Anyone who interacts with the web should read Jaron Lanier's You are not a Gadget. Given you are reading this blog, this means you.
More than a constructive critique of the current trajectory of the web, the work offers a powerful meditation on the value of human beings in an increasingly computerized world. The book is notable for several reasons:
1) It passionately articulates a coherent, thoughtful position that challenges the dominant internet ideologies.
2) It's political in the best sense of the word: speaking from experience married to reflection and with the goal of finding a path forward to advance the public good.
3) It's eminently readable and clear in conveying big think computer science -- not an easy task.
I'm tempted to say that Lanier our modern day Martin Luther, challenging orthodoxy in the name of deeper principles:
Are people just one form of information system, one form of gadget? The old debates about God are now also about us. For instance, when I suggest we should act as if we're real -- as if consciousness and experience exist, just in case it turns out we are real -- I am retooling Pascal's famous wager about God, but in this case applied to people.
This might turn out to be the greatest change wrought by Turing: bring the struggles of spirituality and humanism into alignment.
Because I am not as pithy as some of the other Stag Staffers, I will continue to quote Lanier at length. Below is likely the most prophetic -- and certainly the boldest -- idea in his book:
Suppose we had the ability to morph at will, as fast as we can think. What sort of language might that make possible? Would it be the same old conversation, or would we be able to "say" new things to one another?
For instance, instead of saying, "I'm hungry; let's go crab hunting," you might simulate your own transparency so your friends could see your empty stomach, or you might turn into a video game about crab hunting so you and your compatriots could get in a little practice before the actual hunt.
I call this possibility "postsymbolic communication." It can be a hard idea to think about, but I find it enormously exciting. It would not suggest an annihilation of language as we know it -- symbolic communication would continue to exist -- but it would give rise to a vivid expansion of meaning.
Understatement of the day! That would change the very foundation of the human experience and potentially for the better.
This speculative notion of post-symbolic communication strikes me as having an interesting intersection with mathematics, which in many ways is a pre-symbolic activity.* Notice how Andrew Wiles -- the man famous for proving Fermat's last theorem -- describes doing mathematics:
“You enter the first room of the mansion and it’s completely dark. You stumble around bumping into the furniture but gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is. Finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, you turn it on, and suddenly it’s all illuminated. You can see exactly where you were. Then you move into the next room and spend another six months in the dark. So each of these breakthroughs, while sometimes they’re momentary, sometimes over a period of a day or two, they are the culmination of, and couldn’t exist without, the many months of stumbling around in the dark that precede them.”
Yes often when we think of mathematics we think of symbols woven together into equations, but that in many ways the result -- not the action -- of mathematics. Doing math is an intensely creative activity -- requiring one to build new worlds and explore what deep patterns emerge from the resulting structures.
And there are deep reasons why there is no consensus definition for mathematics. The field operates in an imaginative territory of pure ideals and the words we try to map it with cannot but fall short in describing its elegance. It is also the only domain of human knowledge this Stag Staffer is aware of whose knowledge has stood the test of thousands of years. The proof of the irrationality of the square root of two is as true today as it was during the life of Aristotle.
Moreover, mathematics is a form of human communication that transcends race, language, and creed. There is a reason why we always use math to talk to the aliens in science fiction movies -- despite the fact that we have zero evidence for this being a profitable strategy (N = 0).
It would not be a stretch to say that without symbols, human civilization would not exist. Writing for instance enables us to be more than the sum of an individual human life, incorporating the insights of others from experiences and time periods very different than our own. Yet the symbolic process necessarily is reductionist, abstracting away from the realities of how we as humans actually live our lives.
In that way, it strikes this Stag Staffer that Lanier's post-symbolic communication may be the next great step towards realizing humanity's potential.
*Note this Stag Staffer majored in mathematics as an undergrad and makes a living using mathematical tools in his professional career but in no meaningful way is he a mathematician. He's just not that clever. He does however dabble in philosophy, which of course gives one carte blanche to speculate wildly on just about anything.
The Atlantic on the future of maps, which are a key symbology but not the end all be all for representing geospatial information:
Think of it this way. In the days before online trip planners and GPS, if you wanted to know how to get from point A to point B, you would look at a map and trace out a route. But these days few people would use a map that way (I still do just because I enjoy the process but I think I'm in the minority). Instead, they would plug in their request and an algorithm would spit out a route for them. The route would appear on the map, but the map is no longer the tool for finding that answer.
Imagine: rather than showing a friend how to get from A to B by tracing a symbolic path through a map representing the relevant territory, just throw on some Google-esque Glasses and navigate them through an image of the actual territory. Don't say "turn left at the third stop sign"; show them three stop signs and turn left.
Seems like a not-too-distant avenue for some postsymbolic communication.
Also fun to imagine what's possible in terms of augmenting actual trips with relevant information highlighted -- say water quality data vizualized for a policy driven inquiry along of an aquaduct. If nothing else, could make for some awesome fieldtrips.
To Parsons, maps can be so much more than maps. They can be all the information that exists in physical space, and then a layer of intelligence that can put that information to use. He says in the interview, "How can we almost predict the sorts of information that you're going to need in your day to day life? Can I say, uh well, this morning you've got an extra 20 minutes to have your breakfast cereal because the train you normally take has been delayed. You haven't asked me that, but I know because of what you do usually, and I've got these various feeds of data that are contextual. I can start to make those decisions for you." Of course, he notes, Google's going to have proceed with caution as it rolls out these kinds of services because "there's kind of a fine line that you run between this being really useful and it being creepy." That's going to be pretty tough to get around.
It's common when we discuss the future of maps to reference the Borgesian dream of a 1:1 map of the entire world. It seems like a ridiculous notion that we would need a complete representation of the world when we already have the world itself. But to take scholar Nathan Jurgenson's conception of augmented reality seriously, we would have to believe that every physical space is, in his words, "interpenetrated" with information. All physical spaces already are also informational spaces. We humans all hold a Borgesian map in our heads of the places we know that we use to navigate and compute physical space. Google's strategy is to bring all our mental maps together and process them into accessible, useful forms.
And some more great material from the Guardian on Google and the Future of Search:
Five years ago, when John Battelle wrote his book The Search, which is still the definitive history of the subject, he concluded by imagining a future directly out of Isaac Asimov's science fiction. "All collected data had come to a final end. Nothing was left to be collected. But all collected data had yet to be completely correlated and put together in all possible relationships. A timeless interval was spent doing that."
Knowledge Graph, you might say, is the beginning of that "timeless interval". Google has already come closer than anyone could ever have imagined to the "nothing was left to be collected" part of that equation. It is in searchable possession not only of the trillions of pages of the world wide web, but it is well on the way to photographing all the world's streets, of scanning all the world's books, of collecting every video uploaded to the public internet, mostly on its own YouTube. In recent years, it has been assiduously accumulating as much human voice recording as possible, in all the languages and dialects under the sun, in order to power its translation and voice recognition projects. It is doing the same for face recognition in films and photographs. Not to mention the barely used possibilities of the great mass of information Google possesses regarding the interests and communications and movements and search history of just about everyone with a phone or an internet connection.
Two ponderous thoughts:
1) If we've learned anything from Huell Howser, isn't it that there is an infinity of local knowledge that cannot be mapped? He always said he could do his show forever in a 5 mile radius.
2) Isn't there value in the struggle of an old fashioned search? I'm reminded of Ian Malcom's point about karate in Jurassic Park: when you have to work to attain mastery over a power, you tend to be much more discrete about it's use.
Another thoughtful view from the Guardian:
For some, the ubiquity of maps – the way they are seeping into every corner of our "real", concrete world – triggers more nebulous, philosophical worries. With maps always in our pockets, or literally in front of our eyes, might we lose the ability to wander, and to get lost? If we're constantly glancing at our phones, or being bombarded by extra layers of data about where we're going, won't we become disconnected from the world around us? Is there something beneficial in having to stop to ask directions – an experience that will probably all but vanish, for most of us, in the next few years?
Cartographers don't seem to see things this way. "I actually think it's easier to get lost these days," says Heyman. "Now, when I get to a new city, I can walk off wherever I like, without caring, because I know I'll be able to get back, consequence-free." And the idea that we're losing touch with reality doesn't hold water, argues Brotton. "It's actually much more interesting than that." The really important question is: who controls the specific filters on which we're increasingly coming to rely? "Google and Apple are saying that they want control over people's real and imagined space."
Which brings us to the core of the matter. It can be easy to assume that maps are objective: that the world is out there, and that a good map is one that represents it accurately. But that's not true. Any square mile of the planet can be described in an infinite number of ways: in terms of its natural features, its weather, its socio-economic profile, or what you can buy in the shops there. Traditionally, the interests reflected in maps have been those of states and their armies, because they were the ones who did the mapmaking, and the primary use of many such maps was military. (If you had the better maps, you stood a good chance of winning the battle. The Ordnance Survey's logo still includes a visual reference to the 18th-century War Department.) Now, the power is shifting. "Every map," the cartography curator Lucy Fellowes once said, "is someone's way of getting you to look at the world his or her way." What happens when we come to see the world, to a significant extent, through the eyes of a handful of big companies based in California? You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist, or an anti-corporate crusader, to wonder about the subtle ways in which their values and interests might come to shape our lives.
The question cartographers are always being asked at cocktail parties, says Heyman, is whether there's really any mapmaking still left to do: we've mapped the whole planet already, haven't we? The question could hardly be more misconceived. We are just beginning to grasp what it means to live in a world in which maps are everywhere – and in which, by using maps, we are mapped ourselves.
Mapping the state of human physics knowledge in 1939 -- where's the terra incognita?
A visual history of financial crises using data from This Time It's Different.
Another fascinating view in a related space from Bret Victor -- learnable programming.
Maps have always related and realigned our history; increasingly, we're ceding control of that history to the cold precision of the computer. With this comes great responsibility. Leading mapmakers used to be scattered around the world, all lending their distinctive talents and interpretations. These days by far the most influential are concentrated in one place—Mountain View, Calif., home of the Googleplex.
There is something disappointing about the austere potential perfection of the new maps. The satellites above us have seen all there is to see of the world; technically, they have mapped it all. But satellites know nothing of the beauty of hand-drawn maps, with their Spanish galleons and sea monsters, and they cannot comprehend wanderlust and the desire for discovery. Today we can locate the smallest hamlet in sub-Saharan Africa or the Yukon, but can we claim that we know them any better? Do the irregular and unpredictable fancies of the older maps more accurately reflect the strangeness of the world?
The uncertainty that was once an unavoidable part or our relationship with maps has been replaced by a false sense of Wi-Fi-enabled omnipotence. Digital maps are the enemies of wonder. They suppress our urge to experiment and (usually) steer us from error—but what could be more irrepressibly human than those very things?
Although I would argue that their are deeper forces at work and some strong counterexamples of maps still full of life and mystery. Very interesting dialogue that gets at some deep facets of the human condition.
I was recently reading Berman Marshall's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air and came across this passage from Marshall McLuhan, which seems incredibly apt in light of the discussion on post-symbolic communication.
Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to bypass languages in favour of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson. The condition of weightlessness," that biologists say promises a physical immortality, may be parallelled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.