Category Archives: Technology

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There is no meaningfully superhuman way to install a ceiling fan

In the history of both technology and religion, you find a tension between two competing priorities that lead to two different patterns of problem selection: establishing the technology versus establishing a narrative about the technology. In proselytizing, you have to manage the tension between converting people and helping them with their daily problems. In establishing a religion in places of power, you have to manage a tension between helping the rulers govern, versus getting them to declare your religion as the state religion.

You could say Boundary AI problems are church-building problems. Signaling-and-prayer-offering institutions around which the political power of a narrative can accrete. Even after accounting for Moravec’s paradox (easy for humans is hard for machines/hard for humans is easy for machines), we still tend to pick Boundary AI problems that focus on the theatrical comparison, such as skill at car-driving.

In technology, the conflict between AC and DC witnessed many such PR battles. More recently VHS versus Betamax, Mac versus PC, and Android versus iOS are recognized as essentially religious in part because they are about competing narratives about technologies rather than about the technologies themselves. To claim the “soul” of a technological narrative is to win the market for it. Souls have great brand equity.

A proper brain-hoser of a longread from the latest episode of Venkatesh Rao’s Breaking Smart newsletter*; religion, sociotechnical change, artificial intelligence, societal alienation, ceiling fans. So much to chew on it took me an hour to pick a pull-quote; it is completely typical for Rao to just wander about like this between big-concept topics and find connections and comparisons, which is why I started reading him a long, long time ago.

* It appears you can’t see the latest episode in the archives, presumably until it is no longer the latest episode, because [newsletters]. Drop me a line if you want me to forward the email version on… or just trust me when I say that if you’re intrigued by the pull-quote, you should just subscribe anyway. Not like it’ll cost you anything, beyond a bit of cognitive bandwidth.

“Engineers try to do politics by changing infrastructure.”

From an interview with Fred Turner:

What are the “politics of infrastructure”? What does that phrase mean?

It means several different things. First, it involves the recognition that the built environment, whether it’s built out of tarmac or concrete or code, has political effects. I was joking earlier about reshaping the Forum, but I shouldn’t have joked quite so much, because the fact that the Forum was round encouraged one kind of debate.

Think about an auditorium where someone sits onstage and the audience watches, versus a Quaker meeting where everyone sits in a circle. They’re very different.

So, structure matters. Design is absolutely critical. Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another. How are those constraints built? What are its effects on political life?

To study the politics of infrastructure is to study the political ideas that get built into the design process, and the infrastructure’s impact on the political possibilities of the communities that engage it.

Cited mostly because it’s something of a relief to hear a big-league talking head starting to come round to the ideas that a lot of my colleagues and friends have been working on for about the last decade or so. (But on the basis of personal experience, good luck trying to convince engineers that infrastructure is political; it’s among the discipline’s Great Unthinkables.)

And on that note, here’s a bonus snip from the same piece, on the (perceived?) libertarianism of the Valley:

… I think that the vision of the Valley as a libertarian space is a combination of actual libertarian beliefs held by people like Peter Thiel and a celebration of libertarian ideals by an East Coast press that wants to elevate inventor types. Steve Jobs is the most famous. East Coast journalists want to rejuvenate the American hero myth—and they’re going to find a world to do it in.

In order to make these heroes, however, they have to cut them off from the context that produced them. They can’t tell a context story. They can’t tell a structure story. They have to tell a hero story. Suddenly the heroes themselves look like solo actors who pushed away the world to become the libertarian ideal of an Ayn Rand novel. So I think it’s a collaboration between actually existing tech leaders and the press around a myth.

I have, for quite some time, been inclined to agree.

Unpacking the suitcase words

Half a dozen different people sent me this article for slightly different reasons; one has come to dread the listicle format, but this example is excellent, with every point well worth passing on. My talk in Munich last week was an extensive riff on Clarke’s Third Law, so I’ll not reprise that now; instead, I’ll highlight this bit:

Marvin Minsky called words that carry a variety of meanings “suitcase words.” “Learning” is a powerful suitcase word; it can refer to so many different types of experience. Learning to use chopsticks is a very different experience from learning the tune of a new song. And learning to write code is a very different experience from learning your way around a city.

[…]

Suitcase words mislead people about how well machines are doing at tasks that people can do. That is partly because AI researchers—and, worse, their institutional press offices—are eager to claim progress in an instance of a suitcase concept. The important phrase here is “an instance.” That detail soon gets lost. Headlines trumpet the suitcase word, and warp the general understanding of where AI is and how close it is to accomplishing more.

I hadn’t heard Minsky’s coining before, but I sure as hell know suitcase words when I see them; I tend to call them “hollow signifiers”, myself, but suitcase words is a far better formulation.

I’m less sanguine than Brooks regarding the intentionality of suitcase words, however; I have long been of the opinion, and am increasingly so, that the energetic trumpeting of under-paid, under-trained and under pressure journalists that results in this semiotic inflation is not seen as a bug by the “artificial intelligence” industry, but is in fact seen as (and quite possibly nurtured as) a feature to be relentlessly exploited. This would be why Elon Musk takes every opportunity to position “artificial intelligence” as a potential threat, even as his own companies are sinking billions into R&D programs; so long as people are talking about a suitcase word, whether positively or negatively, said suitcase word becomes a lever for attention, and thus for funding. Sell it as an angel, sell it as a devil… don’t matter how you sell it, so long as you’re selling, right?

A way to sell selling itself

VR/AR is ad-tech. Everything built in studios (except for experimental projects from independent artists) is advertising something. That empathy stuff? That’s advertising for nonprofits. But mostly VR is advertising itself. While MTV was advertising musicians, the scale and creative freedom meant that it launched careers for people like Michel Gondry, Antoine Fuqua, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, etc. A band from a town like Louisville or Tampa could get in touch with a local filmmaker and collaborate on a project and hope that 120 Minutes picks it up. There were entry points like that. And the audience was eager to see something experimental. But a VR audience is primed to have something like a rollercoaster experience, rather than an encounter with the unexpected. The same slimy shapeshifter entrepreneurs that could just as well build martech or chatbots went and colonized the VR space because they have a built in excuse that it took film “fifty years before Orson Wells.” Imagine that. A blank check and a deadline in fifty years.

The always-insightful Joanne McNeil. Everything the Valley does is marketing; that they’re still flogging away at a horse two decades dead tells you everything you need to know about what the word “innovation” really means.