Glitches, uh, find a way

Core scientific theories often sound tautological, yet we keep them around because they lead to useful ideas. The prime theorem of biology is that life comes from life. Life coming from life doesn’t mean that spontaneous generation is impossible. It had to have happened at least once. But it’s so much less efficient than reproduction that it no longer has a chance. Before two amino acids can start rubbing together in just the right way on the road to making Life 2.0, some version 1.0 bastard comes along and eats it. That leads you to the idea of natural selection, evolution, dimorphic sex, and the rest of it.

The prime theorem of computing is that any computer can simulate any other. But for all of the talk about “artificial life”, the two mechanisms are subtly different. Lifeforms compete by turning each other into food. Computerforms compete by turning each other into memes. [Read more…]

The Internet of Electron Microscopes

This is a guest post by Chenoe Hart

After you have stared at your computer screen for a while, it’s recommended that you give your eyes a break to refocus on a more distant outside view. In past years when our monitors looked more like boxes than tablets, you might have already been looking into such a space. The perception of digital content on the screens of CRT displays was inextricably accompanied by the additional perspective lines of the monitor enclosure extending behind it. Expanses of beige plastic stretching past the foreground of your observation might make the eyes operate in a slightly different manner compared to our modern condition of viewing flat panels whose minimal depth renders them closer to two-dimensional apparitions. We always knew that the internet was an ephemeral entity presented in translation from abstract code into pixels on our screen, but our immediate sensory feedback perceived it to be the front of a three-dimensional box possessing further physical extension.

Construction photograph of the interior of the Statue of Liberty, from the U.S. Library of Congress.

Many of the words we commonly used to describe the early emerging internet reference an implicit dimensionality: “cyberspace” was non-ironically used as a descriptive term, we explored it those spaces through “web portals,” and the act of “surfing” the web implied negotiating the surface of a physical mass which contained further inaccessible fathoms underneath. The “-tron” suffix marketing the electron gun technology used in those CRTs became the name of a film in which our computers contained an alternate universe of extending light grids. Before “the cloud” gained popularity as an ephemeral metaphor abstracting away the details of how we store our data in other people’s computers, The Matrix rendered the physicality of the internet as a dark enclosed underworld of forbidden knowledge.

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Common Sense Eats Common Talk

In November 2008, with the financial crisis in full swing, Queen Elizabeth attended a ceremony at the London School of Economics. Facing an audience of high ranked academics, she posed a simple question: “Why did nobody notice it?”

How could it be that no one among the smartest economists, commentators, and policymakers in all her kingdom – and beyond – had been able to see the formation of a bubble of such dimensions?

Illustration of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Vilhelm Pedersen, Andersen’s first illustrator

And yet critical facts were readily available – facts that could have warned about the craziness of the housing market, on which an even bigger financial house of cards had been erected. A short trip to a “regular” American neighbourhood – like the one undertaken by Mark Baum in The Big Short – would have presented an endless list of properties under foreclosure, real estate agents openly bragging about the laxity of credit requirements, and exotic dancers with multiple mortgage-financed properties.1

Such evidence would have been sufficient to convince most people of the existence of a bubble. However, in London, New York and the other financial centres of the world, an entire class of experts kept blatantly ignoring the facts, anecdotal evidence, and common sense that could have anticipated what was about to happen.

This is a high profile example of a more general situation in which a narrative establishes itself and resists being disproven, even when it is clearly contradicted by information right under our noses. Like the crowd in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous parable, we watch our sovereign parading naked in the street, but are unable to see through his invisible clothes. Until a young boy steps forward and with a little common sense lifts the veil on our “common talk”.

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On Being Nosey

This is a guest post by Michael Dariano

For this it would be great if you were a dog. You’re not. Instead, we’ll need a shovel. A serious shovel. If you have a garden spade don’t even think of bringing it, it won’t be enough. You’ll need a good back too, curiosity’s treasures are a bitch to extract.

Richard Feynman knew this. He recalled being in the woods one summer and all the other dads knew the names of every bird, branch, and bend of the creek. He asked his dad, someone he considered a pretty smart guy, why he didn’t know the names of those things. Feynman’s dad said, names, we don’t need no stinking names. He went on explain that the name of thing tells you nothing about the thing. What younger Feynman learned was that animals share some things in common: how to eat, sleep, and make babies. That’s what mattered, not the names.

To learn the name of something is superficial curiosity. That’s garden spade territory. The names of things are searchable, starting with algorithms. Google can identify cat videos. Treasures need big shovels.

The bestest curiosities are like journeys. “What happens if I destroy the ring?” “What happens if I take the red pill?” “What happens if I follow this man through a tunnel in Chateau d’If?”

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Entrepreneurship is Metaphysical Labor

“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians…”

–Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

We were days away from closing a fresh fundraising round when our CFO pulled me aside to tell me the company did not have enough cash to cover the next payroll run.

“Never miss payroll” is the most uncontroversial of all the startup advice out there. We held this hard-and-fast rule in mind and used our gross payroll figure as a fixed expense in forecasts. Black-and-white issues are rare in startups, yet once you get down to practice, you find that even this simple advice is not so black-and-white.

We called an urgent meeting of the executive team to discuss our cash emergency. The solution we came up with was for everyone on the management team to take a drastic pay cut, but leave all other employee salaries the same, allowing payroll to squeak through at just under our current cash balance. A week later we closed our round and soon things returned back to normal.

So, were we faithful followers of the startup maxim? Did we still “make payroll,” even though several management employees got paid less than their usual wage?

Even if you answer in the positive, the best you could say is something like “Yeah, you made payroll, but…” It’s not 100% clear cut. We only just made payroll because we redefined what it meant to make payroll, and shifted some atoms in the world (that month’s salary calculations) to make the outcome “Did employees get paid?” come out true.

In the annals of entrepreneurship, this tale is a dime a dozen. Every entrepreneur worth their salt can relate with a story of their own company’s near-death experience. In fact, because this story is so common, I believe it sheds light on the defining skill set of entrepreneurship.

Just as emotional labor is arguably the foundation of work in the service industry, I posit that the shared work domain of entrepreneurs the world over is one of metaphysical labor.

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Zorba, Spock, or Voldemort?

This is a guest post by Matthew Sweet.

To be rational is to make the seemingly right decision, for the seemingly right reason, at the seemingly right time.

Of course, the real question is, how do you know when you’ve found the “right” decision, reason and time? One way to go about discovering it, according to the evangelists of rationality, is to flatten the curve of human experience.

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Sanity on the Weird Timeline

A savage girl who eats what she kills. Artwork by Sonya Mann.

Collage and post-processing by the author.

In the months since I wrote “The Cyberpunk Sensibility”, the dystopian flavor in the air has only become more potent. Consider these recent events:

  • An exiled prince from a communist country was felled by a pair of dark-haired ingenues, one wearing an “LOL” shirt.
  • The CIA has been either pwned or framed, or both, their secrets extracted and disseminated via Twitter.
  • One of the richest, most powerful men in The Free World™ released a globalist manifesto, in which he promised to preside over the digital citizens of his monetized belief garden according to his own determination of benevolence.
  • A sovereign nation appointed an ambassador to remonstrate with this rich, powerful man, and his brethren. Private entities that span continents. Hey, maybe it’s just a PR stunt!
  • The predominant meal-replacement brand has an eerie AI mascot. (Which is definitely a PR stunt, but still.)

In “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” I noted that these absurd events can act as triggers, waking people up not unlike the vaunted red pill. But the feeling that we’re living in a parody timeline is starting to wear on me. Many have reflected (at least in the United States) that 2016 was a bizarre year, and 2017 is shaping up to shame its antecedent.

Every single headline this year looks like someone pulled names & scenarios out of a hat

Tweet by @AlannaCoops.

I wrote the cyberpunk bullet points to sound dramatic, but it’s equally possible to make them sound ridiculous. Regardless of which perception I adopt, I find myself marveling at how profoundly strange all of this feels. Paradoxically, what’s normal now is for everything to feel strange. Is that feeling adaptive, I wonder? Is it safe? [Read more…]

The Strategy of No Strategy

Strategy is everywhere in our society. But strategy in practice seems to be a cruel and even silly joke. I learned that the hard way when I went to college long before I ever studied strategy formally. My own “strategy” about how to get through college collapsed virtually the moment I set foot on campus. I was living on my own for the first time and had never been outside of California’s perennial summer weather environment before. I was a poor fit for an East Coast school and didn’t last a full year, getting ill from the cold temperature and transferring out to a California school. At the time, I felt like a failure.

Ensō (c. 2000) by Kanjuro Shibata XX. CC BY-SA 3.0

Like many people of my generation and my socio-economic bracket, my teenage years were eventually consumed by the looming issue of where to go to college. I tried to get the best grades, study hard for the SAT, and make whatever connections I could with alumni to get into colleges I wanted. I applied to many of them, recycling and modifying personal statement letters like the individual payloads and sub-payloads of a MIRV’d nuclear missile. Once I got to college, the clarity and structure that routine provided evaporated. I had to make my own. It was certainly very difficult.

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The Computational Condition

Over the past few months I read Hannah “Banality of Evil” Arendt’s difficult and idiosyncratic (somewhat unnecessarily so) but highly rewarding 1958 classic The Human ConditionThis slide-deck is a deep-dive attempt to apply her philosophy to the post-software-eats-world human condition, which I call the computational condition. Maybe digital condition or post-technological condition would be better, but I like alliteration.

This deck should serve as a decent introduction to Arendt’s philosophy of action, which is already part of the zeitgeist to a much greater degree than you probably recognize. It is dense and wordy, 88 slides long and full of big (thematically bucketed and curated) block quotes along book-ended and interrupted by my own heavy-handed commentary and summary sections, but trust me, it’s a 100x easier to digest than the book itself. But that’s not my main purpose in creating it.

The main purpose is this: With some significant augmentations and modifications (a few of them drastic enough to alter her basic philosophical posture in an irreversible and unforgivable way, the irony of which she’d have appreciated as you’ll see), her ideas actually work really well as a foundation for constructing what I think Silicon Valley needs badly right now: a solid political philosophy built on the foundation of the folk philosophy that already defines tech culture: doerism. So here’s my stab at it. Post a comment if you are interested in a sort of video salon on the topic, in either seminar or discussion format (specify which interests you more). I haven’t yet decided whether to do one, or attempted to present this deck. I suspect it would take me 2-4 hours to present this depending on how prepared people are.

In my own modest way, what I’m trying to do here is get a stone soup going, to cook up a political philosophy for Silicon Valley that is not embarrassingly juvenile/sophomoric. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, this should be a good starting point for you. Even if you dislike doerism (in the sense of the lived political philosophy of Silicon Valley), dislike Arendt (there is much to dislike about her), and are suspicious of any attempt to combine the two, this is in a way the most obvious steel-manning of what is already the tacit political philosophy of Silicon Valley. So your alternatives to it should probably understand what it might possibly be right about.

When Tools Shape You

The weaponized form of McLuhan’s famous phrase the medium is the message is the phrase, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us (due to to McLuhan’s friend John Culkin). I have come to prefer this form of the idea, and my favorite motif for it is Doc Ock, the Marvel super-villain.

doctor_octopus_thumb

Doc Ock’s artificially intelligent arms fuse to his brain stem in a reactor accident. In the movie version, the intelligence in the arms alters his behavior by making lower-level brain functions, such as emotional self-regulation, more powerful and volatile. The character backstory suggests a personality — a blue-collar nerd bullied as a schoolkid — that was already primed for destabilization by the usual sort of super-villain narcissistic wound. The accident alters the balance of power between his higher-level brain functions, and the hardware-extended lower-level brain functions. In the Doc Ock story, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us captures the adversarial coupling between medium and message-sender.

The weaker form of McLuhan’s idea suggests that media select messages rather than the other way around: paper selects for formal communication, email selects for informal communication, 4chan selects for trolling. The stronger form suggests that when there is a conflict between medium and message, the medium wins. A formal communication intent naturally acquires informal overtones if it ends up as an email, memetic overtones if it ends up as a 4chan message.

Culkin’s form is the strongest. It suggests that the medium reshapes the principal crafting the message. The Doc Ock motif suggests why. There is no such thing as a dumb agent. All media have at least weak, latent, distributed intelligence. Intelligence that can accumulate power, exhibit agency, and contend for control.

The most familiar example of this effect is in organizational behavior, captured in an extension to Alfred Chandler’s famous observation that structure follows strategy. That becomes first structure follows strategy, then strategy follows structure. The explicit form is Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: in a mature organization, agent goals trump principal goals.

A subtler, less familiar example is the philosophical idea that in any master-slave relationship, the slave can self-actualize through labor. In practice, this happens only when the slave has some freedom above absolute wretchedness, with sufficient cognitive surplus to turn learning from labor into political leverage.

In all such examples, the mechanism is the same. A seemingly powerless and dumb agent, by virtue of having privileged access to information and organizational operations, can become the principal by converting growing tacit knowledge of reality into consciously exercised political leverage.

The idea sheds light on why we are instinctively concerned about the Trump administration-in-waiting. While it is plausible, indeed probable, that Trump’s own ideological postures are merely expedient responses to the needs of the moment, the same cannot be said of many of his agents-in-waiting, whether acknowledged or not. They are tools at the moment, being shaped to the will of a victor. Unfortunately, they can easily go from being shaped to doing the shaping.