For the next sixty seconds… (If you were born after Civil Defense aired these commercials, it’s your loss.) I’ve been reading about animal intelligence—there will be more on this anon. Today’s lesson is on artificial intelligence. For now let this be an illustration of how difficult it is to come down from an inspired weekend to the daily technology-enhanced drudgery we call day-to-day life. One of the real joys of seeing art in person is that no tech intervenes in the experience. It is naked exposure to another human being’s expression of her or himself. Over the weekend we wandered through five venues of intense creativity and then, back home, it was once more into the web. The ever-entangling internet of things.
I write, for better or for worse, on my laptop. My writing’s actually better on paper, but you need everything in electronic form for publication, so who has the time to write and retype, especially when work is ten hours of your day? Then a system update alert flashes in the upper right corner of my screen. “Okay,” I say setting the laptop aside, “go ahead and update.” But then the message that states I have to clear enough gigs for an update. I have been a little too creative and I’ve used my disc space for stuff I’ve made rather than Apple. This is a test. Okay, so I plug in my trusty terabyte drive to back things up before deleting them. But the laptop doesn’t recognize the drive. Oh, so it needs a reboot! (Don’t we all?) I give the command to restart. It can’t because some app refuses to quit beach-balling, as if it is the computer that’s doing the actual thinking. Force quit. “Are you sure?” the Mac cheekily asks. “You might lose unsaved changes.” I need a technological evangelist, I guess.
All of this takes time away from my precious few minutes of daily creativity. Restart, login, start copying files. Time for work! Just a mere sixty hours ago or less I was wandering through showcases of genuine human creation. Art pieces that make you stop and ponder, and not have to upgrade the software. Artists can talk to you and shake your hand. Explain what they’ve tried to express in human terms. Meanwhile my phone had died and was pouting while I charged it. I know Apple wants me to upgrade my hardware—their technological extortion is well known. Anyone who uses a computer experiences it. Buy a new one or I’ll waste your time. The choice is yours. This is a test. For the next sixty years…
Now, I don’t know how often you have to compile a bibliography, but it’s harder than it used to be.Some time ago—my hardware’s a bit aged, so I can’t remember exactly when—Apple products wouldn’t run Microsoft software.In one of those turf wars that occasionally break out among those who vie for technical control of the world, the two companies divorced for a period.As a result, when I open Word files on my Mac, they become “Pages” documents.That’s fine; since I use a variety of word processors I can usually figure them out fairly readily.One thing, however, that both Word and Pages do is to assume they know what you’re trying to do.Software engineers control “smart options” so that when, for example, you’re working on a numbered list (or lettered list) it automatically goes to the next number or letter, formatting happily as it goes.
I have an article coming out in a collection of essays and I had to put a bibliography together.One of the books was, unfortunately, written by an author who styled himself with an initial for his first name.Since that initial was “A.” I had great difficulty convincing Pages (as I would have Word) that I was not trying to start a lettered list.I was trying to build a bibliography.No matter what I did—copy and paste, retype, hit “delete” til my fingers bled—it simply would not change this A. from a numbered list (just as it likes to capitalize the word that comes after a period automatically) to regular text.I finally had to retype the whole entry, careful not to put the first initial first, so that Pages wouldn’t reform everything with no option to shut that feature off. I later snuck in while Pages was dozing and added the A.
Early on, I admit, the footnote function in Word saved premature graying.Having typed—literally typed—many a college paper only to find that I’d misjudged the spacing required for footnotes and having to retype the entire page, I appreciated this auto-function.It was great to have an option where an algorithm could figure out all the spacing for you, and all you had to do was enter data.Now, however, word processors think in terms of the lowest common denominator.If you begin with “A.” you naturally will be progressing to “B.”Apparently there is no other reason that a sentient being would begin with “A.” And of course bibliography begins with “B.”
A few years ago my wife bought me a smart phone. Being lifelong Mac users, the iPhone was the model of choice. I don’t have the intense connectivity issues of the young, I guess, so I don’t use it for texting or surfing the net. It’s great for holding bus tickets, though, and navigating in unfamiliar places. I’ve grown quite used to the convenience of having the internet in my pocket. Such a smart device. Naturally, one smart device in a family will breed others. We all have iPhones now. Like most Apple products they’re hermetically sealed and have few moving parts. The user need not know what goes on inside. It’s the very definition of a black box.
Then my wife’s phone went rogue. Suddenly it stopped picking up 3G signals (these are older models, after all). Now, you can’t just open up a black box and look inside. Even if you could I’d have no idea what I would be looking at. So I called tech support. My wife keeps music and photos on her phone, so we didn’t want to lose anything. Little did I realize that I’d just committed two-and-a-half hours of my life to phone repair. Before I was done, I would come to know six discrete people at differing levels of intimacy as we worked together to figure out what might make a black box tick. I spoke to Apple support and our service carrier. They put us back through to Apple support, and they had to call us back because the process was a lengthy one. In the end, it worked. The phone was restored to its former glory, but I had lost one of the very brief evenings I have.
One of the typical sci-fi, or apocalyptic, scenarios is the person or civilization that builds something s/he it can’t control. Like a biblical plague, we’ve unleashed a technology that makes our lives oh so much easier but ever so much more complicated. In addition to our professional expertise, we all need to understand, to some degree, technology. Technology and deity have begun to share blurred lines. It’s as if many believe it will save us. At the end of the day, however, we have to assert that it is here to serve us. We are the gods and technology represents the lowly beings we’ve created to do our bidding. Then again, those who read ancient stories know what happens when the gods create a servant race. I’m lucky that all it cost me was two-and-a-half hours, and not some even greater sacrifice.
I think Steve Bannon has already taken over my computer. How else can I explain everything stopping in the middle of a word, fingers flying, building up to some rhetorical flourish and suddenly the screen goes blank. Windows that I’d forgotten I had open reappear only to shut down. A brief message appears telling me that an “update” is being installed. I don’t mind do I? After all, it’s the middle of the night. Who’s watching in the middle of the night? We all know who the real president is, but why he’s interested in my muddled musings is anybody’s guess.
You see, I live a regimented life. You have to when your bus arrives before 6 a.m. I crawl reluctantly from my bed at 3:30 for one purpose only—to write. The commute and work take about 14 hours of the 24 I’m allotted every day, and I’m told that 8 of the remaining should be for sleeping. That doesn’t leave much time. So I skimp on the dozing part and get up to scribble my thoughts when, traditionally, demons are a-prowl. I need my computer to be with me on this. Kind of difficult to post on a blog without it. Not that I enjoy my early morning violence to the soft fabric of dreamland. My fellow early morning commuters know what I mean. Every day there’s a car just pulling up to some bus stop as the driver’s put on his blinkers, indicating he’s pulling out. I know some folks roll out of the bed, into the shower, and onto the bus. Some continue their sleep on the bus. I can’t blame them. I’m Manichaean about my day. It’s either asleep or awake. I don’t nap, so I need to write when I’m most awake. Just after 3:30 a.m.
How do I know it’s Steve Bannon? It’s only a guess really. I’ve heard that Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates keep a piece of opaque tape over the camera of their laptops. Why anybody’d want to see a confused, morning-headed, middle-aged guy with his mouth hanging open, wondering what’s just happened to the blog post he was writing is beyond me. But then I’m no expert in national security. In this year of 1984 we’re all threats to the powers that be, I guess. Thing is, I can’t remember what I wanted to say once the laptop restarts half an hour later. And that’s probably the point.
How terribly rude. I was right in the middle of a sentence when my word processor shut down. Then my computer. A system update. It’s 4:00 a.m., the time I usually upload my blog post. You have to understand that I get up at 3:30 so that I have time to write. My laptop assumes nobody is working “in the middle of the night.” I would’ve thought my fingers on its keys would’ve given it a clue. Now it tells me I’ll have access, new upgraded system installed, in 25 minutes. Doesn’t my laptop have all my personal details when it comes to shopping? You’d think it would know all my personal habits by now. I mean, this is the way I do it every day. Right now my concerns are secondary. This system update can’t wait. I wasn’t even given a choice. Power nap for Apple.
What disturbs me most is that my computer reads every word I type, yet it still thinks I’m just like everybody else. Who’s awake and writing at 4:00 a.m.? And I thought we had a rapport, my laptop and me. I was the Skipper to his Little Buddy. The Agent 86 to her 99. The Will Robinson to its Robot. I guess I had it backwards all the time. The brain on my lap doesn’t agree with the brain in my head. If I can’t get my writing done now, it won’t get done at all because at ten minutes to six I’ve got to be on that bus. New Jersey Transit doesn’t offer working overhead lights much of the time, let alone wifi. It’s now or never. My coffee’s already gone and the next thing on my daily agenda is the shower. I always come up with ideas in the shower—I need my Little Buddy waiting for me when I rush out to write them down.
Who’s sitting on whose lap? How could I have gotten something so very basic so terribly wrong? In ancient times the one sitting was superior to the one standing. When the computer’s sitting on the one sitting we know who’s really in charge. Let the one with eyes to read understand. I’m a busy man, but my Little Buddy—my Skipper—is busier. When’s the last time I read a paper map? Opened a phone book? Wrote an actual letter? I can hear those bus wheels rumbling. Excuse me, but my master is calling.
Can belief be quantified? Apparently yes. I’ve spent my life trying to avoid the dismal science, yet it seems that everyone else is pretty much agreed that money is the measure of all things. Higher education has certainly been chasing that rabbit for years. My choice of “careers” has always been aimed at those which downplay finance while paying enough to cover the bills. One has to be practical. My wife recently sent me an article in The Guardian by Harriet Sherwood entitled, “Religion in US ‘worth more than Google and Apple combined’.” At first, I have to admit, a kind of triumphalism overcame me. A vindication that I had chosen a valuable aspect of human existence with which to while away my years here on earth. Then came the troubling implications.
We tend to hear only the bad news about religion. Religion, we’re told, is only super-sized superstition. It supports prejudice. It capitalizes on fear. And nobody really believes anymore. And so the trite truisms march past like tin soldiers on their way to a real war. You see, if we can’t put a dollar value on religion—or any belief system—then we have no way to assess whether it’s worth wasting our time on or not. Maybe people will begin to pay attention now. There’s gold in them thar hills. Yes, the religious are more likely to open their wallets and keep the economy moving than are the wealthy. Yes, those are antithetical groups, for the most part. When we can start toting up dollars and pence it is time for those with more dismal scientific interest to take notice.
Religions, like all human institutions, have faults. They are prone to takeover by self-interested individuals who look for the angle that will lead to personal power or fame. They do often insist that they alone have the correct interpretation of what life means and how we should go about pleasing a deity that only they truly understand. And they bicker amongst each other. It’s easy to forget that religions are based, without exception, on the belief that human life can be improved. We can do better, people. Takeovers, sometimes hostile, can occur. One sect may take out a contract on another. Love may be recast as hatred. Overall, however, religions are, to borrow a phrase from a sage, “our better angels.” And of course, the fact that you can put a dollar value on that only sweetens the deal. The dismal science has studied the matter and its conclusions are indisputable.
Corporate logos are among the most instantly recognizable symbols in the world. Even in “developing” countries, kids know what the golden arches represent. Not a real fan of large corporations, I still buy things not knowing who the manufacturer is, if it is something I need. I find the frenetic need of non-profit organizations—even colleges and universities—to “brand” themselves vulgar and distasteful. Why do those who truly have something to offer feel like they have to snuggle up to Wall Street and its resident demons? Still, the corporate logo has a way of drawing attention to products. And sometimes we look for more significance in them than they actually have. Keep in mind corporations’ goals are merely to separate you from your money. Often it doesn’t take much thought.
When I was a child I thought the golden arches were supposed to be french fries. And when I started to use computers—always Apple—I wondered if their logo might not be the most infamous bitten apple of all, the apple of Eden. Forbidden knowledge. It seemed to fit perfectly. Too bad it’s incorrect. Interviews with Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and various marketing designers have revealed that the Bible had nothing to do with it. The original Apple logo was Isaac Newton under an apple tree with the apocryphal fruit falling toward his head. It was felt that this detailed and complex logo didn’t have the instant recognition that a trademark requires, and so a marketing firm came up with the apple we all recognize. Initially it was a rainbow apple, but now the mere outline tells us what we need to know.
But what’s with the bite mark? Surely that must be a throwback to Eden? No, apparently not. We don’t know that Newton ate his apple, but a stylized apple looks a lot like a stylized cherry. The bite mark was added to the logo for scale. You don’t want to confuse the buyer. Corporate logos are markers that say, “place your money here.” Non-profit organizations used to exist to provide valuable services—services that couldn’t be rendered in matters of dollars and cents. Now there is no other way to show value. We have followed the false idol of corporate thinking and the only way we can imagine to draw attention to what we offer is to brand ourselves. So it has always been with cattle, where branding was much more obvious. Yes, those who follow corporations should remember that the brand began with red-hot iron and it left an indelible scar. Of course, I’m writing this on an Apple computer.