A world ruled by networks

Pollock number 7

One of the more confusing characteristics of our age is how it trucks in contradiction. As a prime example: the internet is the most democratizing medium in the history of humankind giving each of us the capability to reach potentially billions with the mere stroke of a key. At the same time this communication landscape is one of unprecedented concentration dominated by a handful of companies such as Facebook ,Google, Twitter, and in China, Baidu.

For quite some time now I’ve been trying to figure out a way to wrap my head around this incongruity. A recent book called The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo I think has taken me at least part of the way there.

Thinkers who focus on the internet tend to take an either utopian or dystopian track. Sometimes they even managed to combine both of these views by presenting the early history of the internet as a kind of Eden which was lost corporate to greed and the state’s insatiable hunger for power.

What makes Ramo’s argument interesting is that he transcends this division by claiming the internet’s seemingly contradictory tendencies to move towards both the diffusion and the concentration power are built into the nature of the internet as a network itself. Jaron Lanier has done something similar, and I myself, in part,  jumping off of Lanier, have also tried to make the point that the what appear to be rival panoptic or anarchic destinies of the internet are instead merely different sides of the same phenomena. What makes  Ramo’s case in The Seventh Sense different from either Lanier or myself is that he largely openly embraces the new order, connects its development to the science of networks, and tries to foresee the geopolitical implications of power moving in this direction.

We are far too deep into the age of ISIS beheading videos on YouTube and online mobs for the early utopian hopes for the internet continue to be plausible, and unless you are Parag Khanna, we are no longer so naive as to think that connection naturally bring with it understanding and compassion for the other. Ramo is no utopian either. Writing:

The simple, once- appealing idea that connection is liberation is wrong. To connect now is to be encased in a powerful and dynamic tension. (120)

Our current communications architecture makes diffuse networks of individuals who share a common goal possible- it is therefore a tool of enormous empowerment. Such networked powers, however, erode and undermine all established powers that have failed to reorganize themselves for the network age.

This pulling movement, the way that cores and distributions of power mercilessly jerk at certain once- essential structures and objects and people, explains a lot about our age, including the failure of institutions we once relied upon. Connection changes the nature of an object. That’s true for your doctor, your bank account, your army-  and for billions of people whose lives will soon alter irreversibly once they connect to markets to knowledge to the world. We have to ask just how many of the scaffolds humans erected, ones that were essential for Enlightenment- era advances, will now be pulled down. (121)

Though he doesn’t apply it, the case Ramo makes in The Seventh Sense is a good way to understand the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Trump has essentially leveraged Twitter and the media’s weakness for sensationalism to successfully pull off a coup of a major political party. He’s been able to do this because a large part of the American public no longer trusts once venerated institutions and elites, including the fact- checking role of the 4th estate itself.

At the same time networks flatten traditional power structures they are built on power laws that filter communications through only a handful of hyper-concentrated nodes. As Ramo puts it:

…. the massive data centers they built, they realized, are so large that they are nothing less than computers that are the size of massive buildings. Solar fields are their power supply; entire rivers are there cooling tubes. and they enable nothing less than Magic instant knowledge, connection to distant lands, a constant picture of what humanity knows. This is the growing, heroic scale of operations now. (73)

Another way in which Ramo might be said to explain the current Trumpian turn is his argument that we are moving from an era of openness to one of gates. That is, an increasing effort and desire to establish protocols and “walls”, although, not necessarily centered on the nation-state.  Indeed after the era of tearing down walls and globalization that followed the end of the Cold War we appear to be entering the golden age of wall building. Vulnerability in the age of networks leads to a desire not only to surveil, but to tightly control who can enter what Ramo calls a “gateland”  and under what circumstances. Yet the rising prominence of gatelands is less about the “revenge of geography” than a coming age of topology. In topology what matters less is physical proximity than the connection between points. Far-flung cities might be more connected to one another through financial and cultural connections than either are to their more geographically proximate hinterlands.      

In an age of networks it is the plumbing that counts, and those who control the means of connection wield an enormous amount of power. And what makes this situation incredibly dangerous is that neither the public nor the political class understand these systems of connection, nor could they, which is not an argument the for  lack of intelligence of either. Rather, only a very narrow slice among the tech-elite understand these things. Ramo calls them the “New Elite”, and like Plato’s dream of philosopher kings, he sees a real danger that they might seize control, or we might surrender control to them, as our society becomes so increasingly complex to become incomprehensible.  Artificial intelligence is becoming the primary tool to deal with this incomprehensibility, most especially the flood of all types of data brought about by the networked world.

In the short to medium term Ramo sees a battle being waged between the old order and those who have developed the seventh sense, the ability to understand and navigate the world of networks, and those individuals and institutions that either cling to the old order or fail to master networks. These networks Ramo then envisions struggling between themselves with the last battle being one between the human network masters and the AI they have created and deployed to survive the age of networks.

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For all its insight the seventh sense is not without its problems. Pegged as the heir to Henry Kissinger, Ramo argues for a globalist project that is ultimately untenable. He urges the US to use its historical legacy as the primary creator of today’s global networks to seek to create the world’s dominant gatelands.

Yet that ship has already sailed. It’s not only that other large countries, most importantly China, have already decided that they will establish their own gatelands, it is that the very mood of the US itself seems to be moving in the direction of much more circumscribed national gatelands. Ramo also exhibits a degree of technological determinism, and this very determinism blinds him from seeing that the future will be full of surprises, including the surprise of technologies we now believe inevitable never actually arriving.

One alternative future he did not explore is the return to dominance of centralized powers after they have mastered the age of networks, which is just one of the crazy futures that might be seen to exist in embryo in the current technological and social order. Still, even if Ramo failed to inspire me to develop a seventh sense, or even if I remain uncertain as to what such a sense even is, he did help me to see the present more clearly, which is the first step towards understanding the future.

 

How our police became storm troopers, redux

J Bachman photo 2016

Give events of late I thought it relevant to re-post this piece from the summer of 2014 on the militarization of policing. Sadly, almost nothing has changed, except that my prediction that police would start using robots to kill people has come true, though in a way I certainly did not anticipate. I haven’t changed anything from the original post besides cleaning up the some of the shitty grammar and adding the mind-blowing photo by Jonathan Bachman, a freelancer for Reuters. If they have history books in 20 years time that photo will be in them.     

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The police response to protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri were filled with images that have become commonplace all over the world in the last decade. Police dressed in once futuristic military gear confronting civilian protesters as if they were a rival army. The uniforms themselves put me in mind of nothing so much as the storm-troopers from Star Wars. I guess that would make the rest of us the rebels.

A democracy has entered a highly unstable state when its executive elements, the police and security services it pays for through its taxes, which exist for the sole purpose of protecting and preserving that very community, are turned against it. I would have had only a small clue as to how this came about were it not for a rare library accident.   

I was trying to get out a book on robots in warfare for a project I am working on, but had grabbed the book next to it by mistake. Radley Balko’s The Rise of the Warrior Cop has been all over the news since Ferguson broke, and I wasn’t the first to notice it because within a day or two of the crisis the book was recalled. The reason is that Ferguson has focused public attention on an issue we should have been grappling with for quite some time – the militarization of America’s police forces. How that came about is the story The Rise of the Warrior Cop lays out cogently and with power.

As Balko explains much of what we now take as normal police functions would have likely been viewed by the Founders as “a standing army”, something they were keen to prevent. In addition to the fact that Americans were incensed by the British use of soldiers to exercise police functions, the American Revolution had been inspired in part by the use by the British of “General Warrants” that allowed them to bust into American homes to search in their battle against smuggling. From its beginning the United States has had a tradition of separation between military and police power along with a tradition of limiting police power, indeed, this the reason our constitutional government exists in the first place.

Balko points out how the U.S. as it developed its own police forces, something that became necessary with the country’s urbanization and modernization, maintained these traditions which only fairly recently started to become eroded, largely beginning with the Nixon administration’s “law and order” policy and especially the “war on drugs” launched under Reagan.

In framing the problem of drug use as a war rather than a public health concern we started down the path of using the police to enforce military style solutions. If drug use is a public health concern then efforts will go into providing rehabilitation services for addicts, addressing systemic causes and underlying perceptions, and legalization as a matter of personal liberty where doing so does not pose inordinate risk to the public. If the problem of drug use is framed as a war then this means using kinetic action to disrupt and disable “enemy” forces. It means adhering as close to the limits of what is legally allowable when using force to protect one’s own “troops”. It mean mass incarceration of captured enemy forces. Fighting a war means that training and equipment needs focus on the effective use of force and not “social work”.

The militarization of America’s police forces that began in earnest with the war on drugs, Balko reminds us, is not an issue that can easily be reduced to Conservative vs Liberal, Republican vs Democrat. In the 1990’s conservatives were incensed at police brutality and misuse of military style tactics at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Yet conservatives largely turned a blind eye to the same brutality used against anarchists and anti-globalization protestors in The Battle of Seattle in 1999. Conservatives have largely supported the militarized effort to stomp out drug abuse and the use of swat teams to enforce laws against non-violent offenders, especially illegal immigrants.

The fact that police were increasingly turning to military tactics and equipment was not, however, all an over-reaction. It was inspired by high profile events such as the Columbine massacre, and a dramatic robbery in North Hollywood in 1997. In the latter the two robbers Larry Phillips, Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu wore body armor police with light weapons could not penetrate. The 2008 attacks in Mumbai in which a small group of heavily armed and well trained terrorists were able to kill 164 people and temporarily cripple large parts of the city should serve as a warning of what happens when police can not rapidly deploy lethal force as should a whole series of high profile “lone wolf” style shootings. Police can thus rationally argue that they need access to heavy weapons when needed and swat teams and training for military style contingencies as well. It is important to remember that the police daily put their lives at risk in the name of public safety.

Yet militarization has gone too far and is being influenced more by security corporations and their lobbyists than conditions in actual communities. If the drug war and attention grabbing acts of violence was where the militarization of America’s police forces began, 9-11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq acted as an accelerant on the trend. These events launched a militarized-police-industrial complex, the country was flooded with grants from the Department of Homeland Security which funded even small communities to set up swat teams and purchase military grade equipment. Veterans from wars which were largely wars of occupation and counterinsurgency were naturally attracted to using these hard won skill sets in civilian life- which largely meant either becoming police or entering the burgeoning sector of private security.

So that’s the problem as laid out by Balko, what is his solution? For Balko, the biggest step we could take to rolling back militarization is to end the drug war and stop using military style methods to enforce immigration law. He would like to see a return to community policing, if not quite Mayberry, then at least something like the innovative program launched in San Antonio which uses police as social workers rather than commandos in to respond to mental health related crime.

Balko also wants us to end our militarized response to protests. There is no reason why protesters in a democratic society should be met by police wielding automatic weapons or dispersed through the use of tear gas. We can also stop the flood of federal funding being used by local police departments to buy surplus military equipment. Something that the Obama administration prompted by Ferguson seems keen to review.

A positive trend that Balko sees is the ubiquity of photography and film permitted by smart phones which allows protesters to capture brutality as it occurs a right which everyone has, despite the insistence of some police in protest situations to the contrary, and has been consistently upheld by U.S. courts. Indeed the other potentially positive legacy of Ferguson other than bringing the problem of police militarization into the public spotlight, for there is no wind so ill it does not blow some good, might be that it has helped launch true citizen based and crowd-sourced media.

My criticism of The Rise of the Warrior Cop, to the extent I have any, is that Balko only tells the American version of this tale, but it is a story that is playing out globally. The inequality of late capitalism certainly plays a role in this. Wars between states has at least temporarily been replaced by wars within states. Global elites who are more connected to their rich analogs in other countries than they are to their own nationals find themselves turning to a large number of the middle class who find themselves located in one form or another in the security services of the state. Elites pursue equally internationalized rivals, such as drug cartels and terrorist networks like one would a cancerous tumor- wishing to rip it out by force- not realizing this form of treatment is not getting to the root of the problem and might even end up killing the patient.

More troublingly they use these security services to choke off mass protests by the poor and other members of the middle class now enabled by mobile technologies because they find themselves incapable of responding to the problems that initiated these protests with long-term political solutions. This relates to another aspect of the police militarization issue Balko doesn’t really explore, namely the privatization of police services as those who can afford them retreat behind the fortress of private security while the conditions of the society around them erode.

Maybe there was a good reason that The Rise of the Warrior Cop was placed on the library shelf next to books on robot weapons after all. It may sound crazy, but perhaps in the not so far off future elites will automate policing as they are automating everything else. Mass protests, violent or not, will be met not with flesh and blood policemen but military style robots and drones. And perhaps only then will once middle class policemen made poor by the automation of their calling realize that all this time they have been fighting on the wrong side of the rebellion.

 

Before the artisanal cheese comes the darkness

Contrasts

In 1832 the English architect, Augustus Pugin, published his beautiful book Contrasts. The book was full of sketches in which Pugin juxtaposed the bland, utilitarian architecture of the 19th century with the intricate splendor of buildings built in medieval Europe.

By any honest reckoning Pugin was being unfair. The buildings he selected as symbols of modern banality not only weren’t the 19th century’s best, he tended to draw such structures from the most unflattering angles while engaging in an early form of airbrushing when it came to the flaws of of the Gothic structures he so loved.

Yet the public didn’t care about such artistic dissembling. Rather, Pugin ended up launching what became known as the Gothic Revival. A civilization undergoing the most stupendous technological and social transformation since the adoption of agriculture would dress itself up in the form of a religious culture that had passed from the seen centuries before with the Reformation.

I feel like we continue to engage in such nostalgic fantasies because a cartoon version of the past is so much easier to wrap our minds around than either the fractal present or the Stretch Armstrong of multiple, incompatible predictions regarding the future. Brexit is a version of nostalgia for a British Empire that will never return, just as Trump promises a return to American “greatness.” ISIS is the ultimate, terrifying, nostalgia trip and living in its “caliphate” must be a little like entering an Islamic version of colonial Williamsburg- all the more banal because the people living there think it is actually real.

There are many legitimate reasons to look to history, and I often do. The problem with our current fetish for the past is that we seem to be looking to it for whole social structures rather than as either a source of design and aesthetics or as object lesson in the eternal human capacity for both folly and resilience.

For someone left-of-center, such as myself, these right-wing and fundamentalist versions of nostalgia are easy targets. But the left, along with some of the more communitarian elements on the right, has its own version of such nostalgia. It is the way such longings for a return to the past have associated themselves with technology that have perhaps  prevented us from seeing it.

Unfortunately, Douglas Rushkoff’s recent book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus does precisely this. Hipster-like, it creates a vision of the future out of a nostalgaized version of the past. I say unfortunately because I was such a big fan of Rushkoff’s prior book Present Shock and was therefore looking forward to some genuinely novel solutions to our current institutional crisis that avoided facile techno-solutionism. Instead, what I found was the latest version of Pugin, an attempt to leap over the dilemmas of the present through the imagining of a past that never was. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The title of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus stems from protests in 2013- 14 over Google’s private bus service which opposition believed was exacerbating San Francisco’s already crippling housing crisis and skyrocketing levels of inequality. Rushkoff’s task was to answer the question of how a company whose motto was “Don’t be Evil” could end up the target of such intense public derision. To answer this question he cast his net wide into the origins of capitalism itself.

Stories of a Fall always start out by painting a picture of the paradise we have left behind, and Rushkoff locates his in strangest of all places- medieval Europe during the Crusades although in a version that is shorn of all its religiosity, fanaticism and barbarism and put in terms all of us aspiring bobos  can understand.

For a happy couple of centuries before industrialism and the modern era the business landscape looked a little bit like Burning Man, the famous festival for digital artisans.

The bazaar was a peer-to-peer economy, something along the lines of e-bay or Etsy, where attention to human relationships and reputation promoted better business. (16)

The snake that ended up ruining this paradise were the nobility.

The people’s economy were growing while the aristocracy remained stagnant or even shrank. The nobles had no way to keep up. They looked at this new phenomenon of wealth and wanted some for themselves…. (17)

…industrialism was about restoring the power of those at the top by minimizing the value and price of human laborers. This became the embedded value system of industrialism, and we see it in every aspect of the commercial landscape, then and now.   (19)

We spent all of the 19th and the majority of the 20th century in the age of industrialization, but then in the 1970’s a whole set of digital innovations occurred which up until recently, Rushkoff argues, held out the prospect of a return to what he sees as the more humane and peer-to-peer features of the pre-capitalist world. Think of the openness of the Internet when it first emerged as a new form of public space, or the enormous success and power of purely volunteer platforms like Wikipedia.

Instead of a golden age of the peer-to-peer we got Uber. Rather than facilitate the horizontal distribution of wealth and power digital technologies have give rise to almost unprecedented degrees of inequality, surveillance and control. The reason Rushkoff thinks this has happened is that we’ve retained capitalism’s  compulsion to extract value from labor, whether that’s through platforms that strip employees of benefits and protections, or because all of us have become digital peasants forced to grow data for our server lords that reap the harvest.

The solution to our dilemma, Rushkoff posits, is for us to preserve and expand digital technologies’ inherent capacity for peer-to-peer sharing and action. Creating an economy in which human element is restored. What could anyone object to when it comes to that? Unfortunately, a lot.

Let’s start with Rushkoff’s version of history. The problem with the type Manichean explanation he offers where there were good guys- peasants and the middle classes- versus bad guys- the nobility-  is that they inevitably end up glossing over what turn out to be extremely important historical details. Sure, the nobility played an initial role as the catalyst for industrialization with the enclosure movement in England, but once the process got going the nobility were soon sidelined to the extent that an industrial juggernaut like the United States didn’t need a nobility for industrialization at all. Not only that, the industrial revolution would so undermine the nobility that today they barely exist except in a mummified form as a version of celebrity, however adorable. But rather than quibble over interpretations of the past, what about the more important question of the future?

It certainly seems to be the case that the young of both the left and the right seem to favor a version of society and state as decentralized as possible. I myself used to belong squarely in this camp. What convinced me otherwise was both the failure of the Occupy movement along with the broken promises of digital utopianism itself. This was the case I made in a recent article:“Algorithms versus Hive Minds: a premonition on democracy’s future. “ That piece makes an argument I’ve only grown more convinced of in light of what seems to be near continuous institutional collapse and the often frightening ways new forms of power are being manifested in the realms of both business and politics. We have yet to come to terms with these developments, and are very unlikely to find any way of coming to do so by looking to the Middle Ages.

It is also the case that arguments for a peer-to-peer society seem oblivious to the kinds of infrastructure and expertise that go into any modern civilization. It’s a blindness that can only be truly cured through travel to societies in a state of early or failed development, or failing that to experience the convulsion of one’s society as the British are now with Brexit.

Peer-to-peer networks are not going to provide our medical care, or build our roads and bridges, or even, despite leaps of the imagination, fight our wars. They will not prove to be the source of most scientific and technological breakthroughs, provide more than a minority of our manufactured goods, and probably could not, even if our diets were greatly reduced in quantity and variety, provide for our food.

Perhaps, peer-to-peer technologies and universal information will provide ways for non-experts to do things currently impossible for even the most dedicated groups of amateurs. Still, no one should assume all of these networks will be good citizens like Wikipedia, nor is it necessary that decisions and power in such groups will take an egalitarian form.

Rather, they’re just as likely to be composed of groups set up by elites with dark political agendas – think the Koch brothers- and run by some algorithm. Anyone thinking about the future of social organization should study both Uber and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The very ad hoc nature of groups brought together by networking technology mean that power will likely become even more concentrated in those groups that cohere over longer periods of time: namely private and public bureaucracies such as multinational corporations or the NSA.

Perhaps the unprecedented period of economic and technological growth that occurred over the last few centuries is indeed coming to a close. And perhaps we’re adjusting to this end of growth in the way civilizations in the past have, by a systemic retrenchment back to the local.  Though it might be the case that such forms of retrenchment are much less about collapse than the sign of civilizations capacity for adaptation and resilience, and even if such ages of retreat are much less barbaric than we imagine, the transition to them is often shocking and painful. For before the artisanal cheese comes the darkness.

 

Imagining the Anthropocene

Mining operations near Green Valley, Arizona. (NASA)

 

Almost a year ago now, while reading an article by the historian Yuval Harari in the British newspaper The Guardian, I had a visceral experience of what it means to live in the Anthropocene. Harari’s piece was about the horrors of industrial meat production, and as evidence of the scale of the monstrosity, he listed a set of facts that I had either not known, or had never taken the time to fully contemplate. Facts such as that the world’s domesticated animals, taken together, weigh not only double that of all the human beings on earth, but are seven times the weight of all of the world’s large land animals combined, or that there are more chickens in Europe than all of that continent’s wild birds taken together.  It struck me while reading Harri’s piece the degree to which we as a species had changed much of nature into something mechanically hellish, and I shuddered at the thought.

If one conducted a kind of moral forensics of the human impact on nature certainly industrial farming would be among its darkest aspects. Luckily for us, such a forensics would also result in some signs of human benevolence, such as the millions of acres many of the world’s nations have set aside for the protection of wildlife, or our growing propensity to establish animal rights.

While a moral forensics would give us an idea of our impact on the natural world right now, the proposed geological epoch known as the Anthropocene is measured in the duration of the geological and atmospheric scars we are leaving behind, for geological epochs are marked off by the differences in the layers that have been put down by planet transforming processes. Collectively we have become just such a process, and hypothetical geologists living in the deep future will be able to read evidence of how we have shaped and changed the earth and the rest of life upon it. Whether that evidence ultimately comes to reflect our uncontrolled and self-destructive avariciousness and shortsightedness, or our benevolence and foresight, remains up to us to decide.

Communicating the idea that the Anthropocene is both the period of greatest danger and a historical opportunity to right our relationship to the planet and to one another isn’t easy in an age of ever sharper ideological divisions and politics performed in 140 characters. Nevertheless, such communication is something Steven Bradshaw’s newly released documentary ANTHROPOCENE does brilliantly introducing viewers to the idea in a way that retains its complexity while at the same time conveying the concept in the visceral way only a well done film can accomplish.

ANTHROPOCENE  conveys the perspective of seven members of the working group on the Anthropocene, along with an environmental expert, on what it means to say we have entered the Anthropocene. Among them are some of the leading figures of twenty-first century environmentalism: Will Steffen, Erle Ellis, Jan Zalasiewicz, Andrew Revkin, John McNeil, Monica Berger Gonzalez, Eric Odada, and Davor Vidas.

The working group was established by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, “the only body concerned with stratigraphy on a global scale”. Its task is to establish whether we have truly exited the geological epoch in which humans have lived since our beginnings- the Holocene- and caused the onset of a new epoch the Anthropocene.

It was the Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen who in 2000 helped revive the term “anthropocene” and propel it to its current unprecedented traction. The idea of the Anthropocene may be academic, but such ideas have consequences and conveying them to the larger public, as Bradshaw’s documentary sets out to do, is extremely important in light of these consequences. Only when we have some intuitive sense of the scale of humanity’s impact on the planet since the industrial revolution can we overcome the much older sense of being dwarfed by nature and that anything we are capable of doing pales in comparison to what nature herself does to us.

Bradshaw’s ANTHROPOCENE tells the story of the development of humanity into a force capable of shaping the whole of nature in the form of chapters of a book. While the early chapters set the stage and introduce us to a human species that has always shaped, and, as with the extinction of megafauna, severely disrupted, nature to our own interests, the rising action of the story does not occur until as late as the 1950’s with the “Great Acceleration”, when human population growth and energy use began their exponential rise. And though the developed countries have since fallen off of this exponential curve, the majority of the world’s population is only now undergoing a Great Acceleration of their own.

While human beings prior to the contemporary period that began around the middle of the last century have always had an outsized impact, only after 1950 has our effect been such to both leave behind evidence that will be discoverable millions of years into the future, and which are of a completely different order than the kinds of scars left by non-human natural processes.

Many of these scars will be located in what the documentary calls “sacrifice zones” areas such as islands in the Pacific where countries tested the most powerful nuclear weapons ever built.  Sacrifice zones are also comprised of the vast areas of the earth that have been scared by our resource extraction, whole mountains torn into in the quest for coal or precious metals. In addition there will be the huge swaths of territory where we have disposed the waste of human civilization. Our plastics and toxins will likely far out last us, while those aspects we most identify with the pinnacle of urbanism- being built of concrete and glass- may survive for less time than the stone monuments of prior civilizations.

Still, much of the underbelly of cities along with other structures and artifacts that become subsumed by tectonic plates will form an event layer, which will speak of the strange species who dominated a world only to lose it, that is ourselves.

It will not only be these debris and artifacts which will call out from the geological  strata the sheer fact of our past existence, that is, what is there, but we will also be legible through what is absent. If we succeed in causing what some are calling the sixth great extinction then many the anthropocene strata will be a kind of dead-zone lacking the great diversity of plants and animals found in the strata before it.

The idea of a planet scared for millions of years by our technological civilization is certainly disturbing, yet the ultimate message of Bradshaw’s documentary neither surrenders to the dystopian spirit of the times, nor does  it counsel stoic resignation to our self-destruction. The message I took from the film was much more nuanced: we have spent the last few centuries transforming a nature we believed separate from us only to learn that this distinction was like a child playing pretend. If we can mature quickly enough we can foster a world good for both ourselves and the rest of life. But should we fail to grow up in time the earth will shrug free from our weight, and the life that remains will continue into the deep future without us.

* Bullfrog Films is the distributor the documentary ANTHROPOCENE and holds the license to to public performance rights. The DVD is featured in their catalog:  http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/anthro.html

 

 

A Less Bleak Lesson from the Silent Universe

Mars Veg brain

The astronomers Adam Frank and Woodruff Sullivan have an interesting paper out where they’ve essentially flipped the Drake Equation on its head. If that equation is meant to give us some handle on the probability that there are aliens out there, Frank and Sullivan have used the plethora of exoplanets discovered since the launch of the Kepler space telescope to calculate the chance that, so far, we alone have been the only advanced civilization in the 13.7 billion year history of the universe. I won’t bore you with actual numbers, but they estimate the chance that we’re the first and only is 1 in 10 billion trillion. I shouldn’t have to tell you that is a really, really small number.

Frank and Sullivan’s paper emerges as a consequence of the fact that we now have very clear answers to at least some of the values of the Drake equation. We now know not only how many stars are out there, but also how many of those stars are likely to have planets, and how many of those planets are likely within their star’s habitable zone. It is the fact that this number of potentially habitable planets is, to channel Donald Trump, so huge, which leads to the conclusion that (when plugged into Frank and Sullivan’s rejiggered Drake equation where the requirements that alien civilization exists presently and are within communication distance from us are dropped) the only way we have been the first and only technological civilization would be if we were the beneficiaries of the most extraordinary luck.

We’re not quite at the point, however, where we can make a definitive guess as to just how lucky, or how normal, our civilization is in history the cosmos. To do that we’ll need to find out what the probability is that life will develop on planets that have liquid water, and how difficult the leap is from single celled life to multicellularity. As I’ve written about before these questions are the subject of sharp differences and debate between bio-physicists and evolutionary biologists with some of the former, notably Jeremy England, seeing the laws of physics in a sense priming the universe for life and complexity and the latter seeing evolution as much more contingent and intelligence of our sort a lucky accident.

The historical question, namely, how likely is complex life likely to give rise to a technological species will remain unanswerable as long as the universe continues to be silent or until we discover the artifacts of some dead civilization. Frank and Sullivan’s answer to the silence is that the vast majority of alien civilizations have died, and those that might exist are beyond any distance in which we could observe or communicate with them. Theirs is the ultimate cautionary tale.

Then again,  perhaps we’re on the very verge of finding other technological civilizations that either exist now or existed in the very recent past once we start to look in the proper way. That, I think, is the lesson we should take from last year’s observation by the Kepler space telescope of some very strange phenomenon circling a star between the constellations of Cygnus the Swan and Lyra. Initially caught by citizen scientists reviewing Kepler data, what stuck astronomers such as Tabetha Boyajian  was the fact whatever it is they are looking at is distributed so widely, and follows such an unusual orbit, that it has lead some to speculate that there is a remote possibility that this object might be some sort of Dyson Sphere.

It seems most likely that some natural explanation will be found for the Kepler data, and yet, whatever happens, we are witnessing the birth of what Frank and Sullivan call cosmic archeology. The use of use of existing tools, and eventually the creation of tools for that purpose, to look for the imprint of technological civilizations elsewhere in the cosmos.

We do have pretty good evidence of at least one thing: if there are, or have been, technological civilizations out there none is using the majority of its galaxy’s energy. As Jim Wright at Penn State who conceived of the recent scanning 100,000 galaxies that had been observed by NASA’s Wise satellite for the infrared fingerprints of a galactic civilization  discovered. Wright observed:

Our results mean that, out of the 100,000 galaxies that WISE could see in sufficient detail, none of them is widely populated by an alien civilization using most of the starlight in its galaxy for its own purposes. That’s interesting because these galaxies are billions of years old, which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations, if they exist. Either they don’t exist, or they don’t yet use enough energy for us to recognize them.

Yet perhaps we should conclude something different about the human future from this absence of galactic scale civilizations than the sad recognition that our species is highly unlikely to have one.  Instead, maybe what we’re learning is that the kind of extrapolation of the industrial revolution into an infinite future that has been prevalent in science-fiction and futurism for well over a century is itself deeply flawed. We might actually have very little idea of what the future will actually be like.

Then again, maybe the silence gives us some clues. Rather than present us with evidence for our species probable extinction, perhaps what we’re witnessing is the propensity of civilizations to reach technological limits before they have grown to the extent that they are observable across great interstellar distances by other technological civilizations. To quote myself from a past post:

This physics of civilizational limits comes from Tom Murphy of the University of California, San Diego who writes the blog Do The Math. Murphy’s argument, as profiled by the BBC, has some of the following points:

  • Assuming rising energy use and economic growth remain coupled, as they have in the past, confronts us with the absurdity of exponentials. At a 2.3 percent growth rate within 2,500 hundred years we would require all the energy from all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy to function.
  • At 3 percent growth, within four hundred years we will have boiled away the earth’s oceans, not because of global warming, but from the excess heat that is the normal product of energy production. (Even clean fusion leaves us burning away the world’s oceans for the same reason)
  • Renewables push out this reckoning, but not indefinitely. At a 3 percent growth rate,even if the solar efficiency was 100% we would need to capture all of the sunlight hitting the earth within three hundred years.

There are thus reasonable grounds for assuming no technological civilization ever reaches a galactic scale whether because it has destroyed itself, or, for all we know just as likely, that all such civilizations run into development constraints far closer to our own than someone like Ray Kurzweil would have you believe.

Energy constraints might even result in the cyclical return of intelligence from silicon back to carbon based forms. At least that’s one unique version of the future as imagined by the astrobiologists Caleb Scharf in a recent piece for Aeon. Silicon intelligence has some advantages over carbon-based, as Lee Sedo can tell you, but you can’t beat life when it come to efficiency. As Scarf points out:

Estimates of what you’d need in terms of computing power to approach the oomph of a human brain (measured by speed and complexity of operations) come with an energy efficiency budget that needs to be about a billion times better than that wall.

To put that in a different context, our brains use energy at a rate of about 20 watts. If you wanted to upload yourself intact into a machine using current computing technology, you’d need a power supply roughly the same as that generated by the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric plant in China, the biggest in the world. To take our species, all 7.3 billion living minds, to machine form would require an energy flow of at least 140,000 petawatts. That’s about 800 times the total solar power hitting the top of Earth’s atmosphere. Clearly human transcendence might be a way off.

A problem that neither Murphy nor Scharf really deal with is one of integration over a vast scale. A not insignificant group of techno-optimists sees the human technological artifice not just an advanced form of industry-based civilization but as an emerging universal mind in embryo. Personally, I think it more likely that we are moving in the exact opposite direction, towards a balkanization of this global brain, but there might be reasons to think that even if what we’re seeing is the birth pangs of something out of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris or Teilhard de Chardin, that such intelligence wouldn’t occupy a space all that much larger than the earth.   

As the physicists Gregory Laughlin recently pointed out in the magazine Nautilus, the speed of light would seem to impose limits on how big any integrated intelligent being can become:

If our brains grew enormously to say, the size of our solar system, and featured speed-of-light signaling, the same number of message crossings would require more than the entire current age of the universe, leaving no time for evolution to work its course. If a brain were as big as our galaxy, the problem would become even more severe. From the moment of its formation, there has been time for only 10,000 or so messages to travel from one side of our galaxy to the other. We can argue, then, that, it is difficult to imagine any life-like entities with complexity rivaling the human brain that occupy scales larger than the stellar size scale. Were they to exist, they wouldn’t yet have had sufficient time to actually do anything.

Since the industrial revolution our ideas about both the human future and the nature of any alien civilization have taken the shape of being more of the same. Yet the evidence so far seems to point to a much different fate. We need to start thinking through the implications of the silence beyond just assuming we are either prodigies,or that, in something much less than the long run, we’re doomed.

 

Bruce Sterling urges us not to panic, just yet

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My favorite part about the SXSW festival comes at the end. For three decades now the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling has been giving some of the most insightful (and funny) speeches on the state of technology and society. In some sense this year’s closing remarks were no different, and in others they represented something very new.

What made this year’s speech different was that politics has taken such a weird turn, like something out of dystopian science-fiction that Sterling, having mastered the craft, felt obliged to anchor our sense of reality. He did this, however, only after trying to come to grips with exactly why had gotten so weird that the writers of The Simpsons seemed to be in possession of a crystal ball.

A read on events Sterling finds somewhat compelling is that put forward by Clay Shirky who claims that the age of social media has shattered something political science geeks call the Overton window.  The Overton window is essentially the boundary of politically acceptable discourse as defined by political elites. Sterling points out that in the age of broadcast television that boundary was easy to control, but with the balkanization of media- first with cable TV and then the Internet (and I would add talk radio) that border has eroded.

Here’s the conservative, David French’s, view on what Donald Trump himself has done to the Overton window:

Then along came Donald Trump. On key issues, he didn’t just move the Overton Window, he smashed it, scattered the shards, and rolled over them with a steamroller. On issues like immigration, national security, and even the manner of political debate itself, there’s no window left. Registration of Muslims? On the table. Bans on Muslims entering the country? On the table. Mass deportation? On the table. Walling off our southern border at Mexico’s expense? On the table. The current GOP front-runner is advocating policies that represent the mirror-image extremism to the Left’s race and identity-soaked politics.

All this certainly resembles what Moisés Naím has described as the end of power where traditional institutions and elites have lost control over events largely as a result of a democratized communication environment. Or, as Sterling himself put it in his speech the political parties have been:

“Balkanized by demagogues who brought in their own megaphones”.  

Sterling thinks it’s clear that the new technology and media landscape is a contributing factor of the current dystopian ambiance. The world has tended to take some very strange turns during the rise to dominance of new forms of media and new forms of economy, and maybe this is one of the those moments where old media and tech is supplanted by the new in the form of the “Big five” Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook and Microsoft. Sterling thinks the academic Shoshana Zuboff is onto something when she describes this new order as surveillance capitalism an economic order based on turning the private lives of individuals into a saleable commodity.

Sterling is clearly worried about this but is also certain that the illusion of techno-libertarianism behind something like Bitcoin isn’t the solution. Some alternative technological order can’t solve our problems, but if it can’t solve them then perhaps technology itself isn’t the primary source of our problems in the first place.

Evidence that technology alone, or the coming into being of surveillance capitalism, isn’t to blame can be seen in the global nature of the current political crisis. The same, and indeed incomparably worse, problems exemplified by the rise of Trump in the US are apparent almost everywhere. Middle Eastern states have collapsed, an anti-immigrant anti-globalization right is on the rise across Europe, Great Britain is threatening to exit the EU further weakening that institution with dissolution. Venezuela is on the verge of collapse, nationalist tensions continue to roil Asia, the global economy continues to suffer the injuries from the financial crisis even as economic policies become increasingly unorthodox. A much more environmentally and politically unstable world looms.

Yet Sterling points out that there’s one people that seem particularly calm through this whole affair and do not seem generally to be panicked by the bizarre turn politics has taken in the US. The Italians see in Trump America’s version of their own Silvio Berlusconi. If politics in the US follows the Berlusconi model after a Trump victory (however unlikely), then though we may be in for a very seedy political period it will not necessarily be a dangerous or chaotic one.

As for myself I am not as sanguine as Sterling about the idea of a president Trump given that he will have at his disposal the most powerful military and survelillance apparatus on the planet. Francis Fukuyama who also pointed the resemblance between Trump and Berlusconi thinks Trump’s flirtation with violence is much more troubling.

Nevertheless, Sterling certainly is right when he points out that, in light of historical precedents- say the 1960’s- the level of political violence we have seen in 2016 is nothing to panic over. Nor is society in any way in a state of collapse – the lights are still on, food is still available, we are not entering some survivalist scenario- for the moment.

While events elsewhere may continue to take the world in a dystopian direction as a result of state and institutional collapse, the dystopia the US will most likely enter will be much less of the type found in science-fiction novels. It is one where the US is governed by a gentrified political elite which clings to its own power and the status quo while Americans remain distracted by the “glass lozenges” of their smart phones. Where mass surveillance isn’t scary a la Minority Report because it isn’t all that effective, or as Sterling puts it:

“Is there anybody with a drone over their head who is actually doing what the guys with the drones want?”

It’s a world where everything is failing but nothing has truly and completely failed where we have plenty to be unhappy about but also no reason in particular to panic.

 

A Box of a Trillion Souls

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“The cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.”                                                                          

Jaron Lanier

 

Stephen Wolfram may, or may not, have a justifiable reputation for intellectual egotism, but I like him anyway. I am pretty sure this is because, whenever I listen to the man speak I most often  walk away no so much with answers as a whole new way to frame questions I had never seen before, but sometimes I’m just left mesmerized, or perhaps bewildered, by an image he’s managed to draw.

A while back during a talk/demo of at the SXSW festival he managed to do this when he brought up the idea of “a box of a trillion souls”. He didn’t elaborate much, but left it there, after which I chewed on the metaphor for a few days and then returned to real life, which can be mesmerizing and bewildering enough.

A couple days ago I finally came across an explanation of the idea in a speech by Wolfram over at John Brockman’s Edge.org  There, Wolfram also opined on the near future of computation and the place of  humanity in the universe. I’ll cover those thoughts first before I get to his box full of souls.

One of the things I like about Wolfram is that, uncommonly for a technologist, he tends to approach explanations historically. In his speech he lays out a sort of history of information that begins with information being conveyed genetically with the emergence of life, moves to the interplay between individual and environment with the development of more complex life, and flowers in spoken language with the appearance of humans.

Spoken language eventually gave rise to the written word, though it took almost all of human history for writing to become nearly as common as speaking. For most of that time reading and writing were monopolized by elites. A good deal of mathematics, as well has moved from being utilized by an intellectual minority to being part of the furniture of the everyday world, though more advanced maths continues to be understandable by specialists alone.

The next stage in Wolfram’s history of information, the one we are living in, is the age of code. What distinguishes code from language is that it is “immediately executable” by which I understand him to mean that code is not just some set of instructions but, when run, the thing those instruction describe itself.

Much like reading, writing and basic mathematics before the invention of printing and universal education, code is today largely understood by specialists only. Yet rather than endure for millennia, as was the case with the monopoly of writing by the clerisy, Wolfram sees the age of non-universal code to be ending almost as soon as it began.

Wolfram believes that specialized computer languages will soon give way to “natural language programming”.  A fully developed form of natural language programming would be readable by both computers and human beings- numbers of people far beyond those who know how to code, so that code would be written in typical human languages like English or Chinese. He is not just making idle predictions, but has created a free program that allows you to play around with his own version of a NLP.

Wolfram makes some predictions as to what a world where natural language programming became ubiquitous- where just as many people could code as could now write- might look like. The gap between law and code would largely disappear. The vast majority of people, including school children, would have at the ability to program computers to do interesting things, including perform original research. As computers become embedded in objects the environment itself will be open to the programming of everyone.

All this would seem very good for us humans and would be even better given that Wolfram sees it as the prelude to the end of scarcity, including the scarcity of time that we now call death. But then comes the AI. Artificial intelligence will be both the necessary tool to explore the possibility space of the computational universe and the primary intelligence via which we interact with the entirety of the realm of human thought.  Yet at some threshold AI might leave us with nothing to do as it will have become the best and most efficient way to meet our goals.

What makes Wolfram nervous isn’t human extinction at the hands of super-intelligence so much as what becomes of us after scarcity and death have been eliminated and AI can achieve any goal- artistic ones included- better than us. This is Wolfram’s  vision of the not too far off future, which given the competition with even current reality, isn’t near sufficiently weird enough. It’s only when he starts speculating on where this whole thing is ultimately headed that anything so strange as Boltzmann brains make their appearance, yet something like them does and no one should be surprised given his ideas about the nature of computation.

One of Wolfram’s most intriguing, and controversial, ideas is something he calls computational equivalence. With this idea he claims not only that computation is ubiquitous across nature, but that the line between intelligence and merely complicated behavior that grows out of ubiquitous natural computation is exceedingly difficult to draw.

For Wolfram the colloquialism that “the weather has a mind of its own” isn’t just a way of complaining that the rain has ruined your picnic, but, in an almost panpsychic or pantheistic way, captures a deeper truth that natural phenomenon are the enactment of a sort of algorithm, which, he would claim, is why we can successfully model their behavior with other algorithms we call computer “simulations.” The word simulations needs quotes because, if I understand him, Wolfram is claiming that there would be no difference between a computer simulation of something at a certain level of description and the real thing.

It’s this view of computation that leads Wolfram to his far future and his box of a trillion souls. For if there is no difference between a perfect simulation and reality, if there is nothing that will prevent us from creating perfect simulations, at some point in the future however far off, then it makes perfect sense to think that some digitized version of you, which as far as you are concerned will be you, could end up in a “box”, along with billions or trillions of similar digitized persons, with perhaps millions or more copies of  you.   

I’ve tried to figure out where exactly this conclusion for an idea I otherwise find attractive, that is computational equivalence, goes wrong other just in terms of my intuition or common sense. I think the problem might come down to the fact that while many complex phenomenon in nature may have computer like features, they are not universal Turing machines i.e. general purpose computers, but machines whose information processing is very limited and specific to that established by its makeup.

Natural systems, including animals like ourselves, are more like the Tic-Tac-Toe machine built by the young Danny Hillis and described in his excellent primer on computers, that is still insightful decades after its publication- The Pattern on the Stone. Of course, animals such as ourselves can show vastly more types of behavior and exhibit a form of freedom of a totally different order than a game tree built out of circuit boards and lightbulbs, but, much like such a specialized machine, the way in which we think isn’t a form of generalized computation, but shows a definitive shape based on our evolutionary, cultural and personal history. In a way, Wolfram’s overgeneralization of computational equivalence negates what I find to be his as or more important idea of the central importance of particular pasts in defining who we are as a species, people and individuals.

Oddly enough, Wolfram falls into the exact same trap that the science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem fell into after he had hit upon an equally intriguing, though in some ways quite opposite understanding of computation and information.

Lem believed that the whole system of computation and mathematics human beings use to describe the world was a kind of historical artifact for which there much be much better alternatives buried in the way systems that had evolved over time processed information. A key scientific task he thought would be to uncover this natural computation and find ways to use it in the way we now use math and computation.

Where this leads him is to precisely the same conclusion as Wolfram, the possibility of building a actual world in the form of simulation. He imagines the future designers of just such simulated worlds:

“Imagine that our Designer now wants to turn his world into a habitat for intelligent beings. What would present the greatest difficulty here? Preventing them from dying right away? No, this condition is taken for granted. His main difficulty lies in ensuring that the creatures for whom the Universe will serve as a habitat do not find out about its “artificiality”. One is right to be concerned that the very suspicion that there may be something else beyond “everything” would immediately encourage them to seek exit from this “everything” considering themselves prisoners of the latter, they would storm their surroundings, looking for a way out- out of pure curiosity- if nothing else.

…We must not therefore cover up or barricade the exit. We must make its existence impossible to guess.” ( 291 -292)

Yet it seems to me that moving from the idea that things in the world: a storm, the structure of a sea-shell, the way particular types of problems are solved are algorithmic to the conclusion that the entirety of the world could be hung together in one universal  algorithm is a massive overgeneralization. Perhaps there is some sense that the universe might be said to be weakly analogous, not to one program, but to a computer language (the laws of physics) upon which an infinite ensemble of other programs can be instantiated, but which is structured so as to make some programs more likely to be run while deeming others impossible. Nevertheless, which programs actually get executed is subject to some degree of contingency- all that happens in the universe is not determined from initial conditions. Our choices actually count.

Still, such a view continues to treat the question of corporal structure as irrelevant, whereas structure itself may be primary.

The idea of the world as code, or DNA as a sort of code is incredibly attractive because it implies a kind of plasticity which equals power. What gets lost however, is something of the artifact like nature of everything that is, the physical stuff that surrounds us, life, our cultural environment. All that is exists as the product of a unique history where every moment counts, and this history, as it were, is the anchor that determines what is real. Asserting the world is or could be fully represented as a simulation either implies that such a simulation possesses the kinds of compression and abstraction, along with the ahistorical plasticity that comes with mathematics and code or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, it’s difficult to say how anything like a person, let alone, trillions of persons, or a universe could actually, rather than merely symbolically, be contained in a box even a beautiful one.

For the truly real can perhaps most often be identified by its refusal to be abstracted away or compressed and by its stubborn resistance to our desire to give it whatever shape we please.