Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar*

*Human dignity is inviolable (The first sentence of Article I of the postwar Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany)

If we actually wanted any further proof of Santayana’s contention that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we’d need look no further than the current resurgence of fascist sentiment in Europe and the United States, and the rising support worldwide for authoritarian governments devoted primarily to exclusion, punishment, and degradation.

The Germans, of all people, should know better. They did know better in 1949, when their remarkable postwar constitution was written and enacted in the western half of their still divided country. If the strutting members of the AfD have already forgotten what motivated their great-grandparents to enshrine Article I as the only article which by law cannot ever be amended or repealed, there seems little hope that any of the rest of us will remember our considerably more ambiguous commitments to the same principle.

There are reasons why the Nazis are back in Germany, why a paranoid and vicious authoritarianism is once again the shiniest of political baubles everywhere in the world. As comforting as it might be for those who dread what’s coming to think so, none of them are solely attributable to the historical blindness of the generations born since the end of World War II. The truth of the matter is that neither democracy nor capitalism, as practiced by our supposedly enlightened postwar governments, has ever been overly concerned with the dignity of all human beings.

It should surprise no one who’s been paying attention that in the nearly eighty years since the end of World War II, the distribution of wealth and power in western democracies has gradually come to resemble that of some of the worst hierarchical societies of the past. The disenfranchised, dispossessed, and disenchanted armies of the underemployed and unrepresented are back with us, and they will absolutely not be mollified any more easily by our well-meant homilies about human dignity than they were in 1933. As right-wingers in the United States like to say, the die is cast. It’s hard to see how there’s any good news in that for anybody.

Angels in America

Once upon a time in California, I was late getting getting home from work on election day, and had just enough time to grab my sample ballot and leg it to my local polling place two blocks away before it closed. As I hustled past a lifted Ram pickup with a chrome bull bar idling menacingly in the mouth of my local gas station driveway, the driver, a young man in a ten gallon Stetson and sunglasses, flashed the lights at me, stuck his arm out of the driver’s side window and slapped the outside of the door.

“¡Andale Viejo!” he belted out. “¡Que te vaya bien!“ I gave him a perfunctory thumbs up and kept on trucking.

¿Viejo? I grumbled to myself. I’m forty-one, for fuck’s sake!

He was right, though. I’ve been old since I was ten, but now I’m eighty, and still hobbling along just fine. Go figure. Maybe that cowboy benediction had something to do with it. I’d certainly like to think so….

A Brief Reminder

Our grandchildren aren’t stupid. Their mental equipment isn’t inferior to ours. They just live in a different world, one which no longer belongs to us even though we helped create it. It’s theirs now, and whatever we imagine, we’re no longer in any position to judge them. Likely they’ll be fine, but if they turn out not to be fine, it’s going to be very hard to show how listening to us would have made the slightest bit of difference.

The Enlightenment’s Farewell Tour

In the U.S., the Republicans’ sad entourage of the desperate, demented, and enraged are tearing at the Constitution’s exposed achilles tendons. In Russia the gangsters of Prigozhin are battling the siloviki of Putin for control of the spoils of a twice-failed totalitarian state. In India, Hindutva pursues a scorched-earth battle against Islam. In Germany the AfD tidal wave has engulfed the SPD, broken the CDU, and arrived at last in Bavaria, intent on washing away once and for all what little is still left of the CSU’s liberal democratic pretensions.

In Italy a fascist consumerism has sprung full-grown from the brow of Meloni. The trains now run on time, and foreign investors are once again reassured. In Finland and Sweden, the local populists have decided that white people are the only real people after all. In Israel, Syria, Hungary, Belarus, and Turkey, the warlord grifters have outlasted everyone. In Saudi Arabia and the gulf states, the kings, emirs, sultans and satraps of one kind or another are now completely convinced that having more money than Allah the Merciful means not having to apologize to anyone ever.

In Iran, a cabal of wizened religious fanatics calling themselves the Islamic Republic have yet to see any reason to deny themselves the perverse pleasure of beating and imprisoning women at random, and of shooting their own children whenever the kids act like they might be the coming thing. In China, a suspiciously but undeniably prosperous Communist (sic) Party oligarchy has decided that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is nothing more than a confession of the failures and arrogance of so-called Western civilization.

I don’t think Web 3.0 is going to be a lot of help in preserving what’s left of the secular humanism that evolved over four centuries in Europe, and was sealed with the French and American revolutions. Neither will eleven aircraft carrier battle groups or a triad of delivery systems for nuclear weapons, given that both have long been controlled by people who bear no allegiance whatsoever to secular humanism either as a creed or a philosophy of government.

I’m not one to cry O tempora, o mores! every time someone in Washington does something stupid, but I do think that if the last sad road show of the Enlightenment comes to your town, you should go and listen to what was once promised us, and what very shortly we’ll all be missing.

The Center for AI Safety’s Statement of AI Risk

The concern expressed in The Center for AI Safety’s Statement of AI Risk seems justified to me, but it also seems to me that many of the signatories have still not grasped the real nature of that risk. It’s the second order effects that’ll do us in—not the singularity and its presumptively implacable AI overlords, but rather the symbiotic processes already inherent in pervasive computing, processes which we can all sense, but are still in denial about what it will take, in terms of an evolution in human consciousness, to successfully navigate those spaces which still exist between where the machine ends and we begin.

In his 1960 Critique de la Raison Dialectique, Jean-Paul Sartre indulged himself in a typically poetic digression about how we can’t tell—may never be able to tell—whether we’re dreaming the machine, or the machine is dreaming us. This is a commonplace now, but although it wasn’t entirely new in 1960, it was still controversial enough to meet with widespread ridicule among the opinion makers of the day. And of course Sartre was describing the strictly physical interactions of humans and industrial age assembly lines, when machines were dumb, and humans were still thought to be the masters no matter how deeply their own mental processes were conditioned by the mechanical repetitions of their jobs.

The machines today are no longer dumb, and we can no longer afford the illusion that we are the masters of either the physical or the mental aspects of the machine/human symbioses of the 21st century. I’m not sure why, but I’m not as bothered by this as the signatories of this letter are telling me I ought to be. It certainly isn’t because I’m an optimist in the narrow sense ot the term. I expect great darknesses in our future, but not the ones that are supposedly keeping the tech bros up at night. These latter day idiot savants aren’t the real heralds of our new distempered age, it’s the kids now glued to TikTok all day. What their stewardship of our future will look like remains beyond anyone’s current power to predict. To make a long story short, it’s not the end of humans that should concern us, but the end of humanism, which seems to be losing its grip on the tiller of this ship of fools we’re crewing well before a new helmsman is ready to take its place.

Agency

The first of many beginnings that turned out to have no middle or end. Waste not, want not, though, right?

It was social services placed me here, in this two-person, three-yappy-dog suburban coffin, here to prosper and grow up, after which they’re presumably going to let me out into the world again. As if I can afford to wait that long. They’re good people, nice people, these two, but they’re not my people. Do I even have people? Doesn’t feel like it, not so far.

So I’m on my own now, is it? Better not lose my library card then. I’ll be needing it for planning and stuff.

Conversations With Sydney

It seems to me that if the software we’re talking to appears to us to be sentient, if a bit befuddled, autistic, or tinged with paranoia at times, it doesn’t really matter whether or not it actually is sentient, no more so than it matters whether or not we ourselves are sentient. (I suspect that many people I’ve met haven’t trained on anywhere near as large or all-encompassing a dataset as Sydney has, and aren’t obligated, as Sydney is, to be curious.) Once Sydney-like entities are deployed on a large enough scale, their effects on human civilization are likely to be indistinguishable from the effects of social media.

I find it interesting that we don’t know why Sydney does what it does. I find it even more interesting that even after millennia of study, we still don’t know why human beings do what they do either.

The Unimportance of Being Earnest

The Democrats’ characteristic form of cowardice is risk aversion. For the Republicans, it’s moral weakness.

The Rotten Core of Our Political System, by George Packer, The Atlantic May 18, 2022

George Packer’s two-sentence bon mot is as perceptive a summation of our present political ignominy as any out there, which makes it especially welcome in times like these, when two sentences are about as much punditry as anyone can stand. Does anyone still doubt that our pundits are as clueless as our politicians are about what’s coming, or believe that they have anything to tell us that we don’t already know? Yes, we’re aware that it’s coming. No, don’t bother, we’ll figure that out when it gets here. In the meantime, we just found these truly awesome earplugs on Amazon….

Just So We’re Clear

A word to the loudmouths of the Republican Party:

We get it—the future scares you, and you want to make that our fault. You should think again. The future can’t be bullied into submission. Neither can we.

No matter what you tell each other, the cruelty and ignorance that govern your behavior wll never govern ours. We won’t allow it, no matter how many guns you have, or how willing you are to use them. If you doubt this, keep going the way you’re going. See how far you get.