The future has arrived. Have you looked away from the Internet recently, taken a gander out there at what passes for the real world these days? If not, you’d better take a look.
Some oddly premature future has arrived while you were posting cute cats and inspirational quotes on Facebook. What we generally think of as the present has been skewed, bumped off-center and ahead of its time into a sci-fi realm that’s fast becoming commonplace reality (not to mention fast evolving into even screwier realities we can only guess at). It’s scary.
A case in point: I’ve just now caught myself responding emotionally to our new HomeBot. This snazzy robotic vacuum cleaner carries two on-board cameras and maps the territory it’s expected to clean, learning from experience and doing its job faster as it gets the lay of the land. Sara loves it, though she grants it certain limitations. On earlier test runs, for instance, she parked the dining-room chairs up on the table to avoid confusing our little home helper and to give it more room to maneuver.
But what good is all this hi-tech gimcrackery, if I’ve still got to do some work? So this morning I chose to leave the chairs on the floor. A bit later I was in my office composing deathless prose when I hear something like a zombie bumper-car rally out in the dining room. In reality it was our HomeBot — it was trapped in a labyrinth of chairlegs. A wee shiver ran up my spine as I watched this simple machine, which so much resembled a curling stone, displaying something very like sentience as it tried to find its way clear. It had taken to methodically going this way and bumping into a leg, then that way and bumping into another leg, and then another way. Again and again, it came very close to discovering a clear run out toward the kitchen. Except it always missed the exit by a couple of inches, only to take up the whole search routine all over again. Caught up in its quest, I found myself sharing its frustration. (Not to mention all this was easier than writing.)
“You moron,” I hollered at it. “There. Just to your left. ... No! You idiot.”
Bear in mind I’m talking to a mechanical vacuum cleaner.
Anyway, before I had to intervene, it worked things out for itself. Not quite a moron. And what did it do then? Having escaped from under the table, it performed a couple of victory turns out there in the open, spun around once more, and then careened right back under the table and under the same chair that had last entrapped it.
So I changed my mind. “You really are a moron, aren’t you?” I told it.
Yeah, right. I watched in amazement as it repeated its earlier reconnaissance routine except this time, after one circuit as if to confirm what it had already learned, it darted back out through the proven escape route and headed off for the kitchen.
After it finished with the kitchen, it came into my office. Picture this companionable scene: me at my desk beavering away all the while the HomeBot hummed and whisked away, taking care of business, leaving me free to concentrate on such creative projects as writing blog posts about vacuum cleaners. And so it went. Except I’d closed the office door to keep the cool air in, and my new helpmate got confused. Next thing I knew it was nudge-nudging along the wall in the northwest corner on the room, first one way and then back the other, whining about low batteries.
“Low battery,” it said, real urgency in its voice (or so I imagined).
Here’s the thing. HomeBots are programmed to establish and remember the location of their recharging station. And this one’s station lay in the corresponding corner of the living room, which it couldn’t get to because the office door was closed. So there it was with its next best hypothesis, futilely and ever-more desperately trying to get the fix that would let it finish the job.
But here’s the real thing — I reacted the way you might to a pet animal in distress. I experienced a sense of amused concern for this poor wee bot, all hungry and confused the way it was.
“You moron,” I told it, this time more affectionately. I picked it up and carried it to the living room, where I put it down it front of its station, vicariously enjoying the relief as it scuttled up to dock at its electrical teat.
They’re everywhere. Think about it. HomeBots and their ilk are just the beginning. Soon every home will have a robot or two, or three. (In fact some argue the revolution has arrived. And here.) At least as interesting: These bots promise to become part of the household, even part of the family. You probably think I’m just weird, feeling sorry for a mechanical vacuum cleaner who isn’t that much smarter than a curling stone. (It can’t even climb up and dust the books on my shelves, I was disappointed to learn.) But my responses may be typical. Indeed bots are being designed to encourage emotional relationships. They’re already used with some success in elderly care, for just one example.
Or how about this? In terms of congenial human-bot relations, we Canadians — who, just incidentally, also invented the telephone, the Nanaimo bar and Justin Bieber — now present you with the super-nice HitchBot. What a charmer, eh? Schmoozing its way all the way across the continent, programming maybe by Dale Carnegie or some such.
Speaking of cars and passengers, beyond the housebots as such, our cars are already being transformed. In the near future our vehicles will be directed both internally and externally by clever machines designed to take us safely and expeditiously where we need to go, in a manner and by a route we can leave to our carbot.
No such thing as a free lunch. At the same time digital technology is taking much of the drudgery out of our daily lives — in the process often usurping our jobs (e.g. three million professional drivers in the USA alone may soon have to seek other employment) — it is also contributing much to the increasingly totalitarian nature of our societies. So look ahead to a day coming soon when you get this kind of exchange:
You say, “To the mall, carbot.”
“Sorry," it replies. "Your presence is required downtown. Someone wants to talk to you.”
“Carbot! Take me to the mall.”
“Okay, I’m getting out. ... Unlock the doors.”
My friend Jack’s new Ford performs automatic parallel parking, but it leaves Jack to extricate himself from the space afterwards. And Jack says his car has this perhaps puckish habit of stuffing itself into spaces that he can’t drive out of afterwards. And this is early days, a mere preview of the revolt of the machines, maybe even our eventual supersession by the bots, the evolutionary antecendents to whom humanity gave birth.
So, is our HomeBot just the thin edge of the wedge? The announcement comes to me where I sit in the office: “Charging complete!” I go back out to the living room to look at the thing again.
This time I sense a sinister cast to the way it’s hunkered down there, all fueled up and ready to go again. It occurs to me to wonder: Can we really trust our vacuum cleaners? But that’s only one of a range of responses to our robotic helpmates.
“Don’t tease the HomeBot,” Sara tells me, when she hears about today’s adventures. “You should always put the dining-room chairs up on the table.”
Our word for the day is earworm. And the following definition is from the charming animation “Jazz that nobody asked for.”
Neurologists claim that stuck songs are like thoughts we're trying to suppress. The harder we try not to think about them, the more we can't help it. The phenomenon is also known as earworms, and the ongoing ‘dim di da da dum’ causes a kind of brain itch you can't scratch.”
I once acquired the equivalent of that little red Pandora’s box in the animation. Back at the beginning of time, when I still lived in Montreal, I bought Live/Evil (Miles Davis), and I used to come home at about 4am sometimes full of beer, and listen to Miles’ 21-minute version of “What I Say” two or three times in a row while I chain-smoked in the dark. The ladies who shared my flat finally asked me whether I couldn't listen more quietly, or possibly in some other city, since they had to go to work in the morning. (I was a student.)
Then, decades later here in Bangkok, I’ve come across this album again and, what do you know? I still find this cut compulsively listenable. Which suggests that my musical tastes never really matured.
Sara snickers. “Unlike the rest of you?” she says.
Whatever. It may be my old Montreal flatmates had somebody put a curse on me, because now I wake up in the middle of the night with this thing in my head, and it won't go away.
That’s right. So go ahead and listen to it at your own peril.
A note on Teflon tunes.
Bill the Mathematician, who is second only to Al the Alien as a mentor, says nobody else is old enough to remember Miles Davis, and I’ll provoke more traffic to this site if, as he puts it, "You dis Phish and praise Nickelback. Miles Davis is in that in-between stage where he's too long gone to be well known to the online masses, but not so long gone that it can be cool to be really into him. On the other hand, everyone loves the forgettable Phish and loves to hate the even more forgettable Nickelback, and wants to tell the world about both those things.”
So I’ve gone and had a look on YouTube. And both groups sort of give me a pain in the neck. I don’t think they’d ever infect me with earworms, because my delicate sensibilities erase all trace of them bar by bar even as I try to listen.
There, now I’ve dissed them both. I await the outrage, maybe even an extra visitor to my site.
The other morning on the BTS Skytrain I found myself bemused at the sight of nearly every one of my fellow passengers in thrall to digital devices. Each was oblivious to all the others as they pawed away at Facebook pages, e-mails, tweets, games, music and phone calls. One young renegade was actually reading a book.
More than bemused, I was struck by the sense I was living in a science-fiction story. But then, resisting the impulse to check my own iPhone, which was tucked inside my computer bag, I was struck by a thought. (The kind of thing that can happen when you divorce yourself, however briefly, from the digital web.*) I had a sudden recollection of the London-Oxford train, circa late 1970s, bearing its ranks of dark-suited, bowler-hatted men from the City, each absorbed in his own copy of The Times of London.
Not totally absorbed, mind you. Occasionally indignant squalls would thrash through the forest of newsprint in face of the rogue colonial invader (me) in his torn Lee corduroy jacket and scruffy jeans, who would like as not be reading a volume of essays by some notorious Continental thinker, some crackpot wog from the other side of the Channel.
Then, as on the BTS now, I sometimes felt myself a dilettante anthropologist at large in another world. But where the London-Oxford train was merely amusing, why did I find the Skytrain scenario also chilling? Was it an apprehension of what these ever-accelerating changes might portend for a more distant future that suddenly seemed not so distant after all?
Or maybe I just felt excluded. I should have whipped out my own smartphone and got engaged, eh? Like, get with it, man. I could’ve plugged myself into a Heidegger lecture. Sure. Or browsed the Web for a photo of British business people on a commuter train that I could use to illustrate a blog post that no one would ever look at.
Hey! What a good idea.
Related expressions of unease:
People with phones on BTS from the Bangkok Post.
Businessmen on train from the Independent.
* Getting struck by a thought may not be without its dangers. See, e.g., The Apocalypse (http://thisistheapocalypse.com).
"The solitude of writing is ... quite frightening. It's close sometimes to madness, one just disappears for a day and loses touch." Nadine Gordimer
"It's nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums to get rid of." Shirley Hazzard
It's often said that the writing of novels can be a symptom, maybe even a cause, of insanity.
Perhaps a person does have to be mad to write novels, to spend so much time alone spinning realities that no one shares till, God grant, readers enter the process. (Novelists who make enough money are of course exempt. In fact a lucky few, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown among them, are considered very clearly sane indeed.)
Not so widely recognized is the danger reading novels was once thought to pose to one's mental health.
Bangkok-based crime writer Christopher G. Moore has recently posted an interesting item regarding changing conceptions of madness over the years. His post included this 19th-century flyer.
"Novel reading" is listed among ways one could gain admittance to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Directly beneath that appears "nymphomania." That was probably only for reasons of alphabetical order, yet there is a more substantial connection between reading novels and nymphomania. Some nineteenth-century authorities believed that reading novels, in itself dangerous to your mental health, might also contribute to nymphomania. Here's a poignant note from a case study reported in Nymphomania: A History, by Carol Groneman (reviewed in the New York Times):
'Mrs. R., described as a short, stout, recently widowed twenty-year-old woman with a lively disposition, came to Dr. Bostwick out of desperation. She explained, "If I can't be relieved of this agonizing condition, I am certain that the struggle between my moral sense and lascivious longings must soon send me to the grave." She blamed reading novels and attending gay parties in her youth as the cause of "my imagination [being] wrought up to the highest point."'
Ms Groneman also reports a case where a woman so afflicted was advised by her doctor to give up writing novels.
As Chris Moore suggests, however, fashions in madness come and go. Given the number of people who appear to be at work or about to begin work on novels these days, those inclined to conformism might fear that not writing a book was a sign of serious abnormality. In an article entitled "Writers should take a year off, and give us all a break," Colin Robinson says this:
'According to Google, some 130m titles have been published since the first books took form on the desks of monks. This overwhelming catalogue is today being supplemented at a rate never before seen in the history of the book. Another industry statistician, Bowker, reports that nearly 1.8m new titles were published in 2012, an increase of half a million in just three years.'
Not so long ago, Julian Barnes could offer this advice: "It's easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren't writers, and very little harm comes to them."
No longer true, eh? It is no longer easy not to be a writer, and ever-larger portions of our populations must face concomitant threats to their well-being, large dollops of money rarely being one of these.
In conclusion, I'll offer a contrarian perspective from Graham Greene:
“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”
Government surveillance is a public service; E. Snowden is a self-serving traitor.
Government surveillance is evil; E. Snowden is a heroic champion of our individual freedoms and dignity.
The truth may well lie somewhere between two poles. At least if you acknowledge that we conduct healthy societies and polities in the tension between ideals of perfect security and perfect freedom, perfect harmony and a Hobbesian state of nature, imperatives of the collective good and those of individual self-expression.
Like it or lump it, feel as indignant as you like, this is the human condition. We live our lives in that tension, always for better or worse at any given time, approaching one pole till contrary forces swing the pendulum back towards the opposite pole, and then back again. For your average citizen — unless you’re currently engaged in the business of either storming barricades or erecting them — the trick may lie in recognizing this and relaxing a bit.
From this perspective Snowden and the NSA are merely fulfilling roles in a perennial drama, like re-enactments of some myth of the origin. Except that it would be nice to think that, however slowly, the larger historical plot is gradually approaching some more ideal situation. Though this approach itself, fated never to arrive, is probably the best we’ll ever manage as individuals or collectives.
In any case, governments and security agencies are never going to be able to do their jobs without secrecy and without cutting ethical and moral corners from time to time. I believe that is simple fact. Though it doesn't mean they should be given carte blanche to carry on as they will. These operations will always (one hopes) be opposed by civil libertarians who appeal to laws and individual rights. Where their activities break the law, they'll have to face the consequences (which may even include changes to the law). Sometimes, as with Snowden, their activities will cause much inconvenience and real damage to government operations and, arguably, to the country as a whole.
At the same time, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, modern communications technology and the prevailing politics of fear arguably entail a totalitarian logic, and may well incite ever-more radical attempts to thwart concomitant social and political developments. (Whoa. That’s a mouthful.)
Might this in part explain Snowden’s motives? Glenn Greenwald's Guardian interview indicates it does.
The drawing is from the excellent website xkcd.
This is the longest I’ve neglected my blog since I started it about three years ago.
Call it writer’s block, or simple lack of sleep. Or maybe this book is really a classic hobologoistic project that should be presented to the jury now, with a view to burning the ms. before I waste any more of my life on it.
Taoist hobologoism: “Stuff happens. Some of it we call books. Better to contain these than let them lead to readers and critics, eh?” (Few people realize that Taoism originated in Canada.) See “Inspirational hobologoist aphorisms & epigrams."
Everybody’s a storyteller. What makes me think I’m not a writer? These days everyone’s a writer.
Not only that, it’s as easy to publish your stuff as it is to mail a letter. Writers of the older school, meanwhile, some of whom entertained hopes of earning a living from their products, are more and more often hearing it said that artists of all sorts should reconcile themselves to working for nothing. (See this recent article, or this one from a year ago.)
So guilt at composing a blog post instead of working on my current novel may represent a more complex plot failure. I may also be losing the thread when it comes to my own personal narrative. The sense of who I am, and why and so on. (Or, as I’ve suggested, maybe I just need a good night’s sleep.)
Who we are. I am this, and I am that. Basically, though, I am my story. I am not my brain or my body or my mind or my soul or my consciousness. And where am I? I am co-extensive with my universe, to the extent I can’t talk about a universe that lies outside what I have cognitively appropriated. That goes just as surely for the reductivist ideologue, the hardest-core logico-empiricist Child of the Enlightenment, and so I say and so it friggin’ well is, eh? In all humility, I say these things.
* An alternative, rather more reductionist view: "I am my connectome." Connectomics explores our neural wiring in remarkable detail for some uncertain ends.
* Or perhaps I am my language (or my languages).
* Or I could lapse into sufficient mindfulness of my situation that I recognize I am merely the ever-fleeting sum of contingent determinations. Whoa! Thus all of this will pass, including the prospect of writing a whole series of novels for no discernible reason or, at least, no money. Dependent origination rools!
* Or I may be nothing but a blocked novelist succumbing to avoidance behavior, in this case composing a rambling, largely pointless blog post. I should get out of here, maybe go for a walk. I should just relax, go with the flow.
Outsourcing ourselves. Here’s a good idea. I am myself a personal narrative and, with the modular commodification of self, I can simply outsource my narrative. And why not? All of us are pretty much letting corporate and other murky entities ghost-write our individual and collective selves. Why fight it? Why bother writing sprightly tomes that run darker with such themes as undercurrents. Why spoil things?
And such are the thoughts that arise on this lazy morning when I could be doing something with my life instead. Yeah. I should probably go shopping.
Work for money? You must be kidding. I’ll conclude with my perhaps Quixotic decision not to accept a recent offer for the first volume of my science-fiction series with an option on the novels to follow. In fact I was flattered, and tempted to say okay. But the publisher wanted global English-language rights at a price more appropriate to Canadian rights only.
Of course I may come to regret that decision. Lapsing into mixed metaphors, I’m liable to find myself standing here in these hard times with nothing but dick in hand, rather than with all those birds in a bush I hankered after. Or words to that effect. Reviewing those words, in fact, I’m led to believe it may be a good thing I can’t get it up to work on the novel right now.
I should be more self-confident, Sara says. Plus all this writing is keeping me off the street, so it can’t be all bad, eh?
By the way, avoidance behavior can be good for a writer. See “New frontiers in creative foreplay.”
Scratch the Mayan Apocalypse. One less thing to worry about, eh?
Of course we still have all the political issues du jour—left vs right, conservatives/conservatives1/conservatives2 vs liberals/liberals1/liberals2, pro-gay marriage vs anti-gays, legalize ganja vs leave the trade to the mobsters, red vs yellow, orange vs chartreuse, etc., etc.
Beneath these lurk more fundamental issues, among them these:
- irresponsible and insufficiently restrained corporate éminences grises everywhere you look, though your average citizen isn’t supposed to look;
- a constellation of associated sub-issues, including the power of lobbyists in the US Congress; “free trade” and its careless policies justified in terms of cartoonish economic models of human individuals and their communities— models that have assumed the status of common sense even among the people in the street, its prime victims; the apparent lack of common purpose in the polity at large, with the fragmentation of peculiarly individualistic, “pluralistic” politics tending towards a massive number of interest groups each with a vigorously partisan membership of one;
- the politics of fear together with modern technologies (among these the ever-more sophisticated tools of big data and drone surveillance and attack aircraft for hire to whoever), promising totalitarianism of a quality undreamed of by earlier generations; and
- conveniently enough, from some POVs, at the same time we have the diffusion of individual focus and creativity and, with social media and other technology, the rise of faster, more effective means of constructing the realities we dwell within.
Other urgent issues prowl even deeper and darker depths of our collectively constituted realities. One of these, global climate change, has actually grabbed our attention, as we watch its huge black dorsal fin slice back and forth across the surface of public discourse, edging ever closer and interfering with our enjoyment of sports broadcasts and remote foreign wars—though many people still claim it’s really nothing more than a school of special interests wearing a big shark hat and scaring the shit out of us, not to mention a bunch of money.
And there’s more. Lots more. Bio-engineering and modern eugenics, Transhumanist moves toward long-lived people maximally free of pain (as reductionists understand such), unsustainable demands on the planet's natural resources by ascendant Asian, S. American and African economies with First World countries unwilling to compensate them for moderating these demands, supercomputers about to take a quantum leap into qubital wizardry that could make our current digital revolution look like the invention of the doorknob. I could go on, but I think I’ve already established my street creds as a raving loony.
Wait. I forgot. We also have the failure of the Western metaphysic, and the concomitant pandemic malaise, the spiritual equivalent of HIV/AIDS, except for religious fundamentalists of all stripes who instead appear to suffer manic dementia. Hey, I’m just saying, eh?
Almost. Did I mention, speaking of pathological enthusiasms and their rewards, that I’m still tired and out of sorts from New Year’s Eve?
Happy 2013. Whatever. As least I’m in better shape than I was on New Year’s Day 2011, when Providence went all Rube Goldbergesque on me.
What the hell--here's a final treat for those who just can't get enough hysteria: Check out this post on cymbalalalalzophobia.
Pussy hounds, rejoice! Your behavior may be built into existence almost from the outset. Here is an intriguing New Scientist video clip from a couple of years ago ("'Intelligent' oil droplet navigates chemical maze"). Could it be that this pass at sentience even in drops of oil may help to legitimize dick-directed behavior in higher organisms?
And here's 'Crystals, Information and the Origin of Life,' a recent article from Technology Review that refers to this phenomenon in a very interesting context.
I guess it's okay to refer to pussy hounds, in this day and age. Especially given the very public, entirely ballsy shenanigans of Pussy Riot, whom I greatly admire (for all of the correct reasons). Best of luck to those of them currently in the clutches of the Russian authorities. Here's a good story by Carole Cadwalladr from the Guardian/Observer, and links to video of their offending performance.
We will say nothing of the ambiguity in this poster.
Sometimes, e.g. when I look around a Skytrain car and see people’s faces lit in the unholy glow of iPad screens (see “Digital bedlam”)—when I notice the wires dangling from people’s heads, the animated conversations with invisible presences on the part of people sporting no visible gadgetry at all, the poke-poking and thumbing of games and messages and searches for the meaning of life—it seems to me that these changes in our behavior have been sudden. Just last week the world was identifiably the one I grew up in—people who spoke and gesticulated into thin air were nuts—but this week I’m living in a sci-fi world where all these people are crammed in here like sardines on this hot-season afternoon in Bangkok, and yet they aren’t really here. They’re clearly someplace else. And they’re in contact with wherever else they may be.
But the change hasn’t really been all that sudden.
I wrote “Getting Away from It All” back in the late 1980s. It provides a nice retrospective on the transition from portable tape players and multi-layered go-go bar cocoons to our current world, where easily 70 percent of the people on any given Skytrain car are plugged into smartphones and other digital devices, busily gaming, texting, browsing the Internet, listening to music and generally being anywhere except where they are now and doing anything except engaging with what's right there in front of them. Some renegades instead watch the incessant commercial crap thoughtfully provided by the BTS on the double video screens they’ve installed in every car, not to mention the giant screens that monopolize the view at the Siam Station platform.
What’s interesting—all these changes are early days, and those still to come are bound to be more radical and even quicker to arrive.
Where will it all end, eh? Whither the individual, whither the collective? Whoa, and whatnot. Woe. Whatever.
Mass communion: Modern people worshipping their smartphones.
(The Telegraph article instead suggests they’re taking photos.)
"Getting away from it all" is a lesser chapter in Bangkok Knights (now out of print).