The kids and I spent part of this evening adding more Halloween decorations to those already up around the house. We encountered something of a problem—we could not achieve spookiness.
The density of decorations is now fairly high—just about every surface is covered. We have illuminated, sneering pumpkins and skulls and gravestones and spiderwebs and several wraiths with glowing eyes and all of that, but it’s just not spooky.
I want to say that something about the new floor, which we recently installed, has changed the dynamic in the room. You’d think that with the shift from carpet to faded driftwood on the floor, the “old cabin in the woods” factor would have increased net spookiness, but it didn’t.
I think that the appearance of old wood is so elemental, so real in some way, that it overpowers the silliness of mere decorations. It looks actually old, actually beyond the human sphere. When the wall-to-wall carpet was in place, the juxtaposition of the “cosy” very synthetic and manufactured carpet with images of forces that lay beyond direct human influence made for “spookiness.” The juxtaposition, the bringing-in of natural (bones) or supernatural (reanimated bones) elements acted as a reminder of the very real limits to human power and control.
But now the entire upstairs floor has the appearance of having come from nature, from a history that is not entirely a human history; the sight of wood grain everywhere is a reminder of nature’s own inscrutable and independent determinsim—or non-determinism, take your pick—and now it’s the plastic skeletons that suddenly look manufactured.
And taken together as a lot, the decorations just aren’t spooky anymore in this new environment. Oh well, them’s the breaks.
— § —
Ironically enough, the floor is actually synthetic—it’s vinyl tile. But it looks like old driftwood. In fact, it does a very good approximation.
So in fact what is happening is a deepening of the synthetic approximation of the transcendent that is overtaking or even wiping out mere icons to the transcendent that are more directly representative.
Rather than pointing to the transcendent, we now simulate and replace it with rather powerful effect and efficacy, and nobody who didn’t do the making or the installing is any the wiser.
I think this is a good microcosm of the human social world right now, found in a surprising (and surprisingly small and domestic) space.
The effects of the natural and the supernatural appear to be real, but they are sustained through highly synthetic simulation of increasingly advanced sophistication.
This reminds me of the “Sophia the robot” phenomenon. Based on what I see, and on the learning that is going on, I suspect that machines of her type will eventually come to seem more likable and more genuine to people than many of their fellow human beings. She will become more human than human by studying humans and by simulating human-ness better and more completely, in her algorithms, than any individual human being can.
There is, after all, a varying amount of the inhuman in all of us. But it is the part that we disclaim, deny, and refuse to look at, under guises of acceptance and justice (at the public level) and simply as a matter of ego (at the personal level).
But engineered machines can excise these parts entirely—which means that it will be more comfortable to be with them. Ideally human through-and-through, with no cognitive or emotional avoidance work to tackle in the process.
I honestly don’t know how I feel about it. The questions are too big.
— § —
In a way, this is all part and parcel of my departure from academics.
You see, there are two levels at which my life is operating right now. One is the day-to-day of practicalities and techniques and production. That continues more or less uncritically and unimpeded.
The other is the big-picture level, the “life, the universe, and everything” level at which Douglas Adams tried to make a joke by answering with “42” and yet in fact, we all know, and he probably knows as well, that this answer is quite serious and may in fact be more empirically true at some deep level than any other answer that’s ever been proposed for “the question.”
Academics claims to operate at the big-picture level, at the end of the day. The “why are we here, what is here, and what is to be done” level. And yet it is wholly inadequate to the task, along multiple axes.
Not only can it not deliver the goods, but it can’t effectively disseminate them, and even what dissemination occurs is intelligible only to a few specialists—and here we return to can’t deliver the goods—who have at best an idiosyncratic, partial, disciplinary perspective that reduces the elephant in each case to a leg, or a tail, or an ear.
I didn’t stop believing in the projects of knowledge or of growth, but rather in the ethos and ideology that proposes that western empiricism (or, for that matter, western anti-empiricism of the social justice variety) are producing knowledge and growth that are actually useful to society in most areas—some STEM fields being the exception here.
But I was not in a STEM field.
We will not fix what ails society by researching society, because society is gestalt humanity and humans are not amenable to crass empiricism.
The solutions that are “working” in the AI space are all emergent, complexity solutions. We pile exponentially more debris up in a system and at some point it begins to come up with solutions that make no sense, shouldn’t work, yet do work and no-one understands why.
This is not a “pure intelligence” phenomenon; circuit and antenna design come to mind here. “There is more in heaven and on earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy.”
Once you acccept that this is actually a literal statement of fact, and that this “more” is almost always complex, emergent, and dispersed (temporally, geographically, materially, conceptually, systematically)—and keep in mind here that so far as I am concerned, “complex, emergent, and dispersed” are merely the insecure, reluctant pedant’s terms fo “transcendental,” well…
I just stopped knowing what it was for beyond providing social capital to a few elites. Of which I was unlikely to be one in the end, as is everyone who plays that lottery.
But that’s the crux of the issue—I stopped knowing what it was for.
— § —
It isn’t quite fair to pick on the academy, however, at this juncture.
There are a great many things in my life to which this statement could apply. And a great many things in social or public life.
I’ve said it before, but I think it’s worth saying again—something has broken in the social body. These ruptures happen from time to time throughout human history. Now is such a time. Something has broken, and it will not be fixed. Rather, the rupture will be made obsolete by the emergence of some new emergent configuration, some new state of temporary equilibrium that can neither be engineered nor predicted. That’s the social-scale prognosis.
The individual-scale prognosis is that there is no individual-scale prognosis; I increasingly find that to be an illusion. The transcendental is by definition a phenomenon that is experenced as not-individual or inhering-in-the-self and it is invariably not epiphenomenal to or embodied by the self.
This truth is orthogonal to the dominant culture’s values, which are all about the presumption that the transcendental is, in fact, purely about epiphenomena of selfhood and the presumption that there is nothing beyond the human self.
This even as we increasingly learn to make humans that are more human than human and wood that is more wooden than wood using methods that are more natural than nature in our inability to understand them and in their incredibly deep and transcendental and ineffable scope and operation.
— § —
I suspect that this is, in fact, the nature of the problem.
The epistemology of the moment misconstrues itself and, as a result, also the ontology of the moment. The social rupture in our time is a rupture in immanence; there is a particular social matter embedded in a structural fabric and architecture of social antimatter, and we take both for granted and as true.
This state of affairs does not continue without explosion, annihilation, and a tremendous release of energy, followed by the formations of new objects and threats of history, material and otherwise.
— § —
In short, Halloween decorations are no longer spooky because we have realized that science, too, has led us in the end to the supernatural, and we rely on it and are embedded in it more and more each day in the course of our regular lives.
And yet—at the same time—we disclaim the supernatural more than we ever have before, do not see it hanging in the air of ambient infrastructure (though honestly it no longer feels right to call this infrastructure, as that term belongs to a different era possessed of a very different technics and metaphysics) and sanction against speaking or thinking of it.
We are die-hard rationalists and empiricists in a supernatural world of our own making which demonstrates empirically that rationalism and empiricism lead also to the supernatural—that rationalized production of instrumentally applicable affordances does not apply, despite instrumental applicability, that these affordances are themselves rational, and indeed, the better and more applicable they become, the more they are not—and the more we descend into the world of scientific witchcraft, of enlightened sorcery.
When Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic, he no doubt did not imagine that the appearance of magic was such for the parents of such technology.
In fact, it is.
And this state of affairs is irreconcilable with either modern or postmodern cultural norms. What is required—and what will no doubt emerge—is a new hypermodern medievalism or monasticism; the return of the convent, the abbey, the monastery, this time in the ambient ocean of AI, genetic algorithms, and material automation under their auspices, which are every bit as mysterious, all-powerful, and distant from us as god, despite our having created them.
— § —
Consider the implications of the coming singularity—which now seems all but inevitable—in this light.
In our compulsion to reject god and his suggestion that what we are good for is to serve, not to rule, we decided to go so far as to create god again anew, from whole cloth, to prove who is master.
And having done so, we will find that we once again can neither fathom nor control the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful entity—if indeed it is even that, as once again we do not clearly know—that we have created.
Even what it all means eludes us, infuriatingly, once again, apart from the unavoidable conclusion that if even when we attempt to seize control of the universe and do so successfully, we are left to serve and submit to our own creations.
In short, the human self is very small indeed, and what the culture refuses to come to terms with, even as it embodies this truth to a greater and greater degree, is that our is not to rule, but to serve—and we must make our peace with and find our meanings in that, because once you have killed god, then successfully produced god anew, and you are still neither god nor capable of understanding or even tolerating him, well—
after that, there is no “ultimate metaphysics Plan B” to fall back on.
In even shorter, “That’s your lot, mate.”
— § —
We refuse to accept that it is so, even as we race toward proving that it is so.
We cannot square this circle, and norms and the social fabric compel us not to try and never to concede. This is the deep, ultimate-end-of-things problem with the academy, the economy, the state, religion, and the broader society right now—and with Halloween decorations.
We’ve tossed the fun into the fire, succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, and still have nothing to show for it—because we cannot grok and thus refuse to accept the answer to (not the question of) human life as a phenomenon.
We are very close to having calculated it, and after all this work and the needless death and multiple resurrections of diety, it does in fact look to be… forty-two. Much to our chagrin.
So we refuse to cope and we go on sanitizing more telephones under the auspices of a sound diversity and progress policy that grows ever-more draconian and utopian in our frustration and inadequacy, and we hang out some more neutered skeletons for Halloween as we go.
— § —
Ours appears to be to serve, forever. We must learn to cope.