Books: Social Something and the Agent

I have failed at understanding what it is that twitter does or at conveying to you how I use facebook. The truth is that I do not know what these websites are good for, and truth be that I use them but I can also live happily ever after without them, like I can live happily ever after without bars. I go into bars. I meet people at bars, I talk with people at bars, and I can live without bars. It has always been this way.

I remember a discussion many years ago with a friend in Schwabing (Munich) about bars when he insisted that we go to a bar (1). For the life of me I really could not get what he found so particularly interesting about bars, I always preferred sitting in his Schwabing kitchen having a coffee, tea, or a glass of wine and some good conversation while a few rooms down the hall some music played in the background. He had a neighbour whose last name was Depp and my visits to him had this highlight of marveling at the neighbours door and wondering what it is like to wake up each morning having Depp as a name. The Depp and the bakery scents from downstairs together with lots of argumentation marked my experience of those days. I could not warm up to the idea of bars, still can not. But then, I do lots of things out of curiosity, not necessarily out of preference. The bars are now digital, they are called twitter, facebook, myspace and what have you not. I like digital objects. Actually, I love digital objects. But now I am stressed. Yesterday a friend with whom I had not conversed in a while asked if my book had been published….

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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?

(xposted on