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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Part II : Longform day: Think of the children and all the dead people.




People die a lot. Every single person who ever lived, who isn't alive right now, died. And I wouldn't be the first person to think we owe them some respect. They delivered. As an aggregate, they delivered the present humanity. The people of the past, the unbroken chain of cultures, languages, families, etc. are quite specifically what enables you to be you. Without them, you would very likely die within three days - maybe 5. What the dear am I on about? 

A terrible thought experiment: Take 53 or 87 human babies. Raise them individually, alone in a productive forest. No language, nothing extra in the way of habits or technology that could be considered culture - maybe a few cuddles along the way just to keep them from being utterly delayed. Then at the age of 12, bring them all together and leave them alone, together as a group, a proto-tribe. Now consider the possible futures this tribe could create. 

But first, notice a couple of things about yourself. I feel terrible having written the above. I don't even like imagining this scenario. It feels uncomfortable, in humane. It might be the definition of inhumane. If performed in real life, taken word-for-word, this experiment would be considered a crime against humanity, a high crime. And that's something worth noticing. The "harm" done is entirely cultural. If someone asked you "Is the total deprivation of culture a crime?" you might not get such a visceral response. But when we tell the story of what that means, it quickly gets very personal. 

Also notice that we take it for granted that this is "wrong", the "wrong" way to bring up kids. And we're sure of that. People are so sure that their culture "knows" the correct way to bring up children that they will die fighting to protect that culture. I'm not talking "die to protect your family from immanent harm", I'm talking "die to protect the culture your family lives in from change". That happens a lot. 

The crazy thing about this certainty ("my culture has the correct answers") is that everyone knows, understands, agrees that other cultures maintain that they have the answer, and that they have not only the right to exist, but the responsibility to keep it all going. Ritual human sacrifice used to be common. Would we be willing to allow a human in a culture which practices ritual human sacrifice to judge the "right" or the "wrong" of our culture? Would we be willing to allow that person to judge the ethics of my thought experiment? 

Ok, so now that I've laboured the point that there are a lot of different ways to be human, let's get back to our kids. 

Without language, and taken beyond the magical 8th year, it's almost entirely impossible that this group would form a functioning language. They might get as far as some proto-language, grunts and maybe some rhythmic song, but even that would be pretty unlikely. What is likely? Well, they'd probably all die in the first 3 days, ok maybe 5. To be honest, I have a very difficult time predicting anything about these 53 or 87 kids. It's almost impossible to understand what it means to have a large group of humans without any language, without any culture. It's like trying to imagine a group of bonobos without any instincts. Even if we exclude predators and illness, accidental death and/or starvation can't be far away - not to mention just raw violence. 

Violence is one of the things we do have. The brain stem has a few tricks we don't need to learn. It would be these brain stem behaviours which would probably take over and drive any actions. But that begs the question of the rest of the brain; given a bunch of spare time, but bereft of any organised education, what would all that extra grey stuff being "doing"?

Keep in mind that at any point in recent human history or future we could manufacture a group of people like this. It would only take 15 years. In 15 years we could have an actual group of pre-language, pre-tools, pre-culture sapiens. Unethical? You bet (to you and me). Globally unethical?  I wonder. 

So that thought experiment is meant to show how deep and how wide is our dependance on our ancestors. Did they do everything right? Did they commit inhumane crimes? Should we wear a black armband looking back at their hubris or pride or ambition? No, yes, I don't know. The point is, as well or as poorly as they did it, they delivered. There's been a long and uninterrupted relay of "human" going on for a million years (see the recent find in Wonderwerk Cave, humans at least using, if not starting, fire a million years ago). That's heavy. A million. That's roughly five thousand times longer than Australia has been called Australia. And if you think about the type of change that's been made in the last 200 years; compared to a million years of using the same stone tools, 200 years is a blink. So for a million years people kept the fire of culture burning before language took off, writing developed and etc. 

That roughly means that every person is dependant upon (admittedly in a highly redundant and complex way) every human who has ever lived for sustaining at least that base of culture and possibly adding to it. Without this, we are not recognisable as any of the things we so value. I hope I have reduced your individualism just a little. I think individualism may have gotten out of hand in the last couple decades. I agree it's important that we strive to deliver liberty to individuals, but I don't agree that the liberty comes for free. 

Who cares? 

A tried and true individualist does not care all too much about the plight of the people of the future. They don't care to consider the importance of cohesion in the group. I'd point you to a somewhat brilliant talk by Bruce Sterling which boils down to "if your dead great-grandpa can do it better than you, don't do it. There's plenty of time to be doing it as good as him when you're dead, forever." So please stop "saving" water. You'll do it orders of magnitude better when you're dead. You will save so much water after you die, it's difficult to imagine. http://video.reboot.dk/video/486788/bruce-sterling-reboot-11  . The other side of what Sterling says is that there is an imperative on excellence. He asks us to use lots of resources in excellent ways, towards a betterment. So this is where the subjective weighs in heavily. As individuals we are asked to determine highly energetic paths towards "better", or at least to not be shy about using resources in an effort towards "progress". 

At this point I'll cut loose this argument, and fall back on stuff I've previously written about the importance of a common-human-goal being in alignment with the laws of the universe (entropy). Instead, I'll take up a prediction. 

Prediction so close to the coming singularity is a fools errand, or so you can read in many places. The very discipline of consideration of the future is going through a funk. You can read about it:


But I don't care about all that. I'm prepared, again, to take a punt. And I do it for a couple reasons. One reason is that I want to get on record before it happens, so I can say "see, told you so." The other reason is to compare and contrast in a way that Bellah does between "axial vs modern", the here-and-now vs the ever-after, today vs any significant version-roll of tomorrow. So where we can see the difference between caveman and classical man, then followed by a difference in "modern" man, what is the core difference future man will obtain? And if I can say what it is, why isn't it here now. 

Language. That's the word. It's the idea which defines so much of what Bellah chronicles. Key components of the consideration of language are written vs. spoken. There is a big difference between pre-linguistic and linguistic cultures. There's an arguably bigger difference between spoken-language and written-language cultures. And in both cases, there are long periods of time of transition; long periods where the full leverage of the innovation had not been realized or had not reached a certain critical mass (written language died in ancient Greece at one point, only to be reborn after a long dark age). 

Now I'd like to note two pieces of trivia Bellah gives us about early reading and writing: 
1. Reading silently, alone, is a more recent invention than reading itself. For a long time, reading was always done aloud. 
2. Writing and reading pre-date "theory, analysis, criticism, formal logic, and fiction(?!)). People spent a long long time using writing only to count goats, and then moved to verbatim copy of spoken poetry much later. 

With those tid-bits in mind, consider computer programming. Well, we consider this linguistic activity "computer programming", but is that at all an accurate description of its potential? Or is naming this activity "computer programming" akin to calling writing "counting goats"? What I mean to say is that currently we've got a constrained interface (think clay tablet and sharp stick) to a potentially rich domain of communication, an extensive domain of idea. We're currently in a "just the tip" regime of intercourse with what I propose will develop into a fuller penetration into thought. 

There are currently several brain-computer interfaces in development. There is currently a great deal of research being done in the area of mapping "mind" to brain. In the next 20-50 years I propose the map will be complete enough to get an effective interface commercially available. What do I mean by effective? Well, today if you go into your browser and "search" for let's say an image of a red 1978 Ford Pinto Wagon, you can find it. That's amazing! It's incredible! But will you find the wagon you had in mind? Because, if you're searching for it, you probably have an image "in mind". With an "effective" interface to the computer, I propose that the image you have in mind will be available on the screen (and by "the screen" I probably mean any level of "real" just short of material you want it to be - for example you'd be able to experience getting in, smelling it, feeling it, driving it). An "effective" mind-computer interface will be bi-directional and multi-dimensional.

(update on brain to brain interface Nov 2014: http://www.washington.edu/news/2014/11/05/uw-study-shows-direct-brain-interface-between-humans/  : somewhat controversial because there are a lot of brain to brain interfaces, such as talking and reading - as you're doing now. )

So let's get some of the more trivial future-casting stuff out of the way. Yes you'd be able to do lots of cool immersive stuff derived from physical experiences in the world, modifying your reality towards some physical-cyber balance. Some people will get lost in the cyber, some people will reject it all violently. And then there will be a "normal" middle-ground. The normals will have their children, and their children will begin life having never known anything less than the ability to get inside the memory and processing power of whatever we call this, although it must be networked, so the network. Some within the normal range you'll find, either driven by competition or by distraction, parents putting kids on the network at younger and younger ages. When that age drifts under 8, we get a real possibility of a natural language being developed on the network, of the network. 

So now, instead of "consumers" of "apps" or browsers of the network you'll see a sort of natural-language expression emerge on the network. And this is where we get moving towards a full expression of the potential of what we've tipped open in the internet. Now the human minds become "valves" or guides to a wide and deep resource comprising memory, processor power, logic, and content. This is where my, your, pretty much anyone's imagination starts to fail. And this is that moment where we move into a "next" age. This would put us in the position of an average ancient Egyptian transported through time to today's downtown Cairo. 

So where I mentioned earlier about "reading silently" and the purpose to which writing was initially put, I'm suggesting that there will be a further extension of language beyond reading and writing in a spoken language. There will be an extension to what we call "programming" today, but where programming today is done to "count goats", a more linguistically natural activity will be used to conduct culture. What that culture becomes, what it looks like is well beyond our horizon, but I'm sure we can use previous age-transitions to guess (for what it's worth). 

Now that we've gotten this far out, let's look back. Initially we took 53 or 87 kids and didn't provide them with culture. And that was uncomfortable. Jump 90 years into my network future and suggest a thought experiment where we deprive 53 or 87 children of the network. Today to deprive your kids of TV or computers is looked at a bit sideways by many. What would it mean to prevent your kids from learning the language of their peers, of the network when that becomes a primary driver of cultural value? (and if you say that what you consider "virtual" could not become dominant to what you consider "physical", it's already happened. Aboriginal Australians have a notion of "dreamtime" as the primary reality.) It's difficult to get your head around if you're not born into it, but human culture has that funny attribute about it that at once defines "reality" while not actually being reality. So there's almost no use in getting hung up on this "physical/virtual" divide that's so popularly held. 

>>it's late,  the end.

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