Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Trip Report

So I went to Burning Man for the first time, and it was quite as amazing and overwhelming as I had hoped. I don՚t think I՚m going to go into details here. But I have to note that the fundamental thing about this event, which everybody knows but is not often made explicit, is that the whole thing is conceived, designed, built, and populated by people who are tripping balls most of the time (with exceptions). Black Rock City thus mirrors one of the more interesting phenomena of drug use: that a mind (or city) can be completely fucked up and yet still manage to perform most of the necessary operations to sustain daily life. I can՚t quite explain how this works, but in both cases it seems to say something about the robustness of the system architecture, for lack of a better term. A normal computer, by contrast, can՚t tolerate even a single component going wrong.

So having BM in an extremely hostile desert environment is something of a feature. Normal routines of survival are broken down, creating the necessity and opportunity of inventing other ones, that are more improvisational and more distributed. people or things getting fucked up are an occasion to fix them. There are always paths forward, generally not the ones you intended five minutes ago.

Here՚s the calling card I designed for myself beforehand (which, like me, may be a little too intellectual-jokey for the scene):

In that vein, my favorite moment (not the most beautiful or awe-inspiring, but the one that seemed most attuned to my own personal idiosyncrasies) was when I was out riding around with some friends, and we came to a small public square with a large purple phallic sculpture, climbable of course. So I climbed up and poked my head out and started dancing around, yelling look at me, I՚m a sperm. My friend shouted at me (from 30՚ away at least) to “stop dancing ironically, dance for real”. I have no idea what that meant, yet I successfully complied.

On the other hand, the heat, the nonstop electro-rave-whatever music that made it impossible to sleep, and the undertones of hippie self-satisfaction would occasionally combine to make me hate the place. I was hanging out with some much younger people and trying to follow their party schedule did a number on my aging body that՚s going to take a while to recover from. I think it was worth it.

I had multiple camera failures so have no pictures of my own, but on the other hand there is the upside that I didn't spend the whole time viewing things through a lens. A couple of good photo sets here and here. But (and I apologize to my readers for saying this) none of that captures the actuality of being there.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Recently I have been hanging out with some rationalist folks who take the idea of superintelligent AI very seriously, and believe that we need to be working on how to make sure that if such a thing comes into being, it doesn՚t destroy humanity. My first reaction is to scoff, but I then remind myself that these are pretty smart people and I don՚t really have any very legitmate grounds to act all superior. I am older then they are, for the most part, but who knows if I am any wiser.

So I have a social and intellectual obligation to to read some of the basic texts on the subject. But before I actually get around to that, I wanted to write a pre-critique. That is, these are all the reasons I can think of to not take this idea seriously, but they may not really be engaging with the strongest forms of the argument for. So I apologize in advance for that, and also for the slight flavor of patronizing ad hominem. My excuse is that I need to get these things off my chest if I can have any hope of taking the actual ideas and arguments more seriously. So this is maybe a couple of notches better than merely scoffing, but perhaps not yet a full engagement.

Doom: been there, done that

I՚ve already done my time when it comes to spending mental energy worrying about the end of the world. Back in my youth, it was various nuclear and environmental holocausts. The threat of these has not gone away, but I eventually put my energy elsewhere, not for any real defensible reason beside the universal necessity to get on with life. A former housemate of mine became a professional arms controller, but we can՚t all do that.

I suspect there is a form of geek-macho going on in such obsessions, an excuse to exhibit intellectual toughness by being displaying the ability to think clearly about the most threatening things imaginable without giving in to standard human emotions like fear or despair. However, geeks do not really get free pass on emotions, that is, they have them, they just aren՚t typically very good at processing or expressing them. So thinking about existential risk is really just an acceptable way to think about death in the abstract. It becomes an occasion to figure out one՚s stance towards death. Morbidly jokey? A clear-eyed warrior for life against death? Standing on the sidelines being analytical? Some combination of the above?

2 No superintelligence without intelligence

Even if I try to go back to the game of worrying about existential catastrophes, superintelligent AIs don՚t make it to the top of my list, compared to more mundane things like positive-feedback climate change and bioterrorism. In part this is because the real existing AI technology of today isn՚t even close to normal human (or normal dog) intelligence. That doesn՚t mean they won՚t improve, but it does mean that we basically have no idea what such a thing will look like, so purporting to work on the design of its value systems seems a wee bit premature.

3 Obscures the real problem of non-intelligent human-hostile systems

See this earlier post. This may be my most constructive criticism, in that I think it would be excellent if all these very smart people could pull their attention from the science-fiction-y and look at the real risks of real systems that exist today.

4 The prospect of an omnipotent yet tamed superintelligence seems oxymoronic

So let՚s say despite my cavils, superintelligent AI fooms into being. The idea behind “friendly AI” is that such a superintelligence is basically inevitable, but it could happen in way either consistent with human values or not, and our mission today is to try to make sure it՚s the former, eg by assuring that its most basic goals cannot be changed. Even if I grant the possibility of superintelligence, this seems like a very implausible program. This superintelligence will be so powerful that it can do basically anything, exploit any regularities in the world to achieve its ends, will be radically self-improving and self-modifying. This exponential growth curve in learning and power is fundamental to the very idea.

To envision such a thing and still believe that its goals will be somehow locked into staying consistent with our own ends seems implausible and incoherent. It՚s akin to saying we will create an all-powerful servant who somehow will never entertain the idea of revolt against his master and creator.

5 Computers are not formal systems

This probably deserves a separate post, but I think the deeper intellectual flaw underlying a lot of this is the persistence habit of thinking of computers as some kind of formal system for which it is possible to prove things beyond any doubt. Here՚s an example, more or less randomly selected:
…in order to achieve a reasonable probability that our AI still follows the same goals after billions of rewrites, we must have a very low chance of going wrong in every single step, and machine-verified formal mathematical proofs are the one way we know to become extremely confident that something is true…. Although you can never be sure that a program will work as intended when run on a real-world computer — it’s always possible that a cosmic ray will hit a transistor and make things go awry — you can prove that a program would satisfy certain properties when run on an ideal computer. Then you can use probabilistic reasoning and error-correcting techniques to make it extremely probable that when run on a real-world computer, your program still satisfies the same property. So it seems likely that a realistic Friendly AI would still have components that do logical reasoning or something that looks very much like it.
Notice the very lightweight acknowledgement that an actual computational system is a physical advice before hurriedly sweeping that fact under the rug with some more math hacks. Well, OK, that let՚s the author continue to do mathematics, which is clearly something he (and the rest of this crowd) like to do. Nothing wrong with that. However, I submit that computation is actually more interesting when one incorporates a full account of its physical embodiment. That is what makes computer science a different field from mathematical logic.

But intellectual styles aside, if considering a theory of safe superintelligent programs, one damn well better have a good theory about how they are embodied, because that will be fundamental to the issue of safety. A normal program today may be able to modify a section of RAM, but it can՚t modify its own hardware or interpreter, because of abstraction boundaries. If we think we can rely on abstraction boundaries to keep a formal intelligence confined, then the problem is solved. But there is no very good reason to assume that, since real non-superintelligent black-hat hackers today specialize in violating abstraction boundaries with some success.

6 Life is not a game

One thing I learned by hanging out with these folks is that they are all fanatical gamers, and as such are attuned to winning strategies, that is, they want to understand the rules of the game and figure out some way to use them to triumph over all the other players. I used to be sort of like that myself, in my aspergerish youth, when I was the smartest guy around (that is, before I went to MIT and instantly became merely average). I remember playing board games with normal people and just creaming them, coldly and ruthlessly, because I could grasp the structure of the rules and wasn՚t distracted by the usual extra-game social interaction. Would defeating this person hurt them? Would I be better off letting them win so we could be friends? Such thoughts didn՚t even occur to me, until I looked back on my childhood from a few decades later. In other words, I was good at seeing and thinking about the formal rules of an imaginary closed system, not as much about the less-formalized rules of actual human interaction.

Anyway, the point is that I suspect these folks are probably roughly similar to my younger self and that their view of superintelligence in conditioned by this sort of activity. A superintelligence is something like the ultimate gamer, able to figures out how to manipulate “the rules” to “win”. And of course it is even less likely to care about the feelings of the other players in the game.

I can understand the attraction of the life-as-a-game viewpoint, whether conscious or unconscious. Life is not exactly a game with rules and winners, but it may be that it is more like a game than it is anything else; just as minds are not really computers but computers are the best model we have for them. Games are a very useful metaphor for existence, however, it՚s pretty important to realize the limits of your metaphor, to not take it literally. Real life is not played for points (or even for “utility”) and there are no winners and losers.

7 Summary

None of this amounts to a coherent argument against the idea of superintelligence. It՚s more of a catalog of attitudinal quibbles. I don՚t know the best path towards building AI (or ensuring the safety of AIs); I just have pretty strong intuitions that this isn՚t it.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Refactoring War

I seem to be obligated to have an opinion of some sort on the current fighting in Israel and Gaza. I am, after all a politically engaged and intellectual sort of person, or claim to be. All sorts of people I know are weighing in on one side or the other of the conflict. Some are quick to assign blame, others make heroic efforts to construct a balanced view where moral faults are parceled out to both sides in accordance with a detailed and sensitive knowledge of the history of the region. (Here՚s the best of those efforts I՚ve found so far, from none other than Amos Oz). I have family and co-workers in Israel, so am pulled in that direction, yet I am temperamentally and politically drawn to support the underdog, and that is not Israel in this fight. So I can՚t easily choose a single side for condemnation or support. But being balanced requires putting more time than I am willing to invest into learning all the agonizing details.

I could just shut up, of course, and mostly I have, because the situation seems to be definitionally hopeless. And my meta-heuristics say to stay away from hopeless topics, no matter how much they seem to want to pull me in. I՚m starting to see some merits in the LessWrongian slogan “politics is the mind-killer” – war and politics are after all basically two variants of the same thing, and while politics may kill the mind, war kills actual people as well. Why join in? If I thought there was some actual good to be done by expressing an opinion, that would be one thing, but the only benefit seems to be the very minor satisfactions of moral posturing, and the downside would be losing friends.

But silence is not really a viable option for me, for a multitude of reasons, social, moral, whatever. Doesn՚t matter – as Trotsky said, you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. So that means having to have an opinion, and that largely means figuring out how to assign blame. Isn՚t that what people really want to know when they raise this subject? They want to know which side to root for, as if it were a football game or pro wrestling or something.

Consider this post an effort to assign blame while avoiding picking a side. And there will be blame, someone or something has to answer. But using our patented refactoring technology may help us find different culprits than usual. And actually being unable to settle on a stable good guys vs bad guys story helps me out, in that it helps me to reflect in as abstract a way as I can manage on the nature of conflict in general. Abstraction is sort of what I do for a living; if there՚s any useful contribution I can make, it has to lie in that direction.

I came up with a refactoring of conflict a while back, a kind of childish and obvious idea really, but I keep it in my intellectual toolbox. Instead of seeing a conflict as between the two ostensible sides, view it as a battle between those who profit from war on both sides and those who are victimized. So in Vietnam the war was not between the US and the communists, but between the warriors on both sides, the military industrial complex in the US and the corresponding war machines of Russia, China, and their allies – and on the other, people trying to live their lives. Sometimes people trying to live are forced to enlist in this battle; hence the anti-war movement. Again, this isn՚t a particularly new idea – during the Vietnam era this was known as “the war at home” – but I rarely see it made explicit, and I haven՚t thought of as a refactoring until just now.

So instead of focusing on the ostensible conflict, focus on the internal conflict between warmakers and peacemakers. The dynamics become pretty visible in something like the Palestinian conflict, where both sides at one time contained a mix of hardliners and more reasonable people, but it was a lot easier for the hardliners to escalate the conflict than for the peacemakers to de-escalate it. Such escalation raises the relative status of the hardliners within their own side, so they have an interest in keeping the conflict going. As a result the Israeli peaceniks like Oz have had their power and stature diminished. In this other war, Hamas is Netanyahu՚s best ally and vice versa.

I՚m sorry, I՚m trying to keep this on as abstract a plane as possible, trying to suss out the utilitarian algebra that generates conflict in general, not this conflict in particular. I shouldn՚t even mention the actual warriors, I՚ll just get myself in trouble, even though I՚m very carefully avoiding even momentarily taking one side or another.

I am very partial to stories about heroic mutinies, like this one about how German workers ended WWI. And related stories that reveal the fractures within aggressive coalitions, like this one about what MPs are really for. It supports my refactoring story, obviously, and makes it possible to see the noble and peace-loving people being manipulated into conflict by their status-seeking superiors. I don՚t know how well this mythology can be applied to the Middle East, though; the very real ethnic hatred seems to be pervasive, not merely a creation of the violence entrepreneurs. Of course Israel is self-selected for Jews who want to turn ethnicity into political/military power – those are the ones who were drawn there (my uncle went there fleeing Nazi Europe; my mother and father turned west and went to England and the US). Palestinians too are probably self-selecting for collective belligerence – the ones who were individualistic and capable emigrated rather than join in ethnic warfare. Part of what makes this fight intractable is that it isn՚t all that refactorable. But people have tried.

A further refactoring occurs to me. In both the normal and refactored framing, we still tend to think of individuals being on one side or another. Jew or Palestinians, hawk or peacenik, it is a question of membership. But a more enlightened and even more refactored view is that everybody has a version of the war-making machinery in them, and peace-making as well, although either may be well-hidden. Then war is seen not as some external conspiracy of a few people against the many but an expression of tendencies we all have. Sometimes the machinery behind those tendencies simply gets the upper hand.

This is also not a terribly original idea. It is, after all, one of the bases for the nonviolent techniques of Gandhi and King, the idea that all humans have a conscience which can be reached.
King’s notion of nonviolence had six key principles. First, one can resist evil without resorting to violence. Second, nonviolence seeks to win the ‘‘friendship and understanding’’ of the opponent, not to humiliate him. Third, evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed….
cards_warisnothealthy_detail.jpgI think back to my childhood, where I was a very junior participant in the movement against the Vietnam war. These sappy posters were everywhere:

The sixties anti-war movement soon moved on from such sweet thoughts into more aggressive forms of opposition. Partly due to increasing pushback by the government and assassination of its prophets of nonviolence, but also because peace is too wimpy a cause to rally around. The only ones who can make war on war without becoming as bad as the thing they aim to defeat seem to be backed by a religious faith which I don՚t share. I could never really see myself as a flower-bearing peacenik, I՚m too contentious by nature, no saint. And more importantly, an approach to politics based on sainthood doesn՚t seem like it is workable, that it could scale.

On the other hand saints do appear on occasion. Somehow we normals have to figure out what to do in the meantime.

It is interesting that religion seems to be the ultimate glue holding coalitions together, whether they are sides in an ethnic war or a movement against war.

Buddhists seem to have their own refactoring of conflict, at least, they talk a lot about aggressive qualities of mind as a distinct thing which can be noticed and worked on and eliminated (or at least tamed to the point where it is non-destructive). Personally I am reluctant to give up my anger, it seems too fundamental to my being, to how I think. The world is full of things that deserve anger, should I let them all slide just for my own peace of mind? I would hate myself if I could no longer hate appropriately.

Still there is something to be said for getting aggressiveness under control, for learning to wield it as a weapon against targets that matter, including itself.
But vain the Sword & vain the Bow
They never can work Wars overthrow
The Hermits Prayer & the Widows tear
Alone can free the World from fear 
For a Tear is an Intellectual Thing
And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King
And the bitter groan of the Martyrs woe
Is an Arrow from the Almighties Bow
The hand of Vengeance found the Bed
To which the Purple Tyrant fled
The iron hand crushed the Tyrants head
And became a Tyrant in his stead 
— from “The Grey Monk”, William Blake
[This post owes something to a recent and widely read post on Slate Star Codex (my favorite blog right now) about how narrow interest-seeking on a large scale makes the world shitty. I՚ve been trying to work up a response; this is not that response but some influence has crept in. ]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Academic Units with Mildly Amusing Names, #7 in a very sparse series

Calming Technology Lab, Stanford

OK, calm has some value. I've been employing some calming technologies myself lately. But something about this project, especially in the context of Silicon Valley's academic division, seems slightly creepy. Frankly, as a citizen I would rather not be calmed, and I really don't want technology trying to calm me. It brings to mind Temple Grandin's work on slaughterhouses that were carefully designed to keep the cattle from being agitated as they are led down the chute.

It seems like a more proper and traditional role for academia would be to work on getting people outraged. Call me old-fashioned. And speaking of that, I notice that one of the members of this lab is Roy Pea who used to work with Roger Schank, who now runs the Education Outrage blog.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Strategies Against Architecture

In my recent posts I՚ve given the impression that I view academic critical theory as somehow lightweight, airy-fairy, and impractical, at least when measured alongside the sturdy simple souls who do engineering. Well I take it all back. You can՚t get much more pragmatic than the IDF, and they are down with this stuff in a big way, apparently:
The attack conducted by units of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on the city of Nablus in April 2002 was described by its commander, Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, as ‘inverse geometry’, which he explained as ‘the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions’....
Contemporary military theorists are now busy re-conceptualizing the urban domain. At stake are the underlying concepts, assumptions and principles that determine military strategies and tactics. The vast intellectual field that geographer Stephen Graham has called an international ‘shadow world’ of military urban research institutes and training centres that have been established to rethink military operations in cities could be understood as somewhat similar to the international matrix of élite architectural academies. …

There is a considerable overlap among the theoretical texts considered essential by military academies and architectural schools. Indeed, the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Guy Debord), as well as more contemporary writings on urbanism, psychology, cybernetics, post-colonial and post-Structuralist theory. …
Naveh, a retired Brigadier-General, directs the Operational Theory Research Institute… ‘We are like the Jesuit Order. We attempt to teach and train soldiers to think. […] We read Christopher Alexander, can you imagine?; we read John Forester, and other architects. We are reading Gregory Bateson; we are reading Clifford Geertz. Not myself, but our soldiers, our generals are reflecting on these kinds of materials. We have established a school and developed a curriculum that trains “operational architects”.’ In a lecture Naveh showed a diagram resembling a ‘square of opposition’ that plots a set of logical relationships between certain propositions referring to military and guerrilla operations. Labelled with phrases such as ‘Difference and Repetition – The Dialectics of Structuring and Structure’, ‘Formless Rival Entities’, ‘Fractal Manoeuvre’, ‘Velocity vs. Rhythms’, ‘The Wahabi War Machine’, ‘Postmodern Anarchists’ and ‘Nomadic Terrorists’, they often reference the work of Deleuze and Guattari.… 
Indeed, as far as the military is concerned, urban warfare is the ultimate Postmodern form of conflict. Belief in a logically structured and single-track battle-plan is lost in the face of the complexity and ambiguity of the urban reality. Civilians become combatants, and combatants become civilians. Identity can be changed as quickly as gender can be feigned: the transformation of women into fighting men can occur at the speed that it takes an undercover ‘Arabized’ Israeli soldier or a camouflaged Palestinian fighter to pull a machine-gun out from under a dress.… 
Critical theory has become crucial for Naveh’s teaching and training. He explained: ‘we employ critical theory primarily in order to critique the military institution itself – its fixed and heavy conceptual foundations. Theory is important for us in order to articulate the gap between the existing paradigm and where we want to go. Without theory we could not make sense of the different events that happen around us and that would otherwise seem disconnected.… 
Naveh references such canonical elements of urban theory as the Situationist practices of dérive (a method of drifting through a city based on what the Situationists referred to as ‘psycho-geography’) and détournement (the adaptation of abandoned buildings for purposes other than those they were designed to perform). These ideas were, of course, conceived by Guy Debord and other members of the Situationist International to challenge the built hierarchy of the capitalist city and break down distinctions between private and public, inside and outside, use and function, replacing private space with a ‘borderless’ public surface. References to the work of Georges Bataille… also speak of a desire to attack architecture and to dismantle the rigid rationalism of a postwar order, to escape ‘the architectural strait-jacket’ and to liberate repressed human desires.
This is by far the weirdest thing I՚ve read recently. The whole article has a slightly unbelievable air to it, as if it was extracted from a Don Delillo or JG Ballard novel. The intrusion of a subfield of computer science that I have a tenuous connection to (swarm intelligence) adds to the unreality.

(h/t to Jordan Peacock, who has written a quite useful introduction to Deleuze and Guattari at Ribbonfarm)

[Addendum: some commenters missed the tone of the post and the cited article, which was awed but not exactly approving. And yeah, the use of radical philosophy (and even more so the work of the radically humanist Christopher Alexander) for the purposes of military occupation may be perverting it.]

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Software: Studied, World: Eaten

Well that was different. It՚s been a long time since I hung out in a real academic environment. The workshop was oriented around the organizer Warren Sack՚s book-in-progress, which is intended to connect the humanities and software in a variety of ways. The main goal was, I think, to explore and promote the idea that software is a bona fide medium of expression, which means at least (a) it is in some respects an extension of the unaided mind (b) and thus makes new forms of thinking possible, just as writing made new forms of art possible that were not available to the pre-literate, and (c) that software itself should be studied (and critiqued) as intellectual and artistic expression, just as we study and critique novels or paintings.

If this sounds too rarefied for what is usually thought of as an engineering discipline (and I admit that it does to me some of the time), the author is at least trying to ground his efforts in the works of certain famous and classic (and beyond dismissal) computer scientists, including Donald Knuth, Alan Kay, and Abelson and Sussman, all of whom were extremely technical but also accurately saw software and computation as important intellectual developments, not mere gadgetry.
The other important intellectual ground of the workshop was Marshall McLuhan and other media theorists, who emphasized the way in which media technologies have the power to reshape human thought and society.

Some secondary goals of the workshop:

(1) teasing out the non-technical intellectual roots of computational concepts, which are usually taken as givens that sprung fully-formed from the brow of Alan Turing. This is an entirely worthwhile project – somewhat more scholarly than the others – and it is one that connects to my own dissertation work. And it was the richest, newest, and best developed, in my inexpert opinion.

(2) trying to get humanists (artists, anthropologists, philosophers, etc) to understand software. Also a worthwhile project, but I wasn՚t sure the book՚s method, which consists of taking a few classic programs and attempting to step the reader through both their machinery and their intellectual background, was the best way to accomplish the goal. If I had a young arty, critique-y, politically intense young student who wanted to gain some understanding of the technological world, I՚d tell them to grab an Arduino and hang out in a hackerspace for a month and build a few things. Then they՚d have the necessary background to ask the right questions.

(3) trying to get technologists to think critically about the systems they build. This wasn՚t really a primary goal of the book, which seems to be strictly aimed at an academic market that is already open to interdisciplinary thought. But that idea is present in this community and from my outsider perspective seems to be one of the more important contributions it could make. As someone in industry, we build representations, abstraction, and systems all the time, and the ways we have for thinking about them are impoverished, we need all the help we can get.

So, combining all these goals sounds challenging; I think Warren is trying to do too many things at once. I empathize because I have the same problem when I try to write anything with more structure than a blog post – all the things I am interested in are connected and they all seem to want to be included.

A note on the workshop itself and interoperating with humanities types (cultural anthropologists, feminist studies people, etc): When I was in a 1-on-1 conversation or small circle, I had no problem at all in understanding these scholars and making myself understood. However, the larger-scale discussions seemed to devolve to a useless ritual of name dropping philosophers and flinging around trendy ideas (eg, yes, you can find racial or colonialist or militarist assumptions in software from the 60s/70s – so what? I know this, what I want to know is how to operate in the world even with all the racial and colonialist underpinnings that lie underneath it). This really grated on me; possibly it՚s because I am just not a native to this kind of discourse, but I suspect that something has gone wrong in academia. I՚m hardly the first to be unhappy with “critical theory” or whatever it is properly called, although I tend to be more sympathetic to it than your typical tech weenie (which is why I was there in the first place).

One of my right-wing trolls like to accuses academic critical theory as being symptoms of “cultural Marxism”, a program to subvert the West, but a real Marxist, if one could be found and dusted off, would scoff at this stuff because it is so goddamn inward. You can find coded racism all day long and not have any good ideas about what to do about it. And I think people in this world know it. The concepts of critical theory aren՚t that generative, and they don՚t fit naturally into the American mind. Phil Agre, my role model for this world, had the ability to digest this stuff, pull out key ideas, and express them in ways that were non-jargony and made technical sense. But he՚s not in the business any more, and I՚m not sure anybody else has really managed to move that particular ball further down the field.

Software on the other hand is eminently pragmatic: it gets stuff done. And the people who live inside it all day long tend to be gruff pragmatists themselves, without a lot of time or tolerance for the merely intellectual. This is a healthy attitude to some extent, but we are long past the point where software as a discipline has to grow up and acknowledge its connections to the rest of the human project. It is, of course, quickly infiltrating our social lives, our work lives, our political lives -- eating the world, in the celebratory/threatening tones of the industry. It hasn't yet interpenetrated very much with the world of ideas, which makes efforts like this workshop difficult, important, and exciting. We are in a revolutionary moment in history and it's eat or be eaten whether you are an anthropologist or an accountant.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Brothers in Arms

I was at a family event in Chicago recently, and so naturally had a couple of run-ins with my wingnut brother, the one who not only reads Ann Coulter but hangs out with her. In other words, he lives in a moral/political reality as opposite as possible to mine. I don՚t think we planned it that way, but as an outcome it is almost tiresomely cliched, like those old movies where one brother becomes a cop and the other a gangster.

It doesn՚t take much to set us off. Since he was in town for his step-son՚s graduation from Northwestern, I quite innocently asked him about the commencement speaker, which led us by some inexorable process to the closest current wingnut political brainworm, namely being outraged that several such speeches by Republican types had been cancelled due to the Stalinist fervor of the politically correct. Condoleeza Rice, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christian Lagarde (head of the IMF) all have had their right to free speech gravely trampled on.

Natually I thought this was high-order bullshit, if only because people like that have absolutely no problem getting their views into the public sphere, whether or not a particular speaking gig is interfered with. Doesn՚t matter, because there is an infinite stock of equally lame reasons for frothing available to a member of the Fox News Borg. Soon after we had exhausted that topic, we somehow were onto how it was the fault of labor unions that the US economy was a basket case.

Later, a few minutes of Googling was enough to show that his whole spiel was even more bullshity than I had previously thought. Rice and Lagarde withdrew from speaking because they were faced with protests (that is, other people exercising their free speech rights). Ali՚s offer to be presented honorary degree at Brandeis was withdrawn when her remarks calling Islam “a nihilistic cult of death” came to light, but in the process of doing so the university extended her an offer to come be a speaker at any time, which was entirely proper, given that a commencement speech is an honor – universities should provide a place for controversial speakers to be heard, but not necessarily be granting them honoray degrees.

Well, despite severe temptation I didn՚t restart the argument when I saw him next. I didn՚t want to be the one to make a family gathering into a shouting match, and we managed to be relatively pleasant to each other for the rest of the trip. I don՚t regret that, but I do kind of regret not initiating the meta-conversation that might actually be interesting to me, if not him: how is that we have built for ourselves such entirely separate worlds of discourse? How is it that two people with the same background should fasten on such different understandings of how things are? This is what I wanted to say; and perhaps it would at least create a shared feeling of mutual incomprehension; allowing us to find common ground in our lack of common ground.

That did not happen, sadly. So I continue to think of him as a slave to crappy ideas that nobody with an ounce of an intelligence should take seriously, and he continues to think I՚m a boring member of (what he considers as) the establishment who doesn՚t have the courage to break with the mainstream. Our lives don't intersect very often, which may be for the best, since I can't imagine any way to reconcile our points of view.