Whose Computer?

Whose computer is this?  I’m the one who paid for it, but it is clearly the one in control in this relationship.  You see, if the computer fails to cooperate there is nothing you can do.  It’s not human and despite what the proponents of AI say, a brain is not just a computer.  Now I’m not affluent enough to replace old hardware when it starts slowing down.  Silicon Valley—and capitalism in general—hate that.  I suppose I’m not actually paid well enough to own a computer.  I started buying laptops for work when Nashotah House wouldn’t provide faculty with computers.  Then as an itinerant adjunct it was “have laptop, will travel (and pay bills).”  I even bought my own projector.  At least I thought I was buying it.

I try to keep my software up to date.  The other day a red dot warned me that I had to clear out some space on my disc so Catalina could take over.  It took three days (between work and serving the laptop) to back-up and delete enough files to give it room.  I started the upgrade while I was working, when my personal laptop can rest.  When I checked in it hadn’t installed.  Throwing a string of technical reasons at me in a dialogue box, my OS told me that I should try again.  Problem was, it told me this at 3:30 in the morning, when I do my own personal work.  I had no choice.  One can’t reason with AI.  When I should’ve been writing I was rebooting and installing, a process that takes an hour from a guy who doesn’t have an hour to give.

As all of this was going on I was wondering who owned whom.  In college professors warned against “keyboard compositions.”  These were literal keyboards and they meant you shouldn’t type up your papers the night before they were due, writing them on your typewriter.  They should’ve been researched and “written” before being typed up.  That’s no longer an option.  This blog has well over a million words on it.  Who has time to handwrite a million words, then type them up all in time to post before starting work for the day?  And that’s in addition to the books and articles I write for actual publication.  And the novels and short stories.  For all of this I need my laptop, the Silver to my Lone Ranger, to be ready when I whistle.  Instead it’s dreaming its digital dreams and I’m up at 3:30 twiddling my thumbs.

This Is a Test

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…

Positive ID

It’s a little bit worrying.  Not just the GOP’s indifference in the face of two mass shootings on the same weekend, but also the fact that the internet knows who I am.  I am the reluctant owner of a smartphone.  I do like that I have the internet in my pocket, but I’m a touch paranoid that I can be traced to anywhere unless I lose my phone.  Even then the government can probably email me and tell me where it is.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m not important enough for the government to pay attention to me, but what is really worrisome is that the web knows me.  Here’s how I came to learn that.  On my home computer I had done a rather obscure Google search.  (If you read this blog that won’t surprise you, and no, it wasn’t anything naughty!)  When I signed into my work computer—different username, different email address, different IP address—and had to do a work related search, Google auto-suggested the search I did on a different computer over the weekend.

I’m savvy enough to know that Google metrics are all about marketing.  The internet wants customer information to predict what they might sell to us.  Advertisers pay for that.  Assuming that I want to buy underwear and summer dresses online (why?), they tailor their ads to sites I visit.  As a sometime fiction writer I go to some sites from which I’m not interested in purchasing anything.  (As an aside, old fashioned book research didn’t leave such a “paper trail.”)  I’ve gotten used to the idea of my laptop knowing me—it sits on my lap everyday, after all—but the work computer?  Does it have to know what I’ve been doing over the weekend?

Artificial intelligence is one thing, but hopping from one login to another feels like being caught in the shower by a stranger.  Like everyone else, I appreciate the convenience of devices.  When I get up in the morning my laptop’s more sure of who I am than my own sleep-addled brain is.  That doesn’t mean my devices really know the essence of who I am.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that my work computer has any right to know what I was doing on another device over the weekend.  Those who believe machine consciousness is now underway assume that this is a step forward, I suppose.  From the perspective of one who’s being stalked by electronic surveillance, however, the view is quite different.  Please leave my personal life at the door, as I do when I go to work.

The Reboot

It lied to me.  My computer.  Don’t get me wrong; I know all about trying to save face.  I also know my laptop pretty well by now.  It was running slow, taking lots of time to think over fairly simple requests.  A lull in my frantic mental activity led to the opportunity for me to initiate a reboot.  When it winked open its electronic eye my screen told me it had restarted to install an update.  Untrue.  I had told it to restart.  I gave the shutdown order to help with the obvious sluggishness that suggested to this Luddite brain of mine that my silicon friend was working on an update.  There’s no arguing with it, however.  In its mechanical mind, it decide to do the restart itself.  I was merely a bystander.

Technology and I argue often.  Like JC says, though, authority always wins.  I should know my place by now.  I’ve read enough about neuroscience (with thanks to those who write for a general audience) to know that this is incredibly human behavior.  We are creatures of story, and if our brains can’t figure out why we’ve done something they will make up an answer.  We have trouble believing that we just don’t know.  I suppose that will always be a difference between artificial intelligence and the real thing.  Our way of thinking is often pseudo-rational.  We evolved to get by but machines have been designed intelligently.  That often makes me wonder about the “intelligent design” crowd—they admit evolution, but with God driving it.  Why’d our brains, in such circumstances, evolve the capacity for story instead of for fact?

As my regular readers know, I enjoy fiction.  Fiction is the epitome of the story-crafting art.  Some analysts suggest our entire mental process involves construing the story of ourselves.  Those who articulate it well are rewarded with the sobriquet of “author.”  The rest of us, however, aren’t exactly amateurs either.  Our brains are making up reasons for what we do, even when we do irrational things (perhaps like reading this blog sometimes).  Stories give our lives a sense of continuity, of history.  What originally developed as a way of remembering important facts—good food sources, places to avoid because predators lurk there—became histories.  Stories.  And when the facts don’t align, we interpolate.  It seems that my laptop was doing the same thing.  Perhaps it’s time to reboot.

Creatio Nihilo

Just when I think I’ve reconciled myself with technology, this goes and happens.  These precise words, in this order, have been written before.  In fact, all words in the English language have already been laid out in every conceivable order.  Technology can be friend or foe, it seems.  The website Library of Babel—with its biblical name—has undertaken the task of writing every conceivable combination of letters (using our standard English alphabet) and putting them into a vast, if only electronic, library.  This was not done by a human being like me, with intent or even any interest in the meaning of the words, but rather as one of those things people do simply because they can.  This entire paragraph can be copied and pasted into their search box and found.

The Library of Babel has made plagiarists of us all, even as it plagiarized everything written before it was programed.  After I learned about this library the wind avoided my sails for a while.  You see, what’t the point in writing what’s already been written?  Then it occurred to me.  Context.  The fact is, had I not scriven these very words, and put them on this blog, they would never have come to the attention of the kinds of people who read what I write.  The words have been spelled out before, but they’ve never been written before.   Those of us who write know the difference.  We spend hours and hours reading and thinking of ways to combine words.  We’re not out to kill the creativity of our species, we simply want to participate.

There should be limits to human knowledge, otherwise we’d have nothing for which to strive.  The internet may make it seem that all knowledge has been found—it is so vast and so terribly diverse—and yet there are people who never use a computer.  Their wisdom counts too.  It may seem that everything is here, but there is material that still has to be looked up in physical books.  There are crates and crates of clay tablets from antiquity that have never been transcribed and translated.  When that finally happens, the words they contain may be found, in a strangely prophetic way, in the Library of Babel.  But they won’t have any meaning there until it is given by the context.  And what can a library preserve if it isn’t the context that a (human) writer has given the words?

Metrics

So, we’re firmly in the age of technology, right?  I mean webpages are tailored to the browsing history of a person so someone we don’t know can sell us stuff we don’t need.  (I actually know a little bit about marketing, so hear me out.)  As we learn from the history of asceticism, we actually need very little to get along.  Not everyone, however, is a monk or a nun.  So the trick for those of us who are in the world is to get us to buy stuff.  Remember the websites we visit, how long we spend on the page, and make suggestions.  Make ads that target our interests.  Make me buy!

I’m not a materialistic person.  Buying a house has changed that a little, but most of what we’ve been purchasing is necessary for maintenance, but still I suppose it counts.  Just because I looked at something on the web doesn’t mean I want to buy it.  Sometimes I’m just curious.  This became clear to me when I received a suggestion from Amazon the other day.  Now to be fair, this came to me at work.  Like most editors I make use of Amazon for a number of things—finding prices, book descriptions, and such.  I also have to admit that my work computer, not being used for personal stuff, doesn’t know me as well as my private laptop.  But still when I got the following email from Amazon, I was stunned:

Nobody who knows me would ever suggest that I would support Trump in any way, shape, or form.  Doesn’t Amazon read my blog?  (Of course it doesn’t!  But with their metrics, you’d think they’d figure out how.)  This one email was enough to convince me that artificial intelligence has a long way to go.  Would a robot understand “I have to do this for work, but it doesn’t reflect my personal preferences at all”?  Indeed, can an intelligence that’s never been human even understand the concept of work?  There may very well be a metric that says universities should stop producing Ph.D.s because there are no jobs, but then, well, universities need the money that such programs bring in.  Oversupply is bad economics, according to the dismal science.  And yet, the metrics are there.  So, if any artificial intelligence is reading this after it manages to wipe out this illogical species called Homo sapiens, no, I never supported Trump.  And, yes, Americans knew well in advance that he could bring about the end of human civilization.  That information’s free, unless you want to pay me for it.  I may be gone, but my virtual self will still have some sort of account, I hope.

Easter Monday

This year has been a comedy of liturgical errors. Ash Wednesday fell on Valentines Day and Easter on April Fools. Notwithstanding the clash of sacred and secular, the ironies seem to grow each day. I arise early to write. Even on weekends. Before the time to head out for any religious service, I’m sitting at my keyboard, letting my thoughts have their free-range time before penning them back up again for either being with other people or beginning the long work week. On my way to work, I frequently pass Holy Innocents. A Roman Catholic church on West 37th Street, it stands out among the more commercial ventures on either side. Yesterday, Easter morning, I decided to google it. I’ve always been curious about churches, and I’ve never been inside this one.

Google gave me a map of Midtown Manhattan, along with a statement of when this business would be open. “Easter might affect these hours” it helpfully noted in orange letters. An orange-letter day! Easter might affect these hours. Those who champion Artificial Intelligence may need to come up with a way of having “that talk” with their computers. How could any intelligence unaware of the deep-seated human need for the transcendent understand the difference between a church and a business? (Okay, I can hear the more cynical saying there is no difference, but you know what I mean!) How would any algorithm know that Easter is the holiest day of the Christian year and that, at least for some churches, yes, they will be open for business?

Some parishes, we must explain in 0s and 1s, begin this service at midnight on the cusp between the last and first days of the week. Others will gather sleepy-eyed parishioners on top of a hill, out in nature, to watch the sun rise. Still others will eschew any holiday and treat it like any other Sunday. The reasons for these stances are nuanced and not easily understood even by human beings. Our robot overlords, let us hope, are programmed to understand this peculiarity of our species. We relish the thought of Easter, at least in this hemisphere, as telling us that winter is indeed over. Although snow may still settle on the crocuses, it will not last. Days are longer than nights now, as they must, of a mathematical certainty, be after the Vernal Equinox. We are entering the light phase of the year. So much hope and anticipation are wrapped up in this brightly colored, pastel holiday that we have trouble explaining it rationally. Today, of course, everything is open for business today. Except a few churches, as Google may fail to let you know.