnant connections between thinkers as diverse as Andy Clark and Heidegger, Donna Haraway and Deleuze and Derrida along with non-philosophical figures like the novelist Philip K. Dick.

It is as a very consequence of his success at philosophical clarification that leads Roden across what I, at least, felt was a bridge (philosophically) too far. As posthumanist philosophers are well aware, the very notion of the “human” suffers a continuum problem. Unique to us alone, it is almost impossible to separate humanity from technology broadly defined and this is the case even if we go back to the very beginnings of the species where the technologies in question are the atul or the baby sling. We are in the words of Andy Clark “natural born cyborgs”. In addition to this is the fact that (like anything bound up with historical change) how a human being is defined is a moving target rather than a reflection of any unchanging essence.

How then can one declare any possible human future that emerges out of our continuing “technogenesis” “post” human, rather than just the latest iteration in what in fact is the very old story of the human “artificial ape”? And this status of mere continuation (rather than break with the past) would seem to hold in a philosophical sense even if whatever posthumans emerged bore no genetic and only a techno-historical relationship to biological humans. This somewhat different philosophical problem of clarification again emerges as the consequence of another continuum problem namely the fact that human beings are inseparable from the techno-historical world around them- what Roden brilliantly calls “the Wide Human” (WH).

It is largely out of the effort to find clear boundaries within this confusing continuum that leads Roden to postulate what he calls the “disconnection thesis”. According to this thesis an entity can only properly be said to be posthuman if it is no longer contained within the Wide Human.  A “Wide Human descendent is a posthuman if and only if:”

  1. It has ceased to belong to WH (the Wide Human) as a result of technical alteration.
  2. Or is wide descendent of such a being. (outside WH) . (112)

Yet it isn’t clear, to me at least, why disconnection from the Wide Human is more likely to result in something more different from humanity and our civilization as they currently exist today than anything that could emerge out of, but still remain part of, the Wide Human itself. Roden turns to the idea of “assemblages” developed by Deleuze and Guattari in an attempt to conceptualize how such a disconnection might occur, but his idea is perhaps conceptually clearer if one comes at it from the perspective of the kinds of evolutionary drift that occurs when some set of creatures becomes isolated from another by having become an island.

As Darwin realized while on his journey to the Galapagos isolation can lead quite rapidly to wide differences between the isolated variant and its parent species. The problem when applying such isolation analogies to technological development is that unlike biological evolution (or technological development before the modern era), the evolution of technology is now globally distributed, rapid and continuous.

Something truly disruptive seems much more likely to emerge from within the Wide Human than from some separate entity or enclave- even one located far out in space.  At the very least because the Wide Human possesses the kind of leverage that could turn something disruptive into something transformative to the extent it could be characterized as posthuman.

What I think we should look out for in terms of the kinds of weird divergence from current humanity that Roden is contemplating, and though he claims speculative posthumanism is not normative, is perhaps rooting for, is maybe something more akin to a phase change or the kinds of rapid evolutionary changes seen in events like the cambrian explosion or the opening up of whole new evolutionary theaters such as when life in the sea first moved unto the land than some sort of separation. It would be something like the singularity predicted by Vernor Vinge though might just as likely come from a direction completely unanticipated and cause a transformation that would make the world, from our current perspective, unrecognizable, and indeed, weird.

Still, what real posthuman weirdness would seem to require would be something clearly identified by Roden and not dependent, to my lights, on his disruption thesis being true. The same reality that would make whatever follows humanity truly weird would be that which allowed alien intelligence to be truly weird; namely, that the kinds of cognition, logic, mathematics, science found in our current civilization, or the kinds of biology and social organization we ourselves possess to all be contingent. What that would mean in essence was that there were a multitude of ways intelligence and technological civilizations might manifest themselves of which we were only a single type, and by no means the most interesting one. Life itself might be like that with the earthly variety and its conditions just one example of what is possible, or it might not.

The existence of alien intelligence and technology very different from our own means we are not in the grip of any deterministic developmental process and that alternative developmental paths are available. So far, we have no evidence one way or another, though unlike Kant who used aliens as a trope to defend a certain versions of what intelligence and morality means we might instead imagine both extraterrestrial and earthly alternatives to our own.

While I can certainly imagine what alternative, and from our view, weird forms of cognition might look like- for example the kinds of distributed intelligence found in a cephalopod or eusocial insect colony, it is much more difficult for me to conceive what morality and ethics might look like if divorced from our own peculiar hybrid of social existence and individual consciousness (the very features Wilson, perhaps rightfully, hopes we will preserve). For me at least one side of what Roden calls dark phenomenology is a much deeper shade of black.

What is especially difficult in this regard for me to imagine is how the kinds of openness to alternative developmental paths that Roden, at the very least, wants us to refrain from preemptively aborting is compatible with a host of other projects surrounding our relationship to emerging technology which I find extremely important: projects such as subjecting technology to stricter, democratically established ethical constraints, including engineering moral philosophy into machines themselves as the basis for ethical decision making autonomous from human beings. Nor is it clear what guidance Roden’s speculative posthumanism provides when it comes to the question of how to regulate against existential risks, dangers which our failure to tackle will foreclose not only a human future but very likely possibility of a posthuman future.

Roden seems to think the fact that there is no such thing as a human “essence” we should be free to engender whatever types of posthumans we want. As I see it this kind of ahistoricism is akin to a parent who refuses to use the lessons learned from a difficult youth to inform his own parenting. Despite the pessimism of some, humanity has actually made great moral strides over the arc of its history and should certainly use those lessons to inform whatever posthumans we chose to create.

One would think the types of posthumans whose creation we permit should be constrained by our experience of a world ill designed by the God of Job. How much suffering is truly necessary? Certainly less than sapient creatures currently experience and thus any posthumans should suffer less than ourselves. We must be alert to and take precautions to avoid the danger that posthuman weirdness will emerge from those areas of the Wide Human where the greatest resources are devoted- military or corporate competition- and for that reason- be terrifying.

Yet the fact that Roden has left one with questions should not subtract from what he has accomplished; namely he has provided us with a framework in which much of modern philosophy can be used to inform the unprecedented questions that are facing as a result of emerging technologies. Roden has also managed to put a very important bug in the ear of all those who would move too quick to prohibit technologies that have the potential to prove disruptive, or close the door to the majority of the hopefully very long future in front of us and our descendents- that in too great an effort to preserve the contingent reality of what we currently are we risk preventing the appearance of something infinitely more brilliant in our future.

Is Pope Francis the World’s Most Powerful Transhumanist?

Francis-with-book-

I remember once while on a trip to Arizona asking a long-time resident of Phoenix why anyone would want to live in such a godforsaken place. I wasn’t at all fooled by the green lawns and the swimming pools and knew that we were standing in the middle of a desert over the bones of the Hohokam Indians whose civilization had shriveled up under the brutality of the Sonora sun. The person I was speaking to had a quick retort to my east coast skepticism. Where I lived, he observed, was no more natural than where he did, for the constant need for air conditioning during much of the year in a place like Phoenix was but the flip side of the need for heat in the cold months in the backwoods of my native Pennsylvania. Everywhere humankind lives is in some sense “unnatural”, every place we have successfully settled it was because we had been able to wrestle nature’s arm behind her back and make her cry “uncle”.

Sometime around then, back in 2006, James Lovelock published what was probably the most frightening book I have ever read- The Revenge of Gaia. There he predicted the death of billions of human beings and the retreat of global civilization to the poles as the climate as we had known it throughout the 100,000 or so years of of species history collapsed under the weight of anthropogenic climate change. It was not a work of dystopian fiction.

Lovelock has since backed off from this particular version of apocalyptic nightmare, but not because we have changed our course or discovered some fundamental error in the models that lead to his dark predictions. Instead, it is because he thinks the pace of warming is somewhat slower than predicted due to sulfuric pollution and its reflection of sunlight that act like the sunshields people put on their car windows. Lovelock is also less frightened out of the realization that air conditioning allows large scale societies- he is particularly fond of Singapore, but he also could have cited the Arabian Gulf or American Southwest- to seemingly thrive in conditions much hotter than those which any large human population could have survived in the past. We are not the poor Hohokam.

The problem with this more sanguine view of things is in thinking Singapore like levels of adaptation are either already here or even remotely on the horizon. This is the reality brought home over the last several weeks as the death toll from an historic heat wave sweeping over India and Pakistan has risen into the thousands. Most societies, or at least those with the most people, lack the ability to effectively respond to the current and predicted impacts of climate change, and are unlikely to develop it soon. The societal effects and death toll of a biblical scale deluge are much different if one is in Texas or Bangladesh. Major droughts can cause collapse and civil war in the fragile states of the Middle East that do not happen under similar environmental pressures between Arizona or Nevada- though Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent novel The Water Knife helps us imagine this were so. Nor has something like the drought in California sparked or fed the refugee flows or ethnic religious tensions it has elsewhere and which are but a prelude of what will likely happen should we continue down this path.

It is this fact that the negative impacts of the Anthropocene now fall on the world’s poor, and given the scale of the future impacts of climate change will be devastating for the poor and their societies because they lack the resources to adjust and respond to these changes, that is the moral insight behind Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home . It could not have been more timely.

I have to say that much of the document has a beauty that is striking. Parts such as this:

The Psalms frequently exhort us to praise God the Creator, “who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures for ever” (Ps 136:6). They also invite other creatures to join us in this praise: “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created” (Ps 148:3-5). We do not only exist by God’s mighty power; we also live with him and beside him. This is why we adore him.

Lines like these reminded me of the poetry of Walt Whitman, or perhaps better even that most eloquent atheist Lucretius. And there are points in the letter where the relationship of God to non-human animals is portrayed in almost post-humanist terms, which makes a lot of sense given the pope’s namesake. But the purpose of Laudato Si isn’t to serve as poetry or even as a reminder to Christians that care for the natural world is not only not incompatible with their faith but a logical extension of it. Rather, the purpose of the pope’s letter is to serve as a moral indictment and a call to action. Pope Francis has, rightly and justly, connected our obligations to the global environment with our obligations to the world’s poor.

The problem with religious documents, even beautiful and uplifting documents such as the Laudato Si is that as a type they do not grapple with historical or moral ambiguity. Such documents by their nature try to establish continuity with the past, as in claiming the church contained whatever teaching is being communicated all along. They also by their very nature try to establish firm moral lines not only for the present and future but also in the past rather than grapple with the fact that we are more often confronted with much more ambiguous moral trade-offs -and always have been.

What  Laudato Si lacks is ironically the same acknowledgement that New Atheists so critical of Christianity often lack, namely the recognition that the history of our understanding of nature or the universe through science is part and parcel of the history of Christianity itself. It was Christians, after all, who having won over the Roman elites in the 3rd century AD managed to do what all the natural philosophers since Thales had never managed to, namely, to rid nature of “gods” as an explanation for everyday occurrences thus opening up a space for our understanding of nature as something free of intention. Only such a dis-enchanted nature could be considered predictable and machine-like by thinkers such as Newton, or made a subject for “interrogation” as it was by the philosopher Francis Bacon in the 17th century. And it’s with Bacon that we see how morally complicated the whole conquest of nature narrative Pope Francis grapples with in Laudato Si actually is.

It was Christianity that inspired Bacon’s quest for scientific knowledge – his search for what he believes to be the lost true knowledge of Adam that will give us mastery over nature. The very purpose of this mastery for him was a Christian and charitable one “the relief of man’s estate”. And yet such mastery and relief cannot be won without treating nature as an object to be tamed or forced into the constraints of a machine. The universe as clock.

Tragically, it wouldn’t only be the natural world that the West would subjugate in its quest to escape the pain and privation often inflicted by nature, it would be other human beings as well. The conquest and exploitation of non-Western societies that began, not coincidentally, at the same time as the Scientific Revolution would be justified on the grounds that civilization itself and human progress found such conquest necessary as a means of escaping the trap of nature.

For a long time indeed the argument that the “civilized” had a right to exploit and take from “savages” was a biblical one. When responding to his own rhetorical question of how it could be that English settlers in the New World had the right to seize the lands of the Indians who also were “sons of Adam” the Puritan John Winthrop answered:

That which is common to all is proper to none… Why may not Christians have liberty to dwell among them in their wastelands and woods (leaving such places as they have manured for their corne) as lawfully as Abraham did among the Sodomites? (117)  

The point Winthrop was making was drawn from God’s command of Adam to a life of labor, which was considered the birth of society by John Locke and made the basis of property- that anything not developed and claimed was without value or ownership and there for the taking.

This was not just a matter of Protestant reinterpretations of the Bible. Before Winthrop the Catholic Columbus and Spanish understood their mission and the distinction between them and Native American along millenarian lines. In 1493 Pope Alexander IV gave the New World to Spain and Portugal (as if he owned them). During the opening phase of the modern world Christianity and any globalizing scientific and capitalist project were essentially indistinguishable.

Centuries later when the relationship between Christianity and science was severed by Charles Darwin and the deep time being uncovered by geology in the 19th century neither abandoned the idea of remaking what for the first time in history was truly “one world” in their own image. Yet whereas Christianity pursued its mission among the poor (in which it was soon joined by a global socialist movement) science (for a brief time) became associated with a capitalist globalization through imperialism that was based upon the biological chimera of race- the so-called “white man’s burden”. This new “scientific” racism freed itself from the need to grapple, as even a brutally racist regime like the Confederate States needed to do, with the biblical claim that all of humankind shared in the legacy of Adam and possessed souls worthy of dignity and salvation.  It was a purely imaginary speciation that ended in death camps.

The moral fate of science and society would have been dark indeed had the Nazis racial state managed to win the Second World War, and been allowed to construct a society in which individuals reduced to the status of mere animals without personhood. Society proved only a little less dark when totalitarian systems in the USSR and China seized the reigns of the narrative of socialist liberation and reduced the individual to an equally expendable cog in the machine not of nature but of history. Luckily, communism was like a fever that swept over the world through the 20th century and then, just as quickly as it came, it broke and was gone.

Instead of the nightmare of a global racist regime or its communist twin or something else we find ourselves in a very mixed situation with one state predominant -the United States- yet increasingly unable to impose its will on the wider world. During the period of US hegemony some form of capitalism and the quest for modernity has become the norm. This has not all been bad, for during this period conditions have indeed undeniably improved for vast numbers of humanity. Still the foundation of such a world in the millenarian narrative of the United States, that it was a country with a “divine mission” to bring freedom to the world was just another variant of the Christian, Eurocentric, Nazi, Communist narrative that has defined the West since Joachim de Fiore if not before. And like all those others it has resulted in a great amount of unnecessary pain and will not be sustained indefinitely.

We are entering an unprecedented period where the states with the largest economies (along with comes the prospect of the most powerful militaries) China and at some point India- continue to be the home of 10s of millions of the extremely poor. Because of this they are unlikely to accept and cannot be compelled to accept restraints on their growth whose scale dwarfs that of the already unsustainable environmental course we are already on. These great and ancient civilization/states are joined by states much weaker some of which were merely conjured up by Western imperialist at the height of their power. They are states that are extremely vulnerable to crisis and collapse. Many of these vulnerable states are in Africa (many of those in the Middle East have collapsed) where by the end of this century a much greater portion of humanity will be found and which by then will have long replaced Europe as the seat of the Christianity and the church. We are having a great deal of difficulty figuring out how we are going to extend the benefits of progress to them without wrecking the earth.

Pope Francis wants us to see this dilemma sharply. He is attempting to focus our attention on the moral impact of the environmental, consumer and political choices we have made and will make especially as we approach the end of the year and the climate summit in Paris. Let us pray that we begin to change course, for if he doesn’t, those of us still alive to see it and our children and descendants are doomed.

Though I am no great fan of the idea that this century is somehow the most important one in terms of human survival, we really do appear to be entering a clear danger zone between now and into the early years of the 22nd century. It is by sometime between now and then that human population growth will have hopefully peaked, and alternatives to the carbon economy perfected and fully deployed. Though the effects of climate change will likely last millennia with the halting of new carbon emissions the climate should at least stabilize into a new state. We will either have established effective methods of response and adaptation or be faced with the after effect of natural disasters- immense human suffering, societal collapse, refugee flows and conflicts.  We will also either have figured out a more equitable economic system and created sustainable prosperity for all or tragically have failed to do so.

What the failure to adapt to climate change and limit its impact and/ or the failure to further extend the advances of modernity into the developing world would mean was the failure of the scientific project as the “relief of man’s estate” begun by figures like Francis Bacon. Science after a long period of hope will have resulted in something quite the opposite of paradise.

However, even before these issues are decided there is the danger that we will revive something resembling the artificial religious and racial division of humanity into groups where a minority lays claim to the long legacy of human technological and cultural advancement as purely its own. This, at least, is how I read the argument of the sociologist Steve Fuller who wants us to reframe our current political disputes from left vs right to what he “up- wingers” vs “down wingers” where up wingers are those pursuing human enhancement and evolution through technology (like himself) and down wingers those arguing in some sense against technology and for the preservation of human nature – as he characterizes Pope Francis.

The problem with such a reframing is that it forces us to once again divide the world into the savage and the civilized, the retrograde and the advancing.  At its most ethical this means forgetting about the suffering or fate of those who stand on the “savage” side of this ledger and taking care of oneself and one’s own. At its least ethical it means treating other human beings as sub-human, or perhaps “sub-post human”, and is merely a revival of the Christian justification for crimes against “infidels” or white’s rationale for crimes against everyone else. It is the claim in effect that you are not as full a creature as us, and therefore do not possess equivalent rights.  Ultimately the idea that we can or should split humanity up in such a way is based on a chronological fantasy.

The belief that there is an escape hatch from our shared global fate for any significant segment of humanity during the short time frame of a century is a dangerous illusion. Everywhere else in the solar system including empty space itself is a worse place to live than the earth even when she is in deep crisis. We might re-engineer some human beings to live beyond earth, but for the foreseeable future, it won’t be many. As Ken Stanley Robison never tires of reminding us,the stars are too far away- there won’t be a real life version of Interstellar. The potential escape hatch of uploading or human merger with artificial intelligence is a long, long ways off. Regardless of how much we learn about delaying the aging clock for likely well past this century we will remain biological beings whose fate will depend on the survival of our earthly home which we evolved to live in.

In light of this Fuller is a mental time traveler who has confused a future he has visited in his head with the real world. What this “up-winger” has forgotten and the “down-winger” Pope Francis has not is that without our efforts to preserve our world and make it more just there will either be no place to build our imagined futures upon or there will be no right to claim it represents the latest chapter in the long story of our progress.

In this sense, and even in spite of his suspicion of technology, this popular and influential pope might just prove to be one of the most important figures for the fate of any form of post-humanity. For it is likely that it will only be through our care for humanity as a whole, right now, that whatever comes after us will have the space and security to actually appear in our tomorrow.

John Gray and the Puppets of Gloom

Javanese shadow puppets

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about puppets. I know that sounds way too paleo-tech, and weird, but hear me out. Puppets are an ancient technology, which, for all the millennia that passed before, and up until very, very recently, were the primary way we experienced animated art. For the vast majority of human history the way we watched projected figures in front of us playing out some imagined drama was in the form of shadows cast on the walls.

In such shadows were the forerunner of movies, and television, videogames and VR. And if you don’t think a similar artistry and brilliance to these newer medium can be found in ancient marionettes you should take a peek at the beautiful, bizarre world conjured up by the Javanese who with their long tradition continue to do shadow theater best.

Puppets have also been the jumping off point for some very deep philosophical reflections. What, after all, was the inspiration for the analogy of Plato’s cave than the world of the shadow play? Just a little over two centuries ago there was Heinrich von Kleist’s short story  “On the Marionette Theatre” that used the art of puppetry as a means of reflecting on human freedom and the difference between us, animals and machines. Philosophers can do a lot with puppets, or at least try to.

Thus when I heard that the philosopher John Gray had written a recent book whose starting point was Kleist’s short story- Gray’s The Soul of a Marionette–  I felt compelled to pick it up. I was ready to kick myself for not having realized first that Kleist’s story was an excellent way to address contemporary questions such as the difference between human and artificial intelligence or perhaps the challenges brought upon common notions of freedom in the light of recent neuroscience.

As I am not alone in seeing, rather than diminishing in importance as we have developed new and superior forms of entertainment a grasp of the ancient art puppetry might be a key to understanding our own confusing age. For it seems that we are entering a golden age of puppetry in which humans are the puppeteers of all sorts of semi-autonomous machines from drones to artificial prostitutes. A fate that seems much more likely over the next few decades than the kinds of looming full machine autonomy predicted (and feared) by many today.

The specter of the marionette can also be seen in the quite legitimate fear that some of the recent advances in neuroscience could possibly be used not only to infringe on the autonomy of animals, but on human beings as well.

In other words, I had high hopes for The Soul of a Marionette given that its jumping off point for discussing the modern world was Kleist’s brilliant 1810 story and essay on the philosophy of puppetry, but it seems I didn’t deserve a kick after all, for these hopes were dashed when I discovered Gray was merely using Kleist’s tale (and his entire book) as a prop for his otherwise stale, endless argument with liberals and “utopians”. Allow me to do in my own limited way what Gray should have done, but did not and for that those unaware will need to first hear Kleist’s tale.

It’s impossible to capture the genius of Kleist’s bizarre yet brilliant short story, but I will try nonetheless. Ostensibly it is the story of a man who encounters a famed dancer/choreographer named Herr C, attending a marionette show. This becomes the setting for what is really a philosophical discussion about how thought and free will often interfere with the ability of human individuals to effectively act- a theme which Kleist also explored in his essay On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking.

Any of us who have played a sport, given an impromptu speech, or even planted a kiss know precisely what Kleist is talking about. Consciousness, once one gets past the initial point of learning something, can actually trip us up. Herr C compares for the inquiring man clumsy human dancers with the grace of marionettes free of the limitations imposed by gravity and self-doubting minds.  The inquisitor himself recalls how with a mere joke he had inadvertently destroyed the unreflective confidence of a friend, which prompts Herr C to tell  a story illustrating how much better the natural skills of a bear are than even the most well trained human fencer. After which the two men end their conversation.

Such a story would mean little, especially for us two centuries later, had Kleist not put into the mouth of his Herr C within this dialogue what amount to philosophical and even religious speculation pregnant with connections, especially for today, and specifically in light of recent advances in artificial intelligence.

At one point in their discussion, the man inquiring of Herr C compares the marionettes to mere machines like a “hurdy gurdy” much unlike real human dancers. Herr C does indeed believe “that this final trace of the intellect could eventually be removed from the marionettes, so that their dance could pass entirely over into the world of the mechanical and be operated by means of a handle”. Yet rather than this reflecting a diminished judgement of the marionette’s visa-via human dancers, Herr C believes full artificiality and automatism to be their great virtues:

He smiled and replied that he dared to venture that a marionette constructed by a craftsman according to his requirements could perform a dance that neither he nor any other outstanding dancer of his time, not even Vestris himself, could equal. Have you, he asked while I gazed thoughtfully at the ground, ever heard of those mechanical legs that English craftsmen manufacture for unfortunate people who have lost their own limbs? I replied that I had never seen such artifacts. That’s a shame, he replied, for when I tell you that these unfortunate people are able to dance with the use of them, you most certainly will not believe me. What do I mean by using the word dance? The span of their movements is quite limited, but those movements of which they are capable are accomplished with a composure, lightness, and grace that would amaze any sensitive observer.

Here Kleist, at the very least, opens up not only the possibility that a machine constructed by a craftsman according to some specifications would be better than a human being, but also that human beings with mechanical parts would be superior to mere biological humans. In the story when the interrogator of Herr C questions this assertion that machines could potentially be superior to human beings the choreographer/philosopher responds with the assertion that:

….it would be almost impossible for a man to attain even an approximation of a mechanical being. In such a realm only a God could measure up to this matter, and this is the point where both ends of the circular world would join one another.

For Herr C, human beings were trapped between the infinite consciousness of God and the freedom from consciousness of machines. Getting free from this trap would entail eating again from the “tree of knowledge” and this would be “the last chapter of the history of the world.”

Now Kleist, of course, had no intention of addressing what we would consider questions regarding artificial intelligence, yet given developments in that field of late, one can’t help but be struck (at least if you’re not Gray) by the fact that “On the Marionette Theatre” seems to touch on current issues such as, what Yuval Harari brilliantly characterized as the “decoupling of intelligence from consciousness”. Like the marionettes patiently observed by Herr C, at least in some formerly human endeavors- such as playing chess– machines with intelligence, but no consciousness at all can outperform us. Indeed, this is the big surprise of recent gains in the ability of AI- we can get very close to smart and even superior behavior without any need for general intelligence let alone consciousness.

There are many places where Gray might have leveraged Kleist’s strange tale from addressing what such a decoupling means for the whole Western philosophical tradition, which began, after all, with the injunction “know thy self” to wrestling with claims that AI as currently constructed manifests intelligence more akin to puppet show illusions like the old Mechanical Turk than the intellect of a mind. Nor does Gray really extend Kleist’s analogy to interrogate how we, both voluntarily and involuntarily, seem hell bent on turning ourselves into a version of automata through technologies of micro-surveillance for the purpose of self-control and efficiency, or how this connects to the project of much of philosophy itself.

Gray might also have discussed how the problem with the version of marionette freedom proposed by Herr C was that it appears to be blind to the dictatorship of the puppeteer who continues to exist behind the scenes. To recognize and take steps to counter this is the first step towards ensuring technology actually does enhance human freedom, especially as that technology becomes merged with the body and brain themselves and subject to outside control.

These problems with The Soul of a Marionette stem largely from the fact that the book is ultimately the right weapon used to hit the wrong target. Although on the surface it appears that Gray is out to philosophically grapple with our current technological trajectory in light of our ancient human condition his real target is Steven Pinker and his exhausting band of optimists.

The Soul of a Marionette, I think rightly, makes the case that the philosophy behind much of modern technology is a modern form of Gnosticism. In this case Gnosticism means the belief that the world is somehow ill constructed and that through our knowledge and efforts we can fix it. But rather than make the case for this technological version of Gnosticism– ala Steve Fuller, or use such a recognition as the basis for a critique as does Luciano Floridi, Gray sidesteps the issue to make a rather weak case against common notions of “progress”.

It is indeed true that those who insist upon perpetual human progress share the same intellectual roots as those claiming we are rapidly approaching a technological singularity- most importantly both emerge out of “the death of God” in the 19th century which resulted in human beings assuming responsibility for both their own knowledge and fate, and we have been grappling with this new responsibility ever since.

Gray essentially adopts the old trope that while we have advanced technologically we have not advanced in our morality or our wisdom. At the same time, Gray essentially accepts the destination predicted by singularitarians- that human beings will be supplanted by artificial intelligence. What distinguishes him from figures like Ray Kurzweil is that Gray wants to make it clear that the coming “spiritual machines” will carry forward our same moral flaws as human beings, which, contrary to Pinker and his ilk, we have retained.

The first problem here is that any suggestion that moral progress (or even technological progress) is or is not perpetual remains mere speculation- it’s not really an answerable question. The second and bigger problem for Gray’s case is that in failing to acknowledge singularitarian technological projections as a political project Gray essentially severs our ability to influence how technological development unfolds- that is to define its moral and ethical dimension. By failing to keep in view the still very real and relevant human beings (moral and immoral) behind our intelligent machines he obscures the essential political and economic questions in his cloud of existential gloom.

Gray would like us to abandon whatever freedom we have left to join him in some stoic version“of the inward variety prized by the ancient world” (162). He is certainly premature in urging our retreat into the desert. Following him would only accelerate the very unraveling of our moral progress that he predicts. To step aside and let the the very real political and moral gains we have made over the last few centuries disappear would not be forgiven by our descendants, unless that is, they really have become soulless marionettes.

 

The Man Who Invented the Future

joachim circle trinity

It is strange how some of the most influential individuals in human history can sometimes manage to slip out of public consciousness to the extent that almost no one knows who they are. What if I were to tell you that the ideas of one person who lived almost 900 years ago were central to everything from the Protestant Reformation, to the French Revolution, to Russia and America’s peculiar type of nationalism, to Communism and Nazism, to neo-liberal optimists such as Steven Pinker and now Michael Shermer, to (of most interest to this audience) followers of Ray Kurzweil and his Singularity; would you believe me, or think I was pulling a Dan Brown?

That individual was a 12th century was a monk named Joachim de Fiore, very much for real, and who up until very recently I had never heard of. In some ways this strange monk not only was a necessary figure in formation all of the systems of thought and political movements listed above, he also might seriously be credited with inventing the very idea of the future itself.

Whether you’re a fan of Game of Thrones or not put yourself for a moment in the mind of a European in the Middle Ages. Nothing around you has what we would consider a rational explanation, rather, it can only be understood in reference to the will of an unseen deity or his demonic rival. It is quite a frightening place, and would even be spatially disorienting  for a modern person used to maps and ideas regarding how the different worlds one sees while looking at the ground or up towards the sky, especially at night, fit together. It would have seemed like being stuck at the bottom of a seemingly endless well, unable to reach the “real” world above. A vertical version of Plato’s famous cave.

Starting in the 13th century there were attempts to understand humankind’s position in space more clearly, and some of these attempts were indeed brilliant, even anticipating current idea such as the Big Bang and the multiverse. This was shown recently in a wonderful collaboration between scholars in the humanities, mathematicians and scientists on the work of another largely forgotten medieval figure, Robert Grosseteste.

Even before Grosseteste was helping expand medievals’ understanding of space, Joachim de Fiore had expanded their notion of time. For time in the medieval worldview time was almost as suffocating as the stuck-in-a-well quality of their notion of space.

Medievals largely lacked a notion of what we would understand as an impersonal future that would be different from the past. It wasn’t as if a person living then would lack the understanding that their own personal tomorrow would be different than today- that their children would age and have children of their own and that the old would die- it was that there was little notion that the world itself was changing. It would be a tough sell to get a medieval to pay for a trip into the future, for in their view whether you’d travel 100 or 1000 years forward everything would be almost exactly the same, unless, that is, the world wasn’t there to visit at all.

Being a medieval was a lot like being on death row- you know exactly how your life will end- you just wouldn’t know when exactly you’ll run out of appeals. A medieval Christian had the end of the story in the Book of Revelation with it’s cast of characters such as the Antichrist and scenes such as the battle of armageddon. A Christian was always on the look out for the arrival of all the props for the play that would be the end of the current world, and if they believed in any real difference between the present and the future it was that the world in which these events were to occur would be what we would consider less technologically and socially advanced than the Roman world into which Christ had been born. History for the medievals, far from being the story of human advancement, was instead the tale of societal decay.

Well before actual events on the ground, improvements in human living standards, technological capacity and scientific understanding, undermined this medieval idea of the future as mere decadence before a final ending, Joachim de Fiore would do so philosophically and theologically.

Joachim was born around 1135 into a well of family with his father being a member of the Sicilian court. Joachim too would begin his career as a court official, but it would not last. In his early twenties, while on a diplomatic mission to the Byzantine Emperor, Joachim broke away to visit the Holy Land, and according to legend felt the call of God.He spent the Lenten season in meditation on Mt Tabor where “on the eve of Easter day, he received ‘the fullness of knowledge’”. (3)  

He became a monk and soon a prior and abbot for of Corazzo one assumes on account of his remarkable intelligence, but Joachim would spend his time writing his great trilogy: The Harmony of the New and Old Testaments, Exposition of Apocalypse, and the Psaltery of Ten Strings eventually receiving a dispensation from his work as abbot by  Pope Clement III so he could devote himself fully to his writing.

Eventually a whole monastic order would grow up around Joachim, and though this order would last only a few centuries, and Joachim would die in 1202 before finishing his last book the Tract on the Four Gospels his legacy would almost fully be felt in the way we understand history and the future.

Joachim constructed a theory of history based on the Christian Trinity: the Age of the Father – from Adam to the birth of Christ, the Age of the Son- from Christ until The Age of the Spirit. There had been examples of breaking history into historical ages before, what made Joachim different was his idea that:

“… Scripture taught a record of man’s gradual spiritual developments, leading to a perfected future age which was the fulfillment of prophetic hope.” (13)

“… one to be ushered in with a New Age of guidance by the Holy Spirit acting through a new order of meditative men who truly contemplated God. “ (12)

What is distinct and new about this was that history was spiritualized, it became the story of humankind’s gradual improvement and moving towards a state of perfection that was achievable in the material world (not in some purely spiritual paradise). And we could arrive at this destination if only we could accept the counsel of the virtuous and wise. It was a powerful story that has done us far more harm than good.

Joachim trinitarian tree circles

Joachimite ideas can be found at the root of the millennia fantasies of the European religious wars, and were secularized in the period of the French Revolution by figures like the Marquis de Condorcet and Auguste Comte. The latter even managed to duplicate Joachim’s tri-part model of history only now the ages only now they were The Theological, The Metaphysical, and the Positive Stage which we should read as religious, philosophical and scientific with Joachim’s monks being swapped for scientists.  

Hegel turned this progressive version of history into a whole system of philosophy and the atheist Marx turned Hegel “upside down” and created a system of political economy and revolutionary program. The West would justify its imperial conquest of Africa and subjugation of Asia on the grounds that they were bringing the progressive forces of history to “barbaric” peoples. The great ideological struggle of the early 20th century between Communism, Nazism, and Liberalism pitted versions of historical determinism against one another.

If postmodernism should have meant the end of overarching metanarratives the political movements that have so far most shaped the 21st century seem not to have gotten the memo. The century began with an attack by a quasi- millenarian cult (though they would not recognize Joachim as a forbearer). The 9-11 attacks enabled an averous and ultimately stupid foreign policy on the part of the United States which was only possible because the American people actually believed in their own myth that their system of government represented the end of history and the secret wish of every oppressed people in the world.

Now we have a truly apocalyptic cult in the form of ISIS while Russia descends into its own version of Joachimite fantasy based on Russia’s “historical mission” while truth itself disappears in a postmodern hall of mirrors. Thus it is that Joachim’s ideas regarding the future remain potent. And the characters attracted to his idea of history are, of course, not all bad. I’d include among this benign group both singularitarians and the new neo-liberal optimists. The first because they see human history moving towards an inevitable conclusion and believe that their is an elite that should guide us into paradise – the technologists. Neo-liberal optimists may not be so starry eyed but they do see history as the gradual unfolding of progress and seem doubtful that this trend might reverse.

The problem I have with the singularitarians is their blindness to the sigmoid curve – the graveyard where all exponentials go to die. There is a sort of “evolutionary” determinism to singularitarianism that seems to think not only that there is only one destination to history, but that we already largely know what that destination is. For Joachim such determinism makes sense, his world having been set up and run by an omnipotent God, for what I assume to be mostly secular singularitarians such determinism does not make sense and we are faced with the contingencies of evolution and history.

My beef with the neo-liberal optimists, in addition to the fact that they keep assaulting me with their “never been better” graphs is that I care less that human suffering has decreased than the reasons why, so that such a decrease can be continued or its lower levels preserved. I also care much more where the moral flaws of our society remain acute because only then will I know where to concentrate my political and ethical action. If the world today is indeed better than the world in the past (and it’s not a slam dunk argument even with the power point) let’s remember the struggles that were necessary to achieve that and continue to move ourselves towards Joachim’s paradise while being humble and wise enough to avoid mistaking ourselves with the forces of God or history, a mistake that has been at the root of so much suffering and evil.            

Freedom in the Age of Algorithms

modern-times-22

Reflect for a moment on what for many of us has become the average day. You are awoken by your phone whose clock is set via a wireless connection to a cell phone tower, connected to a satellite, all ultimately ending in the ultimate precision machine, a clock that will not lose even a second after 15 billion years of ticking. Upon waking you connect to the world through the “sirene server” of your pleasure that “decides” for you based on an intimate profile built up over years the very world you will see- ranging from Kazakhstan to Kardasian, and connects your intimates, and those whom you “follow” and, if you’re lucky enough, your streams of “followers”.

Perhaps you use a health app to count your breakfast calories or the fat you’ve burned on your morning run, or perhaps you’ve just spent the morning by playing Bejeweled, and will need to pay for your sins of omission later. On your mindless drive to work you make the mistake of answering a text from the office while in front of a cop who unbeknownst to you has instantly run your licence plate to find out if you are a weirdo or terrorist. Thank heavens his algorithm confirms you’re neither.

When you pull into the Burger King drive through to buy your morning coffee, you thoughtlessly end up buying yet another bacon egg and cheese with a side of hash browns in spite of your best self nagging you from inside your smart phone. Having done this one too many times this month your fried food preference has now been sold to the highest bidders, two databanks, through which you’ll now be receiving annoying coupons in the mail along with even more annoying and intrusive adware while you surf the web, the first from all the fast food restaurants along the path of your morning commute, the other friendly, and sometimes frightening, suggestions you ask your doctor about the new cholesterol drug evolocumab.

You did not, of course, pay for your meal with cash but with plastic. Your money swirling somewhere out there in the ether in the form of ones and zeroes stored and exchanged on computers to magically re-coalesce and fill your stomach with potatoes and grease. Your purchases correlated and crunched to define you for all the machines and their cold souls of software that gauge your value as you go about your squishy biological and soulless existence.

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The bizarre thing about this common scenario is that all of this happens before you arrive at the office, or store, or factory, or wherever it is you earn your life’s bread. Not only that, almost all of these constraints on how one views and interacts with the world have been self imposed. The medium through which much of the world and our response to is now apps and algorithms of one sort or another. It’s gotten to the point that we now need apps and algorithms to experience what it’s like to be lost, which seems to, well… misunderstand the definition of being lost.

I have no idea where future historians, whatever their minds are made of, will date the start of this trend of tracking and constraining ourselves so as to maintain “productivity” and “wellness”, perhaps with all those 7- habits- of- highly- effective books that started taking up shelf space in now ancient book stores sometime in the 1980’s, but it’s certainly gotten more personal and intimate with the rise of the smart phone. In a way we’ve brought the logic of the machine out of the factory and into our lives and even our bodies- the idea of super efficient man-machine merger as invented by Frederick Taylor and never captured better than in Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant 1936 film Modern Times.

The film is for silent pictures what the Wizard of OZ was for color and bridges the two worlds where almost all of the spoken parts are through the medium of machines including a giant flat screen that seemed entirely natural in a world that has been gone for eighty years. It portrays the Tramp asserting his humanity in the dehumanizing world of automation found in a factory where even eating lunch had been mechanized and made maximally efficient. Chaplin no doubt would have been pleasantly surprised with how well much of the world turned out given the bleakness of economic depression and soon world war he was facing, but I think he also would have been shocked at how much we have given up of the Tramp in us all without reason and largely of our own volition.

Still, the fact of the matter is that this new rule of apps and and algorithms much of which comes packaged in the spiritualized wrapping of “mindfulness” and “happiness” would be much less troubling did it not smack of a new form of Marx’s “opiate for the people” and divert us away from trying to understand and challenge the structural inadequacies of society.

For there is nothing inherently wrong with measuring performance as a means to pursue excellence, or attending to one’s health and mental tranquility. There’s a sort of postmodern cynicism that kicks in whenever some cultural trend becomes too popular, and while it protects us from groupthink, it also tends to lead to intellectual and cultural paralysis.  It’s only when performance measures find their way into aspects of our lives that are trivialized by quantifying – such as love or family life- that I think we should earnestly worry, along, perhaps, with the atrophy of our skills to engage with the world absent these algorithmic tools.

My really deep concern lies with the way apps and algorithms now play the role of invisible instruments of power. Again, this is nothing new to the extent that in the pre-digital age such instruments came in the form of bureaucracy and the rule by decree rather than law as Hannah Arendt laid out in her Origins of Totalitarianism back in the 1950:

In governments by bureaucracy decrees appear in their naked purity as though they were no longer issued by powerful men, but were the incarnation of power itself and the administrator only its accidental agent. There are no general principles behind the decree, but ever changing circumstances which only an expert can know in detail. People ruled by decree never know what rules them because of the impossibility of understanding decrees in themselves and the carefully organized ignorance of specific circumstances and their practical significance in which all administrators keep their subjects.  (244)

It’s quite easy to read the rule of apps and algorithms in that quote especially the part about “only an expert can know in detail” and “carefully organized ignorance” a fact that became clear to me after I read what is perhaps the best book yet on our new algorithmically ruled lives, Frank Pasquale’s  The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information.

I have often wondered what exactly was being financially gained by gathering up all this data on individuals given how obvious and ineffective the so-called targeted advertisements that follow me around on the internet seem to be, and Pasquale managed to explain this clearly. What is being “traded” is my “digital reputation” whether as a debtor, or insurance risk (medical or otherwise), or customer with a certain depth of pocket and identity- “father, 40’s etc”- or even the degree to which I can be considered a “sucker” for scam and con artists of one sort or another.

This is a reputation matrix much different from the earlier arrangements based or personal knowledge or later impersonal systems such as credit reporting (though both had their abuses) or that for health records under H.I.P.A.A  in the sense that the new digital form or reputation is largely invisible to me, its methodology inscrutable, its declarations of my “identity” immune to challenge and immutable. It is as Pasquale so-aptly terms a “black box” in the strongest sense of that word meaning unintelligible and opaque to the individual within it like the rules Kafka’s characters suffer under in his novels about the absurdity of hyper- bureaucracy (and of course more) The Castle and The Trial.   

Much more troubling, however, is how such corporate surveillance interacts with the blurring of the line between intelligence and police functions  – the distinction between the foreign and domestic spheres- that has been what of the defining features of our constitutional democracy. As Pasquale reminds us:

Traditionally, a critical distinction has been made between intelligence and investigation. Once reserved primarily for overseas spy operations, “intelligence” work is anticipatory, it is the job of agencies like the CIA, which gather potentially useful information on external enemies that pose a threat to national security. “Investigation” is what police do once they have evidence of a crime. (47)

It isn’t only that such moves towards a model of “predictive policing” mean the undoing of constitutionally guaranteed protections and legal due process (presumptions of innocence, and 5th amendment protections) it is also that it has far too often turned the police into a political instrument, which, as Pasquale documents, have monitored groups ranging from peaceful protesters to supporters of Ron Paul all in the name of preventing a “terrorist act” by these members of these groups. (48)

The kinds of illegal domestic spying performed by the NSA and its acronymic companions was built on back of an already existing infrastructure of commercial surveillance. The same could be said for the blurring of the line between intelligence and investigation exemplified by creation of “fusion centers” after 9-11 which repurposed the espionage tools once contained to intelligence services and towards domestic targets and for the purpose of controlling crime.

Both domestic spying by federal intelligence agencies and new forms of invasive surveillance by state and local law enforcement had been enabled by the commercial surveillance architecture established by the likes of corporate behemoths such as FaceBook and Google to whom citizens had surrendered their right to privacy seemingly willingly.

Given the degree to which these companies now hold near monopolies hold over the information citizens receive Pasquale thinks it would be wise to revisit the breakup of the “trusts” in the early part of the last century. It’s not only that the power of these companies is already enormous it’s that were they ever turned into overt political tools they would undermine or upend democracy itself given that citizen action requires the free exchange of information to achieve anything at all.

The black box features of our current information environment have not just managed to colonize the worlds of security, crime, and advertisement, they have become the defining feature of late capitalism itself. A great deal of the 2008 financial crisis can be traced to the computerization of finance over the 1980’s. Computers were an important feature of the pre-crisis argument that we had entered a period of “The Great Equilibrium”. We had become smart enough, and our markets sophisticated enough (so the argument went) that there would be no replay of something like the 1929 Wall Street crash and Great Depression. Unlike the prior era markets without debilitating crashes were not to be the consequence of government regulation to contain the madness of crowds and their bubbles and busts, but in part from the new computer modeling which would exorcise from the markets the demon of “animal spirits” and allow human beings to do what they had always dreamed of doing- to know the future.  Pasquale describes it this way:

As information technology improved, lobbyists could tell a seductive story: regulators were no longer necessary.  Sophisticated investors could vet their purchases.  Computer models could identify and mitigate risk. But the replacement of regulation by automation turned out to be as fanciful as flying cars or space colonization. (105)

Computerization gave rise to ever more sophisticated financial products, such as mortgage backed securities, based on ever more sophisticated statistical models that by bundling investments gave the illusion of stability. Even had there been more prophets crying from the wilderness that the system was unstable they would not have been able to prove it for the models being used were “a black box, programmed in proprietary software with the details left to the quants and the computers”. (106)

It seems there is a strange dynamic at work throughout the digital economy, not just in finance but certainly exhibited in full force there, where the whole game in essence a contest of asymmetric information. You either have the data someone else lacks to make a trade, you process that data faster, or both. Keeping your algorithms secret becomes a matter of survival for as soon as they are out there they can be exploited by rivals or cracked by hackers- or at least this is the argument companies make. One might doubt it though once this you see how nearly ubiquitous this corporate secrecy and patent hoarding has become in areas radically different from software such as the pharmaceuticals or by biotech corporations like Monsanto which hold patents on life itself and whose logic leads to something like Paolo Bacigalupi’s dystopian novel The Windup Girl.

For Pasquale complexity itself becomes a tool of obfuscation in which corruption and skimming can’t help but become commonplace. The contest of asymmetric information means companies are engaged in what amounts to an information war where the goal is as much to obscure real value to rivals and clients so as to profit from the difference in this distortion. In such an atmosphere markets stop being able to perform the informative role Friedrich Hayek thought was their very purpose.  Here’s Pasquale himself:

…financialization has created enormous uncertainty about the value of companies, homes, and even (thanks to the pressing need for bailouts) the once rock solid promises of governments themselves.

Finance thrives in this environment of radical uncertainty, taking commissions in cash as investors (or, more likely, their poorly monitored agents) race to speculate on or hedge against an ever less knowable future. (138)

Okay, if Pasquale has clearly laid out the problem, what is his solution? I could go through a list of his suggestions, but I should stick to the general principle. Pasquale’s goal, I think, is to restore our faith in our ability to publicly shape digital technology in ways that better reflect our democratic values. That the argument which claims software is unregulable is an assumption not a truth and the tools and models for regulation and public input over the last century for the physical world are equally applicable to the digital one.

We have already developed a complex, effective, system of privacy protections in the form of H.I.P.A, there are already examples of mandating fair understandable contracts (as opposed to indecipherable “terms of service” agreements) in the form of various consumer protection provisions, up until the 1980’s we were capable of regulating the boom and bust cycles of markets without crashing the economy. Lastly the world did not collapse when earlier corporations that had gotten so large they threatened not only the free competition of markets, but more importantly, democracy itself, were broken up and would not collapse were the like of FaceBook, Google or the big banks broken up either.

Above all, Pasquale urges us to seek out and find some way to make the algorithmization of the world intelligible and open to the political, social and ethical influence of a much broader segment of society than the current group of programmers and their paymasters who have so far been the only ones running the show. For if we do not assert such influence and algorithms continue to structure more and more of our relationship with the world and each other, them algorithmization and democracy would seem to be on a collision course. Or, as Taylor Owen pointed out in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs:

If algorithms represent a new ungoverned space, a hidden and potentially ever-evolving unknowable public good, then they are an affront to our democratic system, one that requires transparency and accountability in order to function. A node of power that exists outside of these bounds is a threat to the notion of collective governance itself. This, at its core, is a profoundly undemocratic notion—one that states will have to engage with seriously if they are going to remain relevant and legitimate to their digital citizenry who give them their power.

Pasquale has given us an excellent start to answering the question of how democracy, and freedom, can survive in the age of algorithms.