Posts Tagged ‘James Lindsay’

Although I’m not paying much attention to breathless reports about imminent strong AI, the Singularity, and computers already able to “model” human cognition and perform “impressive” feats of creativity (e.g., responding to prompts and creating “artworks” — scare quotes intended), recent news reports that chatbots are harassing, gaslighting, and threatening users just makes me laugh. I’ve never wandered over to that space, don’t know how to connect, and don’t plan to test drive for verification. Isn’t it obvious to users that they’re interacting with a computer? Chatbots are natural-language simulators within computers, right? Why take them seriously (other than perhaps their potential effects on children and those of diminished capacity)? I also find it unsurprising that, if a chatbot is designed to resemble error-prone human cognition/behavior, it would quickly become an asshole, go insane, or both. (Designers accidentally got that aspect right. D’oh!) That trajectory is a perfect embodiment of the race to the bottom of the brain stem (try searching that phrase) that keeps sane observers like me from indulging in caustic online interactions. Hell no, I won’t go.

The conventional demonstration that strong AI has arisen (e.g., Skynet from the Terminator movie franchise) is the Turing test, which is essentially the inability of humans to distinguish between human and computer interactions (not a machine-led extermination campaign) within limited interfaces such as text-based chat (e.g., the dreaded digital assistance that sometimes pops up on websites). Alan Turing came up with the test at the outset of computing era, so the field was arguably not yet mature enough to conceptualize a better test. I’ve always thought the test actually demonstrates the fallibility of human discernment, not the arrival of some fabled ghost in the machine. At present, chatbots may be fooling no one into believing that actual machine intelligence is present on the other side of the conversation, but it’s a fair expectation that further iterations (i.e., ChatBot 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, etc.) will improve. Readers can decide whether that improvement will be progress toward strong AI or merely better ability to fool human interlocutors.

Chatbots gone wild offer philosophical fodder for further inquiry into ebbing humanity as the drive toward trans- and post-human technology continue refining and redefining the dystopian future. What about chatbots make interacting with them hypnotic rather than frivolous — something wise thinkers immediately discard or even avoid? Why are some humans drawn to virtual experience rather than, say, staying rooted in human and animal interactions, our ancestral orientation? The marketplace already rejected (for now) the Google Glass and Facebook’s Meta resoundingly. I haven’t hit upon satisfactory answers to those questions, but my suspicion is that immersion in some vicarious fictions (e.g., novels, TV, and movies) fits well into narrative-styled cognition while other media trigger revulsion as one descends into the so-called Uncanny Valley — an unfamiliar term when I first blogged about it though it has been trending of late.

If readers want a really deep dive into this philosophical area — the dark implications of strong AI and an abiding human desire to embrace and enter false virtual reality — I recommend a lengthy 7-part Web series called “Mere Simulacrity” hosted by Sovereign Nations. The episodes I’ve seen feature James Lindsay and explore secret hermetic religions operating for millennia already alongside recognized religions. The secret cults share with tech companies two principal objectives: (1) simulation and/or falsification of reality and (2) desire to transform and/or reveal humans as gods (i.e., ability to create life). It’s pretty terrifying stuff, rather heady, and I can’t provide a reasonable summary. However, one takeaway is that by messing with both human nature and risking uncontrollable downstream effects, technologists are summoning the devil.

Ask parents what ambitions they harbor for their child or children and among the most patterned responses is “I just want them to be happy.” I find such an answer thoughtless and disingenuous, and the insertion of the hedge just to make happiness sound like a small ask is a red herring. To begin with, for most kids still in their first decade, happiness and playfulness are relatively effortless and natural so long as a secure, loving environment is provided. Certainly not a default setting, but it’s still quite commonplace. As the dreamy style of childhood cognition is gradually supplanted by supposedly more logical, rational, adult thinking, and as children become acquainted with iniquities of both history and contemporary life, innocence and optimism become impossible to retain. Cue the sullen teenager confronting the yawning chasm between desire and reality. Indeed, few people seem to make the transition into adulthood knowing with much clarity how to be happy in the midst of widespread travail and suffering. Instead, young adults frequently substitute self-destructive, nihilistic hedonism, something learned primarily (says me) from the posturing of movie characters and the celebrities who portray them. (Never understood the trope of criminals hanging at nightclubs, surrounded by drug addicts, nymphos, other unsavory types, and truly awful music, where they can indulge their assholery before everything inevitably goes sideways.)

Many philosophies recommend simplicity, naturalness, and independence as paths to happiness and moral rectitude. Transcendentalism was one such response to social and political complexities that spoil and/or corrupt. Yet two centuries on, the world has only gotten more and more complex, pressing on everyone especially for information processing in volume and sophistication that does not at all come naturally to most and is arguably not part of our evolutionary toolkit. Multiple social issues, if one is to engage them fairly, hinge on legalistic arguments and bewildering wordplay that render them fundamentally intractable. Accordingly, many waive away all nuance and adopt pro forma attitudes. Yet the airwaves, social media, the Internet, and even dinner conversations are suffused by the worst sorts of hypercomplexity and casuistry that confound even those who traffic regularly in such rhetoric. It’s a very long way from “I just want to be happy.”


Fantasies and delusions rush into the space
that reason has vacated in fear of its life.

—James Howard Kunstler

Since I first warned that this blog post was forthcoming, conditions of modern American life we might have hoped would be resolved by now remain intransigently with us. Most are scrambling to adjust to the new normal: no work (for tens of millions), no concerts, no sports (except for events staged for the camera to be broadcast later), little or no new cinema (but plenty of streaming TV), no school or church (except for abysmal substitutes via computer), no competent leadership, and no end in sight. The real economy swirls about the drain despite the fake economy (read: the stock market a/k/a the Richistan economy) having first shed value faster than ever before in history then staged a precipitous taxpayer-funded, debt-fueled recovery only to position itself for imminent resumption of its false-started implosion. The pandemic ebbed elsewhere then saw its own resumption, but not in the U.S., which scarcely ebbed at all and now leads the world in clownish mismanagement of the crisis. Throughout it all, we extend and pretend that the misguided modern age isn’t actually coming to a dismal close, based as it is on a consumption-and-growth paradigm that anyone even modestly numerically literate can recognize is, um, (euphemism alert) unsustainable.

Before full-on collapse (already rising over the horizon like those fires sweeping across the American West) hits, however, we’ve got unfinished business: getting our heads (and society) right regarding which of several competing ideologies can or should establish itself as the righteous path forward. That might sound like the proverbial arranging of deck chairs on the RMS Titanic, but in an uncharacteristically charitable moment, let me suggest that righting things before we’re done might be an earnest obligation even if we can’t admit openly just how close looms the end of (human) history. According to market fundamentalists, corporatists, and oligarchs, Socialism and Marxism, or more generally collectivism, must finally have a stake driven through its undead heart. According to radical progressives, Black Lives Matter, and Antifa, fascism and racism, or more generally intolerance, deserve to be finally stamped out, completing the long arc of history stalled after the Civil Rights Era. And according to barely-even-a-majority-anymore whites (or at least the conservative subset), benefits and advantages accrued over generations, or more generally privilege, must be leveraged, solidified, and maintained lest the status quo be irretrievably lost. Other factions no doubt exist. Thus, we are witnessing a battle royale among narratives and ideologies, none of which IMO crystallize the moment adequately.

Of those cited above, the first and third are easy to dismiss as moribund and self-serving. Only the second demonstrates any concern for the wellbeing of others. However, and despite its putative birthplace in the academy, it has twisted itself into pretzel logic and become every bit as intolerant as the scourges it rails against. Since I need a moniker for this loose, uncoordinated network of movements, I’ll refer to them as the Woke Left, which signifies waking up (i.e., being woke) to injustice and inequity. Sustained analysis of the Woke Left is available from James Lindsay through a variety of articles and interviews (do a search). Lindsay demonstrates handily how the Woke Left’s principle claims, often expressed through its specialized rhetoric called Critical Theory, is actually an inversion of everything it pretends to be. This body of thought has legitimate historical and academic lineage, so it’s arguable that only its most current incarnation in the Woke Left deserves scorn.

Two recently published books exemplify the rhetoric of the Woke Left: White Fragility (2018) by Robin DiAngelo and How to Be an Antiracist (2019) by Ibram Kendi. Although I’ve read neither book, I’m aware of numerous scathing reviews that point out fundamental problems with the books and their authors’ arguments. Foremost among them is what’s sometimes called a Kafka trap, a Catch-22 because all avenues of argument lead inescapably toward guilt, typically some form of original sin. Convinced they are on the righteous right side of history, Woke Left protesters and agitators have been harassing and physically threatening strangers to demand support for the cause, i.e., compliance. What cause is a good question, considering a coherent program has yet to be articulated. Forcing others to choose either side of a false binary — with us or against us — is madness, but that’s the cultural moment at which we’ve arrived. Everyone must align their ideology with some irrational narrative while being put at risk of cancellation and/or destruction no matter what alignment is ventured.

If things go south badly on the heels of contested election results this fall as many expect — the pump already primed for such conflict — and a second civil war ensues, I rather expect the Woke Left to be the first to fail and the other two, each representing the status quo (though different kinds), to be in an extended battle for control of whatever remains of the union. I can’t align with any of them, since by my lights they’re all different kinds of crazy. Sorta makes ya wonder, taking history as an indicator, if a fourth or fifth faction won’t appear before it’s a wrap. I don’t hold out any hope for any faction steering us competently through this crisis.