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Safe!

Perhaps it was unique to my neighborhood, but growing up as we played tag or any other number of games, the place that you tried to get without being tagged was called “ghoul”. Now I am aware that many others may have called it home or safe or maybe even goal but in my neighborhood ghoul meant safety. The sounds of friends saying good night as the summer street lights came on rang in my ears when I saw of Quora having almost 100 million of its accounts hacked only days after Marriott reported that hackers had been penetrating their Starwood network for years, and had compromised the data of 500 million people. It seems that in the cyber universe or cyberverse, nowhere is safe anymore. Indeed, when these instances occur, it seems the those affected are to blame, Quara’s programmers are now forcing affected users to reset their passwords, and it advises them to change these passwords if they’re used on any other websites, as if the blame were on the people for putting their information there in the first place and then not protecting it with passwords that were incorruptible.

While the argument may seem far-fetched, the buck doesn’t stop here. Sexual assault victims are being turned into perpetrators, (how dare they accuse a person of such behavior) school shootings are blamed on the schools;  they are not well enough armed or trained in weaponry to defend themselves against the now obvious threat, as if there were protections in place in the past that have been left by the wayside, a childish illusion we have outgrown in this new adult age. Things like going home when the street lights came on in summer, playing outside with friends, or having a safe place which you might call home.

cybersecurity, hackers

Are we safe at home, or anywhere else?

 

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Still in Show-Business

There is an old joke about the performer in the circus who as he gets older keeps falling farther and farther down in the billing. A friend who he hasn’t seen in years sees him cleaning up the elephant dung and asks, “what happened, you were a big star! when the old performer replies, “ Yes but I’m still in show-business!” This punchline came to mind when I read in the BBC that professors at medical schools are finding that their surgery students are losing the dexterity to stitch patients. Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical. It seems that the simple skills that used to be common to us all, cutting textiles, measuring ingredients, repairing something that’s broken, learning woodwork or holding an instrument are no longer common in today’s young people. While we may be learning skills to help us swipe through screens of pixels, we may no longer be getting the training to live in the real world.
Post-apocalyptic television shows, like the Walking Dead and  and movies such as World War Z create a fantasy where we test our survival skills by pitting us against zombies, over the top creatures or even other people in a world removed from the modern conveniences. Yet perhaps we don’t really need the zombies to bring us to our knees, we seem to be doing that for ourselves by losing even the most simple skills we need for survival. While its pretty to think we can navigate a world gone mad, many of us can not across town without a strong internet connection. So while we may not be able to stitch up a wound, at least we can do our Cyber Monday shopping in record time.

walking dead, Laurence Olivier,The Entertainer,BBC

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internet, social media, Technology

All. Together, Now.

While an art auction may not be anything that has major social ramifications, a recent auction at Christie’s in New York did catch our attention. While we like an auction as the next person, this one did have a picture painted by AI . Th piece, titled “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” was created by a Paris-based collective called Obvious Art created an algorithm that can create painted images. They are interested in exploring the boundaries of creativity, computers and AI and pushing the boundaries of what a machine can create. An idea that will be revisited here, the thing that came to mind was the increasing question of what it is to be human and if that is an answer that we really need. We used to try hold humanness out of reach of animals, like a treat from a dog made to jump at an ever higher raised treat, only to find no matter how high we set the bar, animals could rise to and above it. At first, we were the tool making creatures but soon we found gorillas had the same ability. We had a complex social structure only to find that many other animals did too. No matter how we seemed to try to set ourselves above and apart our specialness seemed to be co-opted by lower life forms. Now as we try to maintain our place in the center of our egocentric model (with apologies to Ptolemy) we find it harder and harder to find our ground in the center of the world. As AI and computers advance the Turing test, a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human seems to be nothing more than a roadside attraction we have passed whizzing by to a future which we seem unwilling to consider.
While AI advances make us less unique in the larger sense perhaps it should make us more aware of the things that make us unique as individuals. An algorithm can create a piece of art but only Picasso could create a Guernica, only Joyce, Ulysses, and these things could not exist until these consciousness beings created them just as Portrait of Edmond Belamy could not be created until Obvious Art programmed the computer to create it. Perhaps our uniqueness ought to be the measured by to our communal ability to create and discover, be we carbon or silicon-based than our need to divide and segregate.

“We were making the future…and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making”

H.G.Wells from “When the Sleeper Wakes” (1899)

 

The Portrait of Edmond de Belamy

Obvious Art, AI, The Portrait of Edmond Belamy

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internet, social media, Technology, Uncategorized

Media is Plural, Truth is Singular

In my misspent youth, I remember conversations with my philosophy class in college, discussing how to describe what our life was and how we would describe it.  One of the descriptions was “a dance of remembering and forgetting”, a constant finding and embracing of truth or inspiration and then forgetting it or letting it slip from our attention.  That phrase has come back to me as we now take our cultural memory to the altar of silicon and revisit what our past means.  Not even so much what happened, since the invention of the moving picture and indeed the still photograph we cannot debate so much what happened but what it means. We can’t debate who was at the Conference of Yalta but we can debate what it meant and its impact was.  It seems that for a brief shining moment we could all agree what “is is” and what was, was.  But now, in our immediate now, our immediate news cycle and our interactive relationship with reality, it seems that everything is up for interpretation and revision. Let’s look at something as mundane as The first ladies jacket, at first we were told, it was not a message and later the rebuttal, that it really was a message. It seems that now that everything we do is being caught on video or in some way recorded one would think that fact would be Fact.  One could not dispute the recording or video of a statement it is a documentation of a past event that we can all agree happened.  We now have as many venues as re-imaginations of truth available to us. Perhaps in this maelstrom of media, we can take a moment to remember that while media is plural, that truth is singular.

For those who doubt the power of the repeated lie

Trump,

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Have It Your Way

While our Janus’ face is often turned to the future, it took a brief look back to an old Burger King ad when we heard the news of a study that showed that Robots could create twice as many jobs as they destroy. It seems a bit optimistic of the World Economic Forum which says while machines and computer algorithms could displace 75 million people it could create 133 million jobs. Of course, we realize that new technology always creates in its wake social unrest and disruption. The printing press as a prelude to the Reformation, newspapers to the rise of unions, television ushering in the era of civil rights and protests that launched the end of the Vietnam war and started woman’s rights movement. While all of these innovations both technological and social have made people’s lives better, there are always those who are caught beneath the wheel of progress. And while we have no doubt that the rising tide of progress will raise many boats, what happens to those whose skills don’t fit exactly in the last lifeboat. Perhaps, social media has brought reality into our lives with an immediacy that television couldn’t match that perhaps is calling us to forge a new more compassionate version of democracy. One in which the winners don’t always have it their way, as Burger King commercials used to say, a new world in which the high tide raises all boats, not just the ones of the rich or famous.

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In Silicon We Trust.

While an update of my phone is not a big deal, my most recent update has brought about a strange and comforting site. Now everything when I open my phone, I see the notifications that the app that protects my phone tells me “Everything is OK”. Its comforting in an odd sort of way and reminds me of the Greek theater, where the impossible situation the characters have found themselves in is resolved by the appearance of a God who resolves the situation and brings the drama to a close. While this is called deus ex machina, it refers to the fact that a machine was used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage, it literally means god from the machine.
Perhaps that is what next frontier in our relation to the larger world and the divine will be. While we have looked for deeper meaning in historical figures, pop culture, mediation or sedation we may now find a comfort for our soul in a silicon-based deity. In George Lucas’ THX1138, the titular character played by Robert Duval, goes to find comfort for his spiritual angst in a futuristic phone booth, where when the door is closed, an image of a sort of Jesus appears on the screen and a recorded voice says, “My time is yours, go ahead” as Duval begins his confession, the recorded voice randomly chimes in with statements like, “Yes, I understand,” and “Go on” no matter what the person is saying. Perhaps George Lucas was more prophet then we care to know, sensing that we would ourselves create an electronic God if we couldn’t keep a metaphysical or mystical one alive. Perhaps the realm of electronics have become the magic of the future.   Perhaps our future redemption will be from a silicon God whose “everything is OK” will become the nightlight keeping the 21st-century monsters at bay.

THHX1138, George Lucas

 

If you have never seen THX1138, please use this scene as an appetizer to a brilliant feast of a movie.

 

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More Light! More Light!

The church choir that I am section leader for has been invited to Carnegie Hall to sing a concert featuring a new choral work by Dan Forrest, LUX: The Dawn From On High (Lux being Latin for Light). While I won’t be going to Carnegie, for many reasons, having sung there before among them, I have loved learning the music with my choir. The crux of the piece talks about the importance of light, light as a blessing and a spiritual end result from a life- an abundance of light as a heavenly reward. The text of the piece from religious texts and comments on the end of one’s life being surrounded by light. It makes me think of  a pre-electric age the importance of light and the power of the darkness. Restoration theaters had candle wick trimmers whose job it was to keep the candles burning throughout the performance. In New England, on the 19th of May 1780, is known as New England’s Dark Day where candles were needed from noon to midnight, so heavy was the cloud cover. Perhaps we still harbor that childhood fear of the dark and bathe ourselves in light to protect ourselves from the unknown. Is that the reason for the preponderance of light in the religious texts describing heavenly bliss? What would be better in the afterlife than the things that we lack in this life? With that thought in mind, it makes me wonder what would be the valued thing would be that would greet us in a contemporary afterlife. What would be our final blissful reward in heaven? In short, what would be the final reward to a culture that has reveled in abundance and immediacy in everything?

light, Lux,

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