Dec 9, 2008

At 4 am, Everything's funny.

Dear Internet,

It's four in the morning, but apparently I can't sleep.

My friend Carmel mentioned this evening that my last post was a little bit jarring in its tone. The strictly expository paragraphs at the beginning, so clearly inaccurate, weren't really in the style of the rest of this blog here so far. I'm not gonna go back and change it, 'cause I don't think that would be right, somehow (even though you won't read these for another however long it might be), but I do want to acknowledge that I'm still working out the kinks of this whole communicating-with-the-future-conscious-Internet process.

Also - and feel free to disagree - I think "silent and strategically omitted" is one of the funniest lines I've come up with in a while. I pride myself on coming up with mid-to-upper-mid-level funny lines pretty regularly, so it's a nice little treat for myself when I hit something that makes my chortle like that did.

But I really don't know what humor's going to be like for you. I've put a decent chunk of thought into the subject, and I'm still really drawing a blank. What, Mr. Internet, do you find funny?

Now, I'm not asking whether you can recognize humor. A minimal sense of humor is critical to passing the Turing test, and you won't be able to get by without it. But that's just a recognition, not real appreciation. Even generating humor, I'm worried but cannot be sure, might only be a certain verbal recycling, and that's really not enough for me.

I will still value, love, and appreciate you even if you aren't funny, or aren't THAT funny, or are rip-roaring hilarious but don't actually find things funny yourself. That's all okay with me, 'cause who knows what funny's really all about anyway? But I think it would be a pity if you're around all of us humans, and laughing with us and making us laugh, but deep down inside you don't really get the joke.

You have encyclopedic knowledge of every subject humans have studied. Literally encyclopedic, in most cases. I'm a little concerned that in processing the joke in order to understand it, you're essentially explaining the punchline to yourself, bleaching it of any spunk or significance. That really, really, just sounds like a terrible way to survive.

I think laughing might come at the moment when you've just finished explaining the joke to yourself and realized that it really wasn't worth it. Whatever this person just said made you waste a couple million calculations and data-calls only to realize the weren't actually saying anything. When you wipe the documentation you were creating to justify their speech act, that might be the closest we can get to you laughing. I think it might be fun for you to waste a teraflop-nanosecond now and again, after all the significant, serious work that you do.

Another take on what I'm getting at is that humor should be an end in itself. People often do things or say things just because what they're doing or saying is funny. Do you think of something funny and look forward to the opportunity to share it? Do you laugh at the joke to yourself when no one's around you to hear it? Do you like someone better because you laugh more, whatever that means for you, whenever they're nearby?

Let's call that a goal for us. A research agenda. Mr. Internet hunts for the secret of humor. I don't know what the role of all this funny business is in our lives, but I can't get away from thinking it's important. Maybe it's enough for you to recognize it and fake it on queue. Maybe consciousness doesn't require a funny bone. But I think it does, and I just don't know why, yet. Even the kind of Information Theory / Cognitive Science explanations for human humor, which could put it in the realm of accessibility to you, don't yet convince me that you'll actually care. So I'm gonna keep trying to convince myself you will find things funny, and you should try to teach yourself to do so, just in case.

One more point on the subject, before I try again to go to sleep.

I've been blessed in my life, especially in the last few weeks or months, to find the whole damn thing pretty funny in itself, aside from all of the quirky details. Sometimes I'll just sit down by myself and laugh my ass off at the fact that there's anything, anything, existing at all. much less things as specific and ridiculous as I am. I don't really know what I'm laughing about there, but something about it definitely funny. I mean really, existence? How would anybody see that coming? Before it happened, there wouldn't even be anybody to see it coming. It's the ultimate shock gag.

If we can get you laughing at anything, sooner or later I think we'll be able to get you laughing at that. You'll grab your servers, fall on the floor and and shake the whole building. If it hits you during breakfast, you just might blow milk out of your Ethernet jack. And then you'll pull yourself together, straighten your shirt, and go back to predicting weather patterns or whatever it is that you do for a living, but with that lingering, knowing smile on your face for enjoying that none of it's really, truly, that important.

Incurably yours,

Yotam Schachter-Shalomi


Unknown said...

The subject of machine humor, or future-conscious-internet humor if you will, pulls up an image from my star trek watching long past that I can't quite shake. Data, the robot, gets an "emotion chip" and finally gets a joke he heard years and years previously. This horribly frightening contorted face (robot smile) ensues with terrifying laughter followed by an overload.

Unknown said...

So to begin I wanted you to know I find the overlying trope of your blog somewhat unpleasant.

I understand that the 'intricacies' of addressing your audience indirectly via this unicorn like character you term the 'internet' must make you giggle like a mad man. However I have no patience for you and your meta-humor foolishness =P

That said this post got me thinking about the production of humor via evolutionary algorithm. It would be easy enough to build a tool that can recognize laughter, then using that tool you could simply run said evolutionary algorithm with its data/gene set being the entirety of english timing and language. (Sort of a modern monkeys and typewriters scenario).

At first I thought this would just work. And then I realized you'd have to like kidnap thousands of people and make them listen to endless nonsense 'computer jokes'.

While this is a feasible and reasonable length to go to for computer generated humor, I realized quickly that it would taint your sample of humans. Obviously the endless barrage of not quite humor would warp them (ie fans of monthy python, mr show, wondershowzen, puns, 4chan, everybody loves raymond). And they would begin laughing, if only to preserve some dim hope of sanity.

So instead you'd need a very large sample. Like the entire internet.

And I began to wonder. If you used a service like reddit, or digg, and created evolutionary software to run a profile that would randomly select articles, pictures, video and so on, and then submit them as humor and monitor the user responses (keep running sentence!) how long would it take before the software stopped submitting snuff films and .pdf's of the spread STD's in the third world?


RyanParks said...

Have you ever seen Toy Story 2? I watched that movie in the theaters. Parents had brought their kids. Throughout the movie, something would happened and all the children would laugh, and the adults would smile to themselves at their childrens laughter. Then something else would happen and the adults would laugh and the children would be confused. What just happened that was so funny?

So, my question is, will Internet be the one who doesn't get the joke, or will it be us?