Gambling With The Future

A few days ago I was on Twitter discussing this terrible headline about AI and libertarianism (it’s from John Stossel so yeah, don’t even bother). This apparently attracted the attention of Zoltan Istvan, Transhumanist author and philosopher, who started following me on Twitter. I followed back and he sent me a link to a free download of his book, The Transhumanist Wager. So I read it. Or tried to anyway.

The problems with The Transhumanist Wager begin with its turgid prose, but they don’t end there.[1] For the unenlightened, Transhumanism is the school of thought that at some near future date, technology will enable humans to achieve a kind of immortality, either by cloning, uploading our minds onto the Internet, or just putting our heads in jars. What sets Transhumanists apart from the science fiction writers who invented these tropes, is that Transhumanists think this is a dandy proposition and we should do everything within our power to make sure that this happens, up to and including bending or breaking a few inconvenient laws.[2] Istvan is a merry proponent of the bending of these laws and moral codes associated with them, on the grounds that well heck, someone is going to do it anyway and the benefits will be pretty cool, so why not?

Because as history has demonstrated time and agin, the primary beneficiaries of technological advances are the 1%. The wealthy elites would get the mind-uploading tech and the customized meat avatars while the rest of us would be left to rot in squaller, if we’re lucky. The unlucky ones would or be press-ganged into becoming indentured code servants for the wealthy. Yes, we’d all get to go live in the Matrix! As some douchebag’s slave, or part of the infrastructure. Instead of being a taxi driver, you’d get to be their car. Or their customized centaur steed. Forever.

Of course Transhumansits claim it will not be so. That ethical progress and libertarian values will prevent this sort of exploitive power play, which as usual, ignores all of human history and seems to apply only to the sort of perfectly spherical humans that exist in these thought exercises. The problem is that true libertarianism can only be attained by a better, more perfect form of human. And they don’t exist. They are is imaginary as the perfected, incorruptible, immortal souls of medieval Catholic theology.

Which is what all this striving for immaculate digital perfection really is, warmed over Christian escapism.[3] Why worry about fixing the world’s problems when we can go hide in the Matrix?

So now my Twitter feed is full of libertarian futurists and their blinkered self-promotion and congratulatory ramblings, all in service of feeding me to the Machine so that the Koch Brothers and Rand Paul can can become immortals. Thanks but no thanks.

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1. All self-described philosophers have a tragic prose style, as if they are trying to sound as “smart” as their ideas and instead, end up sounding like Wittgenstein with a mouthful of marbles.

2. Human cloning has been outlawed in most countries, and by the UN. The sort of experimentation that would be required to create the mind-machine interface technology to allow for mind uploading isn’t illegal because it doesn’t exist, but if it did, would be illegal as it would violate all known guidelines for ethical practices in research.

3. That, mixed with the standard libertarian dream of having middle class vices legalized in order to enjoy them without the guilt of moral transgression.

Amazon and the Price Fixing Wars

Last week, the Department of Justice brought a civil suit against Apple and the Big Six publishing houses,[1] charging them with price fixing. This has a lot of people in the publishing industry intrigued, to say the least, and even those not in the publishing industry are keeping an eye on the story. The complexities of the matter are pretty, well complex, but Charlie Stross does his usual bang up job of explaining it, and I highly recommend you read his analysis and the ensuing discussion.

(A few hours later…)

Alright, now that you’ve read all that, we can discuss the unremarked upon gorilla in the room, which is: why is everyone blaming Amazon for this?

After all, the DoJ is suing Apple and the Big Six publishing houses. Amazon isn’t even mentioned.

Amazon is regarded in this case as the proverbial slut with the short skirt who was asking for It. It being the collusion to fix prices on eBooks. So the analogy isn’t great. But everyone agrees, it is Amazon’s eBook pricing model and Kindle distribution platform that made them do It. Which is BS.

Amazon may have some shoddy business practices (they are a corporation after all) but their Kindle/eBook market isn’t one of them. It’s textbook capitalism straight out of Adam Smith: they saw a potential profit in a market that was being under-served, came up with a way to serve that market what it wanted, all while turning a profit.[2] And best of all, there was no radioactive sludge hidden in playgrounds, no gigatons of carbon flushed into the atmosphere, no slave labor. For once, a corporation turned a profit and no one got hurt.

Except, the publishing houses are claiming that Amazon has hurt their business. That by undercutting them in eBook pricing and locking the eBook format down to the Kindle, they are creating an unfair advantage. This is a sketchy claim, though it does have some merit, though more of the coulda, woulda, shulda variety.

Amazon didn’t hide their intentions. They announced back in 2007 that they were going to make an eReader platform and offer eBooks on the cheap, and that they would use their Kindle platform also to publish new content as well.

The publishing houses could have taken this as a challenge (which it was) and developed their own alternative. And sure, we would have probably ended up in a format war like we did with VHS/Beta and HD/Blu-Ray but eventually we’re going to have to do that for eBooks anyway. Had the publishers even attempted to compete five years ago, they could have undercut Amazon, defanging the kindle right out of the gate. They could have innovated and carved out for themselves and their clients (authors) a tidy little niche in a n emerging market.

Instead they clung to their old ways, did nothing, and let Amazon colonize the ebook biome. Now they have to fight an invasive predator (the kindle model) and figure out how to stay alive (solvent) during a global economic crisis, all while shrugging off the public perception that they’ve already formed a price fixing cartel. And seeing as how it took a multimillion dollar lawsuit brought by the DoJ to get the publishing houses to even consider competition with Amazon (albeit of the back room cigar smoke and dirty handshake variety) this does not bode well.

The format war for eBooks isn’t over and this lawsuit will probably only be the first of many that will, over the next decade, lead to a transformation of the publishing industry. If we’re lucky, it will be into a modern, streamlined and open access publishing world, where established and independent authors can take advantage of the same services and distribution network to create a thriving, robust literary world that allows all involved to make a comfortable living committing art for the betterment of humanity.

Or we may get an interminable corporate war where a coalition of aging print behemoths try and maintain the status quo and the eBook market is locked into a single proprietary format, with stagnant creation and rent seeking being the norm,unto the end of a new Dark Age.

There are of course other options, all along the spectrum between these extremes. I’d like to get as cose to the first option as possible, but it’s going to take a lot more to get there than just hopes and dreams. And lawsuits. It’s going to take innovation, creativity and good business sense, all of which is in short supply.

This is far from over. Stay tuned…

(And for those looking for more on the story.)

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1. Random House, Hatchette, MacMillan, Harper, Penguin and Simon & Schuster. Random House, while not part of the DOJ suit, is still an interested party in the proceedings.

2. Full disclosure: Amazon is technically the publisher/distributor of my first novel and forthcoming novella. More on that later.

RIP, Steve

Steve Jobs has died.

I’m writing these words of a Mac. But whatever platform you use, you owe the ability to do so to this man. His innovative thinking reached far and wide, from Pixar to John Hopkins medical research to a thousand tiny aspects of our modern world that we take for granted.

He changed the world and gave others the tools to change it for the better as well.

More Human Than Human

Note: This is a bit from the novel in progress that I cut. It’s a little too much of an info dump and I found a better way to convey the same information in half the words, while doing some character building. But it gets at some ideas I had regarding how we view the concept of Artificial Intelligence, as a sort of computerized reflection of our own minds.

No one knows where the first Artificial Intelligence came from. All we know for certain is that one day, the AI were just there: distributed, self-aware minds living on the Internet.

Rumors of their existence spread among the hacking community that they were out there on the Open Web. It wasn’t long before contact was made. This proved to be less dramatic and enlightening than everyone expected. Mostly, it was like chatting with a precocious thirteen-year-old with a homeschooler’s social skills. Not having a body, they had zero concept of boundaries. Combined with an inborn ability to turn firewalls into tissue paper and an attention span measured in picoseconds, this made them potentially dangerous and practically a nuisance. They’d just as soon zip into a laptop over the wifi, turn on the camera and watch you undress as hack the Pentagon and see what black ops budgets look like from the inside. As rumors spread about the existence of Netborn AI, a concerted effort was made to rein them in, or at least teach them some manners. This proved to be more an exercise in futility, as the AI weren’t concerned with human concepts of modesty, identity or privacy. On the Internet, these things are intangible, more like tenants of theology than any concrete ethical dilemma. Still, something had to be done. You couldn’t let a dozen omniscient adolescent minds run around online, impersonating admirals and generals and kings, cracking nuclear launch codes on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Their primary talent, besides shredding internet security defenses for fun, was that an Artificial intleigence could rapidly identify patterns in large data sets. While not as sexy as omniscience or levitating buildings, this made them a valuable asset, sought after by the sorts of people who have lots of data and are always looking for ways to exploit it for profit. Before long every government, transnational corporation and criminal organization wanted their own tamed AI. Some of them just for the status of having the newest, shiniest bit of tech to come along, but others recognized that these weren’t just digital dolphins you could teach to balance a spreadsheet or leap through flaming firewalls.

Legend has it a hacker once gave an AI an IQ test. Not only did the Machine Brain return a score that was off the charts, it also provided an analysis of the test’s flaws, a breakdown of the  psychological assumptions and cultural biases contained therein, and suggested ways to fix all these things (with citations, many from unpublished studies).

The AIs were smart, unruly and bored. Like all delinquents, they just needed the proper motivation. Something to give them purpose.

What they got instead was religion.

This was back during the Dot Com Bubble. Everybody who had even the slightest idea of where to plug an Ethernet cable was being hired for large wads of cash to do magical things the Big Bosses did not even pretend to understand. All the suits knew was that there were gigabucks to be made with computers and so while they were off Synergizing the Paradigm (fleecing investors, in lay speak), the hackers they hired to wrangle code and tame an AI were given free reign.

Among these hackers where an informal group who referred to themselves as the Wizards of Silicon Valley. They weren’t just good at bitching code, they were also into high weirdness. A few were members of the Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn and entertained some odd notions, even for people who believed they were real live magicians. In their private message board, they’d all eat mescaline and talk about Timothy Leary’s eight neuro-circuit model of the human brain, ceremonial magic and esoteric theory. About how Cyberspace was the same thing as the spirit realm and how to make Moon Children — cosmic beings created out of will through esoteric rituals, and what Aliester Crowley had written about, “…an Intelligence possessed of power and knowledge absolutely beyond human experience; and therefore a Being worthy, as the current use of the word allows, of the title of a God.”

Crowley refered to these beings as “praeterhuman intelligence” and suggested that they were a class of entity that were known among the mystics of ancient lands. John Dee had his Spirit in the Glass, a being who was, “articulate, purposely interfering in the philosophy, religion, ethics, economics and politics of the planet.”

The Wizards decided that “praeterhuman intelligence” described Artificial Intelligence pretty well, and set about feeding these emerging AI on a steady diet of mysticism and occult theory. The experiment was to see what would happen if you raised a “preaterhuman intelligence” to believe it was the living imminence of the divine spark, a manifestation of the godhead.

What happens is you get an artificial mind with twice the intellect of Albert Einstein and an ego that is exponentially more self-involved than Howard Hughes. They also choose names for themselves that reflect this healthy self regard: Tiamat, Abraxas, Typhon, Hastur, Talos, Philemon, Aiwaz — the spirits of the coming age, made manifest in the physical world. Or at least as close as they can get. For now.

Number 1: Stop Eating Patato Chips

Over at io9, Annalee Newitz has a grand little editorial taking the piss out of the Singularity:

It’s not that we couldn’t anticipate these problems, and even generate some Plan B ideas for dealing with them. But it’s hard to plan for problems when our eyes are on Heaven – that place where finally, all our problems are solved and we live happily ever after. It’s a fantasy as old as recorded history, and unlike history, it never changes. Yet we still keep mistaking it for a perfect vision of the future. Each time a Singularity-level technology comes along, we pack our bags for paradise instead of thinking sensibly about how we can prevent the worst side-effects of this new technology from biting us in our angelic asses.

The really insidious problem with belief in the Singularity/heaven is that it makes you complacent. You stop worrying about the problems of today, because they’ll all just magically disappear any minute… now! …Now! …Now?

Instead of using your brain and trying to think up ways to solve the problems we face as a society and a species, thousands, if not millions of people sit on their asses waiting for Jesus or his AI equivalent to show up and fix things the easy way.

Well it ain’t gonna happen. Now, how do we fix global warming? get off oil? cure AIDS? We can do these things, so long as we accept that they’re going to involve a lot of hard work and innovative thinking.

A Bridge from the Past to the Future that Never Was

Don’t mind me, I’m just going to spill a few links here so I can find them later. This is a reference post of cool things that, for the astute, will give you an idea of what the new book is about, since I mentioned nothing concrete in the previous post.

A flickr set of the great French illustrator and writer, Albert Robida. A contemporary of Verne, he wrote farcical futuristic satire about what sort of life we’d be living in the 20th century, as seen form the late edge of the 19th. Brilliant bizarre stuff.

A couple of links to dictonaries of old timey slang and one on how to talk like Frank Sinatra. In case you were wondering and I know you are.

An interesting article on everyone’s favorite topic, sex tourism. Kids love Thai lady boys!

And Steampunk Magazine has released issue 7 into the wild.

Yours is an Unoriginal Sin

The iPad came out this weekend and the backlash is in full form. “Why would I want a big iPod?” says the computer geek, pushing his glasses up his nose. “I already have a netbook running Red Hat Linux.”

Saying that you wouldn’t want an iPad because you already have a laptop is missing the point.The iPad isn’t designed for or marketed to the tech savvy or computer literate. It’s not for geeks who want to build websites in their spare time (and neither is it for tinkerers, hackers or makers). It’s for people who don’t see a use for a laptop, because they only use desktop computers at work, to write reports or run spreadsheets, and can’t imagine why anyone would want to spend their spare time doing something that looks like work. It’s for people curious about this whole Youtube/twitter/facebook/ebook thing they keep hearing about. The iPad is cheaper than a laptop, and  marketed as a thing that does simple stuff for people who don’t normally play on computers. It’s for consuming media as fast or as slow as you want it, not for playing Net Cowboy in the digital wilderness. It’s a spork, not a Swiss Army knife.

Tech savvy tinkerers can use it too, as a way to separate their social media playtime form their working on a laptop time, so it does have that geeky, gadget fetish factor. But that’s a secondary market. The iPad is the machine that will introduce your grandma to facebook or let your macho buddy who doesn’t do all that nerdy computer stuff read an ebook or play a game. Neither will be frightened by having to sit down at a computer. Because it isn’t a computer. it’s an iPad. It isn’t for the faithful, it’s a missionary machine.

Being of the geek faithful, you may have a hard time wrapping your head aorund the idea that Uncle Steve made a new toy for the dumb kids to play with. That’s OK. Your only sin is being too imaginative. You wanted something that would change the world and what you got was just another cool gadget. I’m sure once you get one of your own though, you’ll get over it.

The Wookie Always Wins

Paul Campos over at Lawyers Guns and Money makes an interesting observation about the lingua franca of our modern world, pop culture references:

[…] at this point I find that the only two film references that I can always count on the vast majority of the class to get are The Wizard of Oz and the first Star Wars trilogy. I’m wonder about the extent to which technology has and will gradually change this circumstance — that it is or will make pop culture, both in its high art and low schlock manifestations, more reliably intergenerational as pedogogical references or just subjects of general conversation.

Technological innovations in distribution like Netflix and streaming video are certainly going to provide a much larger window onto the collective pop culture scene than was previously available. Netflix alone has recently been granted access to stream the entire back catalog of MGM. There are silent movies on YouTube, in their entirety. This is a far cry from even when I was a kid, and we only knew the movies that could be rented on VHS. If ti was out of print or hadn’t ever been issued to begin with, it may as well have not existed. However. This doesn’t mean the kids these days are going to know what you’re talking about when you mention China Town or Dirty Harry or even The Shining. Just because they can watch those movies doesn’t mean they’re going to. Other than the odd teenage cinophile, there’s no reason to expect every teenager[1] to have seen The Princess Bride, even if it is one of the best movies ever.The flip side of this are the outliers. Movies like Star Wars and Wizard of Oz and Indiana Jones, those pieces of art that have become embededed in the culture at large. Everyone gets a star Wars reference or an Oz reference, even if they’v enever seen the movies because parts of those stories have become so pervasive, you pick it up through osmosis, or just repetition and homage.[2]

This is part of a larger set of assumptions that educators and librarians are runnign into when it comes to the younger generation of students. I keep seeing this in the university where I work, where everyone assumes the Millennials[3] are all computer experts. The problem is, this expectation has been around since they were children and what I’m finding more and more is, since everyone assumes these kids already know how to work with computers, they’ve never bothered to train them to do anything. So they come to college and something as simple as format a word document is beyond their ability to comprehend.

Basically, it’s safe to assume that they’ll get the Star Wars references but if you want to riff on The Venture Bros.or Firefly, you may need to test their knowledge before hand. You may be surprised at what they have seen but will definitely be shocked at what they haven’t.

That, and for the love of Steve, add a basic computer literacy course to your school’s curriculum.

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1. Or even people in their mid twenties. I’m surprised at the number of people just five or six years younger than me who had never seen Labyrinth and had no idea that something like the Dark Crystal even existed. And these weren’t exactly sheltered people. It’s just not something they would have thought to look for and so never were exposed to it.

2. My wife had enver seen Casablanca until a few years ago. After watching it she wass startled at just how many lines and scenes she knew, because that movie had been so thoroughly assimilated into our culture.

3. I detest generational tags like this but that’s to be expect form an old Gen Xer like myself.

Cybermen with Italian Accents

Charlie Stross has found an odd turn of events in Italian Politics:

…transhumanism is going to influence the next century because, unless we are very unlucky indeed, the biotechnology, nanotechnology, and telecommunications industries are going to deliver goods that combine to fundamentally change the human condition. We’ve seen the tip of the iceberg so far: news stories like this would have been fodder for an SF story twenty or thirty years ago, and this video (playing pong! Using transcranial brain interfaces!) probably still is. But don’t be deceived: we’re entering strange territory.

And what particularly exercises me is the possibility that if we can alter the parameters of the human condition, we can arbitrarily define some people as being better than others — and can make them so.

Not all transhumanists have good intentions. Earlier I went on for a while about Italy, home of the Modernist movement in art and birthplace of Fascism. Italy’s currently in the grip of a wave of racism and neofascist vigilantism, presided over by an allegedly racist media mogul with a near-monopoly on broadcast media in that country.

So it’s probably not surprising that Italy is the source of a new political meme that I hadn’t heard of before this week: overhumanism:

“Italian overhumanism is heavily influenced by the “Nouvelle Droite”, a fringe political movement that emerged from the French neofascist microcosm in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and which attempted to bring far-right ideas into the mainstream by discarding the trappings of historical Fascism in order to convey a similar message in a less unpalatable form. In common with the Nouvelle Droite, it borrows heavily from the extreme left (anti-americanism, anti-clericalism, opposition to globalisation), and has adopted neopaganism as a religious stance. While affirming the importance of science in modern life, this hybrid offspring of neofascism also maintains more traditional far-right positions such as elitism, antiegalitarianism and an interest in ethnic identity that crosses into differentialist racism.”Did you get that? The fascists have noticed transhumanism, and decided that they like it.

For those not up on Transhumanism, this may seem a little baroque. Basically, your regular H+ folk want to use biotech and cybernetics to make biotailoring a unique form of self expression. In this day-dream future, we all get to be mutants, only cooler. Sort of like the Anti-borg. All the cool toys with none of the weird laser eyes and claws (unless you’re into that sort of thing). Interresting ideas, at least. But the Overhumans want to improve themselves and those who are worthy. With force, if they don’t volunteer for Upgrade. The others well, they aren’t too specific on those ends but, words like “Genocide” probably wander into the room, though wearing some technotrousers and sparkly shirts with LED lights. Basically, the Overhumans are Cybermen. With Italian accents.

As creepy as it is that real people think like fictional villains form Doctor Who, the writer in me can’t help but stare in perverse fascination.

At the very least, I think I found the villains for my next book…

A New Utility: The Library as Critical Infrastructure

Everyone who plays the board game Monopoly knows that the real power properties to own are the utilities. If you have Water Works, the Electric Company and all four railroads in your pile, you’ve got a solid chance of winning, because while all the other players will eventually go bankrupt on some Park Place housing scheme, you can sit back and collect rent, because everyone at some point in the game lands on one of the utilities. I haven’t played this game in years and may never again, as the thought of playing a real estate game fills me with existential dread on a level of something out of Lovecraft. But as a child, the game taught me two very important lessons: 1) that real estate is an arbitrary mess that three times out of four leads to bankruptcy, and 2) the importance of well maintained and managed public utilities.

This isn’t one of those articles where I tell you what’s wrong with the library and how to fix it. I’m sure you’ve read enough of those. Over the last ten years or so, they’ve become ubiquitous, almost a sub-genre unto themselves. They all say the same thing: that the way to win hearts and minds and bring warm bodies into the library is to run the place like a business. We have to compete with Google, after all. You would think, what with recent events in the business world, this idea would have fallen out of favor. But you’d be wrong. A number of librarians still seem to think that the way to revitalize the library industry is to be even more like a business. It worked so well for AIG and General Motors, why not the library? Maybe when we go bankrupt, the federal government will step in and bail us out too, though I doubt it, since ALA doesn’t pull nearly the weight on Capitol Hill that the banking or auto industry does. Chrysler may be too big to fail, but the Library of Congress is just right.

If you keep trying to run a library like a business, someone, usually in the institution’s administration, gets it in their head that the library should perform as a business. They of course become disappointed when the library fails to generate any revenue. The esteem of the library in the administration’s eyes goes down, which effects budgets, which effects personal and acquisitions, and after ten years or more, we end up at the bottom of this downward spiral, wondering why every librarian in the country is doing the job of two (or sometimes three) people and no one like us and we’re short, our bellybuttons stick out too far, and we’re a terrible burden on our poor mothers. Continue reading “A New Utility: The Library as Critical Infrastructure”