Idea, Reality, Lesson: A Year-End List

Unintended outcomes are the furniture of our uncertain age. Decades of short-term thinking, election cycles, and bottom lines assessed quarterly have wound us into a loop we can’t unwind. In addition, our technologies have coopted our desires in ways we didn’t foresee. The internet promised us diversity and gave us division. Social media promised to bring us together, instead it fomented frustration and rage between friends and among family. We know the net result is bad, but we won’t abandon these poisonous platforms.

As straw-person an argument as it might be, direct mail is my favorite example. Successful direct-mail advertising has a return rate of 2%. That means that in a successful campaign, 98% of the effort is wasted. In any other field, if 98% of what you’re doing is ineffective, you would scrap it and start over.

I’ve been thinking about case studies of ineffective efforts and unintended outcomes, and I came up with five for your consideration — IRL: Idea, Reality, Lesson.

“Shadow Play,” Sharpie on paper, 2005.

Idea: AI as a tool for creativity.
Reality: Training large-language models (and the other software that currently pass as artificial intelligence) to be “creative” requires the unpaid labor of many writers and artists, potentially violating copyright laws, relegating the creative class to the service of the machines and the people who use them.
Lesson: Every leap in technology’s evolution has winners and losers.

Idea: Self-driving cars will solve our transportation problems.
Reality: Now you can be stuck in traffic without even having to drive.
Lesson: We don’t need more cars with fewer drivers. We need fewer cars with more people in them.

Idea: Put unused resources to use.
Reality: The underlying concept of companies like Uber and AirBnB—taking unused resources (e.g., vehicles, rooms, houses, etc.) and redistributing them to others in need—is brilliant and needed in our age of abundance and disparity. Instead of using what’s there, a boutique industry of rental car partnerships for ride-share drivers and homes bought specifically for use as AirBnB rentals sprung up around these app-enabled services. Those are fine, but they don’t solve the problem the original idea set out to leverage.
Lesson: You cannot disrupt capitalism. Ultimately, it eats everything.

Idea: Content is King.
Reality: When you can call yourself a “Digital Content Creator” just because you have a front-facing camera on your phone, then content is the lowest form. To stay with the analogy, Content is a peasant at best. Getting it out there is King. Getting and maintaining people’s attention is Queen.
Lesson: Distribution and Attention are the real monarchy.

Idea: Print is dead.
Reality: People have been claiming the death of print since the dawn of the web—over 30 years now—and it’s still patently untrue. Print is different, but it’s far from dead. Books abound! People who say this don’t read them anyway. Just because they want synopses and summaries instead of leisurely long reads doesn’t mean that everyone wants that.
Lesson: Never underestimate people’s appetite for excuses.

If more of what you’re doing is wasteful rather than effective, then you should rethink what you’re doing. Attitudes about technology are often incongruent with their realities, and the way we talk about its evolution matters. Moreover, while many recent innovations seem to be helping, there are adjacent problems they’re not solving. Don’t be dazzled by stopgap technologies that don’t actually solve real problems.

Artificial Articulation

No one reads. People say this all the time, and as a writer, it’s very hard to hear. If I’m ever forced to start a podcast, that will be the reason, and it might be the name. If no one reads, why are we outsourcing writing? According to a recent article on Futurism, sports magazine Sports Illustrated allegedly published reviews generated by artificial intelligence. Not only that, but the bylines on those articles belonged to writers who weren’t real either.

Drew Ortiz, a “Product Reviews Team Member” for Sports Illustrated.
Meet Drew Ortiz, a “neutral white young-adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes” (likely on purpose), and a “Product Reviews Team Member” for Sports Illustrated. One of Drew’s many articles for SI claims that volleyball “can be a little tricky to get into, especially without an actual ball to practice with.” True enough, Drew, but it’s also tricky to get into if you don’t have an actual body to practice with either.
Look, Drew is just like you and me.
Drew was eventually replaced briefly by Sora Tanaka, a “joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.” Futurism also notes Jim Cramer’s TheStreet hosting articles by Domino Abrams, Nicole Merrifield, and Denise McNamera — all pseudonyms for AI-generated pseudoscribes.
Sora Tanaka, a “joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.”
Given that this path was paved when we first outsourced our thinking to written language, it’s perhaps most fitting that what passes for artificial intelligence these days are large language models, none of which can play volleyball but can write about it. The computer scientists Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon defined thinking in just such terms, writing, “A physical symbol system has the necessary and sufficient means for general intelligent action.” The externalization of human knowledge has largely been achieved through text — a physical symbol system. Cave paintings, scrolls, books, the internet. Even with the broadening of bandwidth enabling sound and video, all of these media are still heavily text-based.

In a paper from 1936 titled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing posited that humans compute by manipulating symbols that are external to the human brain and that computers do the same. The paper serves as the basis for his own Universal Turing Machine, algorithms, and the fields of computer science and AI.

I am admittedly a lapsed student of AI, having dropped out of the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence masters program midway through my first semester there in the late 1990s. My interest in AI lies in the weird ways that consciousness and creation butt heads in the midst of such advanced technologies. As Al Burian sings on the Milemarker song “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth,” “We keep waiting for the robots to crush us from the sky. They sneak in through our fingertips and bleed our fingers dry.” If humans have indeed always been part technology, where do the machines end and we begin? As the literary critic N. Katherine Hayles told me years ago,

In the twenty-first century, text and materiality will be seen as inextricably entwined. Materiality and text, words and their physical embodiments, are always already a unity rather than a duality. Appreciating the complexities of that unity is the important task that lies before us.

“Manufacturing Dissent” multimedia on canvas by me, c. 2003.

A medium is anything that extends the senses or the body of humans according to Marshall McLuhan in his classic Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). More specifically, McLuhan saw the “electronic media” of the time — radio, telephone, television — as extensions of our nervous system. Jussi Parikka writes that we must stop thinking about bodies as closed systems and realize that they are open and constituted by their environment, what Humberto Maturana and Francisco J. Varela call “structural coupling.” Our skin is not a boundary; it is a periphery: permeable, vulnerable, and fallibly open to external flows and forces through our senses. Parikka adds, “[W]e do not so much have media as we are media and of media; media are brains that contract forces of the cosmos, cast a plane over the chaos.” We can no longer do without, if we ever could.

Our extensions have coerced our attentions and intentions.
We are now the pathological appendages of our technological assemblages.

Desire is where our media and our bodies meet. It’s where our human wants blur with our technologies. It is the inertia of their meeting and their melding, whether that is inside our outside our bodies is less relevant than whether or not we want to involve ourselves in the first place. Think about the behaviors that our communication technology affords and the ones we find appropriate. They’re not the same. Access is the medium. Desire is the message.

Crash-testing intelligence [Sharpies and Photoshop by me, 2023].

The Turing Test, which is among Alan Turing’s other top contributions to the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence, is more accurately a test of the human who’s interacting with the machine. The test, as outlined in Turing’s 1950 article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” states that a machine is considered to be truly thinking like a human if it can fool a human into thinking it is (a.k.a. “The Imitation Game”). So, according to the language and the lore, artificial intelligence doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be convincing. Now that Drew Ortiz, Sora Tanaka, and the other machines can do these symbol-manipulation tasks for us, we’ve outsourced not only our knowledge via text but now the writing of that knowledge, not quite the thoughts themselves but the articulation thereof.

Official Report on the Intransitionalist Chronotopologies of Kenji Siratori

The Official Report on the Intransitionalist Chronotopologies of Kenji Siratori: Appendix 8.2.3 is a 163 page paperback book, with an accompanying soundtrack! It’s a conceptual collaboration between cult Japanese author, Kenji Siratori, the Canadian electro-acoustic duo Wormwood, and a host of well known academics, writers, and other members of the Ministry of Transrational Research into Anastrophic Manifolds, including me!

The Official Report on the Intransitionalist Chronotopologies of Kenji Siratori: Appendix 8.2.3 is an AI-generated, xenopoetic “glitch novel” of sorts, with a good portion of the book also given over to a randomly written and ordered set of strange and beautiful footnotes that were submitted by the 60+ members of the Ministry. This is a futuristic work on all fronts, and in order to contrast with the digitally obtrusive writing, and to play into our belief in“technological mutualism”, our packaging design and visual aesthetic is of a more analogue and DIY, old school cut and paste nature. What we have here then is a work of art that bridges past and future, but is firmly embedded in the NOW!

Andrew Wenaus explains:

The result is a work of xenopoetic emergence: a beautifully absurd, alien document scintillating with strange potency. Official Report on the Intransitionalist Chronotopologies of Kenji Siratori: Appendix 8.2.3 is a xenopoetic data/dada anthology that documents the activities of the artist collective The Ministry of Transrational Research into Anastrophic Manifolds. The anthology results from an experimental approach to impersonal literary composition. Similar to surrealist definitions, but on the scale of a technical document, members of the Ministry-poets, musicians, novelists, painters, curators, artists, scientists, philosophers, and physicians-were asked to offer a microfiction, poem, essay, fictional citation, or computer code, in the form of a footnote or annotation to a glitch-generated novel by iconoclastic Japanese artist Kenji Siratori; however, each participant wrote their contribution without any access to or knowledge about the nature of Siratori’s source text. After collecting the contributions, the “footnotes” were each algorithmically linked to an arbitrary word from Siratori’s novel. Bringing together algorithmically and Al-generated electronic literature with analogue collage and traditional modes of literary composition, the Ministry refuses to commit solely to digital, automated, or analogue art and instead seeks technological mutualism and a radically alien future for the arts.

Accompanied by a groundbreaking original score by electro-acoustic duo Wormwood, the anthology offers the radical defamiliarization and weird worlds of science fiction, but now the strangeness bites back on the level form. Readers should expect to discover strange portals from which new ways of thinking, feeling, and being emerge. A conceptual and experimental anthology, Official Report on The Intransitionalist Chronotopologies of Kenji Siratori inaugurates collective xenopoetic writing and the conceit that the future of art will consist of impersonal acts of material emergence, not personal expression. Consume with caution.

CREDITS:

Book written by Kenji Sartori.

Footnotes by the Ministry of Transrational Research into Anastrophic Manifolds: Rosaire Appel, Louis Armand, David Barrick, Gary Barwin, Steve Beard, Gregory Betts, Christian Bök, Mike Bonsall, Peter Bouscheljong, Maria Chenut, Shane Jesse Christmass, Roy Christopher, Tabasco “Ralph” Contra, Mike Corrao, R.J. Dent, Paul Di Filippo, Zak Ferguson, Colin Herrick, S.C. Hickman, Maxwell Hyett, Justin Isis, Andrew Joron, Chris Kelso, Phillip Klingler, Adam Lovasz, Daniel Lukes, Ania Malinowska, Claudia B. Manley, Ryota Matsumoto, Michael Mc Aloran, Andrew Mcluhan, Jeff Noon, Jim Osman, Suarjan Prasai, Tom Prime, David Leo Rice, Virgilio Rivas, David Roden, B.R. Yeager, Andrej Shakowski, Aaron Schneider, Gary J. Shipley, Kenji Siratori, Sean Smith, Kristine Snodgrass, Sean Sokolov, Alan Sondheim, Simon Spiegel, Henry Adam Svec, Jeff VanderMeer, R.G. Vasicek, Andrew C. Wenaus [Ministry Director], William Wenaus, Eileen Wennekers, Christina Marie Willatt, Saywrane Alfonso Williams, D. Harlan Wilson, and Andrew Wilt.

All music composed by Andrew Wenaus and Christina Marie Willatt.
Performed by Andrew Wenaus, Christina Marie Willatt, and Kenji Siratori.

Packaging design and artwork by Colin Herrick.
Produced by Andrew Wenaus and Time Released Sound.

WARNING!! AS IS STATED ON THE BACK OF THE BOOK:
“Loved ones of those that disappeared reported that prior to their detainment, the victims were sent an unmarked envelope. The envelope contained a letter whose contents consisted exclusively of 317 black rectangular glyphs. Due to the still uncertain nature and status of this Appendix, Time Released Sound would like all readers to be aware of this history!”

Those of you that purchase the Limited Edition version will very possibly be sent one of these envelopes as well, sometime after you have received the book, so please be careful when ordering it!

Get yours today!

 

Answering Machines

“Welcome to the world of Pinecone Computers,” Miles Harding (played by Lenny Von Dohlen) reads from a computer manual in Electric Dreams (1984). “This model will learn with you, so type your name and press Enter key to begin.”[1] Since the big-screen tales of the 1980s PC-era, the idea of machines merging with humans has been a tenacious trope in popular culture. In Tron (1982) Kevin Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges) was sucked through a laser into the digital realm. Wired to the testosterone, the hormone-driven juvenile geniuses of Weird Science (1985) set to work making the woman of their dreams. WarGames (1983) famously pit suburban whiz-kids against a machine hell-bent on launching global thermonuclear war. In Electric Dreams (1984), which is admittedly as much montage as it is movie, Miles (von Dohlen, who would go on to play the agoraphobic recluse Harold Smith in Twin Peaks, who kept obsessive journals of the towns-folks’ innermost thoughts and dreams) attempts to navigate a bizarre love triangle between him, his comely neighbor, and his new computer.

Theodore Twombly meets Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her.

From the jealous machine to falling in love with the machine, the theme remains pervasive. As artificial-intelligence researcher Ray Kurzweil writes of Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her, “Jonze introduces another idea that I have written about […] namely, AIs creating an avatar of a deceased person based on their writings, other artifacts and people’s memories of that person.”[2] In the near future of Her, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters for a living, letters between fathers and daughters, long-distance lovers, husbands, wives, and others. In doing so, he is especially susceptible to the power of narrative himself since his job involves the constant creation of believable, vicarious stories. His ability to immerse himself in the stories of others makes it that much easier for him to get lost in the love of his operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), as she constructs narratives to create her personality, and thereby, their relationship.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter calls our imbuing machines with more intelligence than they have—even when we know better—“The ELIZA Effect,” after Joseph Weizenbaum’s text-based psychoanalytic computer program, ELIZA. Hofstadter writes, “the most superficial of syntactic tricks convinced some people who interacted with ELIZA that the program actually understood everything that they were saying, sympathized with them, even empathized with them.”[3] ELIZA was written at MIT by Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s, but its effects linger on. “Like a tenacious virus that constantly mutates,” Hofstadter continues, “the Eliza effect seems to crop up over and over again in AI in ever-fresh disguises, and in subtler and subtler forms.”[4] In the first chapter of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, she extends the idea to our amenability to new technologies, including artificial intelligence, embodied or otherwise: “and true to the ELIZA effect, this is not so much because the robots are ready but because we are.”[5]

Virtual Girlfriend: “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence,” Kari 5.0.

More germane to Jonze’s Her is a program called KARI, which stands for “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence.” According to Dominic Pettman’s first and only conversation with KARI, as described in his book, Look at the Bunny, there’s a long way to go before any of us are falling in love with our computers. After interacting with a similar bot online, Jonze agrees. “For the first, maybe, twenty seconds of it,” he says, “I had this real buzz—I’d say ‘Hey, hello,’ and it would say ‘Hey, how are you?,’ and it was like whoa… this is trippy. After twenty seconds, it quickly fell apart and you realized how it actually works, and it wasn’t that impressive. But it was still, for twenty seconds, really exciting. The more people that talked to it, the smarter it got.” The author James Gleick comes to the conceit from the other side, writing, “I’d say Her is a movie about (the education of) an interesting woman who falls in love with a man who, though sweet, is mired in biology.” At one point in the movie, Samantha imagines the same fate for herself: “I could feel the weight of my body, and I was even fantasizing that I had an itch on my back—(she laughs) and I imagined that you scratched it for me—this is so embarrassing.” The dual feelings of being duped by technology and mired in biology sit on the cusp of the corporeal conundrum of what it means to be human, to have not only consciousness but also to have a body, as well as what having a body means.[6]

Mechanical Matrimony

Where some see the whole mess of bodies and machines as one, big system. Others picture the airwaves themselves as extensions. “Telepresence,” as envisioned by Pat Gunkel, Marvin Minsky, and others, sets out to achieve a sense of being there, transferring an embodied experience across space via telephone lines, satellites, and sensory feedback loops.[7] It sounds quaint in world where working from home is normal for many and at least an option for others, but Marshall McLuhan was writing about it in the 1960s, and Minsky and his lot were working on it in the 1970s.

Still others imagine a much more deliberate merging of the biological and the mechanical, postulating an uploading of human consciousness into the machines themselves. Known in robotic and artificial intelligence circles as “The Moravec Transfer,” its namesake, the roboticist Hans Moravec, describes a human brain being uploaded, neuron by neuron, until it exists unperturbed inside a machine.[8] But Moravec wasn’t the first to imagine such a transition. The cyberpunk novelist and mathematician Rudy Rucker outlined the process in his 1982 novel, Software. “It took me nearly a year to really figure out the idea,” he writes, “simple as it now seems. I was studying the philosophy of computation at the University of Heidelberg, reading and pondering the essays of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel.”[9] Turing was an early inventor of computing systems and AI, best known for the Turing test, whereby an AI is considered to be truly thinking like a human if it can fool a human into thinking so. Gödel was a logician and mathematician, best known for his incompleteness theorem. Both were heavily influential on the core concepts of computing and artificial intelligence. “It’s some serious shit,” Rucker writes of the process. “But I chose to present it in cyberpunk format. So, no po-faced serious, analytic-type, high literary mandarins are ever gonna take my work seriously.”[10] In Rucker’s story, a robot saves its creator by uploading his consciousness into a robot.

NASA’s own Robert Jastrow wrote in 1984 that uploading our minds into machines is the be-all of evolution and would make us immortal. He wrote,

at last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh. […] The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind. […] It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of a biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever.[11]

In the 2014 movie Transcendence, Dr. Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (played by Rebecca Hall) do just that. Caster is terminally ill and on the verge of offloading his mortal shell. Once his mind is uploaded into a quantum computer connected to the internet, Caster becomes something less than himself and something more simultaneously. It’s the chronic consciousness question: What is it about you that makes you you? Is it still there once all of your bits are transferred into a new vessel? The Casters’ love was strong enough for them to try and find out.


Escape Philosophy

The essay above is an excerpt from Chapter 3, “MACHINE: Mechanical Reproduction,” of my book Escape Philosophy: Journeys Beyond the Human Body, which is available as an open-access .pdf and beautiful paperback from punctum books. It’s really quite good, but don’t take my word for it…

“An interesting read indeed!” — Aaron Weaver, Wolves in the Throne Room

Notes:

1 Steve Barron, dir., Electric Dreams, written by Rusty Lemorande (Los Angeles: Virgin Films, 1984).

2 Ray Kurzweil, “A Review of ‘Her’ by Ray Kurzweil,” Kurzweil.com, February 10, 2014.

3 Douglas Hofstadter, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 158.

4 Ibid.
5 Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 24–25.

6 As Hayles notes, “when information loses its body, equating humans and computers is especially easy.” N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 2.

7 See Marvin Minsky, “Telepresence,” OMNI Magazine, June 1980, 45–52.

8 See Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). For another early example, see G. Harry Stine, “The Bionic Brain,” OMNI Magazine, July 1979, 84–86, 121–22.

9 Rudy Rucker, “Outer Banks & New York #1,” Rudy’s Blog, August 2, 2015.

10 Ibid.

11 Robert Jastrow, The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 166–67.