Monday, January 21, 2008

Cybernetic Totalism

On Sunday, November 25, 2007 the Emergent Epistemology Salon met to talk about Jaron Lanier's December 2000 essay in Wired "One-Half of a Manifesto: Why stupid software will save the future from neo-Darwinian machines". Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the essay:

I hope no one will think I'm equating cybernetics and what I'm calling cybernetic totalism. The distance between recognizing a great metaphor and treating it as the only metaphor is the same as the distance between humble science and dogmatic religion.

Here is a partial roster of the component beliefs of cybernetic totalism:
1. Cybernetic patterns of information provide the ultimate and best way to understand reality.
2. People are no more than cybernetic patterns.
3. Subjective experience either doesn't exist, or is unimportant because it is some sort of ambient or peripheral effect.
4. What Darwin described in biology, or something like it, is in fact also the singular, superior description of all creativity and culture.
5. Qualitative as well as quantitative aspects of information systems will be inexorably accelerated by Moore's law.

And finally, the most dramatic:
6. Biology and physics will merge with computer science (becoming biotechnology and nanotechnology), resulting in life and the physical universe becoming mercurial; achieving the supposed nature of computer software. Furthermore, all of this will happen very soon! Since computers are improving so quickly, they will overwhelm all the other cybernetic processes, like people, and will fundamentally change the nature of what's going on in the familiar neighborhood of Earth at some moment when a new "criticality" is achieved - maybe in about the year 2020. To be a human after that moment will be either impossible or something very different than we now can know.

At the Salon we were all familiar with at least pieces of this sketched belief system (though in some cases the familiarity went with a degree of contempt). Our conversation wound around each of the issues distinctly with an effort to pull out some of the details and see what we thought of them specifically.

Once we had developed a common understanding of the six points there was some discussion about the degree to which the ideas were coherent. Do these ideas actually hang together? Is the final eschatological point really entailed by the first five? If so, do you need all five? And assuming it all hangs together, is everything true?

The truth question shifted the conversation to our own agreements and disagreements about the state of computer science and artificial intelligence, but eventually we swung around to talk about the beliefs in more "religious" terms. How is cybernetic totalism psychologically stable? Leaving aside issues of truth, what do people get from being cybernetic totalists that causes them to hold onto and spread the ideas?

In the last part of the essay, Lanier explained why he didn't think the future would be as bleak as all that, but due to time constraints we mostly didn't talk about his vision of where things were headed and why.