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This summer I participated in SRI International’s Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series. The meetings were held under the auspices of the Chatham House Rule, which means that there are many things I can’t tell you about them, such as who else was there, or what they said in the context of the meetings; however I can tell you what I talked about. In light of this recent piece in The Boston Globe and the ongoing developments in the David Slater/PETA/Naruto case, I figured that now was a good time to do so.

I presented three times—once on interdisciplinary perspectives on minds and mindedness; then on Daoism and Machine Consciousness; and finally on a unifying view of my thoughts across all of the sessions. This is my outline and notes for the first of those talks.

I. Overview
In a 2013 aeon Article Michael Hanlon said he didn’t think we’d ever solve “The Hard Problem,” and there’s been some skepticism about it, elsewhere. I’ll just say that said question seems to completely miss a possibly central point. Something like consciousness is, and what it is is different for each thing that displays anything like what we think it might be. If we manage to generate at least one mind that is similar enough to what humans experience as “conscious” that we may communicate with it, what will we owe it and what would it be able to ask from us? How might our interactions be affected by the fact that its mind (or their minds) will be radically different from ours? What will it be able to know that we cannot, and what will we have to learn from it?

So I’m going to be talking today about intersectionality, embodiment, extended minds, epistemic valuation, phenomenological experience, and how all of these things come together to form the bases for our moral behavior and social interactions. To do that, I’m first going to need ask you some questions:

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(This was originally posted over at Medium, [well parts were originally posted in the newslettter, but], but I wanted it somewhere I could more easily manage.)


Hey.

I just wanna say (and you know who you are): I get you were scared of losing your way of life — the status quo was changing all around you. Suddenly it wasn’t okay anymore to say or do things that the world previously told you were harmless. People who didn’t “feel” like you were suddenly loudly everywhere, and no one just automatically believed what you or those you believed in had to say, anymore. That must have been utterly terrifying.

But here’s the thing: People are really scared now. Not just of obsolescence, or of being ignored. They’re terrified for their lives. They’re not worried about “the world they knew.” They’re worried about whether they’ll be rounded up and put in camps or shot or beaten in the street. Because, you see, many of the people who voted for this, and things like it around the world, see many of us — women, minorities, immigrants, LGBTQIA folks, disabled folks, neurodivergent folks — as less than “real” people, and want to be able to shut us up using whatever means they deem appropriate, including death.

The vice president elect thinks gay people can be “retrained,” and that we should attempt it via the same methods that make us side-eye dog owners. The man tapped to be a key advisor displays and has cultivated an environment of white supremacist hatred. The president-elect is said to be “mulling over” a registry for Muslim people in the country. A registry. Based on your religion.

My own cousin had food thrown at her in a diner, right before the election. And things haven’t exactly gotten better, since then.

Certain hateful elements want many of us dead or silent and “in our place,” now, just as much as ever. And all we want and ask for is equal respect, life, and justice.

I said it on election night and I’ll say it again: there’s no take-backsies, here. I’m speaking to those who actively voted for this, or didn’t actively plant yourselves against it (and you know who you are): You did this. You cultivated it. And I know you did what you thought you had to, but people you love are scared, because their lives are literally in danger, so it’s time to wake up now. It’s time to say “No.”

We’re all worried about jobs and money and “enough,” because that’s what this system was designed to make us worry about. Your Muslim neighbour, your gay neighbour, your trans neighbour, your immigrant neighbour, your NEIGHBOUR IS NOT YOUR ENEMY. The system that tells you to hate and fear them is. And if you bought into that system because you couldn’t help being afraid then I’m sorry, but it’s time to put it down and Wake Up. Find it in yourself to ask forgiveness of yourself and of those you’ve caused mortal terror. If you call yourself Christian, that should ring really familiar. But other faiths (and nonfaiths) know it too.

We do better together. So it’s time to gather up, together, work, together, and say “No,” together.

So snap yourself out of it, and help us. If you’re in the US, please call your representatives, federal and local. Tell them what you want, tell them why you’re scared. Tell them that these people don’t represent our values and the world we wish to see:
http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/
http://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/

Because this, right here, is the fundamental difference between fearing the loss of your way of life, and the fear of losing your literal life.

Be with the people you love. Be by their side and raise their voices if they can’t do it for themselves, for whatever reason. Listen to them, and create a space where they feel heard and loved, and where others will listen to them as well.

And when you come around, don’t let your pendulum swing so far that you fault those who can’t move forward, yet. Please remember that there is a large contingent of people who, for many various reasons, cannot be out there protesting. Shaming people who have anxiety, depression, crippling fear of their LIVES, or are trying to not get arrested so their kids can, y’know, EAT FOOD? Doesn’t help.

So show some fucking compassion. Don’t shame those who are tired and scared and just need time to collect themselves. Urge and offer assistance where you can, and try to understand their needs. Just do what you can to help us all believe that we can get through this. We may need to lean extra hard on each other for a while, but we can do this.

You know who you are. We know you didn’t mean to. But this is where we are, now. Shake it off. Start again. We can do this.


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[Originally Published at Eris Magazine]

So Gabriel Roberts asked me to write something about police brutality, and I told him I needed a few days to get my head in order. The problem being that, with this particular topic, the longer I wait on this, the longer I want to wait on this, until, eventually, the avoidance becomes easier than the approach by several orders of magnitude.

Part of this is that I’m trying to think of something new worth saying, because I’ve already talked about these conditions, over at A Future Worth Thinking About. We talked about this in “On The Invisible Architecture of Bias,” “Any Sufficiently Advanced Police State…,” “On the Moral, Legal, and Social Implications of the Rearing and Development of Nascent Machine Intelligences,” and most recently in “On the European Union’s “Electronic Personhood” Proposal.” In these articles, I briefly outlined the history of systemic bias within many human social structures, and the possibility and likelihood of that bias translating into our technological advancements, such as algorithmic learning systems, use of and even access to police body camera footage, and the development of so-called artificial intelligence.

Long story short, the endemic nature of implicit bias in society as a whole plus the even more insular Us-Vs-Them mentality within the American prosecutorial legal system plus the fact that American policing was literally borne out of slavery on the work of groups like the KKK, equals a series of interlocking systems in which people who are not whitepassing, not male-perceived, not straight-coded, not “able-bodied” (what we can call white supremacist, ableist, heteronormative, patriarchal hegemony, but we’ll just use the acronym WSAHPH, because it satisfyingly recalls that bro-ish beer advertising campaign from the late 90’s and early 2000’s.) stand a far higher likelihood of dying at the hands of agents of that system.

Here’s a quote from Sara Ahmed in her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, which neatly sums this up: “[S]ome bodies are ‘in an instant’ judged as suspicious, or as dangerous, as objects to be feared, a judgment that can have lethal consequences. There can be nothing more dangerous to a body than the social agreement that that body is dangerous.”

At the end of this piece, I’ve provided some of the same list of links that sits at the end of “On The Invisible Architecture of Bias,” just to make it that little bit easier for us to find actual evidence of what we’re talking about, here, but, for now, let’s focus on these:

A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing
2006 FBI Report on the infiltration of Law Enforcement Agencies by White Supremacist Groups
June 20, 2016 “Texas Officers Fired for Membership in KKK”

And then we’ll segue to the fact that we are, right now, living through the exemplary problem of the surveillance state. We’ve always been told that cameras everywhere will make us all safer, that they’ll let people know what’s going on and that they’ll help us all. People doubted this, even in Orwell’s day, noting that the more surveilled we are, the less freedom we have, but more recently people have started to hail this from the other side: Maybe videographic oversight won’t help the police help us, but maybe it will help keep us safe from the police.

But the sad fact of the matter is that there’s video of Alton Sterling being shot to death while restrained, and video of John Crawford III being shot to death by a police officer while holding a toy gun down at his side in a big box store where it was sold, and there’s video of Alva Braziel being shot to death while turning around with his hands up as he was commanded to do by officers, of Eric Garner being choked to death, of Delrawn Small being shot to death by an off-duty cop who cut him off in traffic. There’s video of so damn many deaths, and nothing has come of most of them. There is video evidence showing that these people were well within their rights, and in lawful compliance with officers’ wishes, and they were all shot to death anyway, in some cases by people who hadn’t even announced themselves as cops, let alone ones under some kind of perceived threat.

The surveillance state has not made us any safer, it’s simply caused us to be confronted with the horror of our brutality. And I’d say it’s no more than we deserve, except that even with protests and retaliatory actions, and escalations to civilian drone strikes, and even Newt fucking Gingrich being able to articulate the horrors of police brutality, most of those officers are still on the force. Many unconnected persons have been fired, for indelicate pronouncements and even white supremacist ties, but how many more are still on the force? How many racist, hateful, ignorant people are literally waiting for their chance to shoot a black person because he “resisted” or “threatened?” Or just plain disrespected. And all of that is just what happened to those people. What’s distressing is that those much more likely to receive punishment, however unofficial, are the ones who filmed these interactions and provided us records of these horrors, to begin with. Here, from Ben Norton at Salon.com, is a list of what happened to some of the people who have filmed police killings of non-police:

Police have been accused of cracking down on civilians who film these shootings.

Ramsey Orta, who filmed an NYPD cop putting unarmed black father Eric Garner in a chokehold and killing him, says he has been constantly harassed by police, and now faces four years in prison on drugs and weapons charges. Orta is the only one connected to the Garner killing who has gone to jail.

Chris LeDay, the Georgia man who first posted a video of the police shooting of Alton Sterling, also says he was detained by police the next day on false charges that he believes were a form of retaliation.

Early media reports on the shooting of Small uncritically repeated the police’s version of the incident, before video exposed it to be false.

Wareham noted that the surveillance footage shows “the cold-blooded nature of what happened, and that the cop’s attitude was, ‘This was nothing more than if I had stepped on an ant.'”

As we said, above, black bodies are seen as inherently dangerous and inhuman. This perception is trained into officers at an unconscious level, and is continually reinforced throughout our culture. Studies like the Implicit Association Test, this survey of U.Va. medical students, and this one of shooter bias all clearly show that people are more likely to a) associate words relating to evil and inhumanity to; b) think pain receptors working in a fundamentally different fashion within; and c) shoot more readily at bodies that do not fit within WSAHPH. To put that a little more plainly, people have a higher tendency to think of non-WSAHPH bodies as fundamentally inhuman.

And yes, as we discussed, in the plurality of those AFWTA links, above, there absolutely is a danger of our passing these biases along not just to our younger human selves, but to our technology. In fact, as I’ve been saying often, now, the danger is higher, there, because we still somehow have a tendency to think of our technology as value-neutral. We think of our code and (less these days) our design as some kind of fundamentally objective process, whereby the world is reduced to lines of logic and math, and that simply is not the case. Codes are languages, and languages describe the world as the speaker experiences it. When we code, we are translating our human experience, with all of its flaws, biases, perceptual glitches, errors, and embellishments, into a technological setting. It is no wonder then that the algorithmic systems we use to determine the likelihood of convict recidivism and thus their bail and sentencing recommendations are seen to exhibit the same kind of racially-biased decision-making as the humans it learned from. How could this possibly be a surprise? We built these systems, and we trained them. They will, in some fundamental way, reflect us. And, at the moment, not much terrifies me more than that.

Last week saw the use of a police bomb squad robot to kill an active shooter. Put another way, we carried out a drone strike on a civilian in Dallas, because we “saw no other option.” So that’s in the Overton Window, now. And the fact that it was in response to a shooter who was targeting any and all cops as a mechanism of retribution against police brutality and violence against non-WSAHPH bodies means that we have thus increased the divisions between those of us who would say that anti-police-overreach stances can be held without hating the police themselves and those of us who think that any perceived attack on authorities is a real, existential threat, and thus deserving of immediate destruction. How long do we really think it’s going to be until someone with hate in their heart says to themselves, “Well if drones are on the table…” and straps a pipebomb to a quadcopter? I’m frankly shocked it hasn’t happened yet, and this line from the Atlantic article about the incident tells me that we need to have another conversation about normalization and depersonalization, right now, before it does:

“Because there was an imminent threat to officers, the decision to use lethal force was likely reasonable, while the weapon used was immaterial.”

Because if we keep this arms race up among civilian populations—and the police are still civilians which literally means that they are not military, regardless of how good we all are at forgetting that—then it’s only a matter of time before the overlap between weapons systems and autonomous systems comes home.

And as always—but most especially in the wake of this week and the still-unclear events of today—if we can’t sustain a nuanced investigation of the actual meaning of nonviolence in the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy, then now is a good time to keep his name and words out our mouths

Violence isn’t only dynamic physical harm. Hunger is violence. Poverty is violence. Systemic oppression is violence. All of the invisible, interlocking structures that sustain disproportionate Power-Over at the cost of some person or persons’ dignity are violence.

Nonviolence means a recognition of these things and our places within them.

Nonviolence means using all of our resources in sustained battle against these systems of violence.

Nonviolence means struggle against the symptoms and diseases killing us all, both piecemeal, and all at once.

 

Further Links:


A large part of how I support myself in the endeavor to think in public is with your help, so if you like what you’ve read here, and want to see more like it, then please consider becoming either a recurring Patreon subscriber or making a one-time donation to the Tip Jar, it would be greatly appreciated.
And thank you.

[Originally posted at Eris Magazine]

I recently watched and have been spending some time with the semiotics of the video and Super Bowl halftime performance of Beyoncé’s “FORMATION.” And if that statement makes you snicker, then YOU NEED TO SPEND SOME TIME WITH THE SEMIOTICS OF THESE PERFORMANCES.

There have already been thinkpieces on this in Vox, the Guardian, The Washington Post, and many influential unaffiliated blogs, and rightly so. They’ve all variously and collectively discussed the connection of the visuals and clips used to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the current work of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the deeply feminist message that Beyoncé has been working to build for the past several years. What most of them don’t do, however, is recognise that she’s not only invoking these images and themes to use for her own ends, she’s evoking them. She’s conjuring the truth of a particular perspective into being. Beyoncé has created an act of magic, here.

In order to have this discussion, we are going to have to reference certain kinds of magic, and religion, and voodoo, and hoodoo. I’m not necessarily going to give you individual treatises on these each of things, right now, but rather, we’ll do a quick primer.

Magic is generally understood as the process of causing something to happen, by mysterious or impossible means. Action at a distance, words of power, ritual formulations (and formations) to bring about particular ends. We can talk about the work of Crowley or Spare or Foisy or Any other prominent magicians who evoke and invoke powers beyond the “normal,” and who resonante with language and the manipulation thereof. One of the theories of Austin Osman Spare’s chaos magic is the Sigil—an intention written down, then abstracted into a piece of art. Many have taken this and evolved out of it the idea of the hypersigil. A play or television show or a song that carries the intention out into the world, and gains potency as it is viewed, heard, engaged. Think Chalmers’ The King In Yellow or Sorkin’s The West Wing.

The kind of religion we’re seeing, here, is deep south Black Christianity, of a specifically New Orleans variety, and we have to understand that that was always tinged with the Hatian, with the Creole, with Voudun. The dancing and drumming traditions West African Yoruba traditions (hear that beat, in the halftime Show?) melded and blended with the work of Christian Missionaries and became the immediate subject of white terror. It was always a way for the black population to remain familiar with the spirits and gods of their ancestors, while nominally capitulating and then actively incorporating the beliefs of their captors.

Hoodoo is of a similar lineage, but can be seen as more organic, in a literal sense; a system developed by the slow accretion of emotion and spirit and desire to survive through whatever means nature brings to hand. Hoodoo is often referenced as “rootworking,” or “conjuration,” and it ties the ideas of the Justice or Providence of the Christian God directly into the more practical, “down and dirty” aspects of doing what you have to do to make a life. Hoodoo is, in many ways, more akin to the kind of “messier” witchcraft, Western audiences are used to seeing, with it’s potions and herbs.

In “FORMATION,” Beyoncé has braided all of these elements and more into a single working. While the nature of the thing necessitated that there would be far more spectacle at play in the Super Bowl Halftime Show, at base, both of these performances constitute Beyoncé broadcasting an immediate reappropriation of power to her community—power from her ancestors and people, power from their struggle and overcoming—as well as a warding against all those who might try to ape, steal, or dilute that same power. The repeated scene on the plantation steps encompass a system of power that was specifically denied to the people of this place, for a very long time, and Beyoncé is reclaiming that system, manipulating it (see the section below about hands), and standing present as matriarch of this place. She is at once source and example of power. This working (because that’s the only way it feels right to talk about the song, the video, the Halftime Show, together) is a show of strength through particularly highlighted points of vulnerability, a casting of a protection that is felt to be needed, now.

Look at how hands move, in the official video. There’s the interplay of the Raised Hands: In the church scenes we see hands raised in praise and surrender to the God of that church; these are interspersed with shots of the extraordinarily sharp double edge of what appears to be a 12 year old black boy* dancing as hard and as well as he can in front of a row of white police officers decked out in riot gear. As the boy dances harder and harder, the praise in the church reaches a pitch, and as the congregation throws their hands up, again, in surrender, the police throw their hands up to the boy. Surrender and praise, intertwined. The recognition of something more powerful, more perfect, something worth surrendering to.

I can’t even deconstruct this scene without crying. And if you still didn’t get it, there’s a shot of graffiti at the very end of it all that says, “Stop Shooting Us.”

This working is also an expression of Self-Possession, in all possible senses of that term. Either explicitly or implicitly, in “Formation” Beyoncé calls out every criticism leveled at her in recent months and years, from the ridiculous to those that must have hurt her to read or hear. Member of the Illuminati, too white, too black, too slutty, too rich, too reckless. She takes every single one of these and she holds them up, turns them to the light of who and what she knows she is and can be—what we all can be (“We Slay”)—and focuses it back on any and all who would try to tear down her or her people. Beyoncé’s constant hoodoo hand and body movements are specific and intentional, meant to evoke the grasping of power, the constant, predatory awareness of all comers, the building and creation of her self, and an exhortation for others—specifically other women—to do the same.

There hasn’t been a series of lines as powerful to rally around as “Come on ladies, let’s all get in Formation/Prove to me you got some coordination/Slay, trick, or you get eliminated” in a very long time. In her specific articulation of these syllables, she simultaneously reinforces herself as Slayer while leaving open the possibility of being slain—either in the sense of impressed, or of taken down—by whatever women can work hard enough, dig deep enough, and come together to slay her and the whole wide world. And anyone who doesn’t, she warns, is lost.

Again, much has already been written about the powerfully pro-black, pro-feminist message of this song, the video, and Super Bowl performance, with several writers opining that they don’t feel that this was “for them.” And maybe it wasn’t. That is, this was not something that those writers were meant to feel as a deep shared connection of lived experience, in the way that it would be felt by those ravaged by Katrina, or disproportionately targeted by police action and the United States’ prosocutorial justice system, or who struggle to maintain a balance of what it means to be a “Negro.” Some may not be meant to “get” that; it may not be “for you.” But, if not, then what is for you in these presentations is to recoginze that the people who do feel this,have felt this for a long time; that entire communities are still strong and getting stronger—like broken bones are stronger after they heal, like forests grow back stronger after fires.

What is for you is to realize that Beyoncé has done something in this working that many many people have felt needed to be done for a very long time.

Everything about the “FORMATION” working is an act of evocation and conjuration. A reification of the truth and need born out of the lived experience of the people in the world that Beyoncé outlines and encircles, with her hands.

[*UPDATE 02/10/16, 12:55pm: On repeated viewings, that boy is much younger than 12. Eight years old, at the most.]


A large part of how I support myself in the endeavor to think in public is with your help, so if you like what you’ve read here, and want to see more like it, then please consider becoming either a recurring Patreon subscriber or making a one-time donation to the Tip Jar, it would be greatly appreciated.
And thank you.