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On Being

Recently, I have become to notice a difference in verbiage in how we relate to ourselves. We seem to be referring to ourselves as humans and not so much as human beings. While most may simply think of this as a grammatical trifle, it seems to hold a deeper and more disturbing meaning. The omitted word “being” is telling. We seem to be disregarding the fact that we exist in time and space, that we are not just hollow space holders. As Howard Beale in “Network” proclaims, “I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!” yet our words betray a slippery slope. We will trade our being for an undisturbed solitude, We will trade a panorama for a panoramic setting on our cell phone camera. We are sated watching a live event in front of us through the friendly confines of our mobile phone screen. Instead of experiencing a moment in time we step back from reality into a loop of prepackaged pre-approved pablum. Of course, it is easier to be lulled to sleep than to be roused to action, indeed many would exchange many civil liberties just to be left alone.
What to do, perhaps the next best step is not to get mad but to stop and embrace the gift of the present.

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internet, social media, Technology, Uncategorized

The fire hose is the new water fountain.

While washing dishes after dinner, I was surprised to hear Conway Twitty singing “Long Black Train”. Now you might be of a generation similar to mine, thought of Conway Twitty as a punchline to a joke or some late night commercial for someone who had sold more records in England than the Beatles but I was surprised how much he sounded like a young Elvis. He invoked that same Elvis mystic and actually was a really good singer and not just that guy from the late night commercials. It got me thinking about the idea of cultural quality or how far we have come from the idea of high culture and low culture. The idea of the interaction of these was best explored by Carlo Ginzburg in his article, “Morelli, Freud And Sherlock Holmes: Clues And Scientific Method” at which he details the interaction between high culture and low culture. While Ginzberg is looking backward, Janus faced we look forward at how this relationship seems to be dissolving in our time. It seems that with the advent of new media the line between high and low is either blurred or so totally obscured that we have no idea of what culture is anymore. Is rap culture or the cry of an unheard population- or is that a cultural appropriation of a voice of dissent and rage. While some seem to be focusing in what makes us different, our culture seems to want to make us all the same. Anyone can take up any motto or slogan and embrace it as their own. A few years ago there was a commercial where a white businessman, who when asked by his white male secretary what he had to do today, replied, “another day of fighting the oppression of the man” to which the secretary replies sheepishly, “Sir, you are the Man”. The effect may be drowned out by the silent screams of a generation fighting the power of the man laid low in the streets fighting for their civil or human rights. Maybe, we have lost all perspective when drinking from this fire hose of media. History may have become a world of fairy tales and lies. Retreating from a world that is too much with us, late and soon, we find ourselves in a cocoon of constant now. Our power of perspectives has been overwhelmed by a waterfall of information, too much too soon, which has laid waste to our powers to hear properly with an ear out of tune, to know the difference between a King and a punchline.

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internet, social media, Technology

Outsourcing Hatred

If I remember correctly, in the closing lines of the Declaration of Independence  Thomas Jefferson wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident”. Now, while the quote goes on, I find it interesting this idea of somethings self-evidence; the idea that something is known to be true by understanding its meaning without proof. It seems self-evident that people have rights though we may argue as to the breadth and depth of those rights and that machines, as non-human, non-feeling entities do not. This notion was challenged when I saw an article in the BBC about the appearance of a woman robot in Riyadh Saudi Arabia at the Future Investment Initiative conference. Sophia, as she is known, was given Saudi citizenship but she was allowed to appear without the traditional headscarf and abaya, the cloak that Saudi women are obliged to wear in public. Of course, social media pundits leaped to their keyboards noting that not only had this electronic “woman” not only been granted citizenship but had rights that Saudi women only dream of. Here was a woman speaking alone on a stage where under the Saudi Guardianship system every woman must be accompanied by a male companion who has authority to act on her behalf. It seems as if Saudi Arabia had become the Manor Farm for the day where all women were equal except that those women who were silicon-based were more equal than those of a mere carbon base.
While it may seem laughable now, it is not impossible to imagine that we could create a world in which computers would have more rights than some or maybe even all people. We seem to delight in ways that we can segregate and remove ourselves from those who we deem somehow different or less than us but now we seem to have taken that talent to a whole new level. We could create machines to look down on us- maybe outsource our racism so that we would be free to pursue more noble goals? While it may seem absurd, there are some of us who remember when the idea of an actor as president was a punchline and not a reality.

racism, trump, white supremacy,white supremacist, ,

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internet, social media, Technology, Uncategorized

Planned Obsolescence

Brooks Stevens is one of my favorite people. The industrial designer and graphic designer and is also credited with coming up with the idea of planned obsolescence or “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” In short the idea that whatever you have now is about to be replaced by something better, faster, sleeker and to put you ahead of the curve. It seems that now, everything has an expiration date, that nothing is exempt from extermination from the crushing march of progress. No better example of that can be seen in the problem with cybersecurity. As was recently reported in the BBC, the main problem with cybersecurity seems to be PEBKAC is, Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair. That’s you and

 

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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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Must we sing the body electric?

I believe it was E B White who once said, “When I arise in the morning I am torn between the twin desires to reform the world and to enjoy the world. This makes it difficult to plan my day…”. When I saw the article on how electronic tattoos may be able to be printed on our skin. While this would allow something like built-in thermometer tattooed onto the skin or a monitor a level of drugs in our body. While part of me is thrilled by the possibility of what is to come, there is another part of me that wonders about this new intrusion to our bodies and our own experience. Again, the question arises, who would own the data about yourself, who would possibly own your experiences. When a famous person dies it is their estate that manages their image and has the places and ways it can be used. Is that only the right of the famous? What about the experiences of ordinary people, what rights do we have to our experiences and our stories, indeed the very truths that make us who we are. If we think this data has value does that not also mean that the creatures creating these experiences have value also or can they be discarded as simple tin cans to wear our electronic labels.

 

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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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