Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Biology IS Special

Upgraded and Adapted from the Moot, a continuation of the discussion in the prior post (possibly with a different interlocutor, though):

I wrote: "Life is lived in vulnerable bodies, intelligence is performed in squishy brains and squishy socialities."

"James" responded: Yes, this is quite true, right now.

So, get back to me when your counterexample isn't made up bullshit.

Magical thinking isn't daring, it's dumb.

James writes: I agree with everything else in [your] post -- I just feel strongly about assumptions that biology is somehow special. It's not. Carbon's just what initially won out over everything else.

But, the thing is, biology is special, surely?

Actual lives, actually embodied intelligence, actual persons, are all actually special.

I know James will (rightly) disapprove being made to seem as though he would explicitly deny this (since I doubt he would), but I worry that we are lead to denigrate the ways in which actually existing lives are vulnerable and actually existing intelligences are embodied when we indulge in what James surely intends as a more specialized usage of the term "special" here. (Although I do find it intriguing that James goes so far as to indicate not only disagreement but "strong feeling" on this question of not connecting intelligence too forcefully to the living world even when there is not as yet any empirical reason at all not to do that very thing, especially where, for example, the parts of intelligence connected to "strong feeling" are concerned.)

James writes: There is nothing inherently "intelligent" about biological systems, nor is there anything inherently "dumb" about non-biological systems. Intelligence is a product of the complexity of the system in question; whatever makes it up is a triviality (this is likely, anyway. God knows how long it will take to find out, though...).

To admit the truth that every life in the world you know is lived in a body and every intelligence you encounter and actually come to terms with is vulnerably lived and historically situated doesn't commit one to some grand claim about intelligence being a property "inherent" always only in biology to the logical exclusion of everything else or what have you.

I don't have any interest in making such a claim. I don't think there is any reasonable occasion that impels me to that claim. I don't think there is any reason for people sensibly to care about such a claim. I don't agree to play the game of that final parenthesis in which we are suddenly called upon to make and compare "predictions" and argue about attributions premised on caring about whatever is presumably being zeroed in on in this discussion of "inherence" or not of intelligence in life.

To be honest, asserting either that intelligence inheres always only in biological beings -- or worse, asserting the contrary -- just seems to me to make people talk confusedly about things that do exist in terms of things that don't exist.

I am convinced that a great many people who talk this way do so simply because they are scared of their vulnerability or ultimately of dying and they want to linger "spiritually" or "informationally" beyond lived life and death and the denial of life's and intelligence's palpable incarnation somehow facilitates their denials of this. Obviously not all who talk this way do so for this reason, but many seem to indeed.

Others I am convinced who talk this way do so, oddly enough, because they don't like the humanities, their aesthetic temperament disdains the derangements of literal language in the figurative, they are impatient with the paradoxes and intractable dilemmas of theory, they grow painfully frustrated with the interminable processing of political or psychological difference, and so on, and a denigration of life's mess avails them a measure of more secure and instrumentally efficacious preoccupations -- which undeniably do have their beauty and power after all.

I realize the "made up bullshit" comment with which I began all this was unduly harsh. But the fact is the denial of the specialness of actually embodied intelligence, actually vulnerable lives is a truly extraordinary claim and I have never once encountered the extraordinary reason that justifies making it, nor certainly have I understood the curious tendency of those who make it to pretend that there is something extraordinary instead about the contrary claims that intelligence is embodied and life vulnerable when literally every intelligence and life has testified to precisely this and none the other.

4 comments:

brian said...

dale, i wonder if you might also argue that the post-bodily transhumanist partyline doesn't also operate largely by way of uncritical ideas regarding body/mind dichotomies, in fact cheating themselves out of the multitude of brains already at their disposal. quite like, gosh, a machine. brings to mind this quote from an interview with kodwo eshun:

'The body to me is a distributed brain, it's a big brain in the sense that the whole body thinks. I was very inspired by Daniel Dennett and the things Sadie Plant has written about in terms of connectionism, in terms of new advances in robotics and the idea that intelligence isn't central anymore. In old robotics they tried to build a central command brain, and then round the eighties and nineties robotics totally changed and they started seeing that that's not how intelligence works at all. So, what you have is local intelligence; you don't need a brain telling the hands to move, the hands work by themselves and the arms work by themselves. The complexity of interlinking small systems adds up to a complexity that generates consciousness. We are what we hear and what we see and what we feel and touch as much as what we think.'

Inquirer said...

Dale, how do you distinguish yourself from what's known as a Luddite? I mean, it's not uncommon to encounter progressives who fit the bill, but you have pretty adamantly disavowed the label. Why? This question, as you know, doesn't have anything to do with liking science fiction, or gee-whizzing at some gadget. Rather, wouldn't you be the sort who would cheer on a march against the corporatist profiteers putting honest people out of work with their cost-cutting technology? Haven't you (in this post and several times in the past) emphasized the dehumanizing effects of technology, usually without any qualification other than 'I am not a Luddite, but...' Haven't you denied that technology even exists as a legitimate concept for analysis?

If I understand your positioning on this blog, it seems you think technology is good for us only to the extent that it enables some progressive political goal. So, to speed things along, let's take the converse. Imagine a technology that actually works against progressive political goals. Would it be something you could see yourself doing to participate in a march to destroy it?

Dale Carrico said...

[W]ouldn't you be the sort who would cheer on a march against the corporatist profiteers putting honest people out of work with their cost-cutting technology?

Strictly speaking, I advocate the provision of a basic guaranteed income and universal healthcare so that being put out of work (or going on strike) for any reason at all threatens nobody with disaster. Definitely I disapprove of the ongoing concentration of wealth facilitated by outsourcing (especially via certain information and communication techniques), crowdsourcing (especially via p2p formations), and automation (the usual suspects).

I don't think we can generalize from the specific deployments of technique in the service of these inequities to a case against "technology" (any more than one can champion "technology in general" because a surgery saves your life or you found true love via the Internet). Nor do I think it makes any sense in such cases to focus on the flashy devices and techniques present on the occasion of this injustice rather than on the decisions to deploy them to inequitable ends that might have been otherwise. In other words, I don't think it is clarifying to think of your example as a matter of technology rather than immoral, unethical, elitist politics.

In popular parlance, a "luddite" is a person who despises or fears things that are designated technology. You are right that I consider a blanket aversion to (or celebration of) technique strictly speaking unintelligible and very much beside the point. But as a matter of everyday speech, I know to what the label refers and it doesn't name my own attitude very well. As for the historical Luddites who were angry that certain rich people were deploying novel devices in a class war against certain customary lifeways -- they were exactly right, and I have said so on more than one occasion. Again, strictly speaking, it actually confuses things to focus on devices rather than on the elitist politics that deployed the devices in the service of injustice or to imagine that the historical Luddites, because they smashed looms would smash any other useful device that came their way.

you think technology is good for us only to the extent that it enables some progressive political goal. So, to speed things along, let's take the converse. Imagine a technology that actually works against progressive political goals

The point is that "progress," including technoscientific progress is not primarily a matter of the accumulation of a toypile, but a matter of politics. I don't think it makes much sense or is ever much to any purpose to try to "imagine a technology that actually works against progressive political goals" because I think that would actually be a matter of conservatives or authoritarians deploying technique in the service of non-progressive ends. I don't think there are inherently democratizing as against authoritarian technologies as a general sort of matter. I think the focus on things passing for "technology" in the midst of technodevelopmental social struggle is usually a distraction. What is wanted is to ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change are distributed equitably among the diverse stakeholders to that change on their own terms, that whatever the devices and techniques on hand that all people have a say in the public decisions that affect them, and that all people consent in a legible, informed, nonduressed way to the terms of their personal (cultural, prosthetic) lifeways to the extent that this is possible.

jimf said...

> I wrote: "Life is lived in vulnerable bodies, intelligence
> is performed in squishy brains and squishy socialities."
>
> "James" responded: Yes, this is quite true, right now.
>
> So, get back to me when your counterexample isn't made up bullshit.
>
> Magical thinking isn't daring, it's dumb.
>
> James writes: . . . I just feel strongly about assumptions
> that biology is somehow special. It's not. Carbon's just what
> initially won out over everything else.

There's a rhetorical sleight-of-hand going on here that crops
up pretty often in discussions among >Hists.

"Carbon's just what initially won out over everything else."

Note that there's no argument here about what the
"everything else" (or **anything** else) might be,
it's just asserted by fiat that of course there were
other alternatives that might have gained hegemony.
Sez who?

A similar trick is relied upon even more heavily by the
"Friendly AI"/SL4 folks. They're fond of saying -- well,
human minds are only one of many kinds of possible minds,
and we aren't constrained to replicate them (with all
their foibles and "weaknesses", etc.) Sez who, exactly?
Who published the Whole Earth Catalog of possible "minds"?

This kind of device is **very effective** in an SF story,
in which a character might be participating in a discussion
lamenting how those poor benighted 20th-century (yeah, I
know it's well into the 21st now, but we're talking about
predominantly 20th-century literature) humans didn't
realize this and that and the other about How Things
Really Turned Out To Be -- if only those poor schmucks
had managed to figure out X or Y or Z how history might
have been different, and aren't we lucky to be living
in The Future, etc., etc. Under cover of this rhetoric,
the author's prejudices about How Things **Should** Be
in the present can be effectively smuggled in. It's
**fiction**, folks. It doesn't substitute for science,
and it doesn't substitute for politics.

> I do find it intriguing that James goes so far as to
> indicate not only disagreement but "strong feeling" on
> this question of not connecting intelligence too forcefully
> to the living world even when there is not as yet any
> empirical reason at all not to do that very thing. . .
>
> Others I am convinced who talk this way do so, oddly enough,
> because they don't like the humanities, their aesthetic
> temperament disdains the derangements of literal language
> in the figurative, they are impatient with the paradoxes
> and intractable dilemmas of theory, they grow painfully
> frustrated with the interminable processing of political or
> psychological difference, and so on, and a denigration of
> life's mess avails them a measure of more secure and
> instrumentally efficacious preoccupations -- which undeniably
> do have their beauty and power after all.

Here's something that's tangentially relevant. We've heard it
all before, of course, it I was amused to see it yet again
in a book I picked up last night (from a colleague's desk)
and started browsing in.

_The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive
Us Crazy and How To Restore the Sanity_ by Alan Cooper
http://www.amazon.com/Inmates-Are-Running-Asylum-Products/dp/0672326140

Chapter 7, "Homo Logicus", pp. 93 - 104:

"With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I call programmers _Homo
logicus_: a species slightly -- but distinctly -- different from
_Homo sapiens_. From my own observations, I have isolated four
fundamental ways that software engineers think and behave differently
from normal humans, and I will discuss them in detail in this
chapter. . . .

The implication of this is clear: Programmers are somehow different
from ordinary people, and so they are. Their stereotypical behavioral
differences have been the subject of jokes for years: the social
awkwardness, the pocket protectors, the bookish manner. Those are
just the easily noticeable -- and easily ridiculed -- surface differences.
The really substantive differences are not only far subtler, but they
have a more profound effect on the cognitive friction-rich interactive
products that programmers build.

Many observers of the computer industry have taken pains to point out
these differences. Robert Cringely calls programmers "stinking gods
among men," referring simultaneously to their superior attitudes
and their hygiene habits.

Po Bronson is another shrewd observer and talented writer. He has cast
his sharp eye and sharper wit onto the high-tech world. In a parody
of Steven Covey, he has developed what he calls the Seven Habits of
Highly Engineered People. They are remarkably accurate even in
their hyperbole.

1. They will be generous in their selfishness
2. Blindness improves their vision
3. They'll not only bite the hand that feeds them, but they'll
bite their own hand
4. They will try very hard to maintain the image that they care
very little about their image
5. They'll keep fixing what's not broken until it's broken
6. "I didn't answer incorrectly, you just asked the wrong question."
7. Consider absence of criticism a compliment

. . .

Programmers Act Like Jocks

Probably the most surprising thing about good programmers is that
they act like jocks. I use that term very consciously, because it
is freighted with overtones of immaturity, egotism, and competition,
as well as physical strength and coordination.

The term _jock_ reminds me of high-school physical education classes.
Some teenaged boys were gifted with bigger, stronger musculature and
well-coordinated bodies. These boys excelled in organized athletics,
but they also found that they could dominate the smaller, weaker
kids in unofficial contests of strength and agility. These jocks
not only dominated on the diamond or the gridiron, but they
dominated the weaker boys in the locker room and on the school
playground, outside of sanctioned competition.

A six-foot-tall, seventeen-year-old boy has the strength of a man but
lacks the man's maturity. This man-boy is unsympathetic to those who
are weaker than he is. He is in the throes of adolescence and is
as yet untempered by the strictures of adult society. His attitude
is brutish and simple: Keep up or die. His actions say: "If you
can't do what I do, then you are a worthless loser." Any kid on the
playground who can't compete physically is rejected, and is not
considered acceptable. Because he has the physical strength to
dominate, he does.

An interesting thing happens to this jock dynamic, however. Once out
of school and into the real world, the ability to physically dominate
another person quickly loses its power and usefulness. In high school,
if the jock felt threatened by a chubby kid with glasses, a couple
of well-placed fists and the haughty laughter of the varsity team
served to put the kid in his place. In the world of business, fists
and taunts can no longer be used. It is not acceptable behavior to
administer wedgies or snap towels in the conference room, nor is
it effective. Although the jock might seill have the physical power
to dominate another, weaker, person, if that weaker person is his
peer, supervisor, or manager, it can only backfire.

The jocks, who were so immature in high school, find themselves learning
a very humbling lesson. When they emerge into the wider world, they
find their wings are clipped by society, and they learn to coexist
successfully with people of lesser physical ability. Jocks are
well represented in business, and they tend to so well in it, overall.
They make the transition successfully, if not willingly or happily.
While they retain their natural sense of competition, they have
now earned a level of maturity and selflessness that makes them
good citizens.

Programmers are just like jocks. When programmers were in high
school, many of them lacked the physical coordination of the jocks,
but they were gifted with quicker, stronger minds and well-coordinated
mental abilities. They excelled in some organized activities,
like forensics, lit club, and the chess team.

In the throes of adolescence, their gifts aren't worth as much
as muscle. They are easily dominated on the school playground by
boys stronger than they are. A skinny seventeen-year-old boy who
has a man's mastery of calculus, physics, and computer science
might still be a physically weak boy ignored on the gridiron
and rejected in the dating game. We call this kid a nerd.

This nerd-boy is unsympathetic to those who are weaker than he
is. Privately -- for he doesn't have the physical strength to
do so publicly -- he laughs and makes fun of bigger boys who
lack his wit and brainpower. His attitude is brutish and simple:
Keep up or die. Any kid on the playground who isn't competitive
is rejected, and is not considered acceptable. His value system
is expressed in a simple pecking order based on inner development
of his mental acuity. Within the confines of his non-jock peers,
his attitude is: If I can beat you in a mental contest, then
I am your master and I am better than you.

Like those jocks gifted with athletic talent, good programmers
are also gifted with a natural talent, and they are just as
competitive as any young athlete is. It can be harder to see
that competitive drive because programming is essentially an
invisible, solo sport. But don't let their quiet demeanor
fool you: programmers are zealous competitors, and really
good programmers are as cutthroat as any Olympic hopeful.

An interesting thing happens to this nerd dynamic, however. Once
out of school and into the real world of adulthood, the ability
to mentally dominate another person is not lost in the
transition to a mature, civil, adult society. The nerd is
protected by social strictures and can no longer be beaten up
on the playing field. Physical bullying ceases to be acceptable
behavior as adolescents mature into adulthood, but mental
bullying becomes a stronger and stronger weapon in adulthood.

This mental-jock dynamic -- the ability to mentally dominate
another person -- gains tremendous power in the adult world of
the information age. In civil society, it has become perfectly
acceptable behavior to administer mental wedgies with inscrutable
software, or to snap emotional towels at long-suffering humans
just trying to get some cash from their ATM.

The jocks, who were so powerful in high school, find themselves
utterly at the mercy of their former victims. The humbling process
of becoming an adult makes most jocks become decent humans,
and many of them have confessed to me no small embarrassment
over their adolescent behavior.

The 6-foot-4-inch-tall former All-State point guard finds his
physical prowess is useless in the boardroom, while the 5-foot-7-inch-tall
former Astronomy Club treasurer finds his mental prowess allows
him to weave and jab and punch with unmatched agility. The
endlessly adolescent nerd-boy lawyer can dominate in court with
his keen tongue and keener mind. The nerd-boy doctor now has the power
of life or death over his former-jock patients. And -- surprise --
the pasty-faced nerd-boy computer programmer turns out to have
the most astonishing amount of power ever before wielded because
he now controls everyone's access to vital information.

There is no maturing process to temper their exercise of that
power. They dominate others with their mental ability because
they can, and they see nothing wrong with humiliating users with
dauntingly complex products. They sneer, joke, and laugh
about "the lusers" who simply are not smart enough to use
computers. Their work habits, too, of isolation, pressure, and
long, odd hours offer little civilizing influence.

Not until my late twenties did I realize what a bully I was.
The only difference was that I used my programming skills as
my fists, and my mastery of complex systems as my height and
reach. And I swinishly hooted at those who could not keep up
with the complexities of using computers."

;->


And, of course, a Robot God is the apotheosis of both the
self-image of the computer programmer and his value system.
Such a god will no doubt dispense rewards and punishments
as a programmer would deem they should be dispensed, and solve
messy "human" problems as a programmer would deem they
should be solved.