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.

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.

An Ecosystem of Needs Fulfilled

I asked myself “if you own an iPhone, an iPad, an Apple Watch, and a pair of AirPods, what do you really not need any more?” Even though I had some idea of what to expect, the length of the final list came as a genuine surprise.

While it’s true that many of the single-purpose devices or services on this list can be better suited to that single purpose than our software-driven chameleons, is it really any wonder that even those of us who consider ourselves modern, cosmopolitan, adaptable, tech-savvy, etc., can sometimes find making a home for ourselves in the 21st century a daunting proposition?

  • Alarm Clock
  • Barcode Scanner
  • Bookstores
  • Calendar/Appointment Book
  • Camera
  • Carpenter’s Level
  • Cash, Credit and Debit Cards
  • CD/DVD Player
  • Checkbook
  • Clock
  • Compass
  • Cookbooks/Recipe Files
  • Dictionaries/Thesauruses.
  • Document Scanner
  • EKG/Pulse Oximeter
  • Fax Machine
  • Encyclopedia
  • Filing Cabinets
  • Garage Door Opener
  • House Keys
  • Interpreters/Translators
  • Keyring Flashlight
  • Kitchen, Laundry, etc. Timers
  • Letters/Postcards
  • Magnifying Glass
  • Maps and Gazetteers
  • Mirror
  • Movie Theaters
  • Music and Video Stores
  • Newspapers/Magazines/Books
  • Newsstands
  • Note Pad
  • OCR Reader
  • Pedometer
  • Photo Albums
  • Photocopier/Fax Machine
  • Portable Videogame Console
  • Public Libraries
  • Radio
  • Record, CD and Tape Collections
  • Rolodex
  • Still and Movie Cameras
  • Stopwatch
  • Stores/Shops
  • Tape Measure
  • Tape Recorder
  • Telephone/Telegraph
  • Television
  • Turntable
  • Typewriter
  • Video Recorder
  • Wired Headphones

I’m Not As Smart As I Thought I Was Either

I feel about Elon Musk pretty much the same way the Salieri character felt about the Mozart character in Amadeus. Is this buffoon on Twitter really the guy who beat NASA at its own game, and on a shoestring, too, and almost single-handedly made electric vehicle propulsion for the 21st century a commonplace? Really? This is the guy?

Yeah, this is the guy. The Universe may not care very much about us, even less about our categories, but it does have a sense of humor, and it does deserve respect, even when—especially when—it appears to mock our most cherished pretensions….