Singularity good or bad

I recently read Zizek’s entries on singularity in The Philosophical Salon and have a few thoughts.

Singularity, as far as I can tell, refers to the networking of all our psyches so that we are all sharing one database of ideas, all our brains plugged (virtually) into the external brain, continually uploading and downloading our thoughts. It really just takes today’s thought and emotion recognition technologies a bit further and adds in the networking aspect. I think of it as a digital objectification of subjectivity, the cogntive correlative of the bio-mechanical hybrids proposed by transhumanism. (Disclaimer: I ponder these things strictly as an amateur, but even the experts on such a topic might want to track what we amateurs are thinking 🙂 ).

Sounds scary, but in one sense it’s just the natural evolution of consciousness. Think about it. Every new communication technology is a kind of brain extension, enabling us to take some of the knowledge stored in our head and store it outside in the community or in external spaces, where it can be retrieved later as needed by us or others.

Spoken language
Printing press
Personal computers
Cloud-based networks

If we wanted to follow the Marxist-leaning Zizek, we could coordinate this line with economic developments, as rapid changes in how information is stored and shared are no doubt interwoven with rapid economic changes. Language allows us to coordinate into agricultural activities, writing allows us to organize into city bureaucracies, etc.

More to the effect on subjectivity, we could see each of these stages as a kind of alienation of the subject, as the knowledge relevant to the subject’s existence becomes increasingly relocated outside of the subject’s own body. But all that “alienation” doesn’t seem so bad to us now. Language and libraries and personal computers — they seem to move us toward greater freedom, greater control over our personal lives, physically and intellectually.

So will the next horizon line – Singularity – play out the same? Will it appear in the form of alienation and dread but liberate us as did those previous technologies? Or will this one be different? Will the moment of singularity be the moment of collapse in the individual’s trajectory of liberation? One could certainly argue for the dystopic turn. What if singularity results in the elimination of privacy, so that our thoughts are exposed to the general consciousness? What if our thinking process elapses in the collective space, our thoughts visible to those around us, all of us wearing Google smart glasses on steroids. Would we allow such a thing? Indeed, we would probably beg for it, the same way insurance companies get customers to beg for more and more onboard monitoring devices to track their every habit, on the grounds that it “helps” the customer.

At the very least, it seems that the mind-sharing aspect of singularity would result in a degree of self-censorship that is alarming by today’s standards, perhaps alarming enough to break the trajectory of liberation associated with prior communication advances. Would each self be censored into a Stepford Wife knock-off? Or would there not even be a self to censor, if our thoughts form and grow in shared space, our physical bodies and brains merely energy sources for that shared space? Maybe The Matrix is a more apt metaphor than The Stepford Wives. 

Thus spake the amateur, in reference to technological/AI singularity, not so much to singularity in the Eastern/akashic record sense, although that might be an interesting tangent. But per that technological singularity, I suspect there are many in the world with similar amateurish thoughts. Maybe one of you techie readers can chime in and bring the hammer down on our collectively imagined dystopia before it’s too late.

P.S. Remember these?

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Purposiveness and Imagination

Blogmate Paul Adkin has been posting on becoming and purposiveness lately, so I thought I’d chime in.

Stasis and change. This duality has puzzled brains since the ancient Greeks, if not the primeval mind itself. The laws of physics give you the “how,” but what about the “why”? Why all this movement from one state to another? In our own lives, we can call it “purposiveness.” We might not have a definite destination (or a definite purpose) in mind, but movement is always movement toward a destination, however unspecified.

If “purposiveness” characterizes our movements, or changes in state, “imagination” is the best term we have for the force that drives the changes. Imagination is our capacity to project beyond the immediate real, the here and now of our existence. We can anticipate possible futures, reflect on things remote in time and space or visualize things that seem impossible in real time and space. All the possibilities and impossibilities that are not in our immediate sensory arena. That is the scope of imagination. In this sense, it is the source not only of the arts but of scientific investigation in its theorizing mode. Indeed, the quest for knowledge generally is driven by imagination, a reaching out in the mind to grasp what cannot be presently grasped. The scientific method is nothing but imagination systematized.

One might propose a cognate force in the physical universe (or in that aspect of lived reality that we, imaginatively, call the physical universe). As the seed becomes the tree, as mountains rise and fall, as the solar systems steady into their fixed movements, as black holes expand their mass and devour matter, always this drive to change from one state to another. Why? An intelligent God or anthropomorphic consciousness might be too much to swallow, but the laws of physics express a kind of purposiveness, a method to the continual striving from one state to another. And if imagination is the force behind the striving in our little lives, is it too far of a stretch to assume that the same force is behind the striving enacted by natural processes?

I’ll take Occam’s Razor on this one. If there are two ways to explain a phenomenon, start with the simpler, the one that requires the fewest assumptions. Assuming that the same force that drives the trajectory of our lived reality drives the movements of the (purportedly) physical universe is simpler than assuming that there are two separate but remarkably similar forces driving changes in the two (artificially) separate spheres.

Of course, everything could be entirely random. But my imagination tells me otherwise. The capacity to project and orient toward possible futures and possible outcomes, toward fantastic visions and goals at a distance from present reality – that capacity seems to throw a monkey wrench into the randomness. And once you throw in the monkey wrench, where does it stop?

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Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.

To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.

Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.

(Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

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“Standard of Living ” vs “Quality of Life”

If you’re like me, sometimes those phrases blur together in the gray matter, and you need a reminder that they are entirely different things. My most recent reminder came from spending some months in Mexico, after which it struck me that the standard of living is higher in the US but the quality of life is higher in Mexico. I.e., in the US everyone has cars, people have more expensive things in their homes, etc. But in Mexico – at least in my experience living in Guanajuato and visiting a number of other towns – there is more day-to-day human content. I could walk down my street any time of day or evening and there were people everywhere – families, street vendors, buskers, teenagers. If I walked a mile or more, I would likely run into at least one person I knew, and given the pace of life, we might stop for a drink or poke around in an open mercado. How many times did I stumble upon an impromptu art opening or free movie night?

In Mexico, I spent hardly any money, had no car or nice “things,” but when life is full, nice things are superfluous. And when people live their lives out on the streets in the community, life may have ups and downs, but it will almost certainly be full. There is more life, more beating heart, in Mexico. At least for me. I do not want to generalize – at least not about quality of life. The standard of living is more quantifiable, and I can generalize that it is higher in the US. Quality of life is more subjective and certainly varies from place to place within those two countries (and varies from person to person). So I can’t really conclude that the quality of life in Mexico is irrefutably higher than in the US. It’s just that for me, Mexico was my reminder: standard of living and quality of life are two different things. You might have a different reminder. But it’s nice to reflect on that once in a while for perspective.

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The sublime in art and self-actualization

Blogmate Paul Adkin recently posted about “purposiveness and becoming.” The simplified gist of it – I partly conjecture, as Paul is ahead of me on some things philosophical – is that purposiveness is teleological or end-oriented. We get a sense of purpose by directing our attention at something “out there/not here yet” toward which we can strive. Thus, purposiveness is wedded to our process of becoming, of transforming ourselves. And if that process of transforming ourselves is in a predetermined direction, we have “purpose” in life.

After a bit of free association, I started correlating Paul’s ideas to some art shows I’d seen recently. In the arts, there is the age-old distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, sometimes cast as the classical and the romantic. Beautiful/classical is associated with symmetry, framing, a delightful rational pleasure; the sublime/romantic is associated with excess, passion, feelings of awe or of being overwhelmed by something that cannot be adequately grasped or framed.

So my tie between Paul and the arts becomes this: Beauty relates to being, the sublime relates to becoming; beauty is static, the sublime is dynamic. The beautiful artwork or musical composition comes to us framed neatly, symmetrically; it is calming and delightful, not disruptive or disturbing. Indeed, it is calming and delightful specifically because it ratifies our sense that we can frame things neatly, symmetrically, rationally, hold them in our hands and view them in wonder.

Knowing nothing of musical history, I think of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as beautiful, the perfect expression of that delight that comes with rational pleasure. Then I think of his younger contemporary, Beethoven, composing his 5th symphony 20 years later. The 5th is sublime right from the 4-note opening, the “fate motif” that everyone knows. The ominous motif itself seems a warning shot that what is coming is not beautiful but sublime, not an invitation to relax in delight, but something disruptive, full of passion that is not easily confined or domesticated; indeed, something a little bit frightening, breaking the comfort zone of being and expanding it in a way that causes existential angst, as the listener goes beyond their capacity to keep the response within pre-ordained limits. The capacity falters, and one is overwhelmed.

Though my examples might be faulty from the viewpoint of music history, I can still take the point about beauty and the sublime and apply it to self-actualization. Beauty resonates with our stages along the path, it resonates with the pleasure we get when we can pause, look around us, and appreciate the wonderland we happen to be in at this stage of life or of reality. The sublime resonates with our moments of transformation, disruption, the struggle between stages, where one fixed stage is lost and the new not arrived. It is a period of angst – frightening, dizzying, and exhilarating at the same time. The self that has existed up to this moment is overwhelmed and swept aside and the new self not yet formed. It is not unlike what ancient civilizations must have felt at the winter solstice, when the old sun seems dying but the new sun uncertain. It is the breaking of the snakeskin as the old self is shed, its boundaries shattered, but the new self not yet secure.

I know that Slavoj Zizek, whom I admire for his politics, has had something to say about the sublime. (Full disclosure: I have not read Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, but I have read The Parallax View and a few other bits, and hey, as I said at the outset, this is free association time.) If I had to tie my thesis about the sublime to politics, the easiest point of entry would be in royal lineage. “The king is dead; long live the king.” In that paradox is the anxiety of the sublime in its political aspect. That moment between the death of one monarch and the coronation of the heir must have been one of tremendous anxiety for the body politic, the opening for bloody war and massive dislocation in the fragile civil society, the sublime moment of transformation is all its terrible possibility. Best to try close the gap to the single breath indicated by the semicolon: “The king is dead; long live the king.”

For Zizek, I know, it’s probably more of an ideological thing. Perhaps the self gets overwhelmed and lost in the totalizing ideology that swamps it. This seems especially relevant in totalitarian societies. But I like my king example for how it resonates with those transformative moments in self-actualization.

Just to finally touch on Zizek’s psychoanalytic (Freudian) angle on the sublime, as I am told that he goes there, too. Freud’s superego, of course, relates nicely to the sublime. Let’s briefly say that Freud’s tripartite schema consists of (1) the id, which refers to the dark, primitive drives; (2) the superego, which relates to the inscrutable, all-powerful (father-) figure to which the infant psyche is subjected (and which the infant psyche introjects), the enforcer of prohibitions but also the source of higher ideals for which to strive; and (3) the ego, where the rubber meets the road in terms of the id’s reckless drives and the superego’s controlling function. In Zizek (or so I’m told), ideology functions as a superego. This, to me, opens an interesting dichotomy in the sublime. In one variant, the subject is overwhelmed by the inscrutable power faced and is humbled into in state of awe by the objective power. The second variant comes with the exhilaration of resisting and thwarting the Law – “jouissance” Zizek calls it. To stick to the political framing, the first variant might the “conservative” variant (cp. Edmund Burke), insofar as the subject is humbled, resistance impossible, and the objective power source reaffirmed. The second variant might be the more “radical” variant (cp. Kant), in that the subject breaks down the objective formations of power and proclaims its own dominion.

Back to self-actualization. Beauty and the sublime. An endless series of steps, each step a pleasant resting place, with the movements between fraught with danger and transformation, fraught with the possibility that that self might be utterly lost, humbled, overwhelmed (Burke), or that the self might be exhilarated and transformed, ennobled into some entirely new being who can look back in wonder at all the steps below, enjoy the delight of the moment, and then feel the pull of purposiveness and turn the gaze back upward.

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Think Big

Be the change you want to happen. Never accept any ideology from the Left or the Right that says we need to respect walls of separation between races, genders, etc. Never accept any ideology from the Left or the Right that says we should vote for, value, or prejudge someone innocent or guilty based on skin color or sex organs.

We can celebrate our different cultures, but we do so best when we disregard the dividers on both Left and Right and invite all comers to celebrate with us. When crunch time comes, like it or not, we are all in this together with our shared humanness at stake.


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Hitchhiking Mexico

Leaving Guanajuato from Paseo de la Presa, first you have a 10-minute walk through the tunnel that shoots out from the Escuela Normal.

Then there’s a big shoulder and it looks like open road. This is deceptive. The road winds back into the city before leaving for San Miguel de Allende, where Beat icon/Merry Prankster Neal Cassady died beside the railroad tracks in 1968. Luckily, I got a quick ride with a fiftyish middle-class guy who took me to the big traffic circle. Hitchwiki recommended starting here anyway. I walked to one of the topes (speed bumps), which are everywhere, even on highways. Great for hitchhikers, since cars slow to a crawl, size you up, and usually have a place to pull over. At this tope, I got another quick ride with a thirtyish couple. Now it was really open road through Bajío country.

I’m starting to think hitchhiking Mexico might be as easy as Germany or Belgium or Poland. Yes, there were warnings about highway crime but not on this route. I suspect that crime is more concentrated but less ubiquitous here than in the US. This may be naivete. It certainly feels safer here (although the edgier hitchhiking environment in the US has its quirky rewards too).

Fabrizio, the driver, grew up in San Miguel de Allende. His girlfriend and passenger, Marta, is from the more industrial city of León. Both are now at the University of Guanajuato. We stop for gas and the car dies. It won’t crank. I eye the pancake cactus nearby.

The March weather is nice but the sun heats up quickly in the afternoon here in the high desert. I grab my bag. Then the car cranks and we are off. They drop me at the edge of San Miguel, and I find a local bus to the centro for about 35 cents.

But enough walking. I finally stopped for a quart of water and a hamburger from this fine Mexican lad and his Swedish girlfriend.

The End


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Men, Stoics, and the American Psychological Association

The recently released American Psychological Association’s (APA) Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men has caused quite a stir. Is it a welcome effort to better society and save men from their own worst traits? Or is it a politically trendy set of generalizations that emphasize the bad in traditional masculinity, obscure the good in men, and proffer an ill-advised attempt at social engineering?

It is an interesting question, and if we want to move forward from here, today’s customary response (“I have my preset answer, my side is 100% right, and the other side can have no good points because they are de facto 100% wrong”) is probably not going to get us very far.

Take the following oft-quoted passage: “Traditional masculinity – marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression – is, on the whole, harmful.”

There is no doubt that some men are over the top in these categories, resulting in harm to themselves and those around them, but are all four traits intrinsically negative or can they (or some of them) contribute to positive outcomes (in men and women) as well?

Let the debate continue on the other three, but my nerdish bookishness forces me to defend my brothers and sisters of the stoical persuasion. The APA may make some fine points, and they may not be all that different in tone from the 2007 Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Girls and Women (although a tone-test would be interesting), but for an organization of this stature, the disdain for stoicism reflects an astonishingly simplistic and anti-intellectual attitude toward that rich philosophical tradition.

Let me refer the curious reader to this very brief summary of stoicism, and he or she can weight the merits from there.


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