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+[[!meta title="You're not a Gadget"]]
+* Author: Jaron Lanier
+## Concepts
+* Technological lock-ins.
+* Cybernetic totalists versus humanistic technologies.
+* Circle of empaty.
+* Computationalism.
+* Value of personhood contrasted to "the hive".
+* Neoteny and it's contradictory qualities in culture.
+* Cephalopods + Childhood = Humans + Virtual Reality.
+* There's an underlying discussion between individual versus collective. Does creativity is just individual? He seems to view the polarization as a obligation to choose sides.
+## Information Doesn’t Deserve to Be Free
+ “Information wants to be free.” So goes the saying. Stewart Brand, the founder
+ of the Whole Earth Catalog, seems to have said it first.
+ I say that information doesn’t deserve to be free.
+ Cybernetic totalists love to think of the stuff as if it were alive and had its
+ own ideas and ambitions. But what if information is inanimate? What if it’s
+ even less than inanimate, a mere artifact of human thought? What if only humans
+ are real, and information is not?
+ Of course, there is a technical use of the term “information” that refers to
+ something entirely real. This is the kind of information that’s related to
+ entropy. But that fundamental kind of information, which exists independently
+ of the culture of an observer, is not the same as the kind we can put in
+ computers, the kind that supposedly wants to be free.
+ Information is alienated experience.
+ You can think of culturally decodable information as a potential form of
+ experience, very much as you can think of a brick resting on a ledge as storing
+ potential energy. When the brick is prodded to fall, the energy is revealed.
+ That is only possible because it was lifted into place at some point in the
+ past.
+ In the same way, stored information might cause experience to be revealed if it
+ is prodded in the right way. A file on a hard disk does indeed contain
+ information of the kind that objectively exists. The fact that the bits are
+ discernible instead of being scrambled into mush—the way heat scrambles
+ things—is what makes them bits.
+ But if the bits can potentially mean something to someone, they can only do so
+ if they are experienced. When that happens, a commonality of culture is enacted
+ between the storer and the retriever of the bits. Experience is the only
+ process that can de-alienate information.
+ Information of the kind that purportedly wants to be free is nothing but a
+ shadow of our own minds, and wants nothing on its own. It will not suffer if it
+ doesn’t get what it wants.
+ But if you want to make the transition from the old religion, where you hope
+ God will give you an afterlife, to the new religion, where you hope to become
+ immortal by getting uploaded into a computer, then you have to believe
+ information is real and alive. So for you, it will be important to redesign
+ human institutions like art, the economy, and the law to reinforce the
+ perception that information is alive. You demand that the rest of us live in
+ your new conception of a state religion. You need us to deify information to
+ reinforce your faith.
+## The Apple Falls Again
+ It’s a mistake with a remarkable origin. Alan Turing articulated it, just
+ before his suicide.
+ Turing’s suicide is a touchy subject in computer science circles. There’s an
+ aversion to talking about it much, because we don’t want our founding father to
+ seem like a tabloid celebrity, and we don’t want his memory trivialized by the
+ sensational aspects of his death.
+ The legacy of Turing the mathematician rises above any possible sensationalism.
+ His contributions were supremely elegant and foundational. He gifted us with
+ wild leaps of invention, including much of the mathematical underpinnings of
+ digital computation. The highest award in computer science, our Nobel Prize, is
+ named in his honor.
+ Turing the cultural figure must be acknowledged, however. The first thing to
+ understand is that he was one of the great heroes of World War II. He was the
+ first “cracker,” a person who uses computers to defeat an enemy’s security
+ measures. He applied one of the first computers to break a Nazi secret code,
+ called Enigma, which Nazi mathematicians had believed was unbreakable. Enigma
+ was decoded by the Nazis in the field using a mechanical device about the size
+ of a cigar box. Turing reconceived it as a pattern of bits that could be
+ analyzed in a computer, and cracked it wide open. Who knows what world we would
+ be living in today if Turing had not succeeded?
+ The second thing to know about Turing is that he was gay at a time when it was
+ illegal to be gay. British authorities, thinking they were doing the most
+ compassionate thing, coerced him into a quack medical treatment that was
+ supposed to correct his homosexuality. It consisted, bizarrely, of massive
+ infusions of female hormones.
+ In order to understand how someone could have come up with that plan, you have
+ to remember that before computers came along, the steam engine was a preferred
+ metaphor for understanding human nature. All that sexual pressure was building
+ up and causing the machine to malfunction, so the opposite essence, the female
+ kind, ought to balance it out and reduce the pressure. This story should serve
+ as a cautionary tale. The common use of computers, as we understand them today,
+ as sources for models and metaphors of ourselves is probably about as reliable
+ as the use of the steam engine was back then.
+ Turing developed breasts and other female characteristics and became terribly
+ depressed. He committed suicide by lacing an apple with cyanide in his lab and
+ eating it. Shortly before his death, he presented the world with a spiritual
+ idea, which must be evaluated separately from his technical achievements. This
+ is the famous Turing test. It is extremely rare for a genuinely new spiritual
+ idea to appear, and it is yet another example of Turing’s genius that he came
+ up with one.
+ Turing presented his new offering in the form of a thought experiment, based on
+ a popular Victorian parlor game. A man and a woman hide, and a judge is asked
+ to determine which is which by relying only on the texts of notes passed back
+ and forth.
+ Turing replaced the woman with a computer. Can the judge tell which is the man?
+ If not, is the computer conscious? Intelligent? Does it deserve equal rights?
+ It’s impossible for us to know what role the torture Turing was enduring at the
+ time played in his formulation of the test. But it is undeniable that one of
+ the key figures in the defeat of fascism was destroyed, by our side, after the
+ war, because he was gay. No wonder his imagination pondered the rights of
+ strange creatures.
+ When Turing died, software was still in such an early state that no one knew
+ what a mess it would inevitably become as it grew. Turing imagined a pristine,
+ crystalline form of existence in the digital realm, and I can imagine it might
+ have been a comfort to imagine a form of life apart from the torments of the
+ body and the politics of sexuality. It’s notable that it is the woman who is
+ replaced by the computer, and that Turing’s suicide echoes Eve’s fall.
+ [...]
+ But the Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten
+ smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a
+ degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a
+ simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let
+ your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?
+ People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time.
+ Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that
+ could calculate credit risks before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach
+ to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. We have
+ repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards
+ to make information technology look good. Every instance of intelligence in a
+ machine is ambiguous.
+ [...]
+ Wikipedia, for instance, works on what I call the Oracle illusion, in which
+ knowledge of the human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give the
+ text superhuman validity. Traditional holy books work in precisely the same way
+ and present many of the same problems.
+ [...]
+ Or it might turn out that a distinction will forever be based on principles we
+ cannot manipulate. This might involve types of computation that are unique to
+ the physical brain, maybe relying on forms of causation that depend on
+ remarkable and nonreplicable physical conditions. Or it might involve software
+ that could only be created by the long-term work of evolution, which cannot be
+ reverse-engineered or mucked with in any accessible way. Or it might even
+ involve the prospect, dreaded by some, of dualism, a reality for consciousness
+ as apart from mechanism.
+## Wikified Biology
+ Dyson equates the beginnings of life on Earth with the Eden of Linux. Back when
+ life first took hold, genes flowed around freely; genetic sequences skipped
+ from organism to organism in much the way they may soon be able to on the
+ internet. In his article, Freeman derides the first organism that hoarded its
+ genes behind a protective membrane as “evil,” just like the nemesis of the
+ open-software movement, Bill Gates.
+ Once organisms became encapsulated, they isolated themselves into distinct
+ species, trading genes only with others of their kind. Freeman suggests that
+ the coming era of synthetic biology will be a return to Eden.
+ I suppose amateurs, robots, and an aggregation of amateurs and robots might
+ someday hack genes in the global garage and tweet DNA sequences around the
+ globe at light speed. Or there might be a slightly more sober process that
+ takes place between institutions like high schools and start-up companies.
+ However it happens, species boundaries will become defunct, and genes will fly
+ about, resulting in an orgy of creativity. Untraceable multitudes of new
+ biological organisms will appear as frequently as new videos do on YouTube
+ today.
+ One common response to suggestions that this might happen is fear. After all,
+ it might take only one doomsday virus produced in one garage to bring the
+ entire human story to a close. I will not focus directly on that concern, but,
+ instead, on whether the proposed style of openness would even bring about the
+ creation of innovative creatures.
+ The alternative to wide-open development is not necessarily evil. My guess is
+ that a poorly encapsulated communal gloop of organisms lost out to closely
+ guarded species on the primordial Earth for the same reason that the Linux
+ community didn’t come up with the iPhone: encapsulation serves a purpose.
+ [...]
+ Wikipedia has already been elevated into what might be a permanent niche. It
+ might become stuck as a fixture, like MIDI or the Google ad exchange services.
+ That makes it important to be aware of what you might be missing. Even in a
+ case in which there is an objective truth that is already known, such as a
+ mathematical proof, Wikipedia distracts the potential for learning how to bring
+ it into the conversation in new ways. Individual voice—the opposite of
+ wikiness—might not matter to mathematical truth, but it is the core of
+ mathematical communication.
+## The Culture of Computationalism
+ For lack of a better word, I call it computationalism. This term is usually
+ used more narrowly to describe a philosophy of mind, but I’ll extend it to
+ include something like a culture. A first pass at a summary of the underlying
+ philosophy is that the world can be understood as a computational process, with
+ people as subprocesses.
+ [...]
+ In a scientific role, I don’t recoil from the idea that the brain is a kind of
+ computer, but there is more than one way to use computation as a source of
+ models for human beings. I’ll discuss three common flavors of computationalism
+ and then describe a fourth flavor, the one that I prefer. Each flavor can be
+ distinguished by a different idea about what would be needed to make software
+ as we generally know it become more like a person.
+ One flavor is based on the idea that a sufficiently voluminous computation will
+ take on the qualities we associate with people—such as, perhaps, consciousness.
+ One might claim Moore’s law is inexorably leading to superbrains, superbeings,
+ and, perhaps, ultimately, some kind of global or even cosmic consciousness. If
+ this language sounds extreme, be aware that this is the sort of rhetoric you
+ can find in the world of Singularity enthusiasts and extropians.
+ [...]
+ A second flavor of computationalism holds that a computer program with specific
+ design features—usually related to self-representation and circular
+ references—is similar to a person. Some of the figures associated with this
+ approach are Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, though each has his own
+ ideas about what the special features should be.
+ Hofstadter suggests that software that includes a “strange loop” bears a
+ resemblance to consciousness. In a strange loop, things are nested within
+ things in such a way that an inner thing is the same as an outer thing.
+ [...]
+ A third flavor of computationalism is found in web 2.0 circles. In this case,
+ any information structure that can be perceived by some real human to also be a
+ person is a person. This idea is essentially a revival of the Turing test. If
+ you can perceive the hive mind to be recommending music to you, for instance,
+ then the hive is effectively a person.
+ [...]
+ The approach to thinking about people computationally that I prefer, on those
+ occasions when such thinking seems appropriate to me, is what I’ll call
+ “realism.” The idea is that humans, considered as information systems, weren’t
+ designed yesterday, and are not the abstract playthings of some higher being,
+ such as a web 2.0 programmer in the sky or a cosmic Spore player. Instead, I
+ believe humans are the result of billions of years of implicit, evolutionary
+ study in the school of hard knocks. The cybernetic structure of a person has
+ been refined by a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical
+ reality.
+### From Images to Odors
+ For twenty years or so I gave a lecture introducing the fundamentals of virtual
+ reality. I’d review the basics of vision and hearing as well as of touch and
+ taste. At the end, the questions would begin, and one of the first ones was
+ usually about smell: Will we have smells in virtual reality machines anytime
+ soon?
+ Maybe, but probably just a few. Odors are fundamentally different from images
+ or sounds. The latter can be broken down into primary components that are
+ relatively straightforward for computers—and the brain—to process. The visible
+ colors are merely words for different wavelengths of light. Every sound wave is
+ actually composed of numerous sine waves, each of which can be easily described
+ mathematically.
+ [...]
+ Odors are completely different, as is the brain’s method of sensing them. Deep
+ in the nasal passage, shrouded by a mucous membrane, sits a patch of tissue—the
+ olfactory epithelium—studded with neurons that detect chemicals. Each of these
+ neurons has cup-shaped proteins called olfactory receptors. When a particular
+ molecule happens to fall into a matching receptor, a neural signal is triggered
+ that is transmitted to the brain as an odor. A molecule too large to fit into
+ one of the receptors has no odor. The number of distinct odors is limited only
+ by the number of olfactory receptors capable of interacting with them. Linda
+ Buck of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Richard Axel of Columbia
+ University, winners of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, have
+ found that the human nose contains about one thousand different types of
+ olfactory neurons, each type able to detect a particular set of chemicals.
+ This adds up to a profound difference in the underlying structure of the
+ senses—a difference that gives rise to compelling questions about the way we
+ think, and perhaps even about the origins of language. There is no way to
+ interpolate between two smell molecules. True, odors can be mixed together to
+ form millions of scents. But the world’s smells can’t be broken down into just
+ a few numbers on a gradient; there is no “smell pixel.” Think of it this way:
+ colors and sounds can be measured with rulers, but odors must be looked up in a
+ dictionary.
+ [...]
+ To solve the problem of olfaction—that is, to make the complex world of smells
+ quickly identifiable—brains had to have evolved a specific type of neural
+ circuitry, Jim believes. That circuitry, he hypothesizes, formed the basis for
+ the cerebral cortex—the largest part of our brain, and perhaps the most
+ critical in shaping the way we think. For this reason, Jim has proposed that
+ the way we think is fundamentally based in the olfactory.
+ [...]
+ He often refers to the olfactory parts of the brain as the “Old Factory,” as
+ they are remarkably similar across species, which suggests that the structure
+ has ancient origins.
+## Editing Is Sexy; Creativity Is Natural
+ These experiments in linguistic variety could also inspire a better
+ understanding of how language came about in the first place. One of Charles
+ Darwin’s most compelling evolutionary speculations was that music might have
+ preceded language. He was intrigued by the fact that many species use song for
+ sexual display and wondered if human vocalizations might have started out that
+ way too. It might follow, then, that vocalizations could have become varied and
+ complex only later, perhaps when song came to represent actions beyond mating
+ and such basics of survival.
+ [...]
+ Terry offered an unconventional solution to the mystery of Bengalese finch
+ musicality. What if there are certain traits, including song style, that
+ naturally tend to become less constrained from generation to generation but are
+ normally held in check by selection pressures? If the pressures go away,
+ variation should increase rapidly. Terry suggested that the finches developed a
+ wider song variety not because it provided an advantage but merely because in
+ captivity it became possible.
+ In the wild, songs probably had to be rigid in order for mates to find each
+ other. Birds born with a genetic predilection for musical innovation most
+ likely would have had trouble mating. Once finches experienced the luxury of
+ assured mating (provided they were visually attractive), their song variety
+ exploded.
+ Brian Ritchie and Simon Kirby of the University of Edinburgh worked with Terry
+ to simulate bird evolution in a computer model, and the idea worked well, at
+ least in a virtual world. Here is yet another example of how science becomes
+ more like storytelling as engineering becomes able to represent some of the
+ machinery of formerly subjective human activities.
+## Metaphors
+ One reason the metaphor of the sun fascinates me is that it bears on a conflict
+ that has been at the heart of information science since its inception: Can
+ meaning be described compactly and precisely, or is it something that can
+ emerge only in approximate form based on statistical associations between large
+ numbers of components?
+ Mathematical expressions are compact and precise, and most early computer
+ scientists assumed that at least part of language ought to display those
+ qualities too.
+## Future Humors
+ Unfortunately, we don’t have access at this time to a single philosophy that
+ makes sense for all purposes, and we might never find one. Treating people as
+ nothing other than parts of nature is an uninspired basis for designing
+ technologies that embody human aspirations. The inverse error is just as
+ misguided: it’s a mistake to treat nature as a person. That is the error that
+ yields confusions like intelligent design.
+ [...]
+ Those who enter into the theater of computationalism are given all the mental
+ solace that is usually associated with traditional religions. These include
+ consolations for metaphysical yearnings, in the form of the race to climb to
+ ever more “meta” or higher-level states of digital representation, and even a
+ colorful eschatology, in the form of the Singularity. And, indeed, through the
+ Singularity a hope of an afterlife is available to the most fervent believers.
+## My Brush with Bachelardian Neoteny in the Most Interesting Room in the World
+ But actually, because of homuncular flexibility, any part of reality might just
+ as well be a part of your body if you happen to hook up the software elements
+ so that your brain can control it easily. Maybe if you wiggle your toes, the
+ clouds in the sky will wiggle too. Then the clouds would start to feel like
+ part of your body. All the items of experience become more fungible than in the
+ physical world. And this leads to the revelatory experience.
+## Final Words
+ For me, the prospect of an entirely different notion of communication is more
+ thrilling than a construction like the Singularity. Any gadget, even a big one
+ like the Singularity, gets boring after a while. But a deepening of meaning is
+ the most intense potential kind of adventure available to us.