What should we name our new virtual reality headsets? I have some suggestions.
What should we name our new virtual reality headsets? I have some suggestions.
Je pense, donc je suis.—Renė Descartes, Discours de la Méthode Pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, 1637
I am I because my little dog knows me.—Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America, or the Relation of Human Nature To the Human Mind, 1936.
Gertrude Stein’s little dog may confirm her sense of self, but in doing so it also defines her in terms of a moral obligation which she cannot betray without sacrificing her identify. Our identities as human beings are constructed of many such relationships, many such obligations. We see ourselves reflected in them, and know who we are.
Or do we? René Descartes‘ assertion doesn’t actually deny that we are a part of the society which has created us, or that as a consequence, we have obligations to that society. He would not, I think, disagree with John Donne that no man is an island, entire of itself. Implicit in his assertion nevertheless is the supposition that individual human beings have moral and political agency, that they have the right to assist society in defining what it is, and therefore who they are.
The consequences of Descartes’ assertion, whether or not he was as conscious of them as we are today, are clear enough. If, by virtue of being a rational creature, the individual human being has the right to agency on their own behalf, then there can be no divine right of Popes, Mullahs, Kings, Führers, or General Secretaries to arbitrarily define the collective will of a society, or to censor the behavior of the individuals who comprise it merely because they lack the power as individuals to defend themselves. This is the founding principle of the Enlightenment and of secular humanism in general, that no one owes obligations to a society which refuses them the right to contribute to its governance.
In a civilized society, you shouldn’t have to pray, genuflect, make pilgrimages to Mecca, recite the shahada, or go to confession. You shouldn’t have to salute the flag, say the Pledge Of Allegiance, or sing the national anthem. You shouldn’t have to publicly admire the thought of Xi Jinping, avoid expressing certain opinions, or sit still for the burning of books, heretics, or so-called enemies of the state. The relationship between individual and collective in a civilized society is reciprocal. There’s a feedback loop between the two, one governed by mutual respect. The political manifestation of this feedback loop has traditionally been called democracy.
Democracy, though, is fragile. It has many enemies, even in so-called democratic societies. More often than not, what outs these enemies is their ritual acts of public piety. Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. Whatever he may have intended, Kennedy’s appeal to a grandiose selflessness was in fact a radical attack on the very idea of a personal right to self-determination. You don’t have to doubt that we have both a moral and political obligation to contribute to the society which gave birth to us to find formulations like Kennedy’s of benefit principally to tyrants and sycophants.
Authoritarians love to tell us that freedom isn’t free, as though we didn’t already know that all too well. What this bumpersticker-on-the-back-of-a-pickup actually means is something more like this: When they tell you you’ve got to go somewhere and shoot people, you have to do it. Otherwise we get to spit on you.
This is the kind of freedom that a genuinely free person instinctively rejects. The real price of freedom is very different. The real price of freedom is one that no patriot, no acolyte, no devotee will ever realize that they owe, let alone be capable of paying. That their little dog knows them is good enough for them, although I doubt it’s ever been all that good for the little dog.
1. We’ve learned nothing.
2. We’ve forgotten nothing.
3. We’re not THEM.
4. Vote for us.
6. Thank you.
1. Some people have no right to exist.
2. Other people have a right to exist, but all their other rights are contingent upon the good will of the Republican Party. (See attached appendix no. 1 for a currently-approved list of other people.)
3. Women have no rights that a white man is obliged to respect.
4. After January 20, 2025, all books distributed to anyone in the United States under the age of 40 will require the nihil obstat of the Republican Party.
5. Immigrants are filthy scum, and they’re illegal too.
6. All history not approved by the Republican Party is bunk.
7. Scientific theories are theories. Republican assertions about the irrelevance of science are fact.
8. America is a Christian Republic. No ifs, no ands, no buts.
9. All lives matter. (This means white lives, police lives, heterosexual male lives, and the lives of those who haven’t yet been suspected of thought crimes by Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Donald Trump Jr., or the governors of Florida, Texas, or Mississippi.)
10. Vladimir Putin has never accused a Republican of racism, and supports the death penalty for homosexuals. Therefore all aid to the Ukraine must cease immediately.
11. All Democrats are satanic, communistic pedophiles who hate America and want to take away our personal machine guns, mortars, and armored vehicles.
12. Freedom means a) not being vaccinated, b) not wearing a mask, c) riding a Harley without a helmet, d) not paying taxes, and e) calling people you don’t approve of any kind of names you feel like. All other definitions of freedom are the inventions of a woke conspiracy supported by funds from George Soros.
13. This platform will be updated whenever the Republican Party finds someone new to hate, some new apostasy to reject, or some new way to cosset our precious billionaires. (See attached appendix no. 2 for a currently-approved list of precious billionaires.)
14. We know where you live.
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.
I’ve been reading that ChatGPT can create plausible essays on any subject that are both utterly self-confident and utterly wrong.
I take that bit of news to mean that ChatGPT could already be a perfect replacement for Donald Trump, at least on paper. All of the ignorance, none of the sneering—as technological miracles go, that ain’t half bad.
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?
Twitter. After more than a decade of contented blogging, I tried it last year, and was almost immediately chased off the premises by a persistent sociopath who needed to be there far more desperately than I did. I’d been onboard long enough, though, to realize that what made Twitter valuable was its omnipresence. It saw everything everywhere all at once, and was both faster and less timid than any curated medium was at reporting what it saw. Despite its flaws, Twitter always knew what was up, and it was always eager to tell everybody about it.
Being able to eavesdrop on the entire world in real time, or as close to real time as human perception and internet data transmission allow, is intoxicating in both the good and bad senses of the term, which is undoubtedly why Twitter can sometimes appear to us as a fountain and sometimes as a cesspool, and sometimes as both at the same time. Despite attempts by management to police vile and unpleasant behavior, there has never been any credible gatekeeper on Twitter, no credentialing, certification, or approval process that couldn’t easily be circumvented. The reason for this was the sheer scale of the task. The universe of discourse on social media in general, and on Twitter in particular, was and is too large and too fast to control, even with the assistance of computer-driven algorithms. Unlike the editors of the New York Times, Jack Dorsey and his staff had no illusions about their ability to monitor, let alone enforce, cultural norms at scale. On Twitter, civilized discourse was an option, but it was never the only option. Caveat lector was the rule.
And so it was until Musk, full of who knows what except himself, decided to cast his bread upon the waters. Given that we’re only a few days into his reign, it’s hard to predict the outcome of his dalliance with any confidence, but at the moment it seems unlikely that he’ll ever find that bread again, at least not all 44 billion dollars worth of it. What the rest of us will find is even more uncertain, but I suspect that even after Musk has done working everything over from top to bottom with his libertarian hatchet, Twitter will remain pretty much what it always has been, the human comedy entire, in all its tawdry glory. It’s also a fair bet, I think, that Musk the reformer isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and it won’t be all that surprising if, in the waning days of his epiphany, he turns out not be as solvent as he thought he was either.
All that aside, what I found useful about Twitter last year is still just as useful, and I know my way around the place now. I no longer need to browse except when the mood strikes me, I’ve found a place where the sociopaths can’t get to me, and if Elon ever tires of his pet project, or surrenders it to the bankruptcy courts, I’ll still have Mastodon, or something very like it, to fall back on. Caveat lector is working out just fine for me. YMMV.
Will Francis Fukuyama have something portentous to share with us later this evening, as we all gather to watch the arc of the moral universe unbend itself on Fox News? Damned if I know. Or care. History may or may not be bunk, but it’s very clearly not over.