There are at least two ways to believe in the idea of quality. You can believe there's something ineffable going on within the human mind, or you can believe we just don't understand what quality in a mind is yet, even though we might someday. Either of those opinions allows one to distinguish quantity and quality. In order to confuse quantity and quality, you have to reject both possibilities. The mere possibility of there being something ineffable about personhood is what drives many technologists to reject the notion of quality. They want to live in an airtight reality that resembles an idealized computer program, in which everything is understood and there are no fundamental mysteries. They recoil from even the hint of a potential zone of mystery or an unresolved seam in one's worldview. This desire for absolute order usually leads to tears in human affairs, so there is a historical reason to distrust it. Materialist extremists have long seemed determined to win a race with religious fanatics: Who can do the most damage to the most people?
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The intentions of the cybernetic totalist tribe are good. They are simply following a path that was blazed in earlier times by well-meaning Freudians and Marxists - and I don't mean that in a pejorative way. I'm thinking of the earliest incarnations of Marxism, for instance, before Stalinism and Maoism killed millions. Movements associated with Freud and Marx both claimed foundations in rationality and the scientific understanding of the world. Both perceived themselves to be at war with the weird, manipulative fantasies of religions. And yet both invented their own fantasies that were just as weird. The same thing is happening again. A self-proclaimed materialist movement that attempts to base itself on science starts to look like a religion rather quickly. It soon presents its own eschatology and its own revelations about what is really going on - portentous events that no one but the initiated can appreciate. The Singularity and the noosphere, the idea that a collective consciousness emerges from all the users on the web, echo Marxist social determinism and Freud's calculus of perversions. We rush ahead of skeptical, scientific inquiry at our peril, just like the Marxists and Freudians.
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This digital revolutionary still believes in most of the lovely deep ideals that energized our work so many years ago. At the core was a sweet faith in human nature. If we empowered individuals, we believed, more good than harm would result. The way the internet has gone sour since then is truly perverse. The central faith of the web's early design has been superseded by a different faith in the centrality of imaginary entities epitomized by the idea that the internet as a whole is coming alive and turning into a superhuman creature. The designs guided by this new, perverse kind of faith put people back in the shadows. The fad for anonymity has undone the great opening-of-everyone's-windows of the 1990s. While that reversal has empowered sadists to a degree, the worst effect is a degradation of ordinary people.
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Something like missionary reductionism has happened to the internet with the rise of web 2.0. The strangeness is being leached away by the mush-making process. Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990S had the flavor of personhood. MySpace preserved some of that flavor, though a process of regularized formatting had begun. Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities, while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely. If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People will accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other form. It is utterly strange to hear my many old friends in the world of digital culture claim to be the true sons of the Renaissance without realizing that using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity, no matter how sophisticated your tools are.
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A fashionable idea in technical circles is that quantity not only turns into quality at some extreme of scale, but also does so according to principles we already understand. Some of my colleagues think a million, or perhaps a billion, fragmentary insults will eventually yield wisdom that surpasses that of any well-thought-out essay, so long as sophisticated secret statistical algorithms recombine the fragments. I disagree. A trope from the early days of computer science comes to mind: garbage in, garbage out.
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An endless series of gambits backed by gigantic investments encouraged young people entering the online world for the first time to create standardized presences on sites like Facebook. Commercial interests promoted the widespread adoption of standardized designs like the blog, and these designs encouraged pseudonymity in at least some aspects of their designs, such as comments, instead of the proud extroversion that characterized the first wave of web culture. Instead of people being treated as the sources of their own creativity, commercial aggregation and abstraction sites presented anonymized fragments of creativity as products that might have fallen from the sky or been dug up from the ground, obscuring the true sources.
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But the Turing test cuts both ways. You can't tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you've just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you've let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you? People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time. Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species' bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good. Every instance of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous. The same ambiguity that motivated dubious academic AI projects in the past has been repackaged as mass culture today. Did that search engine really know what you want, or are you playing along, lowering your standards to make it seem clever? While it's to be expected that the human perspective will be changed by encounters with profound new technologies, the exercise of treating machine intelligence as real requires people to reduce their mooring to reality.
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The attribution of intelligence to machines, crowds of fragments, or other nerd deities obscures more than it illuminates. When people are told that a computer is intelligent, they become prone to changing themselves in order to make the computer appear to work better, instead of demanding that the computer be changed to become more useful.
If market pricing is the only legitimate test of quality, why are we still bothering with proven theorems? Why don't we just have a vote on whether a theorem is true? To make it better we'll have everyone vote on it, especially the hundreds of millions of people who don't understand the math. Would that satisfy you?
Turing presented his new offering in the form of a thought experiment, based on a popular Victorian parlor game. A man and a woman hide, and a judge is asked to determine which is which by relying only on the texts of notes passed back and forth. Turing replaced the woman with a computer. Can the judge tell which is the man? If not, is the computer conscious? Intelligent? Does it deserve equal rights? It's impossible for us to know what role the torture Turing was enduring at the time played in his formulation of the test. But it is undeniable that one of the key figures in the defeat of fascism was destroyed, by our side, after the war, because he was gay. No wonder his imagination pondered the rights of strange creatures.
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If you want to know what's really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless.
The approach to digital culture I abhor would indeed turn all the world's books into one book, just as Kevin (Kelly) suggested. It might start to happen in the next decade or so. Google and other companies are scanning library books into the cloud in a massive Manhattan Project of cultural digitization. What happens next is what's important. If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment, there will be only one book. This is what happens today with a lot of content; often you don't know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote a comment, or who shot a video. A continuation of the present trend will make us like various medieval religious empires, or like North Korea, a society with a single book. The Bible can serve as a prototypical example. Like Wikipedia, the Bible's authorship was shared, largely anonymous, and cumulative, and the obscurity of the individual authors served to create an oracle-like ambience for the document as "the literal word of God." If we take a non-metaphysical view of the Bible, it serves as a link to our ancestors, a window. The ethereal, digital replacement technology for the printing press happens to have come of age in a time when the unfortunate ideology I'm criticizing dominates technological culture. Authorship - the very idea of the individual point of view - is not a priority of the new ideology. The digital flattening of expression into a global mush is not presently enforced from the top down, as it is in the case of a North Korean printing press. Instead, the design of software builds the ideology into those actions that are the easiest to perform on the software designs that are becoming ubiquitous. It is true that by using these tools, individuals can author books or blogs or whatever, but people are encouraged by the economics of free content, crowd dynamics, and lord aggregators to serve up fragments instead of considered whole expressions or arguments. The efforts of authors are appreciated in a manner that erases the boundaries between them. The one collective book will absolutely not be the same thing as the library of books by individuals it is bankrupting. Some believe it will be better; others, including me, believe it will be disastrously worse. As the famous line goes from Inherit the Wind: 'The Bible is a book... but it is not the only book' Any singular, exclusive book, even the collective one accumulating in the cloud, will become a cruel book if it is the only one available.
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What these critics forget is that printing presses in themselves provide no guarantee of an enlightened outcome. People, not machines, made the Renaissance. The printing that takes place in North Korea today, for instance, is nothing more than propaganda for a personality cult. What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors.
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Information wants to be free.' So goes the saying. Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, seems to have said it first. I say that information doesn't deserve to be free. Cybernetic totalists love to think of the stuff as if it were alive and had its own ideas and ambitions. But what if information is inanimate? What if it's even less than inanimate, a mere artifact of human thought? What if only humans are real, and information is not?... Information is alienated experience.
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A file on a hard disk does indeed contain information of the kind that objectively exists. The fact that the bits are discernible instead of being scrambled into mush - the way heat scrambles things - is what makes them bits. But if the bits can potentially mean something to someone, they can only do so if they are experienced. When that happens, a commonality of culture is enacted between the storer and the retriever of the bits. Experience is the only process that can de-alienate information. Information of the kind that purportedly wants to be free is nothing but a shadow of our own minds, and wants nothing on its own. It will not suffer if it doesn't get what it wants. But if you want to make the transition from the old religion, where you hope God will give you an afterlife, to the new religion, where you hope to become immortal by getting uploaded into a computer, then you have to believe information is real and alive. So for you, it will be important to redesign human institutions like art, the economy, and the law to reinforce the perception that information is alive. You demand that the rest of us live in your new conception of a state religion. You need us to deify information to reinforce your faith.
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Zombies are familiar characters in philosophical thought experiments. They are like people in every way except they have no internal experience... If there are enough zombies recruited into our world, I worry about the potential for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe if people pretend they are not conscious or do not have free will - or that the cloud of online people is a person; if they pretend there is nothing special about the perspective of the individual - then perhaps we have the power to make it so. We might be able to collectively achieve antimagic. Humans are free. We can commmit suicide for the benefit of a Singularity. We can engineer our genes to better support an imaginary hive mind. We can make culture and journalism into second-rate activities and spend centuries remixing the detritus of the 1960s and other eras from before individual creativity went out of fashion. Or we can believe in ourselves. By chance, it might turn out we are real.
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An imaginary circle of empathy is drawn by each person. It circumscribes the person at some distance, and corresponds to those things in the world that deserve empathy. I like the term "empathy" because it has spiritual overtones. A term like "sympathy" or "allegiance" might be more precise, but I want the chosen term to be slightly mystical, to suggest that we might not be able to fully understand what goes on between us and others, that we should leave open the possibility that the relationship can't be represented in a digital database. If someone falls within your circle of empathy, you wouldn't want to see him or her killed. Something that is clearly outside the circle is fair game. For instance, most people would place all other people within the circle, but most of us are willing to see bacteria killed when we brush our teeth, and certainly don't worry when we see an inanimate rock tossed aside to keep a trail clear. The tricky part is that some entities reside close to the edge of the circle. The deepest controversies often involve whether something or someone should lie just inside or just outside the circle. For instance, the idea of slavery depends on the placement of the slave outside the circle, to make some people nonhuman. Widening the circle to include all people and end slavery has been one of the epic strands of the human story - and it isn't quite over yet. A great many other controversies fit well in the model. The fight over abortion asks whether a fetus or embryo should be in the circle or not, and the animal rights debate asks the same about animals. When you change the contents of your circle, you change your conception of yourself. The center of the circle shifts as its perimeter is changed. The liberal impulse is to expand the circle, while conservatives tend to want to restrain or even contract the circle. Empathy Inflation and Metaphysical Ambiguity Are there any legitimate reasons not to expand the circle as much as possible? There are. To expand the circle indefinitely can lead to oppression, because the rights of potential entities (as perceived by only some people) can conflict with the rights of indisputably real people. An obvious example of this is found in the abortion debate. If outlawing abortions did not involve commandeering control of the bodies of other people (pregnant women, in this case), then there wouldn't be much controversy. We would find an easy accommodation. Empathy inflation can also lead to the lesser, but still substantial, evils of incompetence, trivialization, dishonesty, and narcissism. You cannot live, for example, without killing bacteria. Wouldn't you be projecting your own fantasies on single-cell organisms that would be indifferent to them at best? Doesn't it really become about you instead of the cause at that point?
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Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavour of person-hood. MySpace preserved some of that flavour, though a process of regularized formatting had begun. Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely. If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other forms
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As information technology becomes millions of times more powerful, any particular use of it becomes correspondingly cheaper. Thus, it has become commonplace to expect online services (not just news, but 21st century treats like search or social networking) to be given for free, or rather, in exchange for acquiescence to being spied on.
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At the turn of the [21st] century it was really Sergey Brin at Google who just had the thought of, well, if we give away all the information services, but we make money from advertising, we can make information free and still have capitalism. But the problem with that is it reneges on the social contract where people still participate in the formal economy. And it's a kind of capitalism that's totally self-defeating because it's so narrow. It's a winner-take-all capitalism that's not sustaining.
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Every time we give a musician the advice to give away the music and sell the T-shirt, we're saying, 'Don't make your living in this more elevated way. Instead, reverse this social progress, and choose a more physical way to make a living.' We're sending them to peasanthood, very much like the Maoists have.
Some of the fantasy objects arising from cybernetic totalism (like the noosphere, which is a supposed global brain formed by the sum of all the human brains connected through the internet) happen to motivate infelicitous technological designs. For instance, designs that celebrate the noosphere tend to energize the inner troll, or bad actor, within humans.
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Here's a current example of the challenge we face: At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?
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Making information free is survivable so long as only limited numbers of people are disenfranchised. As much as it pains me to say so, we can survive if we only destroy the middle classes of musicians, journalists, and photographers. What is not survivable is the additional destruction of the middle classes in transportation, manufacturing, energy, office work, education, and health care. And all that destruction will come surely enough if the dominant idea of an information economy isn't improved.
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I'd much rather see a world where, when you make some quirky comment on a blog or news story or you upload a video clip, instead of just a moment of fame for your pseudonym, you'll get 50 bucks. The first time that happens, you'll realise that you're a full-class citizen. You have the potential to make money from the system.
The cloud is driven by statistics, and even in the worst individual cases of personal ignorance, dullness, idleness, or irrelevance, every person is constantly feeding data into the cloud these days. The value of such information could be treated as genuine, but it is not. Instead, the blindness of our standards of accounting to all that value is gradually breaking capitalism.
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If there's any object in human experience that's a precedent for what a computer should be like, it's a musical instrument: a device where you can explore a huge range of possibilities through an interface that connects your mind and your body, allowing you to be emotionally authentic and expressive.
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A file-sharing service and a hedge fund are essentially the same things. In both cases, there's this idea that whoever has the biggest computer can analyze everyone else to their advantage and concentrate wealth and power. It's shrinking the overall economy. I think it's the mistake of our age.
The wisdom of crowds works when the crowd is choosing the price of an ox, when there's a single numeric average. But if it's a design or something that matters, the decision is made by committee, and that's crap. You want people and groups who are able to think thoughts before they share
America's Facebook generation shows a submission to standardization that I haven't seen before. The American adventure has always been about people forgetting their former selves - Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac went on the road. If they had a Facebook page, they wouldn't have been able to forget their former selves.
The problem I have with socialist utopias is there's some kind of committees trying to soften outcomes for people. I think that imposes models of outcomes for other people's lives. So in a spiritual sense there's some bit of libertarian in me. But the critical thing for me is moderation. And if you let that go far you do end up with a winner-take-all society that ultimately crushes everybody even worse.
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Digital technologies are setting down the new grooves of how people live, how we do business, how we do everything--and they're doing it according to the expectations of foolish utopian scenarios. We want free online experiences so badly that we are happy to not be paid for information that comes from us now or ever. That sensibility also implies that the more dominant information becomes in our economy, the less most of us will be worth.
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Information wants to be free.' So goes the saying. Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, seems to have said it first.I say that information doesn't deserve to be free.Cybernetic totalists love to think of the stuff as if it were alive and had its own ideas and ambitions. But what if information is inanimate? What if it's even less than inanimate, a mere artifact of human thought? What if only humans are real, and information is not?...Information is alienated experience.
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Back in the 1980s, when the internet was only available to a small number of pioneers, I was often confronted by people who feared that the strange technologies I was working on, like virtual reality, might unleash the demons of human nature. For instance, would people become addicted to virtual reality as if it were a drug? Would they become trapped in it, unable to escape back to the physical world where the rest of us live? Some of the questions were silly, and others were prescient.
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Human beings either function as individuals or as members of a pack. There's a switch inside us, deep in our spirit, that you can turn one way or the other. It's almost always the case that our worst behaviour comes out when we're switched to the mob setting. The problem with a lot of software designs is that they switch us to that setting.
Technologists provide tools that can improve people's lives. But I want to be clear that I don't think technology by itself improves people's lives, since often I'm criticized for being too pro-technology. Unless there's commensurate ethical and moral improvements to go along with it, it's for naught.
The wisdom of crowds works when the crowd is choosing the price of an ox, when there's a single numeric average. But if it's a design or something that matters, the decision is made by committee, and that's crap. You want people and groups who are able to think thoughts before they share.