Archive for February, 2011

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Welcome To the Machine

February 28, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

A student of Ernest Becker could not help but be intrigued by the recent Time cover story, “2045-The Year Man Becomes Immortal.” It turns out that the Time article was a celebratory treatment of the concept of Singularity, defined as “the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.”  Right next to it on the bookstore shelf was the issue of The Atlantic Monthly whose cover story was entitled “Why Machines Will Never Beat The Human Mind.” My inner Stephen Stills whispered, “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” All of this was against the backdrop of the decisive Jeopardy victory over two human champions by a computer named Watson. I decided to investigate.

While a rupture may sound negative to most, to the community of Singulatarians it represents a new universe of possibility. By tracking the rate of technological advancement, they project that by the mid 2020’s intelligent machines will be creating even more intelligent machines and artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence.  Interestingly, the proponents admit that it is impossible to predict what all this will mean and that the future is unknown. While the article contains dystopian visions, the Singulatarians on balance tend to have more utopian visions and in any case, they claim the die is cast and that Singularity will occur regardless.  Part of the utopian vision is contained in the following scenario: “The human genome becomes just so much code to be bug-tested and optimized and, if necessary, rewritten. Indefinite life extension becomes a reality; people die only if they wish to.  Death loses its sting once and for all.” The Die is not only cast, it is cast aside.

By contrast, the Atlantic article “Mind vs. Machine” fairly bubbles with anxiety over the prospect that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence. A good deal of the article focuses on the yearly attempt by programmers to pass the Turing test, wherein a human would be unable to tell if he or she was communicating with another human or with a machine. The author, Brian Christian, participated in the most recent Turing Test because, after a computer almost won in 2008, “…a steely voice rose up inside me: Not on my watch.”  He concludes his piece by saying that the most significant Turing test will be the one that occurs after a machine finally fools the human. “The one where we humans, knocked to the canvas, must pull ourselves up. The one where we learn how to be better friends, artists, teachers, parents, lovers; the one where we come back. More human than ever.”

What are we to make of all this?  It seems clear that a new form of anxiety is on the rise, an anxiety grounded in an uncertain techno-mediated existence. Having been pushed off our mythological center stage in the universe, it seems the machines are indicating there’s not even space for us in the green room! There may be an interesting paradox unfolding here.  The Atlantic article features “The Sentence” which reads as follows: The human is the only creature that _____________________ .

Machines have progressively debunked various answers to “The Sentence” as their capabilities have expanded. What if the answer to “The Sentence” is “The human is the only creature that experiences anxiety?” What if the curse of the human dilemma, which Becker so brilliantly explains, is actually a blessing? What if our mortal anxiety is that which separates us from our immortal creations? I’m still not sure what to make of all this. I’ll Google the answer and get back to you.

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If Corporations Are Persons, What Does That Make Us?

February 24, 2011

"Normal Dan" Daniel Liechty

Normaldan here. I found myself eavesdropping yesterday on a heated discussion at the student center here on campus about the January 2010 Supreme Court decision, “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.” The students involved in this discussion were well versed in the issues, and I learned a lot listening in. Although the general idea of “legal person” applied to corporate entities has a long history in western legal tradition, its employment has been mainly to limit the ability of corporations to escape accountability for their actions–most specifically it has upheld the right of those harmed by the actions of corporations to sue, as they would a person. So while it is often repeated in the popular press that the “Citizens United” decision granted “personhood” to corporations, that is not quite true. What this decision did do is to move the concept of corporate personhood into new territory, beyond the “negative” area of liability. By underlining a corporation’s right to “free speech,” this decision radically moves the concept of corporate personhood, including “positive” human rights, possibly even Constitutional protections as spelled out in the Bill of Rights and later amendments.

Reflecting on what I was hearing, a few thoughts came to mind. It initially just seems crazy to think that corporations could really be seen as persons in the fullest sense. After all, corporations don’t think, introspect, wax poetic, fall in love, or much of anything else that we commonly associate with ourselves as persons. What, are these guys crazy (guys, period–the 5-4 decision had only men in the majority.) But then again, these are all aspects of our lives more or less confined to the private sphere. What about our “public personhood,” that is, our engagement in meaningful citizenship? The line this Court is pushing suggests that full personhood applies to corporations as actors in the public sphere.

Although I in no way support the Court’s decision, at least through this lens the logic begins to fall into place. Over the past 40 years, we have become a nation whose “common sense” reflects fee-market ideology almost exclusively. As such, our own images of public lives, our notions of meaningful collective citizenship, has been systematically truncated (“there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families,” is how one free-market ideologue characterized the social contract) and our sense of public personhood, along with the positive rights that undergird it, have been reduced to market-driven rights of property ownership, of business and trade (as entrepreneur or consumers) and of suing and being sued in court. All else is relegated to the private sphere and made irrelevant, even positively out of place, in the public square.

In this light, in the “Citizens United” decision, perhaps the Supreme Court majority did not so much expand the notion of public personhood to include corporations, as it did simply to acknowledge and ensconce in the law of the land the fact that our society and culture has so narrowed the scope and meaning of public personhood that there is no longer any clear reason not to include corporations as well under this blunted and truncated umbrella.

And of all the issues this case brings up, that one, I think, is the most troubling of all.

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The Denial Smile

February 15, 2011

"K1F" Kirby Farrell

The first media photos of Jared Loughner after his rampage in Tucson showed a sunny, poignantly ordinary teenager. But as shock sank in, a new mugshot accompanied the story, showing the murderer with shaved head and an eerie smile. Journalists plastered it about like a circus poster. The smile was uncanny. Was it malicious? Deranged? Childishly pleased? Its prominence has something to tell us about denial.

In the New York Times, Frank Rich saw denial at work in the media focus solely on the gunman’s motives, which blocked attention to the vitriolic atmosphere in the nation that has been pumped up by talk media rant and pit bull politicians. On this level, denial works by blocking a feeling of responsibility of even guilt for an angry atmosphere.  It also soothes fears of living in a world whose anger is beyond one’s control.  For journalists, this sort of denial enables them to avoid retaliation from angry public voices that can and do attack when criticized.

That sort of retaliation is strategic denial: “Don’t blame me.  I’m not hostile.”  Sarah Palin, for example, claimed that the rifle cross-hairs that her website used to target Congresswoman Giffords’ district were really just a harmless surveyor’s transit.  When that excuse flopped, Palin lashed out, claiming that criticism of her hostility was a “blood libel.”  As a last resort, her staff told the media, without evidence or involving the police, that Palin was now also a victim of death threats.

But this is where denial gets really interesting.  The retaliation implies a deeper, less conscious level of denial.  Rebuke of someone like the “pit bull hockey mom” threatens her survival as a charismatic public figure.  In effect, the rebuke can be felt as a reminder or even threat of death.  And as Ernest Becker argued, reminders of death, however conscious, spur us to lash out.

In rampage killers such as Jared Loughner this force is magnified. Workers who “go postal” are usually acting out symbolic survival fears.  As in military slang, to be “terminated” is to be killed. Whether it comes from outside in the workplace or from inner distress, the rampage killer’s grievances are rooted in fear of being canceled out.

Think of Jared Loughner trying to dramatize his life by posing for photos in a G-string with 9-mm bullets tattooed on his back and a pistol on his hip. You could say he stripped down to deny his troubled everyday self.  But the denial was driving an irresistible fantasy of being larger than life and attacking a threatening world.  He was gambling his life, and it was a desperate all-or-nothing gamble.  The photos show either either a heroic avenger saving the world or a doomed nobody.

Posing, Loughner was symbolically making himself a weapon.  No more conflicts, no more fears.  Just pure force.  I am a bullet. But following the murders, in a similar reflex, people rushed to buy guns and ammo. The trigger finger masters all threats. It’s a fantasy of course. A bystander at the scene in Tucson confessed that only sheer luck kept him from mistakenly shooting another bystander with a drawn gun. Tellingly, he was afraid to draw his pistol for fear of being mistaken for the gunman and shot.

It would be hard to exaggerate this mirroring.

Media laments Loughner’s “senseless” violence. But who isn’t tempted by the dream? The nation dreams of being “the world’s policeman.” The airwaves are choked with wannabe talkshow heroes and primetime fictional heroes pumping up outrage at “enemies”  And the audiences are avidly tuned in.

We emphasize Loughner’s delusions.  He argued that the government is sinister and, without a gold standard, debasing the currency.  He feared that like paper money, all words are artificial and losing their meaning. To friends he described the way dreaming and waking were blurring together in his mind.

These are fears that the ground of things is dissolving, as in schizophrenia. Yet denial keeps us from recognizing that these symptoms are also distorted versions of widely held beliefs. Government does routinely subvert words – we call it “spin.”  In the financial press “goldbugs” take for granted that the government is deliberately cheapening the dollar to escape from the nation’s unprecedented debt.  And as the movies and pop song lyrics remind us, life always has dreamlike qualities.

Since Jared Loughner was unemployed and adrift, with a darkening future, he was sharing in the stress felt by many others in this brutal economy. Beset by illness, withdrawn, he faced social death. Lashing out at the world, he was proving he was alive, that he mattered.

And of course he was influenced.  Like the Columbine duo and many other copycat berserkers, he knew that sensational murder would compel the world’s attention. If you fear that your self is disintegrating, you can be sure that a sensational crime will make the world define you. In the global spotlight fame will make you real. If you die in the attack, better to go out in a blaze of glory than to sink alone into terrified, helpless madness.

Fear of death and futility is uniquely human.  No other creature is haunted as we are by the awareness of death.  You can see this basic fear in the public’s overwhelming focus on Gabrielle Giffords’ survival while screening out the reality of the grave cognitive damage she may have suffered. Still, how we react to that basic fear varies a lot.  Some people mourned by lighting candles, while others stocked up on ammunition.

As history shows, people who feel threatened are apt to lash out.

This is one way of understanding why audiences are drawn to figures who pump up their outrage.  Like the troubled rampage killer’s seething, a daily dose of anger can relieve depression and anxiety. Pumping up your nervous system converts flight into fight, and turns gloom into feelgood indignation.  Seen this way, rant radio and vindictive politics are mood drugs. Their followers are self-medicating, taking a daily dose of anger as a stimulant like caffeine or a release from inhibitions like alcohol.

Some rampage killers have openly acknowledged the influence of rant media. Why should it surprise us? Listeners are hearing disembodied voices in the air that urge them to heroic outrage against enemies. And the brilliance of the program is that it’s advertising enjoyable, guilt-free, righteous rage.  Heroic rage.

That is, until someone actually murders innocent people in a schoolroom or a supermarket.

The point is not that we’re all rampage killers. Nor do we need to claim that rant directly causes a particular rampage. Rather, denial shows us how, under stress, some of us will use the ideas and passions around us to make a story we can act on. You could be excused for thinking that reducing stress would be better policy than pumping up outrage.  More investment in healthy heroism:  education, employment, [your favorite here], less in trigger-finger heroics.

In an underemployed nation that’s stripped down to its G-string at home and is paying for history’s most expensive weapons, that’s a policy that cries out for attention.