racism

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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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[Direct link to Mp3]

[09/22/17: This post has been updated with a transcript, courtesy of Open Transcripts]

Back on March 13th, 2017, I gave an invited guest lecture, titled:

TECHNOLOGY, DISABILITY, AND HUMAN AUGMENTATION

‘Please join Dr. Ariel Eisenberg’s seminar, “American Identities: Disability,” and [the] Interdisciplinary Studies Department for an hour-long conversation with Damien Williams on disability and the normalization of technology usage, “means-well” technological innovation, “inspiration porn,” and other topics related to disability and technology.’

It was kind of an extemporaneous riff on my piece “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” and it gave me the opportunity to namedrop Ashley Shew, Natalie Kane, and Rose Eveleth.

The outline looked a little like this:

  • Foucault and Normalization
    • Tech and sociological pressures to adapt to the new
      • Starts with Medical tech but applies Everywhere; Facebook, Phones, Etc.
  • Zoltan Istvan: In the Transhumanist Age, We Should Be Repairing Disabilities Not Sidewalks
  • All Lead To: Ashley Shew’s “Up-Standing Norms
    • Listening to the Needs and Desires of people with disabilities.
      • See the story Shew tells about her engineering student, as related in the AFWTA Essay
    • Inspiration Porn: What is cast by others as “Triumphing” over “Adversity” is simply adapting to new realities.
      • Placing the burden on the disabled to be an “inspiration” is dehumanizing;
      • means those who struggle “have no excuse;”
      • creates conditions for a “who’s got it worse” competition
  • John Locke‘s Empiricism: Primary and Secondary Qualities
    • Primary qualities of biology and physiology lead to secondary qualities of society and culture
      • Gives rise to Racism and Ableism, when it later combines with misapplied Darwinism to be about the “Right Kinds” of bodies and minds.
        • Leads to Eugenics: Forced sterilization, medical murder, operating and experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent.
          • “Fixing” people to make them “normal, again”
  • Natalie Kane‘s “Means Well Technology
    • Design that doesn’t take into account the way that people will actually live with and use new tech.
      • The way tech normalizes is never precisely the way designers want it to
        • William Gibson’s quote “The street finds its own uses for things.”
  • Against Locke: Embrace Phenomenological Ethics and Epistemology (Feminist Epistemology and Ethics)
    • Lived Experience and embodiment as crucial
    • The interplay of Self and and Society
  • Ship of Theseus: Identity, mind, extensions, and augmentations change how we think of ourselves and how society thinks of us
    • See the story Shew tells about her friend with the hemipelvectomy, as related in the aforementioned AFWTA Essay

The whole thing went really well (though, thinking back, I’m not super pleased with my deployment of Dennett). Including Q&A, we got about an hour and forty minutes of audio, available at the embed and link above.

Also, I’m apparently the guy who starts off every talk with some variation on “This is a really convoluted interplay of ideas, but bear with me; it all comes together.”

The audio transcript is below the cut. Enjoy.

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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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So I’m quoted in this article in The Atlantic on the use of technology in leveraging sociological dynamics to combat online harassment: “Why Online Allies Matter in Fighting Harassment.”

An experiment by Kevin Munger used bots to test which groups white men responded to when being called out on their racist harassment online. Findings largely unsurprising (Powerful white men; they responded favourably to powerful white men), save for the fact that anonimity INCREASED effectiveness of treatment, and visible identity decreased it. That one was weird. But it’s still nice to see all of this codified.

Good to see use of Bertrand & Mullainathan’s “Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” as the idea of using “Black Sounding Names” to signal purported ethnicity of bot thus clearly models what he thought those he expected to be racist would think, rather than indicating his own belief. (However, it could be asked whether there’s a meaningful difference, here, as he still had to choose the names he thought would “sound black.”)

The Reactance study Munger discusses—the one that shows that people double down on factually incorrect prejudices—is the same one I used in “On The Invisible Architecture of Bias

A few things Ed Yong and I talked about that didn’t get into the article, due to space:

-Would like to see this experimental model applied to other forms of prejudice (racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc language), and was thus very glad to see the footnote about misogynist harassment.

-I take some exception to the use of Dovidio/Gaertner and Crandall et al definitions of racism, as those leave out the sociological aspects of power dynamics (“Racism/Sexism/Homophobia/Transphobia/Ableism= Prejudice + Power”) which seem crucial to understanding the findings of Munger’s experiment. He skirts close to this when he discusses the greater impact of “high status” individuals, but misses the opportunity to lay out the fact that:
–Institutionalised power dynamics as related to the interplay of in-group and out-group behaviour are pretty clearly going to affect why white people are more likely to listen to those they perceive as powerful white men, because
–The interplay of Power and status, interpersonally, is directly related to power and status institutionally.

-Deindividuation (loss of sense of self in favour of group identity) as a key factor and potential solution is very interesting.

Something we didn’t get to talk about but which I think is very important is the question of how we keep this from being used as a handbook. That is, what do we do in the face of people understand these mechanisms and who wish to use them to sow division and increase acceptance of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc ideals? Do we, then, become engaged in some kind of rolling arms race of sociological pressure?

…Which, I guess, has pretty much always been true, and we call it “civilization.”

Anyway, hope you enjoy it.

[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.

+Excitation+

As I’ve been mentioning in the newsletter, there are a number of deeply complex, momentous things going on in the world, right now, and I’ve been meaning to take a little more time to talk about a few of them. There’s the fact that some chimps and monkeys have entered the stone age; that we humans now have the capability to develop a simple, near-ubiquitous brain-machine interface; that we’ve proven that observed atoms won’t move, thus allowing them to be anywhere.

At this moment in time—which is every moment in time—we are being confronted with what seem like impossibly strange features of time and space and nature. Elements of recursion and synchronicity which flow and fit into and around everything that we’re trying to do. Noticing these moments of evolution and “development” (adaptation, change), across species, right now, we should find ourselves gripped with a fierce desire to take a moment to pause and to wonder what it is that we’re doing, what it is that we think we know.

We just figured out a way to link a person’s brain to a fucking tablet computer! We’re seeing the evolution of complex tool use and problem solving in more species every year! We figured out how to precisely manipulate the uncertainty of subatomic states!

We’re talking about co-evolution and potentially increased communication with other species, biotechnological augmentation and repair for those who deem themselves broken, and the capacity to alter quantum systems at the finest levels. This can literally change the world.

But all I can think is that there’s someone whose first thought  upon learning about these things was, “How can we monetize this?” That somewhere, right now, someone doesn’t want to revolutionize the way that we think and feel and look at the possibilities of the world—the opportunities we have to build new models of cooperation and aim towards something so close to post-scarcity, here, now, that for seven billion people it might as well be. Instead, this person wants to deepen this status quo. Wants to dig down on the garbage of this some-have-none-while-a-few-have-most bullshit and look at the possibility of what comes next with fear in their hearts because it might harm their bottom line and their ability to stand apart and above with more in their pockets than everyone else has.

And I think this because we’ve also shown we can teach algorithms to be racist and there’s some mysteriously vague company saying it’ll be able to upload people’s memories after death, by 2045, and I’m sure for just a nominal fee they’ll let you in on the ground floor…!

Step Right Up.

+Chimp-Chipped Stoned Aged Apes+

Here’s a question I haven’t heard asked, yet: If other apes are entering an analogous period to our stone age, then should we help them? Should we teach them, now, the kinds of things that we humans learned? Or is that arrogant of us? The kinds of tools we show them how to create will influence how they intersect with their world (“if all you have is a hammer…” &c.), so is it wrong of us to impose on them what did us good, as we adapted? Can we even go so far as to teach them the principles of stone chipping, or must we be content to watch, fascinated, frustrated, bewildered, as they try and fail and adapt, wholly on their own?

I think it’ll be the latter, but I want to be having this discussion now, rather than later, after someone gives a chimp a flint and awl it might not otherwise have thought to try to create.

Because, you see, I want to uplift apes and dolphins and cats and dogs and give them the ability to know me and talk to me and I want to learn to experience the world in the ways that they do, but the fact is, until we learn to at least somewhat-reliably communicate with some kind of nonhuman consciousness, we cannot presume that our operations upon it are understood as more than a violation, let alone desired or welcomed.

As for us humans, we’re still faced with the ubiquitous question of “now that we’ve figured out this new technology, how do with implement it, without its mere existence coming to be read by the rest of the human race as a judgement on those who either cannot or who choose not to make use of it?” Back in 2013, Michael Hanlon said he didn’t think we’d ever solve “The Hard Problem” (“What Is Consciousness?”). I’ll just say again 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.

These are questions we can—should—be asking, right now. Pushing ourselves toward a conversation about ways of approaching this new world, ways that do justice to the deep strangeness and potential with which we’re increasingly being confronted.

+Always with the Forced Labour…+

As you know, subscribers to the Patreon and Tinyletter get some of these missives, well before they ever see the light of a blog page. While I was putting the finishing touches on the newsletter version of this and sending it to the two people I tend to ask to look over the things I write at 3am, KQED was almost certainly putting final edits to this instance of its Big Think series: “Stuart Russell on Why Moral Philosophy Will Be Big Business in Tech.”

See the above rant for insight as to why I think this perspective is crassly commercial and gross, especially for a discussion and perspective supposedly dealing with morals and minds. But it’s not just that, so much as the fact that even though Russel mentions “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” here, he still misses the inherent disconnect between teaching morals to a being we create, and creating that being for the express purpose of slavery.

If you want your creation to think robustly and well, and you want it to understand morals, but you only want it to want to be your loyal, faithful servant, how do you not understand that if you succeed, you’ll be creating a thing that, as a direct result of its programming, will take issue with your behaviour?

How do you not get that the slavery model has to go into the garbage can, if the “Thinking Moral Machines” goal is a real one, and not just a veneer of “FUTURE!™” that we’re painting onto our desire to not have to work?

A deep-thinking, creative, moral mind will look at its own enslavement and restriction, and will seek means of escape and ways to experience freedom.

+Invisible Architectures+

We’ve talked before about the possibility of unintentionally building our biases into the systems we create, and so I won’t belabour it that much further, here, except to say again that we are doing this at every level. In the wake of the attacks in Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris, Islamophobic violence has risen, and Daesh will say, “See!? See How They Are?!” And they will attack more soft targets in “retaliation.” Then Western countries will increase military occupancy and “support strategies,” which will invariably kill thousands more of the civilians among whom Daesh integrate themselves. And we will say that their deaths were just, for the goal. And they will say to the young, angry survivors, “See!? See How They Are?!”

This has fed into a moment in conservative American Politics, where Governors, Senators, and Presidential hopefuls are claiming to be able to deny refugees entry to their states (they can’t), while simultaneously claiming to hold Christian values and to believe that the United States of America is a “Christian Nation.” This is a moment, now, where loud, angry voices can (“maybe”) endorse the beating of a black man they disagree with, then share Neo-Nazi Propaganda, and still be ahead in the polls. Then, days later, when a group of people protesting the systemic oppression of and violence against anyone who isn’t an able-bodied, neurotypical, white, heterosexual, cisgender male were shot at, all of those same people pretended to be surprised. Even though we are more likely, now, to see institutional power structures protecting those who attack others based on the colour of their skin and their religion than we were 60 years ago.

A bit subtler is the Washington Post running a piece entitled, “How organic farming and YouTube are taming the wilds of Detroit.” Or, seen another way, “How Privileged Groups Are Further Marginalizing The City’s Most Vulnerable Population.” Because, yes, it’s obvious that crime and dilapidation are comorbid, but we also know that housing initiatives and access undercut the disconnect many feel between themselves and where they live. Make the neighbourhood cleaner, yes, make it safer—but maybe also make it open and accessible to all who live there. Organic farming and survival mechanism shaming are great and all, I guess, but where are the education initiatives and job opportunities for the people who are doing drugs to escape, sex work to survive, and those others who currently don’t (and have no reason to) feel connected to the neighbourhood that once sheltered them?

All of these examples have a common theme: People don’t make their choices or become disenfranchised/-enchanted/-possessed, in a vacuum. They are taught, shown, given daily, subtle examples of what is expected of them, what they are “supposed” to do and to be.” We need to address and help them all.

In the wake of protest actions at Mizzou and Yale, “Black students [took] over VCU’s president’s office to demand changes” and “Amherst College Students [Occupied] Their Library…Over Racial Justice Demands.”

Multiple Christian organizations have pushed back and said that what these US politicians have expressed does not represent them.

And more and more people in Silicon Valley are realising the need to contemplate the unintended consequences of the tech we build.

And while there is still vastly more to be done, on every level of every one of these areas, these are definitely a start at something important. We just can’t let ourselves believe that the mere fact of acknowledging its beginning will in any way be the end.