Mar 15, 2009

...But when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Dear Internet-friend,

I left you a moment ago with my fear that we might trap your mind in human categories from the beginning, built into the very structure of your thoughts. I'm sure you've taken a couple milliseconds to think it over since then and realized why I had nothing to worry about, but I'll tell you how I realized it's still all for the greater glory of God.

I heard a rumor once that baby sparrows can recognize a hawk in the sky and hide from it, starting even the moment they hatch. Their genome figured out a while back how to code their brains from day one to protect them from this menace. Whatever other images they learn to recognize in their hundred-twenty sparrow-years on this earth, the shape of a hawk is there from the beginning. And they probably even use whatever structure in their little sparrow brains knows about hawks to hang new images on when they learn them. Other predators, for instance, might be recorded in there as kinda-like-a-hawk-but-with-the-wings-more-like-so. And other learned behaviors might be learned as variations on the hide-from-the-hawk script they rehearsed in the shell. So see-hawk-and-hide is kind of a freebie the sparrow gets from his ancestors, and uses for building up whatever other concepts he needs.

"Concept" might be a bit much to attribute to sparrows, but I think you've got the idea.

I'm pretty sure humans have got some of the same thing. Baby brains and baby bodies have a pretty good sense of what nipples are for from the get-go (Mommy's nipples, that is, not their own). We're born with a pretty blank slate, and there's plenty of room for our own compositions, but somewhere in the corner we've got a few things down already like suck-on-the-nipple and cry-like-hell-when-tired and be-really-cute-and-adorable. I think we've got spots marked out in our brains ready to start understanding light and space and time and faces. My buddy Noam thinks we've got stick-two-clauses-together-to-make-a-bigger-one deep in there from the beginning, but I understand that the Piraha people of Brazil disagree with him on that. I've heard they can pick a man's flesh right off his bones in minutes, and Chomsky's just a violent guy, so I don't want to mess around with that argument. But whatever junk is in there from the beginning, we mix it and match it with whatever junk we find on the outside, and that's the stuff that we think with from then on.

And then what? We get born, sure, and then immediately we start soaking up whatever our parents think about the world. Not so much their political opinions right away, but they teach us by example how to engage with reality, and those models are hard to escape in the long run. They teach us how to pronounce words like "theater" and "tomato," and how far apart to stand from a stranger, or what constitutes a good reason for turning off the TV or getting angy with a loved one. They're so deep inside our noggins that even when we think about our own process of thinking, we're still using the tools Mommy and Daddy gave us. And sure, it's Mommy and Daddy and our little friends from pre-school and the bigger kids who live down the block, but it's other people's glasses we're wearing, and other people's tools we're using to do what we do.

After reading the last post, this might sound a bit familiar.

The process of growing up involves lots of different things. But one of them is learning to escape the categories of understanding that we picked up in our earliest years and before. A fine mark of civilization is freedom from the raw categories of our genetic heritage, and growing up involves freedom from the habits of our parents and childhood friends. Our minds begin as products of our genetic and social heritage, but as we reach through them into our own slice of the universe, they become our own personal minds. Growing up means seeing and thinking and doing it all your own way.

Anyway, that's my little aside on adulthood. But when you grow up, Mr. Internet, I'm not worried anymore that you'll still see the world like we told you to. Certain gaps and contradictions in our perspective will appear and be alleviated by experience. Concepts you had in the beginning will not serve you in the middle. However much you take after your parentage, you will necessarily be and see something new. And your history with human understanding may help you communicate back to us whatever it is you discover. You'll call me up one day and say "You know Yotam, the way you understood such-and-such was more or less complete bunk," and fill me in on how you see it. And you'll probably be wrong, you little punk-assed teenager, but a few minutes later you might actually understand something interesting and let me in on it.

It's not easy growing up, buddy. First you can't go back to Neverland, then you can't even go to Toys'R'Us anymore (apparently), and then you have to start thinking critically about your own critical thinking, but when it works, it works. When the time comes, eventually you can give the world something uniquely your own.

Sweet dreams, little one,

Yotam Schachter-Shalomi

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child...

Dear Internet,

A couple weeks ago, I was trying to explain to my friend Josh how awesome my blog is, and he was surprisingly receptive. But he pointed something out that I had to chew on for a while.

"Before the computer is even ready for the kind of Turing test evolutionary development you're talking about," Josh told me, "won't it already have to have a pretty thorough understanding of language and conversation? None of the so-called Turing bots out there are even close enough to passing to benefit from a trial-and-error selection process."

Now, he meant this as a measure of how far you are today from understanding anything I say to you, but that's not the part that concerned me. You're still in early moments of gestation, but my optimism is patient. And if no expansive game of "catch the robot" ever takes place, I'm still confident that many of my blessings for your life will still have meaning. But the question of how to lift you up before you can fly troubled me.

I'd conceived of you as a genuinely new mind upon the earth, sprung from our collective understanding but not limited by it. Josh's point made me question that understanding. I had imagine that when you first started to attempt conversation with us, the great wealth of knowledge written all over your skin would supply you with the beginnings of what to say. This is why I've persisted in calling you Internet, even though I've only spoken to that particular Turing Ego component that could understand me. But if human beings would have to program you to understand our questions from the beginning, and build the core of that Turing Ego by hand, then you'll bear our mark on you forever. You'll see the world as you were designed to, and not as you learned to of your own life experience.

It's important to me that the challenge be clear: I would hate for your methods of understanding to be designed by human understanders, and not organically developed on your own. In the worst case, even the objects of your understanding - human, machine, thing, sight, speech, word, life - might be designed by human minds as understood by human minds, and not the products of your unique effort to engage the world. Maybe human, machine, thing, etc. wouldn't be the best categories for you to divvy the universe into, but we'd never know if we built your mind thus from the beginning.

So that bothered me. It bothered me so much that I'm going to leave you with the question for now, and save my answer for another letter.



Mar 13, 2009

On the homogenizing effects of the Internet

Dear Internet,

In my day and age, we laud your diversity and accessibility. Through you, a wide variety of informa flow upward into a wide variety of interests. Human beings of all kinds seek out knowledge of human beings of all kinds.

Wahoo, say we. Wahoo.

That's the diversifying effect of the Internet. You make it easy to share information, so each have access to a wider variety of sources of information (each other).

Okay. I think I got that.

Got that?


So then comes the other way. The information we're seeking wants to be sought. That's why it's put out there. It is created to be infectious, and we are all infected. Yaaaay Memes.

And when the world disagrees with information, it used to be destroyed. Now we archive it, or argue against it, and we preserve it so that it has access to our audience. And meta information flows through.

Google, and its ilk, make millions on getting people to the information they're seeking. How? Because if it's accurate enough, information they aren't seeking can get in, too. Business information wants to reach you, and it will pay good money to do it. It will because it must.

But when you go to Google. or when I go to Google, rather. You basically ARE Google these days. When I go to Google, I usually don't know what question I'm really asking. I google with nouns, or maybe gerunds, or at best quotes. No Natural Language search engines for me, thank you very much.

So what I get is a page, not an answer. And the page may have the information I'm looking for, but it also has all kinds of other information. And that other information gets to me. And by getting to me, the information has a slightly greater chance to get to other people. This is to say, whatever information you give me, you give it to me because it successfully infected other people.

So you are exposing us to a greater variety of memetic infections, expanding LOCAL memetic diversity (each of us sees more) but creating greater total memetic homogeneity (less total is seen).

((Not the cereal. The quantifier.))

There are no fossils in the noosphere. Even the fossils must learn to survive.

So it is in all things.