Digital Digs (Alex Reid)

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digital rhetoric and professional communication
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why we can’t have nice things

4 September, 2018 - 11:25

It’s that old saying but one that might cut in two directions. Yes, “we” can’t have nice things because “you” are always ruining them with your irresponsible behavior, lack of class, etc. But possibly we also can’t have nice things because we’re always getting crap shoved in front of us. Or both. Facebook is case in point. Sure it’s a cesspool because of the way people behave, but it’s also crap in and of itself. Why can’t we have a better way to live online? And why don’t we live that better way?

n+1 has a piece apropos to this topic (h/t to Casey pointing this out, via Fb of course). It focuses on the treacherous minefield (are there other kinds of minefields?) that is the social media environment surrounding op-ed writing–in online journals like their own but principally in mainstream media, specifically the NY Times and Washington Post. There’s a range of concerns and complaints here. Authors and editors who write/publish works knowing they’ll be re-litigating them on Twitter. And readers have it no better. “In the not so distant past, we could sit with an article and decide for ourselves, in something resembling isolation, whether it made any sense or not. Now the frantic give-and-take leaves us with little sovereignty over our own opinions.” Surely I am far from the only one who encounters something shared in social media and the ensuing “conversation” and thinks “I have something to say about that, but why bother?”

In the few days since this piece was posted there’s been a whole story about the New Yorker Festival announcing Steve Bannon as a headliner, a bunch of other celebrities dropping out, a flurry of social media complaints, Bannon being dropped, and resulting analysis over whether or not that’s the right decision. My wife turns on MSNBC this morning and the pundit crowd is tut-tutting the decision, trotting out the typical argument about how these ideas need to be dragged into the light of day and debated in the public square where they will wilt. How naive is that? As if they aren’t doing that every day already on Morning Joe with their collection of refugees from the GOP. As if the Times and the Post don’t have their own cadres of neocon pundits.

It’s a peculiar, though founding, fantasy of the US that at their core people are the same, they are kind, they are rational, they have a “strong moral compass,” and so on.

But here’s the thing. At their core, people are pretty stupid. I don’t mean most people are stupid or people are stupid these days. I don’t mean people who don’t resemble me are stupid. I mean we are all stupid in the sense that as individuals, as independent entities, to the extent that we can be independent (try going it on your own without oxygen), we lack the cognitive resources to make the kinds of judgments necessary for democratic participation, especially in the very complex global present.

I mean this in roughly the same way as Nick Bostrom does when he observes, “Far from being the smartest possible biological species, we are probably better thought of as the stupidest possible biological species capable of starting a technological civilization—a niche we filled because we got there first, not because we are in any sense optimally adapted to it.” To put it more generously, I mean it in the way Katherine Hayles does when she takes a cue from Edwin Hutchins’ theory of distributed cognition and writes “Modern humans are capable of more sophisticated cognition than cavemen not because moderns are smarter, Hutchins concludes, but because they have constructed smarter environments in which to work.” Of course this is also Bostrom’s observation (and fear): that these smarter environments are becoming to smart for their own, or at least our own, good. But that’s a different subject.

It is in this context that one might be tempted by Nick Carr’s “google is making us stupid” claim, but really my assertion is simply that we don’t need any help being stupid. Instead we might want to ask what it means to suggest a la Hayles that we are “capable of more sophisticated cognition.” Can we be more precise about the nature of those capacities? In what ways are our environments smarter? What does smarter mean?

Empirically, we have access to a tremendous amount of media/data. In a digital context, media are data and data are mediated; it’s the resampling of the McLuhan maxim. We also have unprecedented capacities for communication. The choke point in this system is human consciousness, so of course we need to build smarter environments that can swim up the media/data stream and handle that firehose for us. So the first problem is that environment turns out to not be that smart. As you know, people connecting to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc. etc. are not really demonstrating much capability for “sophisticated cognition,” at least not by any sense of that term I can conjure. To the contrary, wading into this media/data stream seems to reinforce poor reasoning and bad information. Maybe it’s confirmation bias or the Dunning-Kruger effect. IDK.

The other part of this is communication. I am reminded of a line. I’m probably misremembering it but my memory is that it comes from Virilio’s Art of the Motor. It has something to do with how when train travel became available in Europe, the belief in France was that it would reduce wars on the continent by making it possible for people to travel and improve understanding among nations. Meanwhile in Germany the realization was that trains would make moving troops and supplies to the front more efficient. The arrival of the Internet, especially the social media that have made billions of humans into online participants, was similarly meant to foster mutual understanding among people around the world… I don’t think I need to say more about that, do you?

So maybe this post appears to be moving toward a conclusion that this stuff is bad, but it’s not. I’m not in the business of making judgments like that. I am, however, in the business of evaluating the rhetorical effects of digital media. Give a proto-human a bone club and he’ll bash his neighbor’s skull in (a la 2001, which I just recently saw again). Give the same, slightly more evolved human a web connection and he’ll join in conspiracy theories about how those bones were put there to test our faith in a young Earth. That’s what humans are: just not very smart. It’s not really a fixable situation. But the situation isn’t hopeless. We actually have managed to disabuse ourselves of bad ideas in the past; it could happen again.

But you can’t really change people’s minds by talking to them. You change people’s minds by changing the environment in which they think, the distributed part of their distributed cognition. Not understanding this is a common error. The idea of a public debate is that a critical mass of people are there so that when the audience is persuaded the whole community is shifted. But that doesn’t happen anymore. It certainly isn’t happening in your social media feed.


Categories: Author Blogs

informally proposing a “materials rhetoric”

17 August, 2018 - 11:26

In the briefest terms, my idea here is conceiving of a materials rhetoric that is roughly analogous to materials science. I’ll return to that in a moment but first a few detours.

  1. Since the 80s at least, rhetoric as concerned itself with “materialism” and far more recently with “new materialism.” Materialism has generally been another way of naming various Marxian critical traditions, including Foucaultian and cultural studies theories. New materialism? Well, I talk about that here enough as it is, but basically its various forms of posthumanism, speculative realism, etc. Materialism, ironically enough, has never been that interested in actual things. New materialism has, but what I’m thinking about here is something that would include but not be limited to what we’ve seen of new materialism so far.
  2. This proposal also stems from my discontent with the term “digital rhetoric” (along with its various predecessors–new media rhetoric, computers and writing, computers and composition). It’s a term that was initially meant to differentiate scholars who studied “stuff about computers/internet” from those who focused on print or speech. Of course for some time now, unless you study the history of rhetoric or limit your research to some fairly unique contemporary cultural circumstances, digital media, networks, computers, and other information technologies are just a part of what you do. As such, contemporary digital rhetoricians tend to identify themselves as those who focus on the role of digital stuff in rhetorical practices as opposed to other rhetoricians who study rhetorical practices that involve the use of digital stuff but I guess just don’t emphasize that aspect. For the most part, that digital rhetoric as been materialist/cultural studies-esque in its operation.

But to get back to this analogy with materials science… So in some respects materials science has been around for a while. Apparently the first materials science department was formed in 1955 at Northwestern. Conversely here at UB, we only recently created a department of Materials Design and Innovation. That said, materials science is an interdisciplinary field involving both traditional sciences and engineering. It tends to trace its history back through metallurgy and ceramics (which takes us back at least as far as the Bronze Age I suppose). At its core, materials science investigates the physical structures and properties of matter for the purpose of designing new materials for human purposes (hence the intersection of science and engineering).

Similarly a materials rhetoric studies the rhetorical properties, tendencies and capacities of materials for the purpose of designing new technologies and rhetorical practices for human purposes. As such, a materials rhetoric would include empirical methods (quantitative, qualitative, and “second empirical” a la Latour), philosophical speculation, and experimentation, along with more familiar rhetorical-critical interpretive analysis. As an interdisciplinary project, materials rhetoric wouldn’t go about drawing boundaries regarding theory/method. What does distinguish materials rhetoric from current-postmodern (or should that be postmodern-traditional) rhetoric?

  • A non-anthropocentric conception of rhetoric. I.e., if you think that rhetoric essentially begins and ends within humans, or if you think that rhetoric is essentially symbolic and overdetermined by ideology, then you probably have little interest in the role of materials in rhetoric, which is not to say that you don’t recognize that rhetoric is conveyed through materials but rather that the specifics of those materials are a distinction without a difference. [And it’s worth noting that these anthropocentric, idealist notions of rhetoric reflect the paradigmatic view of the discipline.]
  • An emphasis on invention/experimentation over interpretation/hermeneutics. All rhetorical scholarship requires both invention and interpretation. However, current-postmodern rhetoric is primarily interested in interpreting, truth-seeking (if not Truth-seeking), and typically in making moral-ethical-political judgments. The emphasis in materials rhetoric is in creating new rhetorical capacities for humans through invention and experimentation.

My particular interest in this idea follows from the roots of materials science in metallurgy. Those of you familiar with Deleuze and Guattari will likely recall the role of geology, of metallurgy, and of the smith in A Thousand Plateaus. As they argue, metallurgy is a nomad science (btw this is something Jussi Parrika also takes up in Geology of Media). Metallurgy’s nomadic quality arises from its pursuit of intensifications: melting points, mixtures to form alloys, tempering, annealing, etc. In new materialist terms, metallurgy is a practice that alters the properties of particular piece of metal by interacting with its tendencies (e.g. it’s melting point, maximum hardness, etc.) and activating certain capacities through its interaction with other things (e.g., other metals to form an alloy, water or oil for quenching, etc.). Materials rhetoric is similarly interested in the identification of and tactical engagement with the rhetorical tendencies and capacities of materials.

This brings me back to digital rhetoric where I’ll end this. For my purposes, digital rhetoric has principally been about the material-rhetorical operation of technologies. Information is a physical thing; media are things. The cables, wires, cell/wireless signals that are the media of information are things. Obviously our devices are material, as are we. This is where I begin to verge upon research already going on in various posthuman, new materialist, and/or ecocompositional flavors of digital rhetoric, as well as in media study. However, in thinking about a materials rhetoric I’m imagining something that expands its purview beyond the digital (and perhaps is more historical in some respects) but is principally more applied, that is, more focused on expanding capacities as a priority than interpreting/truth telling (though obviously those are integral elements).


Categories: Author Blogs

The post WPA life: one year on

15 August, 2018 - 09:41

From the summer of 2010 through the summer of 2017, I served as the director of composition at UB. In the last year I’ve gone back to being a rank and file professor in the department. I’ve been thinking about writing this reflection for a little while but wanted to mark the occasion of a full year on. In my seven years on the job, I certainly learned a lot, and I’d like to think we accomplished a great deal (not that there isn’t always more to do). I’m not going to go into that here as this is not an epideictic post.

I will say that on a daily basis the job was basically an exercise in pissing into the wind. It was labor-intensive, stressful, anxiety-inducing, frustrating, and infuriating in equal measure. Though WPA jobs certainly vary from school to school I’d strongly warn against pursuing one if what makes you happy is accruing plaudits.

I think the easiest way to measure the professional impact–at least on me–of WPA work is in relation to scholarly production. As a WPA I had summer administrative duties (for which I received a stipend) and normal academic year duties (for which I received course release), but basically the expectations for scholarly production for me were not different from those of my other colleagues. I can compare my production over those seven years with my productivity at Cortland from 2002-2009. It’s worth noting that while at Cortland I worked a 4-3 and then a 3-3 teaching load. So during that time at Cortland I published 7 articles and a book. At UB, I published 12 articles. I also completed a book manuscript but that’s still in the works.  So the way I look at it, I was a little less productive as a WPA than I was at Cortland as a more junior scholar (which makes publishing more challenging) with a higher teaching load. In short, being a WPA had a significant impact on my scholarly productivity, which I don’t think is surprising to anyone whose done the job, especially if your scholarship is not related to WPA work or even composition studies (as mine is not).

The real effects though were more personal/mental. I don’t mean to suggest that it was continually miserable being a WPA. It really wasn’t. But over time I just got used to the regular role in my life of addressing complaints, solving logistical problems, strategizing, arguing/persuading/wheedling, and so on. I got used to planning to spend my day doing one thing only to wake up to some BS email that sent me down one rabbit hole or another. But beyond that was the constant awareness that:

  • the adjuncts and others I employed were getting screwed over
  • the TAs in my care were too
  • the administration was always giving me the runaround
  • the students weren’t getting what they needed or at least what they might have gotten if things were better, and
  • there was always more that could be done.

It was like a filter of unhappiness over the lens through which I viewed the world, one that I’d gotten used to and forgotten was there until one day a few months ago I realized that it was gone.

But anyway, the good news.  Thanks to the aptitude of my successor, I was able to extricate myself smoothly from the daily operations of WPA life. But it took my mind more than a semester to go through decompression. I think that, combined with the fact that I had completed my manuscript around the same time as I was ending my WPA stint, left me with an open space that has taken some time for me to figure out. So it’s really just been in the last four or five months that I’ve started moving down some new paths: doing new research, teaching new courses, picking up some new technical skills and renewing some old ones. Not for nothing I also took off 50 pounds this summer, so I feel like a new man with literal and figurative weights lifted from me.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the next year brings.


Categories: Author Blogs

the future of the English major, or “Hey Mister, where do you want these deck chairs?”

18 July, 2018 - 16:53

The Association of Departments of English (ADE) released a report today on the changing English major. As those who tuned into the last episode (or the last 1000 episodes) of this program will remember, there has been a steady decline in English majors (going back to the early 90s when measured as a share of the total degrees granted) and a sharp decline in recent years (in both share and raw number). So that’s the impetus for the report, which mostly focuses on how departments have responded to this through curricular changes.

Before I get to that though, there’s an important topic to address. Many will argue, and I believe with merit, that the plight of English majors and departments is largely a product of the rise of neoliberalism over the last 40 years. Higher education overall has been adversely affected by a sharp decline in public support (which is why college costs students so much more than it used to), but also English and the other humanities have been devalued in that context. College has been redefined as a means to an end in a career and majors oriented in very specific ways to specific careers have proliferated. There are far more majors now than 30 years ago. The extent of these neoliberal effects vary from institution to institution as it’s partly a reflection of local institutional choices, state governments, etc.

What that means to me is that the historical contexts that benefited English and attracted majors in the 50s-70s changed. Part of those changes are very specific neoliberal strategies. Part is changing demographics of students and their changing attitudes regarding college education. As I always argue here when this topic comes up, a significant part is the shift in literacy practices. It is not mere coincidence that these declines follow developments in digital media and culture. Whatever argument anyone wants to make about the continuing value of the traditional literacy practices at the heart of English curricula, it is self-evident that students do not agree.  And of course the fact that most students don’t agree isn’t really an argument for changing our discipline… But if that’s where we’re headed (and it is always where we are headed when this topic is raised) then really what was the point in doing this study?

But anyway, to the report…

So I’ll just focus on the recommendations. Here’s a snippet:

Media studies, including digital work, has begun to find its way into many English programs, although to a degree less than one might expect. We recommend that, where appropriate, departmental curricular discussion expand its attention to media and digital studies.

Rhetoric and composition continues to be an important component of the English major, and enhanced opportunities for advanced study in writing and areas such as technical and professional writing are becoming well established. We recommend that departments give continued attention to writing studies and to its connection to other parts of the major.

There are a couple other paragraphs in that report about these fields (which tend to make up nearly 50% of the tenure-track jobs every year), which is roughly about the same amount of space as the report spends wringing its hands over the “Place of Shakespeare.” Most of the report is about literary history. Why is that? Well, not to confuse the deck chair metaphor in the title but it’s because literary history is the anchor dragging English departments down, and the literary scholars driving departments seemingly have no choice but to hold onto it.

Now I’m not saying there is no role for literary history, but the report clues one into the problem. For example “One trend among departments is to think of the English program not just as a program in literature but more expansively as one in English studies, a term intended to show self-aware hospitability to media, composition, rhetoric, film, cultural studies, and other interests that reside in English departments at all types of institutions” (my emphasis). WTF is hospitability? What kind of relationship does this presume among faculty within a department? Is this meant to suggest that there’s a breathable atmosphere? Or that someone’s going to offer me a drink while I’m visiting my own department?

But don’t worry. It gets worse. In fostering this “hospitability,” “Accordingly, tracks and concentrations within the major are becoming increasingly common… The track and concentration models have appeal, since they respond to the shape of the profession as it exists. Yet these structures are not without risks. Specialization may be forced prematurely on students, or the major may balkanize and conflicts may harden between the fields.” Conflicts may harden? If the hardening doesn’t subside after four hours, should we consult a physician? Imagine being in a department where there’s simply no role for you in the major. Ultimately the report recommends the consideration of tracks, but it remains worried.

I don’t really mean to blame the report writers. I think they’re accurately describing English departments. The recommendations they make strike me as sound but unimaginative and probably 20 years too late. They cannot get outside of the idea that literary studies is the foundation of English. As they write at one point “The literary (creative works, authors, periods, movements, genres, tropes and figures, and the like) remains a defining feature of the English curriculum that distinguishes the discipline from other textually oriented fields in the humanities, such as history or philosophy.” They can’t get outside the literary, printcentric condition. Either they can’t get there in their minds or they are just helplessly constrained by what is. I can’t tell.

Anyway, the real thing that has English screwed isn’t this lit/writing division anyway. It’s its total failure to address digital media and culture 20 years ago. And I’ll end on the funniest line in the whole report. “For digital studies, skepticism still lingers in some quarters about the field’s usefulness.” OK. Meanwhile on the topic of the “usefulness” of literary studies… I think I feel some hardening.


Categories: Author Blogs

Manuel Delanda in rhet/comp?

16 July, 2018 - 10:52

Being somewhat in between projects right now, I’ve started working on an article that, at least at this point, begins with exploring the value of DeLanda’s assemblage theory for rhetoric and composition. DeLanda often comes up on this blog and has been an important thinker for me for 10-15 years at least. His earlier works were interesting to me but it was Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002) that really demanded my attention as intersecting with and helping me develop my own thoughts at that time related to a Deleuzian posthumanism and new media.

However, aside from my own work, I find little treatment of DeLanda in rhetoric and composition. There are a couple passing references here and there. Those are typically to A New Philosophy of Society, which is a useful text and also one that is likely more accessible to humanists than Intensive Science, Philosophy and Simulation, Assemblage Theory, and some of the other texts that are more heavily mathematical and scientific in their subject matter. As far as I can tell, you won’t find more than a handful of citations of DeLanda across all the traditional major print rhet/comp journals combined. Most have none. His name starts to come up here and there in relation to the recent interest in new materialism, though he’s not often recognized as a central figure there, even though he coined the term in the mid-90s (as did Rosi Braidotti separately at roughly the same time).

One issue I’m not going to get into in the article that instead I’ll take up here is a speculation about why this is the case. I.e., why overlook DeLanda?

  1. The mathematical-scientific content. I already mentioned this, but it bears repeating. It’s not just that DeLanda talks about science. Science studies does that, and rhetoricians can obviously handle science studies. It’s that DeLanda isn’t really doing the critique of science thing. He’s developing a realist philosophy that is consistent with (though expands beyond) empirical science. I will not claim to understand all the science he references. It’s complicated, disciplinary stuff. Usually I get the gist of it, especially with some googling. But it’s hard to digest. Plus it’s a challenge to some entrenched disciplinary views to take up science that way. Maybe that’s a turn off.
  2. Dense philosophical content. To some extent rhet/comp has taken on the Derridas et al of the world. At least there’s been a place for such work. But that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. DeLanda is clearly building on Deleuze (and Guattari), though, especially since Intensive Science he’s developed his own version of assemblage theory. I think you combine that with the math-science stuff and it’s a kind of double-whammy. DeLanda’s aware of this himself, as he notes at the beginning of Intensive Science about the audience dangers of his work: “such a danger is evident in a book like this, which attempts to present the work of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze to an audience of analytical philosophers of science, and of scientists interested in philosophical questions.” Who knows if he ever reached that audience, but one can see how rhetoricians might not see themselves here.
  3. The “realist philosophy” controversy. The notion of proclaiming not only oneself but also Gilles Deleuze to be realist philosophers in the mid-90s might seem to be the height of absurdity. But that’s what DeLanda did. In that same introduction he describes realist philosophers as those “who grant reality full autonomy from the human mind, disregarding the difference between the observable and the unobservable, and the anthropocentrism this distinction implies.” Much of his work since then has gone on to articulate how a realist philosophy might operate without a reliance upon essentialism. To anyone who grew up intellectually bathed in postmodernism the idea of a contemporary realist philosophy seems simply out of bounds.
  4. The historical-material focus. Ours is a text-based field. Our lingering postmodern conceit is to focus on representation and ideology. DeLanda’s work has always been about energy and matter, whether the topic is bonds within atoms or the formation of trans-Atlantic trade routes. Though our discipline has no problem talking about  material consequences when making critiques, we’re almost always beginning and ending with language in a kind of immaterial way, or at least in a way that its materiality isn’t especially significant. I suppose that’s a consequence of being rhetoricians, but it’s also a way that makes DeLanda foreign.
  5. The nonhuman. And by this I mean that DeLanda’s work just isn’t anthropocentric. Of course it is in some respects. He is, after all, a human and likely has a central role in his own work. However, he tends to treat humans as just more assemblages, more individual singularities (i.e. actual, real, material, historical individuals) than as the central actors of history. I know one of the common concerns about new materialism is that it doesn’t grant humans enough agency or that it take agency away or something along those lines. Personally I think it’s very strange that scholars imagine theories have this grand agency-granting power one way or another. This wouldn’t be a realist philosopher’s view. However I would say this. One way that you can test if a realist philosophy has any value is by constructing practices based on its principles. That is, one way we can know the value of science is that its concepts inform technologies that actually work. That’s not to say that science is “true” but that it’s “true enough.” Still, rhetoric is such an anthropocentric discipline that it could be hard to take up theories that are less so like DeLanda’s. However this is the angle I’m taking up in my article–that the value in DeLanda’s realist-assemblage theory might be weighed by how its concepts lead to building things that work.

So those are some hypotheses as to why you don’t see much of DeLanda in rhetorical scholarship. Obviously I think that’s too bad, but one of my pet peeves about scholars is when they insist that others should be citing this or that person more. So I don’t mean to come off that way here. I will say one other thing as way of conclusion. I know that one other complaint about new materialism is that it’s a white male thing. There’s some merit to that (though really there’s a disproportionate number of white men all over the academy so it’s not surprising to find it here too to some degree). I think maybe that complaint does a disservice to the many excellent non-male rhetoricians doing work in new materialism and posthumanism. I’d note, fwiw, that Manuel DeLanda–who I will maintain is a central founding figure of this area of inquiry–is Mexican born in 1952 and living thereuntil arriving in NYC as a young man in 1975 (as near as I can tell from his biography). According to his Wikipedia page he did recently get a phd through the European Graduate School (where he’s the Gilles Deleuze chair) but otherwise he has a BFA and began his professional life as an experimental filmmaker in NYC. I don’t think he’s ever been a tenured professor anywhere. In short, though he has unarguably become one of the most prominent philosophers of our time, he has done so by taking a singular path.

Categories: Author Blogs

the most stupid superintelligence possible

12 July, 2018 - 13:07

I’m reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence as a kind of light reading tangentially related to my scholarly interests. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s basically a warning about the dangers of artificial intelligences spinning out of control. There are plenty of respectable folks out there who have echoed these worries—Hawking, Gates, Musk, etc. And Bostrom himself is certainly an accomplished, serious scholar. Superintelligence is not a hack-job, but more of a popular audience, entertaining treatment of a philosophical problem. There are plenty of places to read counter-arguments, suggesting the unlikely, even nonsensical, elements of this book.

For the sake of argument, let’s agree with the premise that IF AI superintelligence developed that we mere humans wouldn’t understand how that intelligence worked. Our relationship to that AI would be like the relationship between a bug and a human. I think that’s a safe assumption since we don’t understand how our own cognition functions (or even really a bug’s cognition for that matter). We wouldn’t understand how the AI thought, what it thought, or what capacities for action might arise from that thinking.

To get to this, I need to mention what Bostrom terms the “wise-singleton sustainability threshold,” which he defines as “A capability set exceeds the wise-singleton threshold if and only if a patient and existential risk-savvy system with that capability set would, if it faced no intelligent opposition or competition, be able to colonize and re-engineer a large part of the accessible universe.” He notes “One could even argue that Homo sapiens passed the wise-singleton sustainability threshold soon after the species first evolved. Twenty thousand years ago, say, with equipment no fancier than stone axes, bone tools, atlatls, and fire, the human species was perhaps already in a position from which it had an excellent chance of surviving to the present era.” The human analogy is an interesting one. In part it suggests that a superintelligence has already emerged (i.e. us) and one can follow out Bostrom’s alarmism regarding AI to think about how the human superintelligence might destroy the planet before an AI one gets the chance.

Indeed, right now it makes more sense to be concerned about humans than AIs, which is not to say there isn’t time in the day to worry about both I guess.

But let’s think about motivation—what would such an AI do/want to do? Bostrom admits to the difficulty of knowing this. It’s akin to a bug guessing at human motivations. Still he argues that there are a few intermediary goals that we can suspect: self-preservation, goal-content integrity (i.e. seeking to pursue goals, though they might change), cognitive enhancement, technological perfection, and resource acquisition. OK. Those all seem like rational/reasonable things to do. But if humans are the current, extant example of superintelligence then we can hardly say these things explain our motives or actions, either collectively or individually. I mean sometimes they do, but how would they explain my writing this blog post? It’s not self-preservation. It’s not the pursuit of a goal (except in a tautological sense of “I want to write a blog post so I’m writing one”). And I don’t see how it could be about any of the other three either. Why am I doing this? IDK. Ask my therapist. I want to. I enjoy it. I like the way thinking through a blog post feels.

Sure, an AI superintelligence would be far more intelligent than us, so maybe it would behave as Bostrom describes, but this strikes me more as being along the lines of what Bostrom thinks we would do if we were smarter. And I doubt that. Bostrom also writes of humans “Far from being the smartest possible biological species, we are probably better thought of as the stupidest possible biological species capable of starting a technological civilization—a niche we filled because we got there first, not because we are in any sense optimally adapted to it.” Presumably the same might be said of an AI superintelligence. It might seem omnipotent to us, but it wouldn’t be. It would just be the stupidest thing that could outsmart humans.

One of the curious aspects of Bostrom’s imaginings is that for the most part there is only one superintelligence. Even when he considers the notion of a “collective superintelligence” they’re all pieces of single entity. I’m not really sure how a notion of motivation or even intelligence works in the absence of some relation. Now if the premise is that a superintelligent AI would be completely inscrutable to us, then I suppose it might do anything. But you can’t really spin that out into a book manuscript, can you? And I don’t think it would be wholly inscrutable.

Instead, I think it’s necessary to conceive of cognition and agency (i.e. motivation, will, goals, etc.) as emergent in relations to others. A “single” superintelligent being would have little or no cause to think or act. It would end up being no smarter than an amoeba. And really that’s what Bostrom’s monstrous AIs sound like. They are beings driven by a single arbitrary goal (calculating Pi or making paper clips) and end up destroying the world and sucking up all the resources in the available universe to achieve this end. So they grow tremendously in power and sophistication, adding all these new capacities, but never manage to escape from the inane task given to them at the outset by some lazy, unthinking human programmer.

Oddly enough, the problem Bostrom settles on—as near as I can tell—is the same one we have right now as humans. It’s not simply that we don’t know what core value should drive our actions but that language is finally insufficient to articulating such a value.

As you probably already know, it basically comes down to “try to do the right thing, even though I can’t tell you what the right thing will be and most of the time you won’t be certain either. Oh, and when you feel certain it’s probably because the action is fairly rote and inconsequential. If it isn’t rote and you’re certain, then you’ve probably missed something important.”

You don’t have to be superintelligent to know that, and if you fantasize that superintelligent beings will be more certain than us, well then we have very different notions of intelligence. On the other hand if you want to say that we shouldn’t build stupid but powerful killing machines capable of destroying the planet (that is, other than ourselves), then I agree.

Categories: Author Blogs

civility: “You keep using that word…”

2 July, 2018 - 12:23

I don’t think it means what you think it means.

The interesting thing about civility, even in its staid dictionary definition, is that there is this seemingly narrow crack that has become a gulf in American politics. One definition has to do with maintaining civil order and the other is the more familiar one having to do with politeness. Often they could go together, but not necessarily.

Let’s take this back to Aristotle for moment. His virtue ethics are often brought up in the context of civility, though I don’t know that he specifically addressed that concept. Aristotle’s moral virtue is fundamentally defined as a kind of moderation, “a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions.” And civility, particularly the second definition dealing with politeness, is often associated with a moderation of behavior. And sometimes, maybe in most cases, being polite and being moderate appear to be the same thing, but, again, not necessarily.

So now you’ve got these three terms: civility, moderation, and politeness. Of the three, politeness is clearly the most stylized and “rhetorical” (in a pejorative sense). Etymologically, politeness is about polish; it’s about appearance. Politeness moderates behavior inasmuch as it constrains actions to a certain range. However, the assertion that politeness is a virtue is harder maintain. That seems far more situational/contextual, as politeness might provide a cover for all kinds of immoderate behavior. The most cliché example is probably cowardice, as when someone asserts that the reason they did not stand up for what they believed was right was because it would have been impolite to do so.

And of course this is exactly the kind of argument that could be made, and has been made, by those who have been accused of incivility/impoliteness. Indeed, to the contrary, one can easily argue that protesting and confronting politicians in a nonviolent manner are clear examples of moderate, civil behavior: moderate in the sense that clearly there are more extreme possibilities and civil in the sense of abiding to one’s responsibilities as a citizen toward the maintenance of a civil order under threat.

Unsurprising the social media angle is of most interest to me as a scholar. I think it’s quite clear that social media continues to intensify political divisions, and I suppose the underlying question is how irreconcilable are those divisions? I wouldn’t plan on social media being a place where those divisions might heal. I am concerned (I think that’s the right word) that more obvious incivility is about to arise. I think there was a time, not that long ago under Obama, when the notion of the left was one that sought to expand civil rights but also continue to make space for conservative views (not that many on the right saw it that way). Now that the right is quite clearly intent on squashing civil liberties, there is an element on the left that is no longer willing to accept the more tempered views of the past. In other words, since at least the beginnings of the Tea Party movement, the right has had it in mind that the values (and often people) of the left have no place in their future vision of America. And now increasingly those on the left have a similar view of the right; and I’m not sure what the “civil” response is to a politics that is aimed at destroying you. The key question is to what degree do these remain extremist views? And then what happens if/when they are not?

To end with a return to Aristotle: “the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash.” It is courage that defines the moderate virtue.

Courage, of course, is not always civil/polite, but it can have everything to do with the defense of civility, of the civil order of a nation.

Categories: Author Blogs