MonthSeptember 2013

If You Plug Twitter Into a Digital Avatar, Can You Live Forever?

New article from me at Wired:

In one episode of Black Mirror — the British television series that explores the near future of technology with an edginess reminiscent of The Twilight Zone — a woman’s husband dies, and she replaces him with a robot.

This walking automaton looks like him and talks like him, and it even acts like him, after plugging into his Twitter account and analyzing every tweet he ever sent.

Yes, that’s a far cry from reality, but it’s not as far as you might think. With an online service called Lifenaut, an operation called the Terasem Movement Foundation offers a means of digitally cloning yourself through a series of personality tests and data from your social media profiles. The idea is to create an online version of you that can live forever, a digital avatar that even future generations can talk to and interact with. Eventually, Terasem wants to transform these avatars into walking, talking robots — just like on Black Mirror. And today, it provides a more primitive version, for free. [...]

But Dale Carrico, a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley, is skeptical. To say the least. He says that the folks at Terasem and other “transhumanists” — those who believe the human body can be radically enhanced or even transcended entirely through technology — are pursing pipe dreams. He doesn’t even give them create for trying. “The trying is evidence only of the depth of their misunderstanding, not of their worthy diligence,” he says. Simply put, an avatar isn’t a person — in any meaningful sense.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: If You Plug Twitter Into a Digital Avatar, Can You Live Forever?

My avatar is embedded in the story so you can chat with it.

On Data Havens, Resilience and the Death of the Nation State

I just came across this interview with hacker and activist Eleanor Saitta from last year:

I think we’re going to (necessarily) see a shift over the next fifty years in the kinds of energy interdependencies that we see in the world. We must; the old way will not hold. One way or another, we must anticipate a lower-energy future with little or no fossil fuel movement.

Finance, is composed of one part politics, one part extortion and violence, and one part coordination. The network does coordination and politics very differently, in ways that make more sense for it. While I’m not talking about some kind of mythical post-monetary future, I do think the territory there will change just as much in energy. We may not have (mass) global energy flows, but we will have global trade, global coordination, and global politics, in the service of the network whole. What the violence of finance means in a network context is still to be determined; we have some hints, though.

There will be resistance to this shift from those empowered by the old order. There is already resistance, and it will only get worse. However, the past has already lost its war with the future; it doesn’t understand this yet, but it will learn. Now, what remains to be seen is whether or not this network future is any kind of improvement for actual human lives caught in the middle. Some good changes will likely happen, and there is a vast potential, but it’s unclear if that potential will become real.

[...] I joke that my ten year stretch goal is to kill the nation state, but really, I don’t think that’s particularly necessary. There will always be territorial organizational structures, but they’re only one possible structure among many that can interact. I favor building up new alternatives, starting now. If we somehow magically did manage to destroy the nation state before there was anything to replace it, we’d all, quite frankly, be fucked. I’m a road fetishist. I really like roads. And power. And food. Those are all currently mostly provided by or coordinated through the state. Kill the state now, and life looks grim.

That said, waiting until you’ve got a fully functional alternative before taking any kind of political action aimed at common emancipation is equally dumb, as is investing more effort in actively hostile systems when you can’t actually change them. I’m a realist, in the end. I want less suffering, for everyone, in both the short and long term, and that doesn’t come out of the barrel of any one ideology, just as surely as it isn’t going to come by sticking to the straight and narrow of our status quo handbasket.

Full Story: Metahaven: Decentralization, Design, and the Cloud: Metahaven in Conversation with Eleanor Saitta

See Also:

Eleanor Saitta: Venture Warlordism

In Which Civil Society is Caught Between a Cop and a Spy

Change.org Isn’t a Non-Profit, and It’s Selling Your E-Mail Address to Fundraisers

My latest for Wired:

What many people fail to realize is that Change.org isn’t a non-profit organization. Though anyone can set up a petition for free, the company makes an awful lot of money from all the data it collects about its online petitions and the people who sign them. It’s not just a path to The People. It’s a Google-like Big Data play.

In amassing data from its 45 million users and the 660,000 petitions they’ve created and signed, the company has unprecedented insight into the habits of online activists. If you sign one animal rights petition, the company says, you’re 2.29 times more likely to sign a criminal justice petition. And if you sign a criminal justice petition, you’re 6.3 times more likely to sign an economic justice petition. And 4.4 times more likely to sign an immigrant rights petition. And four times more likely to sign an education petition. And so on.

Change.org uses this data to serve you petitions you’re more likely to be interested in. And, in many cases, it also uses the stuff as a way of pairing you with paying sponsors you’re more likely to give money to.

It’s an intriguing business, and as it turns out, a rather lucrative one. But for some, it also toes an ethical line. “We’ve sort of created an email industrial complex where we’ll do anything to get people’s email address,” says Clay Johnson, a Presidential Innovation Fellow who, in 2004, co-founded Blue State Digital, a for-profit consulting company that helped develop the Obama campaign’s finely targeted fundraising system.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Meet Change.org, the Google of Modern Politics

Data Geeks Say War, Not Agriculture, Spawned Complex Societies

My latest for Wired:

Cliodynamics is a field of study created by Peter Turchin in the early 2000s. The idea is to use data as a means of predicting the future, but also as a way of testing theories about what happened in the past. You build a model that seeks to explain history, and then you test this model using real historical data.

The movement’s latest aim is to analyze the origins of complex societies. In a paper published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Turchin and a trans-disciplinary team from the University of Connecticut, University of Exeter, and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis attempt to overturn the long standing belief that large-scale states are the product of agriculture.

Early humans were hunter-gatherers. They had relatively simple social structures, which consisted of perhaps a few dozen people, all of whom knew each other, and they didn’t engage in complex cooperative tasks. But eventually, complex societies evolved — complete with governments, armies, agriculture, education, and other large scale, cooperative projects. With their paper, Turchin and his collaborators analyzed the spread of the social norms that allowed societies to expand across millions of people.

“You cannot have a large state without bureaucrats, but bureaucrats are expensive. You have to pay them,” he says. “So the big question is how do complex societies evolve when they are so expensive?”

The standard theory, which Turchin calls the “bottom up” theory, is that humans invented agriculture around 10,000 years ago, providing resource surpluses that freed people up for other ventures. But what Turchin and his team have found is that the bottom-up theory is wrong, or at least incomplete. “Competitions between societies, which historically took the form of warfare, drive the evolution of complex societies,” he says.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Data Geeks Say War, Not Agriculture, Spawned Complex Societies

While this doesn’t prove that war pre-dates agriculture, it does challenge some ideas about the origins of war.

See Also:

My article on Cliodynamics

Researchers Say Humans Didn’t Wipe Out the Neanderthals

Zero Hours: Precariat Design Fiction

Tim Maughan uses design fiction to sketch a vision of our precarious future:

Nicki is awake even before her mum calls her from the other side of the door. She’s sat up in bed, crackly FM radio ebbing from tiny supermarket grade speakers, her fingers flicking across her charity shop grade tablet’s touchscreen. She’s close to shutting down two auctions when a third pushes itself across her screen with it’s familiar white and green branded arrogance. Starbucks. Oxford Circus. 4 hour shift from 1415.

She sighs, dismisses it. She’s not even sure why she still keeps that notification running. Starbucks, the holy fucking grail. But she can’t go there, can’t even try, without that elusive Barista badge.

Which is why she’s been betting like mad on this Pret a Manger auction, dropping her hourly down to near pointless levels. It says it’s in back of house food prep, but she’s seen the forum stories, the other z-contractors who always say take any job where they serve coffee, just in case. That’s how I did it, they say, forced my way in, all bright faces and make up and flirting and ‘this coffee machine looks AMAZING how does it work?’ and then pow, Barista badge.

Full Story: Medium: Zero Hours

Bram E. Gieben’s “Search Engine” is sort of a journalist/blogger’s version of this scenario.

See also:

Homeless, Unemployed, and Surviving on Bitcoins

Willing to Work But Too Tired to Hussle

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman Talks About the Precariat

Alan Moore: I am not the Northampton Clown but it might be my fault

Northampton Clown

Alan Moore tells Northampton News:

“Apparently there had been a certain amount of comment on the internet suggesting probably some connection. No it’s not me.

“I am getting kind of used to this. After having a comic strip I wrote 30 years ago spewing masked anarchists across the global political stage for the past couple of years. Things that I write do have a tendency to spill into reality. Since that was one of the principles behind Jimmy’s End [an episode in The Show] – to blur the boundaries between one and the other – I suppose that getting clowns manifesting in my neighbourhood is only to be expected.

“We had only just done that thing on Kickstarter with His Heavy Heart which starts shooting in a few weeks. I had said it was about Strippers and Clowns. The suggestion is that there is some kind of dream time existing under Northampton and that occasionally things will break through from one realm to the other. It is just a demonstration that Jimmy’s End is a kind of a documentary. It’s reportage. We are not just making this shit up.”

Full Story: Northampton News: Alan Moore: I am not the Northampton Clown but it might be my fault

(via John Reppion)

Willing to Work, But Too Tired to Hustle

willing-to-work

Community college teacher Nicole Matos writes:

There’s vanishingly little excitement, to tell you the truth. There’s just explicitly, and I don’t think entirely naively, the longing for a job where you do one thing, easily described, for a long term, and get predictably and sufficiently paid for what you do.

My students don’t want to be Astronauts. They want to be, sort of, Post Office clerks—with a 9-5 and a pension plan.

And, in that case, I don’t know how to break it to them. I don’t know how to sell the alternative—the more realistic future of work, that sort of chance, the chanciest chance I’ve ever sold.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the competitive capacity of my students; if anything, they seem more experienced in cutthroat competition than ever before. What is exhausted—just worn and jaded, from constant use, and such challenging odds of reward—is their inner reserves. Their belief that hustle can actually, well, work. And their trust that a hustle-world—a world of contingent, not permanent, labor; of setting your own path, not following the path of a established bureaucracy; and of preparing, always preparing, not for the present, but for the as-yet-unimagined-job-that’s-next—will be a good one, an equitable one, a world they’ll want to join. Or that will include a place for them, even if they do.

Full Story: Medium: Too Tired to Hustle

Sounds like precariat burnout to me.

KZSU Interview with Klintron, Recording and Transcript

If you missed me on 90.1 KZSU Stanford ThermoNuclear Bar last week you can now check it out on SoundCloud, or read the transcript below. We talked about the occult, conspiracy theory, EsoZone, Portland, Psychetect, Mindful Cyborgs, the Indie Web.

Here’s a sample:

S1: Where do you see then your variety of your projects going? I mean we have talked about this earlier. I had said that Technoccult was one sphere, and Psychetect was another, Mindful Cyborgs was another. If you saw any relation between the three other than just you happen to be in the middle or do you see any sort of end-goal coming up for you?

KF: In terms of an end-goal, I think the purpose of all of these has always been to find some way to engage with other people in a way that’s meaningful for both of us. I guess, it’s kind of an abstract way of talking about it, but something like Psychetect is just a different way of expressing myself and hopefully of communicating with people. Things like Technoccult and Mindful Cyborgs are more directly communicative projects. I think the only thing that they all have in common is a general interest in thoughts and thinking and consciousness. I guess, the overriding idea of Psychetect is to kind of create audio representations of thoughts or of sort of mental spaces that I don’t feel like I can describe with words. There’s I guess an overlap with something like Mindful Cyborgs where a big part of what we’re talking about is what it feels like to think in a world where you’re always connected to the rest of the world via the Internet and everything you do is being measured by somebody.

Full transcript

(Previously: G-Spot interview with me about Psychetect)

I should also mention that PDX Occulture is still sort of around, and that though EsoZone is gone, Weird Shift Con has emerged to fill that void (though I don’t have anything to do with organizing it).

Continue reading

Mindful Cyborgs and Contemplative Computing, Part 2

alex-pang

The second part of the Mindful Cyborgs interview with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul is up.

Here’s a taste:

CD: One more question on this concept: you speak of a digital Sabbath which I don’t know if you listen to the show of Nathan Jurgenson. Today, August 9th Nathan Jurgenson’s basically on Twitter having a minor meltdown listening to people struggle with what he calls digital dualism, so this pathologizing of an online versus offline reality. I don’t know because I’ve never asked Nathan how he feels about a digital Sabbath but I would think he would say is probably the most dualistic thing you could do.

To that point I personally tweeted out recently celebrating your ability to unplug is the fastest way to declare a pathological relationship between yourself and your data. Are you pro-digital Sabbath because your mind just needs a break or I mean, do you literally think that we need it because this is so unhealthy we need to detach from it and make it something separate?

ASP: First of, I think Nathan’s meltdown is a perfect example of why you shouldn’t go to academic conferences because there’s this sociological association like now. It’s a toxic environment so stay away.

There has in the last few months been this kind of fetishization of digital detoxes. That’s an idea that the cool kids are putting their things down and they are going off to the woods and playing Shuffleboard.

CD: It helps when you’re making $300,000 or $400,000 a year that you can put your phone away a lot easier by the way.

ASP: Exactly. Yes. And the fact that there are a couple of Caribbean islands and some resorts in Tahiti and Thailand who are starting to advertise themselves as digital detox centers only adds to this, but this is to say that any beneficial activity can be turned into a status symbol. We’ve seen this with yoga, with organic food or sending your kid to a progressive school anything like this can be turned into a status symbol and I think that shouldn’t detract from recognizing a couple of things and one of them is that it’s totally reasonable to want to take a break from things that you love.

I love my kids but they’re at camp right now and when I get up in the morning I was thank God, they’re at camp. I’ll have them be on 50 weeks of the year. It’s cool to have a little break.

You can find the episode on SoundcloudiTunes and Stitcher, or download it directly.

Oh, and see also my article on Pang’s book.

Transcript and show notes

Continue reading

He Treats Objects Like Women, Man

davecat

The Atlantic interviews Davecat, a man who is “married” to a synthetic women. You might remember him from the Guys and Dolls documentary:

When did you start feeling like Sidore was not just a sex toy but someone/something you were in a relationship with?

It actually didn’t take me too long to regard Shi-chan as a synthetic person, and not simply a thing; it occurred pretty much when I opened her crate for the first time. I was immediately stunned by her lifelike beauty, and after I mentally collected myself, extracted her from her crate, and sat her down on the couch, I just held her in my arms for a while. It felt so right and natural, if you’ll pardon the pun. It seemed perfectly normal for me to treat something that resembles an organic woman the same way I’d treat an actual organic woman.

Part of the (sexual) appeal of synthetics is how much they look like their organic counterparts. If you have a robot shaped like a refrigerator, that won’t have as much draw as a robot in the shape of a human; people will be more willing to interact with the human-shaped one. Further still, if that humanoid robot has artificial skin and sounds like a human, most people dealing with it are more than likely to even have a moment where they forget it’s a robot. With Sidore, her draw was instantaneous. There was never a moment when Shi-chan—or any Doll, for that matter—was merely an object to me.

Full Story: The Atlantic: Married to a Doll: Why One Man Advocates Synthetic Love

(via Rahel Aima)

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