I’ve been thinking about the effects of the internet for a couple of decades now. I’ve watched industry after industry forced to renegotiate their methods and models, in the face of a medium that allows for perfect copying, global distribution, zero incremental cost, ridiculously easy group-forming: The music business. Newspapers. Travel agents. Publishers. Hotel owners. And while watching, I’ve always wondered what I’d do when my turn came. And now here it is. And it turns out my job is to tell you not to trust us when we claim that there’s something sacred and irreplaceable about what we academics do. What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.
I’m increasingly more interested in the relationship society and individuals have with technology, and less interested in the technology itself. I’ve been focused on dealing with the function of art in culture, and intentionally exploring that space in a more concentrated way.
In the 1980s the prolific German American philosopher Nicholas Rescher argued against SETI’s insistence that the signs of extraterrestrial life would resemble detectable communication technology. Extraterrestrials, Rescher suggested, are perhaps so alien that their science and technology is incomprehensible to us; we could never understand it as intelligence. I’ll push Rescher’s idea even farther: it’s not just that the communications technologies of the alien escape our comprehension, but that their very idea of “life” might not correspond with ours. The alien might not be life, at all.
Most new movements start this way: hundreds or thousands of individuals and groups, working in different fields and different locations, start thinking about change using a common language, without necessarily recognizing those shared values. You just start following your own vector, propelled along by people in your immediate vicinity. And then one day, you look up and realize that all those individual trajectories have turned into a wave.
The first epoch in the digital era began with the introduction of the random-access storage matrix in 1951. The second era began with the introduction of the Internet. With the introduction of template-based addressing, a third era in computation has begun. What was once a cause for failure—not specifying a precise numerical address—will become a prerequisite to real-world success.
We know more or less how analog art movements once behaved. We don’t yet know much at all about collectively-intelligent theory-object “shareable concepts,” whether they’re worth anything or can deliver anything. Maybe they will brilliantly synergize. Maybe they will ignobly crash. Maybe they’ll have the mayfly lifespans of their hardware support. Maybe they will become things even harder to describe than they are now.
Too much information can be very dangerous because it can lead to a situation of meaninglessness; that is, people not having any basis for knowing what is relevant, what is irrelevant, what is useful, what is not useful… they live in a culture that is simply committed through all of its media to generate tons and tons of information every hour.
…a computer requires that everything is transformed from the continuous flow of our everyday reality into a grid of numbers that can be stored as a representation of reality which can then be manipulated using algorithms. The other side of the coin, of course, is that these subtractive methods of understanding reality (episteme) produce new knowledges and methods for the control of reality (techne).
The lesson, of course, is that its much easier to be the best at doing something if there are as few other people as possible also doing it. Where Warhols thousands of imitators continue to burn money and resources slavishly imitating a mainstream culture with which they can never compete, the real growth opportunities are in obscure enterprises where competition is low and materials cheap. […] The avant garde lives! Not because its more meaningful or radical than any other activity, but because it fills a legitimate market niche.
I see software as the testing ground for the future, a place where we can put on our training wheels and get our ethics right and develop cultural and social norms for how technology should relate to humans.
So that a computer’s processes could be made to resemble the vagaries of human intelligence, Turing suggested the incorporation of a random element like a roulette wheel.
- Paul Strathern Turing and the Computer
only a page or two before this bit the author talks about Turing’s attempts to get an early computer to compose a love letter. Short and interesting book.