This blog has been migrated to http://uncondition.wordpress.com/ .
If you are an action philosopher, research happens. If you are human, shit happens. If you are me, it all happens. I just spent a few days pondering the deeper meaning of what may be called discovery and what may be called invention. It is strange because I was not thinking along these lines until somebody pointed me in that direction. I am much more interested in the issue of ownership, in particular knowledge ownership. Nothing new here, I am hard-core when it comes to my favourite ideas, and knowledge ownership is one of those concepts that I just can not shake loose: I want to get to the bottom of this issue. Period.
In a paper by Nick Bostrom - “A History of Transhumanist Thought.” Journal of Evolution and Technology (2005) - I found the following citation attributed to Stanislaw Ulam and dating from 1958, that is from about half-century ago:
One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
Ulam, S. (1958), "John von Neumann 1903-1957", Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society (May).
If you are interested in transhumanism and its discourse, Bostrom's article (or any of his writings) does (do) make for a good read. I for my part, at least today, I am interested in that idea so charmingly named as singularity. In my view, we are already in the middle of it, and somehow most of us have failed to register the event.
When it comes to discovery and invention, the plot thickens, and it thickens very fast because in the very technical language of jurists, policy-makers and lawyers there is a distinction between discovery and invention. it is a distinction that leads to the difference between what is private property, and what are public goods. I think that I missed my call along the way, should have been a farmer. All that I can think of now is the archaeological work from long ago in Jordan that had me in involved debates about what constituted Bedouin tribal land and what did not, or why to the dismay of modern technocrats, the Bedouins still have some say in local politics. Now, land is real, it is physical, and although you can not consume land, if it is not properly husbanded then it loses its value as a resource for renewable agricultural goods. (You did wonder where I got my connection to agriculture, did you?)
Again, returning to the matter of knowledge, information and intelligence, add a bit of salt and pepper, and you have the singularity. It is here. What does this mean?
It means that in the two hundred years since Darwin went for a five year spin around the globe on board the Beagle, a whole lot has happened in discovery and invention. I may be wrong on this, but we can not comprehend the extent of our knowledge and information without machine help. Even with machine help, there is much that we do not comprehend, much less understand. We know a few facts, but do we really understand what is going on?
There are facts in what I have observed in the physical world that I certainly can not comprehend or understand, although I am in a position to write down a few lines of theory and a few equations that account for the causality of the phenomenon. That kind of scientific hand-waving still does not mean that I have understood it. It just means that I can invent a plausible narrative to account for the observed. I associate understanding with cognitive processes that involve some form of causality. I understand pain, and that you may or may not enjoy being punched in the face, or have your hair pulled or a knife cut your skin. In this kind of understanding, observation, experience and causality are involved. But do I understand the Pauli exclusion principle? Not really. It is a fact that I have catalogued in my biologically supported information database. The theory behind the Pauli exclusion principle, that is just another set of information, and it is one that is of a different category from the information pertaining to the observed phenomenon.
Only recently did I realize that it has been a mere 200 years since Darwin, and that during his time we had not invented electronic devices, nor had we discovered DNA. We? We - the humans - have discovered these things. When I first sat in genetics and comparative anatomy lectures, to me the idea of evolution was bought wholesale and without putting up a fight, it made perfect sense to me from day one. Mendelian genetics also did not afford me much controversy, and finally I had figured out why my sister had blue eyes and I didn't. Between peas and Drosophila, there is a whole lot of genetics that we have learned since. We have even sequenced the human genome and then realized that that in itself was but the tip of the iceberg. There is more to the code than inheritance, there is also a whole lot of regulation encoded in the code, and that one we have not yet understood. The transhumanist discourse has now been going on for a few years, and in my view, most transhumanists are a bit short sighted. I get their motivation, that is, their thinking seems transparent enough to me, but it is riddled with belief systems that I suspect to be full of flaws.
Today in another book - John Johnston "The Allure of Machinic Life" - I came across a piece that I found quite appropriate within the context of the relationship between humans and technology.
... Maturana and Varela advance their central claim that "autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organisation of living systems". ... they make two points. First, they argue that since living systems are machines, once their organisation is understood, there is no a priori reason why they can not be reproduced and even designed (by humans). To think otherwise would be to succumb to the "intimate fear" that the awe with which we view life would disappear if we recreated it or to the prejudiced belief that life will always remain inacessible to our understanding.
It could be that Maturana and Varela do not quite do it for you on the scale of intellectual visionaries, but it happens that many of their arguments make some sense to me. The disciplines of biomimetics are exactly all about discovering the organization of living systems, and then reproducing it, even designing variations on nature's original invention. I happen to think that we do not even need to understand such processes, we just need to be able to reproduce them. Of course understanding the whole, even if with the blind aid of theories, would facilitate the task of designing new living systems. However in my view, this is past the singularity point and it is point right to it. Human affairs have changed immensely in the past two hundred years, and that change has certainly accelerated in the past fifty years since I am around. Our modernity includes life lived with machines at all levels. The unspectacular conscient worms that we are can still survive in the wild, but that too is a dying species, and we may be losing our ability to survive naked on the prairie. Would that be so bad after all?
My only trouble is that invention and discovery are so blurred these days and their definitions so out of date, that I may have more work to do than I had imagined. There is a new kind of literacy that is desperately needed if we are to rise to the challenges of our ever evolving relationship to technology. Any ideas?
It has been a while since I posted a few lines to uncondition, and your guess is as good as mine as to what the reason might be, although I do have plenty of excuses, and some are far better than others.
In an unexpected turn of events last September I found myself once more decorating the halls of academia with a mandate that I have found much too good to turn down, and that on occasions has also made me question my ability for rational decisions. The thing is that I have been looking into various aspects of technology, in particular those that have to do with international trade. It is all fun, and I do like working within a legal framework and be involved in policy at various levels. Political and legal philosophy remain some of my best bedtime readings, but not only. My own involvement in parliamentary procedures has given me a good taste for the workings, functions and movements in politics, and it remains an experience that I would not have wanted to miss.
I have often been asked about this whole thing of e-democracy and using the Internet as a democratic tool and what not. Although the answers seem to lurk unappealingly and simplistically uninspired, the whole issue is quite fascinating. First, there are issues of democracy. What is democracy?
My very own opinion is that humankind is not ready for democracy, but like with any ideal, and democracy is an ideal, humankind is fascinated by it and keeps on trying it out, exploring, experimenting and just about wrestling with it in all its modalities. Democracy and capitalism - pros and cons - do dominate the social discourse of these days, credit crunch and all providing just the right kind of illustrative examples for anybody to make their point one way or the other. Building arguments these days is like building houses, however some architects are better than others, and some materials are more solid than others. I like sand castles.
Some call me a nihilist, others want to label my fiction more on the absurdist side, and I can only hope that my scientific and academic work lacks any of those labels and goes more towards the critical reasoning side of thought. By choice and birth, I am clearly not an existentialist and that may indeed constitute one of my biggest blind-spots or prejudices. That said, I still like Nietzsche and Kafka, but usually not on an empty stomach.
In my feed reading today, an article about Proposition 8 caught my attention. It did catch my attention perhaps because over lunch time I was discussing with a graduate student peace building processes and how to address the issues of their failure. It is the kind of discussion that leaves me inspired, but then also gets me very distracted and away from work that is perhaps a bit less fascinating. Peace building is to me a very sexy item on the intellectual agenda. Somehow I see here a bridge that needs to be built between peace building and our understanding of self-governance. Democracy is just one of the paths that we are currently exploring in self-governance: sometimes it works, often it doesn't and to boot, there is not much of a shared understanding of what it is.
In this IHT article about Proposition 8, what is striking to me is the one sentence "Eightmaps.com is the latest, most striking example of how information collected through disclosure laws intended to increase the transparency of the political process, magnified by the powerful lens of the Web, may be undermining the same democratic values the regulations were to promote. " Clearly, the regulation mechanism failed, and technology was there to enable the failure. We have here an issue of privacy, or privacy versus transparency.
On this issue, it may be wise to get one's head around Timothy Macklem's Independence of Mind and give chapter 2 a good read, in particular the section that deals with privacy and liberty where we are kindly reminded of Pierre Trudeau's words that "the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation".
With that thought in mind, do recall that the Internet is just a communications logistic tool that is easily accessible to a minority of the world's population. Eighty percent of the world's population has no idea or access to the Internet.
It has been several weeks if not months since I last opened up the RSS readers that I have in use including Bloglines, endo, netvibes, and Google Reader. This is a statement that I can safely make with some sort of periodical recurrence. I struggle to not drown in information. Finding what I need is much more important than being bombarded with potentially interesting information. I am starting to think that the key to our information universe is indeed mastering the economics of search. When I need information, I need it fast, and I want it yesterday, not tomorrow. Impatience is often one of my driving forces, or alternatively a great source of frustration.
I find that the excuse of not having time is one of the lamest ever for not doing something. When we want it bad enough, we all find the time for it, and most are willing to totally step out of the space-time narrative to attain that which is desired. I easily get bored or overwhelmed or both with the influx of information coming in my direction in the space-time map. Mind you, I am fascinated by people and some people write very decent copy about topics that I find of interest and relevance, but at this point I am much keener on just plain information, and the people while not relegated to the realm of necessary evil, are not on my top priority. Just as a reminder, I still love animals, human animals included. Then there is the litany of the day having 24 hours and all the things that one must do, and that there is not enough time for it all, etc, etc.. ad nauseam, or what I would call caught in the space-time doldrums.
There is one not so very recent bit that I particularly like from Nicolas Nova, and that contains a few words that I like "Disinhibition with virtual partners..." For those interested in real non-utopic urban spaces, then both Nicolas' and Fabien's are blogs to keep an eye on. If the hypothesis that I am at present exploring within the jazzy gardens of academia will bring any insights to our understanding of the present technology and our relationship to it, then there is much of surprise to be learned in the interaction between machine and man.
When I say that I do not have the time, it is always the equivalent of using polite language to say that I am either not interested, or that I am not willing to take the responsibility for calling it in any other way. It takes great courage to be able to say that I do not want to this now, or that I do not want to talk with you now. When one human approaches another and asks for attention in the form of time, I do wander what exactly it is that it is being asked. Perhaps it does not matter, for there is no such thing is as the true reason for something, yet reason is something very ingrained in our culture. We either do something or do not do it. Reason is the step-child of causality, and to me it often seems to have been poorly educated among most inhabitants of the planet, or it could be that I am the only and sole being afflicted by this calamity. In my case, when I utter the standard issue "I did not have time" then it is either that I totally forgot or that I just am not keen on the task for whatever reason, and more often than not I may not even know what that reason is, it is just something along the lines of "I do not feel like doing this now" or it is that the task luring and not beaconing at me in the future has, for all its projected magnificence, lost all appeal in my mind's eye. I remember spending summers during my school years in the house library reading books from cover to cover while other kids were out getting into normal kinds of trouble. I would go out towards the late afternoon and then would roam the fields alone as most of the time there were no peers nearby, or those that were nearby did not share my very strange world. If I was not at the country house with said library during the summer, then I was at the beach and with it in a totally different social setting where I tended once more to be the odd one too young for the wilder escapades of my cousins and too odd otherwise. Strange to me now is that although there were always people around, it seems that I chose to be alone regardless of the social setting. In this respect, there is not much that has changed in my life and that is perhaps what I find so fascinating about engaging with virtual partners. I have done this for the whole of my life, and I have often done this in written. I talk to the walls and my computer, I talk to the trees, and I scream at the ocean.
At this point I do not know how the cycling got into the title of this little note, but somehow it seemed relevant when I wrote the first sentences of this a few weeks back. Communication beyond the space-time map has been on the back of my mind quite a bit lately, it happens to be an area that I am researching now. Somehow it all has something to do with entanglement, the big bang and why the Higgs may remain enigmatic.
As I write this there was just one day last week when I thought that after I lay down, I may never wake up. I had a very minor accident and the accompanying strong headache that followed as a result of a mild concussion fed into my awareness that life is finite, that one day I will die and that that day may have just arrived. Mid-afternoon and with no drugs, I laid down, slept the sleep of the innocent and carefree and then woke up when a friend was at my door expecting dinner. Dinner had to wait, and I was alive.
However for some odd reason, death has been very present in my life this year. At one point I bumped into a colleague in the bus and casually asked her how she was. I was not ready for the answer, her husband had just died, she was returning from her sister's who happens to live around the corner. All I could do was take her into my arms. I could not really imagine what it is like to loose a husband, but I could imagine what it is like to loose a good and dear friend, or a member of the family. When the freshman class at CMU is given the assignment to read Randy Pausch's Last Lecture, then all of a sudden, brutal or inconsiderate as it may seem, death is about life. It is a call to go for your dreams, and it is a reminder of what the nature of nature is.
At this point theoretical man is on my top priority list, or if I had the say, it would be my top priority. If I think of death, it is my own death that I rarely thing about as that to me is easy because after that event, there will nothing that I will have to do or think about and I am not inclined to dwelling on what those surviving me will have to deal with. Last year at one point I declared to a friend of mine that if I were to die that day, I would die happy. It is a remarkable claim given the very fact that the word happy seldom computes in my world, but then I do live in a world that explores the very limitations of words. Happy is one of those words whose meaning I often question, interrogate and massage while often the yield of these efforts to conclude that there is some form of emptiness to the word. I have experienced immense joy and something that I would want to label ecstasy, but happiness? What is happiness other than the grand Utopia?
Why is it that I think that I do not have the say when it comes to what my priorities are? When last year I first saw the video of Randy Pausch's last lecture I run a mental inventory of my own dreams and those that I have brought to bear on reality. The score is good, very good, and often I tend to forget how very good the score is and then all sorts of drama surfaces in my narrative. I have however no particular attachment to drama, but do have a great deal of curiosity as to what the nature of nature is and within it, what the nature of man is. I postulate that one aspect of human nature is man's ability to abstract, conceptualize and theorize.
A few weeks ago a casual friend confided that he often goes through depression phases when he totally shuts out the world and that in him then all is rather dark and that he finds himself in a place inaccessible to others around him. I am not one prone to believing every word of confidence that I hear, however in this case I am willing to assume that this may indeed be as I was told. Intimate interactions, or that which is told in confidence when two humans interact is always fascinating as it reveals detailed aspects of human nature and communication. Depression of any kind is not really what is considered an acceptable conversation topic outside of the clinical and private spheres, much less within a context of technology. The confidence took me by surprise, yet I was curious as to what drives somebody to make such a confidence in a crowded hallway. Am I just asking what it is that attracts one man to another?
Why are humans so susceptible to suggestion? Are other animals equally susceptible to suggestion? What drives the suggestion susceptibility? What does any of this have to do with death or what attracts one man to another? How do any of these questions connect to those dreams that we are all born with?
Many years ago I got to read the novel Das Parfum (1981) by Patrick Süskind. My reading of that novel within the then context of my life has in itself all the great elements of what could de turned into fascinating narrative. Like it often happens to great literature, I get so involved and overwhelmed, that often I can not finish reading the story. There is a Swiss writer whose word-craft seems magic to me, and each time that I sit down to read his work, I get so entrained in his words that I can not proceed with the reading. This is for me the power of words, and how I deal with the books that one of my neighbours writes.
Death is just the only certainty that I do not yet know.
My exploratory notes on Theoretical Man are here in this blog. Recently I have found out that it is getting increasingly more difficult to find anything in this blog even with the help of the search box on the right navigation column, thus I have gone back and relabeled some of the older posts to include in addition to the technorati tags, also the blogger-labels: theoretical man, public man, knowledge ownership, culture. A technorati search for "theoretical man" will not yield a clean or complete list of results as the label is also used by others.
Why this now?
Although these notes also exist on my hard drive and are readable outside of a browser, I find it convenient to keep them accessible when I am away from my own storage media.
Originally this whole thing came about from my questioning of what knowledge ownership might be, some of the notes from those early days were neither tagged or labeled with"theoretical man."
I have also used "knowledge ownership" within the context of intellectual property and that has preciously little to do at this point with the bulk of what Theoretical Man is about in spite of the fact that it was my starting point.
Since this is work in progress, the taxonomy and structure is still evolving. Yes, I keep thinking of a wiki, but...
There was one LIFT08 moment for me. It happened during the Gaming session while both Guy Vardi and Paul Barnett spoke. The energy and content of their presentations delivered something into the discussion that Nada Kakabadse and I were having over what is the basis of Theoretical Man. What intrigues me is how technology enables humanity's evolution. Nada and I cracked the one pièce de résistance that I have been pondering for the past few months. I could not have done it alone - not that quickly - it was two brains thinking as one. It was one of those magic moments when you know that alone you are nothing, and together you are everything. I was elated!
Now, for the long story. Some years ago I decided that I was going to get to the root of what had my geeky son spend hours on end playing multiplayer games over the internet. There was a certain sense of responsibility for having gotten him started with the whole thing, when I myself apparently could never quite get much into the game mode. To add insult to injury, I was also the one who taught him the basics of building PCs, changing motherboards and CPUs. For all I knew, I had created a monster, this monster knew something that I did not and I was bent on not letting it stay that way. I wanted to find out. We have moved on, he confesses to getting bored with most multiplayer games and I use a mac. He has new interests, I have new hardware. While researching some of the aspects of gaming and the internet, I stumbled on another idea that beaconed much brighter. I decided to write an epic that is taking place a few thousand years from now. All of a sudden my most dreaded subject was really fascinating, and I regretted instantly knowing so little history, being clueless about antiquity, and really not knowing much at all. I started reading and traveling, I started counting the grains of sand in Arabia. At that time, whenever I was asked what I was doing, I would tell that I was counting the grains of sand in Arabia.
Why count the grains of sand in Arabia? I like the desert and I like Arabia and the Middle East. It is just another place where I feel very at home. It is a place where it is easy to just be myself. But in going through books and discussions about humanity's history on earth, technology started to show its face to me in a way that I had not seen before. Science fiction is just not my genre, I read little of it, but slowly I start to develop more of an interest as the motivation for writing science fiction becomes more and more transparent to me. Still, that is not the direction that I have taken, I have gone into the philosophy direction right straight into what are some of the more controversial debates of our times. Would I have settled for anything less?
In the process of re-fluxing - not really reflecting - the cognitive hangover after the three days of LIFT08 I wrote a synopsis of my present state of affairs across all areas of my life to a colleague and friend in Italy who promptly replied that it was "amazing, but not unexpected, knowing your talent and constitution."
The pièce de résistance that Nada and I tackled during the games at LIFT has to do with the nature of one of three technological quantum leaps that have marked us all and influence our evolution and culture. This is fun stuff to think about, and while one year ago in my quest to get to the nature of what is ownership and knowledge and what they have to do with each other - relationship - stumbled on an incredible piece of natural logic, it was the inquiry of what makes humans different from dogs that has yielded an interesting distinction that goes beyond abstraction and language, and takes us right to literature and its relationships to being human and to technology.
For somebody who started intellectual intercourse at the level of science, my fascination with technology ought to be arousing your curiosity. First however I tried agriculture and planted a few coins, they did not grow and multiply. It is all a logical game, isn't it?