Fair Use Blog

Archive for the ‘Quotes’ Category

Us, the Unnoticed

This is from Bernardo Soares’s (or Fernando Pessoa’s, as you like)[1] Book of Disquiet, text 24. In the context of the book, the passage is contextually even more striking because it contains only the second time (after dozens of pages) that anything appears in the text that was said by another human voice besides the narrator’s. And the first that what someone else said is actually breaks through, or alters Soares’s train of thought.

Today, feeling almost physically ill because of that age-old anxiety which sometimes wells up, I ate and drank rather less than usual in the first-floor dining room of the restaurant responsible for perpetuating my existence. And as I was leaving, the waiter, having note that the bottle of wine was still half full, turned to me and said: So long, Senhor Soares, and I hope you feel better.

The trumpet blast of this simple phrase relieved my soul like a sudden wind clearing the sky of clouds. And I realized something I had never really thought about: with these café and restaurant waiters, with barbers and with the delivery boys on street corners I enjoy a natural, spontaneous rapport that I can’t say I have with those I supposedly know more intimately.

Camaraderie has its subtleties.

Some govern the world, others are the world. Between an American millionaire, a Caesar or Napoleon, or Lenin, and the Socialist leader of a small town, there’s a difference in quantity but not of quality. Below them there’s us, the unnoticed: the reckless playwright William Shakespeare, John Milton the schoolteacher, Dante Alighieri the tramp, the delivery boy who ran an errand for me yesterday, the barber who tells me jokes, and the waiter who just now demonstrated his camaraderie by wishing me well, after noticing I’d drunk only half the wine.

— Bernardo Soares, The Book of Disquiet text 24 (pp. 27-28)
New York: Penguin. trans. Richard Zenith.

  1. [1] Pessoa wrote almost all of his mature literary work under a number of heteronyms, that is, signatures that represented not only an alternate name, but actually a complex set of interacting characters that Pessoa invented and set into the Portuguese literary scene of his day.

Now available: Three articles from The Liberator (December 29, 1832), on Nullification, Colonization, the Constitution and the Union

To-day, over at the main Fair Use Repository site, there’s been some work on transcribing articles from The Liberator — the ultra-abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison from 1831 to 1865. I’m happy to announce that three new complete articles are available, all from the same issue — Vol. II, No. 52 (December 29, 1832). The newly-available articles are:

  • “A Hint for Wild Colonizationists”, a passage quoted from Sir Walter Scott, intended as a snarky reply to those who proposed that black slaves should be emancipated only on the condition that former slaves were forced to emigrate to new colonies in Africa.

  • “Nullification”, a collection of columns from other Boston newspapers, which had responded harshly to an Abolitionist lecture on the Nullification crisis, and which accused abolitionist agitation of endangering the union between the Northern and Southern states.

  • “The Great Crisis!”, Garrison’s reply to the mainstream newspaper columns reprinted in “Nullification,” in which Garrison takes one of his first steps toward condemning any political “union” that depends on the enslavement of an entire race, and with any political compact or compromise that protects the institution of slavery. Garrison writes, in response to a claim that the terms of the federal union forbid interference with slavery in the Southern states:

    There is much declamation about the sacredness of the compact which was formed between the free and slave states, on the adoption of the Constitution. A sacred compact, forsooth! We pronounce it the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villany ever exhibited on earth. Yes—we recognize the compact, but with feelings of shame and indignation, and it will be held in everlasting infamy by the friends of justice and humanity throughout the world. It was a compact formed at the sacrifice of the bodies and souls of millions of our race, for the sake of achieving a political object—an unblushing and monstrous coalition to do evil that good might come. Such a compact was, in the nature of things and according to the law of God, null and void from the beginning. No body of men ever had the right to guarantee the holding of human beings in bondage. Who or what were the framers of our government, that they should dare confirm and authorise such high-handed villany—such flagrant robbery of the inalienable rights of man—such a glaring violation of all the precepts and injunctions of the gospel—such a savage war upon a sixth part of our whole population?—They were men, like ourselves—as fallible, as sinful, as weak, as ourselves. By the infamous bargain which they made between themselves, they virtually dethroned the Most High God, and trampled beneath their feet their own solemn and heaven-attested Declaration, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights—among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They had no lawful power to bind themselves, or their posterity, for one hour—for one moment—by such an unholy alliance. It was not valid then—it is not valid now. Still they persisted in maintaining it—and still do their successors, the people of Massachussetts, of New-England, and of the twelve free States, persist in maintaining it. A sacred compact! A sacred compact! What, then, is wicked and ignominious?

    […] It is said that if you agitate this question, you will divide the Union. Believe it not; but should disunion follow, the fault will not be yours. You must perform your duty, faithfully, fearlessly and promptly, and leave the consequences to God: that duty clearly is, to cease from giving countenance and protection to southern kidnappers. Let them separate, if they can muster courage enough—and the liberation of their slaves is certain. Be assured that slavery will very speedily destroy this Union, if it be left alone; but even if the Union can be preserved by treading upon the necks, spilling the blood, and destroying the souls of millions of your race, we say it is not worth a price like this, and that it is in the highest degree criminal for you to continue the present compact. Let the pillars thereof fall—let the superstructure crumble into dust—if it must be upheld by robbery and oppression.

Read, cite, and enjoy!

Countereconomics on the shopfloor

So lately I’ve been reading through a cache of syndicalist and autonomist booklets that I picked up a couple years ago from a NEFACker friend of mine who was soon to move out of Vegas. Partly for my own edutainment, but also because I am doing some prep work for possibly introducing a sort of Little Libertarian Labor Library to the ALL Distro.[1] Anyway, here’s a really interest passage I ran across in a booklet edition of Shopfloor Struggles of American Workers — a talk by the Detroit auto-worker and autonomist Marxist Martin Glaberman — on the difference between asking workers to vote on an issue and asking them to strike over it, taking as an example the internal conflicts over the union bosses’ no-strike pledge during World War II.

One of the things I want to start with, because it does provide a framework, and is not simply an event from the past, is something I did some work on a number of years ago about auto workers in the United States during World War II, the kinds of struggles that went on on the shop floor, within the union, between the workers and the government, a complex reality. What it revolved around was the struggle against the no-strike pledge in the UAW When the United States entered World War II, virtually all of America’s labor leaders graciously granted in the name of their members a pledge not to strike at all during the war.

In the first months of the war, the first year, there was an actual drop off in strikes. The end of 1941 through 1942 was a period that put a finish to the late thirties, the massive organizational drives, the sit-down strikes, the violence, all the things that created the big industrial unions. The job hadn’t been entirely done. Ford wasn’t organized until early 1941. Little Steel wasn’t organized, unionized, until the war was well under way, and so on.

Gradually, however, as the war went on, the number of strikes, (by definition all of them were wildcats, all of them were illegal under union contracts and under union constitutions) began to escalate until by the end of the war, the number of workers on strike exceeded anything in past American labor history. What was distinct about the UAW wasn’t just that the wildcat strikes were larger in number and more militant, but the fact that something took place which made it possible to make a certain kind of record. It was the only union in which, because there were still two competing caucuses, leaving rank and file workers a certain amount of democratic leeway to press for their point of view, an actual formal debate and vote took place on the question of the no-strike pledge.

A small, so-called rank and file, caucus was organized late in 1943 and early 1944, to begin a campaign around a number of issues, but the central issue was the repeal of the no-strike pledge. … So[2] they proceeded to have a referendum. This referendum was in some respects the classic sociological survey. Everyone got a postcard ballot. Errors, cheating, etc. were really kept to a minimum. Everyone on the commission thought that it was as fair as you get in an organization of a million or more members. It took several months to do. When the vote was finally in, the membership of the UAW had voted about two to one to reaffirm the no-strike pledge.

The conclusion any decent sociologist would draw is that autoworkers on the whole thought that patriotism was a little bit more important than class interests, that they supported the war rather than class struggle and strikes, etc. There was a little problem, however, and this is why this is such a fascinating historical experience. The problem was that at the very same time that the vote was going on, in which workers voted two to one to reaffirm the no-strike pledge, a majority of autoworkers struck ….

To visualize it is fairly simple: you’re not voting on the shop floor; you get this postcard, you’re sitting at the kitchen table, you’re listening to the radio news with the casualty reports from Europe and the Pacific and you think, yes, we really should have a no-strike pledge, we’ve got to support our boys. Then you go to work the next day and your machine breaks down and the foreman says, Don’t stand around, grab a broom and sweep up, and you tell him to go to hell because it’s not your job and the foreman says he’s going to give you time off and the next thing you know, the department walks out. … The reality is that in a war which was probably the most popular war that America took part in, workers in fact, if not in their minds or in theory, said that given the choice between supporting the war or supporting our interests and class struggle, we take class struggle.

— Martin Glaberman, Shopfloor Struggles of American Workers (1993?)

Glaberman puts this out as a distinction between what workers say in their minds or in theory and what they say or do in fact. I’m not sure that’s right — doesn’t the story about the foreman involve the workers’ mind and beliefs just as much as the story about the kitchen table? — but I think the most important thing here is Glaberman’s attention to the context at the point of decision, and how that shapes what kind of decision a worker thinks of herself as making. Not just the outcome of the choice, but really the topic, whether the worker is asked to make some kind of political choice about what she ought, in some general and detached sense, she ought to value (isn’t Patriotism important?), or she finds herself making an engaged, personal choice about what’s happening — what’s being done — to her and her fellow workers right now, on the margin. There is a lesson here for counter-economists.

Freedom is not something you vote on. It’s something you struggle for. And what’s far more important than trying to figure out how to get people to endorse the right ideology, or, worse, the least-bad set of policies and candidates to each other across the kitchen table, is figuring out how you and your neighbors can best cooperate with each other, practice solidarity and withdraw from maintaining and collaborating with the state. People who would never respond to a smaller-government candidate or a libertarian ideological pitch often will act very differently when you open up opportunities to support grassroots alternatives and withdraw from the day-to-day inhumanities of war taxes, regulations, police, prisons, borders, and the state-supported and state-supporting corporate capitalist economy. Meanwhile, those who talk all day about changing votes, and building parties to more effectively capture a few more votes here and there, and have nothing else to offer, are wasting time, resources, and organizing energy on efforts that are not merely futile, but in fact actively lethal to any hope of motivating and coordinating effective practical action.

See also:

  1. [1] The basic idea: L4 would encompass some of the material we already have (Chaplin’s General Strike, Carson’s Ethics of Labor Struggle) and a lot of new and classic material, with new titles published at regular intervals, all with the basic underlying goal of (1) providing some decent labor-oriented materials for ALL locals, and (2) providing a decent source (mostly, currently, lacking) for IWW local organizing committees and other radical labor efforts to find some decently produced, low-cost booklet-style materials for lit drops and outreach tables, beyond just the IW, Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, and the relatively expensive books you can purchase through GHQ.
  2. [2] [After an inconclusive floor debate in convention. —RG]

Friday’s Reading: one on post-WWII bohemian-anarchism, one on early anarcho-capitalism, and some mutualist portraits

I spent most of the day booked with a consulting client and doing some house-cleaning, which was much-needed anyway but especially so in light of an impending family visit from Michigan and from Maine. Still, I had the time to catch up on some things I’ve been meaning to read. It all turned out to be PDFs I’d accumulated, but now that I have a Kindle (thanks to a Christmas present) it’s actually no longer excruciating for me to sit around reading PDFs. In any case:

  • I got the chance to read The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy (!), Mildred Edie Brady’s shocking exposé of the emerging Northern California counter-culture — of 1947. (The article went into the April 1947 issue of Harpers. (Suggested by Jesse Walker.)

    This is, roughly, the intellectual and artistic milieu that the Beats would eventually emerge from, and monopolize in the public consciousness; but that particular coffeeklatsch was still 10 years away from their public breakthrough, and in 1947 there was a lot more attention on Henry Miller, California surrealism, and the occasional cameo by Man Ray and Kenneth Rexroth. I should say that the article is not as stupidly alarmist as the title that some editor no doubt inflicted on it; maybe the whole thing would have read like more of an awful calumny when the story was published, on the eve of the Great Sexual Backlash, when sexualism was something more hotly contested than it now is.

    Anyway the sex part in the article has to do with the author’s obsession with the bohemian mens’ obsession with Wilhelm Reich. The anarchy part refers, by turns, either to an artistic radical indifference to State and social authority; or, at times, to genuine intellectual anarchism. Anyway, I don’t know that the article will offer you any really deep insights, but it’s fun, and a nice time-piece, and also a rare glimpse (even if distinctly from the outside) of the anarchist/bohemian milieu, such as it was, in the now-rarely-discussed, now-mostly-forgotten years just after World War II. It also told me little about, but gave me the titles of, a number of new little publications to chase down. Anyway. Here’s some of the interesting, and some of the ugly, on the part of the subjects:

    Pacifica Views was openly anarchist and its influence was enhanced by the sympathetic representation of the [Conscientious Objector’s] position in the community. Its editor, George B. Reeves, successfully accomplished this not only through the magazine itself but also in the Human Events pamphlet Men Against the State. Even in Pacifica Views, however, the anarchism-sexualism tie was aired by several weeks’ discussion of Wilhelm Reich’s thesis and the magazine’s political position was embellished with a sure come-on for the young—sexual freedom for the adolescent and the deep political significance that lies in developing a healthy sexuality among the masses of the people who are endemically neurotic and sexually sick.

    ANARCHISM is, of course, nothing new to the West. There have been in both Seattle and San Francisco small anarchist groups ever since the first World War and before, and remnants of them have persisted. Some are hangovers from the days of the Wobblies. Others are made up of first and second generation European immigrants—like the San Francisco group, the Libertarians, which is largely Italian. All during the thirties these small groups existed without benefit of attention from young intellectuals who in those days were most apt to be thumping their typewriters on behalf of the United Front.

    Not long after December 7, 1941, however, the poet Kenneth Rexroth left the ranks of the Communists in San Francisco and turned both anarchist and pacifist. Around him, as around Miller, there collected a group of young intellectuals and writers who met weekly in self-education sessions, reading the journals of the English anarchists, studying the old-line anarchist philosophers like Kropotkin, and leavening the politics liberally with psychoanalytic interpretations from Reich. It was and is, however, a decidedly literary group in which politics is all but submerged by art, where poems, not polemics, are written, and where D. H. Lawrence outshines Bakunin—Lawrence the philosopher, of Fantasia and the Unconscious rather than Lawrence the novelist.

    Nevertheless, the anarchism of this group is taken seriously enough to call forth tokens to the political as well as the sexual; and at meetings of the Libertarians, today, you will be apt to find young intellectuals sprinkled among the moustachioed papas and bosomed mamas [sic! Really? —R.G.] who, until recently, had no such high-toned co-operation. In this particular group around Rexroth, the Henry Miller kind of anarchism is held to be irresponsible, for Miller goes so far on the lonely individualistic trail as to sneer at even anarchist organization.

    To the outside observer, however, the differences between the Miller adherents and the Rexroth followers are more than outweighed by their similarities. They both reject rationalism, espouse mysticism, and belong to the select few who are orgastically potent. And they both share in another attitude that sets them sharply apart from the bohemians of the twenties. They prefer their women subdued—verbally and intellectually.

    No budding Edna St. Vincent Millay or caustic Dorothy Parker appears at their parties. If the girls want to get along they learn, pretty generally, to keep their mouths shut, to play the role of the quiet and yielding vessel through which man finds the cosmos. Although there are a few women writers found now and then in Circle [a prominent literary magazine from the San Francisco scene] — Anais Nin is a favorite and Maude Phelps Hutchins (wife of Robert Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago) has appeared—the accepted view of both the wome nand the men seems to be that woman steps out of her cosmic destiny when the goal of her endeavor shifts beyond bed and board. This doesn’t mean that the women are economically dependent, however. Most of the girls hold down jobs. But the job is significant only in that it contributes to a more satisfactory board.

    — Mildred Edie Brady (1947), The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy, Harper’s (April 1947).

    Well, nobody could say that revolooshunerry chauvinism is some kind of new problem in the scene; Manarchy abides.

  • I also finished off Jarret Wollstein’s Society Without Coercion: A New Concept of Social Organization (1969), one of the first documents (to my knowledge) to advocate self-described, self-identified anarcho-capitalism. Wollstein was a dissident Objectivist (less dissident and more uniformly Objectivist-influenced than, say, Roy Childs). It’s been suggested that Wollstein was the first to coin the phrase anarcho-capitalism. I don’t know if that’s right or not, but in any case here’s some of his reasons for employing the term; in this one he mentions it as a term already floating around the circles he’s a part of.

    2.4 Naming A Free Society

    To name the social system of a free society is not as nominal a task as at first it may appear to be. It is not only the existence of complete social freedom which is absent from today’s world, but also the idea of such freedom. There is, in truth, probably no word in the English language which properly denotes and connotes the concept of the social system of a free society.

    A number of persons who have recognized the fallacies in the advocacy of not just this or that government, but who have also recognized the inherent contradiction in government itself (such as Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess) have decided that since archy means rule, or the presence of government — which they are against — they will designate their sociological position as anarchy — no rule, or the total absence of government. This decision is unfortunate, to say the least, since it embodies several epistemological fallacies. Firstly, the term anarchy is a negative one; to say that one is for anarchy is only to say that one is against government. It is not to say what are the positive social forms which one advocates. This may be perfectly fine if one, in fact, advocates no positive social forms. However, if one advocates freedom and its economic expression laissez-faire capitalism, the designation anarchy or anarchism, of itself, will hardly suffice. Secondly, anarchy merely means no rule not no coercion. It is perfectly possible to have an anarchist society with coercion initiated by random individuals and robber gangs. So long as these persons do not claim legal sanction or create formal and enduring institutions, one would have a very coercive anarchist society. Further, it is possible for there to be an anarchist society in which no force was initiated, although due to the personal irrationality and mysticism of its occupants, no rational person would want to live in it. For example, imagine a society occupied exclusively by non-violent schizophrenics, or equivalently, by Zen Buddhists. [sic. Really? —RG]

    Less important, but also significant, is the fact that the term anarchy, in present usage, has come to mean not only no rule but also has come to imply social chaos and senseless violence. This is a corruption of the original meaning of the term, but nevertheless it makes the word anarchy an impediment rather than an implement to communicating the concept of a free society. When one wishes to defend in principle and implement in reality a free society, it is irrational to deliberately choose a term which one knows will alienate, at the outset, persons with whom one eventually intends to deal.

    Another term has been suggested by Robert LeFevre, advocate of the free market and founder of Ramparts College [sic—RG] in California. Mr. LeFevre rejects the term anarchy primarily because of its past close association with collectivism and, recognizing the fallacy of limited government, proposes in its stead the word autarchy, meaning self-rule. Again this term suffers several epistemological faults. It fails to state how one should rule oneself, and in fact says nothing about the nature of social order.

    Next we have the term voluntarism, also advocated by many proponents of the term anarchism. This expression is superior to the term anarchy in that it does exclude coercion from its subsumed concept of social order. It is therefore acceptable for this communicative purpose. However, several necessary differentia in the valid concept of a free society are still lacking. Conceivably one could have a voluntary collectivist society (at least for a while), in which individuals voluntarily become slaves, as well as a voluntary individualist society, in which the individual is his [sic —RG] own master. Consequently, this term is not fully satisfactory.

    A phrase in increasingly popular use which I advocate as the best presently available specification of the socio-economic position of persons advocating a society of consistent rational freedom is anarcho-capitalism. Here the prefix anarcho indicates the lack of coercive government, and the word capitalism indicates the positive presence of free trade based upon respect for man’s [sic] rights. This term is not ideal: the prefix anarcho has negative semantic value, and the term capitalism is intimately associated with the present American statist mixed economy. However, it would seem to be the best term which we now have, and consequently we will use it (and in more limited contexts voluntarism) in the remainder of this essay.

    — Jarret B. Wollstein (1969), Society Without Coercion: A New Concept of Social Organization. Society for Rational Individualism. 21-22.

    A bit further down there’s also some material on strategy. After rejecting retreatism, and purely theoretical education, Wollstein advocates counter-institutions. Sort of….

    4.1 Alternatives to Government Institutions

    How often have you presented a brilliantly stated, logically air-tight thesis to a collectivist only to have him [sic] say, That’s fine in theory, but in practice it wouldn’t work. THis of course is an absurdity, but it is next to impossible to convince most collectivists of this fact by purely forensic ability. Clearly, if we are to convince the great majority of American intellectuals, something more than logical theorizing is necessary.

    What I propose is the actual creation of alternatives to government institutions — initially schools, post offices, fire departments and charity; later, roads, police, courts and armed forces. Libertarians recognize that government services are hopelessly obsolete and inherently economically unsound. With the present system it is patently impossible to assess the costs of education and police investigations at all. Rather than trying to politically convince two hundred million Americans that this is so on the basis of rational economic theory, libertarians should instead demonstrate the fact by actually creating the far superior institutions of a free society. Fire departments, schools and post offices should immediately be set up by men and women who understand the free market and who are competent as businessmen [sic].

    One way to do this would be for rational businessmen [sic] to cooperate with libertarian students and theorists in order to establish such enterprises as franchise operations, using all of the skills of modern industry. Simultaneously, libertarians should act politically to free the market to facilitate these enterprises; meanwhile theoreticians should attempt to infiltrate the mass media, or start their own popular magazines and telecommunications facilities to emphasize to the American people that these institutions are working far better than their governmental equivalents; and then to explain why they are doing so. Such a dramatic demonstration of the efficacy of the free market might well accomplish what mere talk alone is unable to do: free America.

    How can the men and women of America fail to understand the value of freedom in all areas of human enterprise when private post offices, roads and police are actually providing far better services than government is capable of delivering?

    — Jarret B. Wollstein (1969), Society Without Coercion: A New Concept of Social Organization. Society for Rational Individualism. 40.

  • Finally, I got a start on Dear Tucker: The Letters from John Henry Mackay to Benjamin R. Tucker, which run from 1905 to 1933 (ed. and trans. by Hubert Kennedy, 2002). I haven’t gotten deep enough in for any interesting pull-quotes from the text. But I did come across these rad portraits of Clarence Lee Swartz (a frequent contributor to Liberty and author of What Is Mutualism?) and Steven T. Byington (another frequent Liberty correspondent, founder of Liberty’s Anarchist Letter Writing Corps, and the translator of Stirner). Both photos are from the Labadie Collection.

    Clarence Lee Swartz (1868-1936)

    Steven T. Byington (1869-1957)

Ignorance and Markets

This is an unsigned editorial from the January 2009 issue of Philosophy (vol. 84, no. 327). Submitted for comment, without much commentary from my end. (Yet.)

Editorial: Ignorance and Markets

It may not be true that no one predicted the recent crash in the financial world. But it is certainly true that most well-informed observers and participants, including most importantly those who believed they were actually running things, were caught unawares. If they had been aware, they would have been able to avoid the worst consequences, at least for themselves, and even profit from the situation.

The 2008 financial crash has been compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall, in that just as the one signalled the end of an uncritical belief in socialism, at least of a centralised sort, the other signals the end to an uncritical belief in markets.

Let us leave aside the point that the markets of 2008 were actually heavily regulated in all sorts of ways, and so hardly unfettered. There is in fact an interesting parallel between 1989 and 2008 in one significant respect. Both events were largely unforeseen.

In one sense this is encouraging. For all our knowledge and technology there is much, even in human affairs, which is unpredictable and uncontrollable. This is, in a sense, judgment on hubris. It can also be liberating, particularly for those who do not see themselves as masters of the universe.

But should 2008 be seen as a decisive moment as far as belief in markets is concerned? Much will depend on what is meant by a market, no easy question when, as already mentioned, no markets to-day are unfettered, and are not likely to be in the foreseeable future.

We should, though, not forget that for followers of Adam Smith, such as Hayek, one of the main philosophical arguments in favour of markets was precisely the unpredictability of human action and of events more generally. From this perspective markets are not seen as perfect predictors, which there cannot be. But in situations of uncertainty they are seen as the most efficient and least hazardous way of disseminating information in a society and of responding to what cannot be predicted. It would be somewhat paradoxical if a failure of prediction was in itself taken to be an argument against a system which takes unpredictability as its starting point.

— Philosophy 84 (2009), 1. Cambridge University Press.

Thoughts?

The death of Alexander Agassiz, from The Dial (April 16, 1910)

Here’s a passage from The Dial: A Semi-Monthly Journal of Literary Criticism, Discussion, and Information. The passage is from the regular Casual Comment feature; this one taking notice of the death of the American scientist and industrialist Alexander Emanuel Agassiz (d. March 27, 1910).

The passing of a noted naturalist and a distinguished contributor to the literature of natural science is noted with regret in the sudden death, March 28, of Professor Alexander Agassiz, at the age of seventy-five. Gifted son of a gifted father, he shone not only as an original investigator in that father’s domain of science, but also as a mining engineer and a remarkably able man of business. His work at Harvard, where he stepped into Louis Agassiz’s shoes without getting lost in them, and where he built up a great museum of comparative zoölogy and made the university his pecuniary debtor to the extent of a half a million dollars, is well known. His success as superintendent and then president of the Calumet and Hecla mines is to be read in the astonishing rise of Calumet and Hecla stock from next to nothing until it is now quoted at six hundred dollars a share. The elder Agassiz used to declare, when invited to turn his scientific knowledge to his own and others’ pecuniary account, that he had no time to waste in money-making. The son found time to make moeny and to spend it beneficently, besides continuing his special researches in his favorite branches of science. His original and unostentatious ways of giving were in marked contrast with the methods pursued by some other public benefactors. When, six years ago, he was offered $75,000 for conducting some deep-sea soundings in the Pacific, on condition that the enterprise should be known as the Carnegie-Agassiz Expedition, he promptly declined the offer and found money elsewhere — chiefly in his own pocket. The life of such a man is full of inspiration to others; and it is to be hoped that a worthy biography of Alexander Agassiz may in due time be forthcoming.

—From Casual Comment, The Dial, April 16, 1910, p. 264

Clearing Up

A quote to-day from Chapter 23 of one of my Christmas presents — In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent’s delightful book on artificial languages, their inventors, and the communities that (sometimes) sustain them.

We should admire [the inventors of artificial languages] for their raw diligence, not because hard work is a virtue in itself, but because they took their ideas about language as far as they could go and really put them to the test. Who hasn’t at one time or another casually suggested that we would be better off if words had more exact meanings? Or if people paid more attention to logic when they talked? How many have unthinkingly swooned at the magic of Chinese symbols or blamed acrimony between nations on language differences? We don’t take responsibility for these fleeting assumptions, and consequently we don’t suffer for them. The language inventors do, and consequently they did. If we pay attention to the successes and failures of the language inventors, we can learn their hard-earned lessons for free.

We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural language and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery. We don’t have to know exactly what we mean before we speak; we can figure it out as we go along. Or not. We can talk just to talk, to be social, to feel connected, to participate. At the same time natural language still works as an instrument of thought transmission, one that can be made extremely precise and reliable when we need it to be, or left loose and sloppy when we can’t spare the time or effort.

When it is important that misunderstandings be avoided, we have access to the same mechanism that allowed Shirley McNaughton’s students to make use of the vague and imprecise Blissymbols, or that allows deaf people to improvise an international sign language—negotiation. We can ask questions, check for signs of confusion, repeat ourselves in multiple ways. More important, we have access to something that language inventors have typically disregarded or even disdained—mere conventional agreement, a shared culture in which definitions have been established by habit. It is convention that allows us to approach a Loglan level of precision in academic and scientific papers or legal documents. Of course to benefit from the precision you must be in on the conventional agreements on which those modes of communication depend. That’s why when specialists want to communicate with a general or lay audience—those who don’t know the conventions—they have to move back toward the techniques of negotiation: slowing down, answering questions, explaining terms, illustrating with examples. . . .

When language inventors try to bypass convention—to make a language that is self-explanatory or universal—they either make a less efficient communications tool, one that shifts too much of the burden to negotiation, like Blissymbolics, or take away too much flexibility by over-determining meaning, like Wilkins’s system did. When they try to take away culture, the place where linguistic conventions are made, they have to substitute something else—like the six-hundred-page book of rules that define Lojban, and that, to date, no human has been able to learn well enough to comfortably engage in the type of conversation that any second-semester language class should be able to handle.

There are types of communication, such as the language of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, I left my purse in the car. There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its flaws in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

—Arika Okrent (2009), In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. ISBN 978-0-385-52788-0. 256-258.

Something important to remember: we are, after all, so often calling for clarity in language (whether as philosophers or political radicals or…) and when we do that it’s often easy to think that what we need is language that is perfectly clear. But this is a will-o’-the-wisp; what is interesting and important is clarification as a practice — not the ex ante features of a language or a text, but the process of a conversation.

See also:

“Flaws or Features?” from Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages

Here’s an important passage from Chapter 23 of In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent’s wonderful and engaging book on artificial languages, and the inventors and communities who create and practice them.

The story of invented languages has not been entirely a story of failure. While Wilkins’s project did not become a universal language of truth, he produced an extraordinary document, a snapshot of linguistic meaning in his culture and era—and paved the way for the thesaurus. Esperanto did not become an auxiliary language for the whole world, but it did become a real, living language, and in the small sphere of people who use it, it does seem to promote a general atmosphere of international understanding and respect. Blissymbolics found a way to be useful, despite the wishes and actions of its creator, and Loglan lives on today, despite not having fulfilled its scientific mission.

One could argue that the success of these languages is only accidental, and makes their inventors no less naive, or misguided, or presumptuous. Just because they produced something that turned out to have some value for someone doesn’t mean they deserve to be admired. We should admire them, however, for their raw diligence, not because hard work is a virtue in itself, but because they took their ideas about language as far as they could go and really put them to the test. Who hasn’t at one time or another casually suggested that we would be better off if words had more exact meanings? Or if people paid more attention to logic when they talked? How many have unthinkingly swooned at the magic of Chinese symbols or blamed acrimony between nations on language differences? We don’t take responsibility for these fleeting assumptions, and consequently we don’t suffer for them. The language inventors do, and consequently they did. If we pay attention to the successes and failures of the language inventors, we can learn their hard-earned lessons for free.

We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural language and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery. We don’t have to know exactly what we mean before we speak; we can figure it out as we go along. Or not. We can talk just to talk, to be social, to feel connected, to participate. At the same time natural language still works as an instrument of thought transmission, one that can be made extremely precise and reliable when we need it to be, or left loose and sloppy when we can’t spare the time or effort.

When it is important that misunderstandings be avoided, we have access to the same mechanism that allowed Shirley McNaughton’s students to make use of the vague and imprecise Blissymbols, or that allows deaf people to improvise an international sign language—negotiation. We can ask questions, check for signs of confusion, repeat ourselves in multiple ways. More important, we have access to something that language inventors have typically disregarded or even disdained—mere conventional agreement, a shared culture in which definitions have been established by habit. It is convention that allows us to approach a Loglan level of precision in academic and scientific papers or legal documents. Of course to benefit from the precision you must be in on the conventional agreements on which those modes of communication depend. That’s why when specialists want to communicate with a general or lay audience—those who don’t know the conventions—they have to move back toward the techniques of negotiation: slowing down, answering questions, explaining terms, illustrating with examples. Convention is a faster, more efficient instrument of meaning transmission, but it comes with a cost. You have to learn the conventions. In the extreme cases this means a few years of graduate training or law school. In general it means getting experience with the way other speakers—of English, Spanish, Greenlandic Eskimo, or whatever language you’re interested in learning—use their words and phrases.

When language inventors try to bypass convention—to make a language that is self-explanatory or universal—they either make a less efficient communications tool, one that shifts too much of the burden to negotiation, like Blissymbolics, or take away too much flexibility by over-determining meaning, like Wilkins’s system did. When they try to take away culture, the place where linguistic conventions are made, they have to substitute something else—like the six-hundred-page book of rules that define Lojban, and that, to date, no human has been able to learn well enough to comfortably engage in the type of conversation that any second-semester language class should be able to handle.

There are types of communication, such as the language of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, I left my purse in the car. There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its flaws in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

—Arika Okrent (2009), In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. ISBN 978-0-385-52788-0. 255-258.

Over My Shoulder #48: from Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke”

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s sparely-written, chapterless skein of documentary vignettes retelling the events that led up to World War II.

Cyril Joad, a philosopher who was writing a book called Journey Through the War Mind, had a talk with his pacifist friend D. Joad asked D. whether D. thought Chamberlain should have negotiated with Hitler after Hitler’s peace offer. Yes, of course, said D.: Wars should never be begun, and as soon as they were begun, they should be stopped. D. then listed off many war evils: the physical and moral mutilation, the intolerance, the public lying, the enthronement of the mob. He quoted from the text of Chamberlain’s refusal—that by discussing peace with Hitler, Britain would forfeit her honor and abandon her claim that international disputes should be settled by discussion and not by force. Our claim is, you see, D. told Joad, that international disputes are not to be settled by force, and this claim we propose to make good by settling an international dispute by force. We are fighting to show that you cannot, or at least must not, impose your will upon other people by violence. Which made no sense.

Once a war has started, D. said, the only thing to do is to get it stopped as soon as possible. Consequently I should negotiate with Hitler.

Joad said: Ah, but you couldn’t negotiate with Hitler because you couldn’t trust him—Hitler would break any agreement as soon as it benefited him to do so.

Suppose you were right, D. said—suppose that Hitler violated the peace agreement and England had to go back to war. What had they lost? If the worst comes to the worst, we can always begin the killing again. Even a day of peace was a day of peace. Joad found he had no ready answer to that.


Cyril Joad talked about the war with another acquaintance, Mrs. C., a vigorous Tory. War was natural and unavoidable, said Mrs. C. The Germans weren’t human—they were brute blond perverted morons.

Joad asked C. what she would do with Germany, and a light came into her eyes.

I would make a real Carthaginian peace, she told Joad. Raze their cities to the ground, plough up the land and sow it afterwards with salt; and I would kill off one out of every five German women, so that they stopped breeding so many little Huns.

Mrs. C.’s ideas were shared by others, Joad had noticed; he’d recently read a letter to the editor about Germany in London’s News Chronicle: Quite frankly, said the letter, I would annihilate every living thing, man, woman, and child, beast, bird and insect; in fact, I would not leave a blade of grass growing even; Germany should be laid more desolate than the Sahara desert, if I could have my way.

The longer the war lasted, Joad believed, the more this kind of viciousness would multiply: Already Joad wrote, Mr. Churchill was reviving the appellation Huns.

— Nicholson Baker (2008), Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. ISBN 1-4165-7246-5. 154–155

Claim Chowder: Ray Kurzweil, “2009,” in The Age of Spiritual Machines

Welcome to The World of Tomorrow, everyone. This is from Chapter 9 of Ray Kurzweil’s 1999 exercise in Singularity futurism, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. The chapter is entitled 2009, and it’s supposed to tell us what the world would be like by, well, now. It’s long, so I’ll let you know now that I have some commentary below.

(Oh, and in case you’re curious, the weird exchange at the end is this goofy technique that Kurzweil uses at the end of each chapter in the book. It’s supposed to be a dialogue with his imagined reader. So, yeah.)

2009

It is said that people overestimate what can be accomplished in the short term, and underestimate the changes that will occur in the long term. With the pace of change continuing to accelerate, we can consider even the first decade in the twenty-first century to constitute a long-term view. With that in mind, let us consider the beginning of the next century.

The Computer Itself

It is now 2009. Individuals primarily use portable computers, which have become dramatically lighter and thinner than the notebook computers of ten years earlier. Personal computers are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes, and are commonly embedded in clothing and jewelry such as wristwatches, rings, earrings, and other body ornaments. Computers with a high-resolution visual interface range from rings and pins and credit cards up to the size of a thin book.

People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies, which are networked using body LANs (local area networks).[1] These computers provide communication facilities similar to cellular phones, pagers, and web surfers, monitor body functions, provide directions for navigation, and a variety of other services.

For the most part, these truly personal computers have no moving parts. Memory is completely electronic, and most portable computers do not have keyboards.

Rotating memories (that is, computer memories that use a rotating platen, such as hard drives, CD-ROMs, and DVDs) are on their way out, although rotating magnetic memories are still used in server computers where large amounts of information are stored. Most users have servers in their homes and offices where they keep large stores of digital objects, including their software, databases, documents, music, movies, and virtual-reality environments (although these are still at an early stage). There are services to keep one’s digital objects in central repositories, but most people prefer to keep their private information under their own physical control.

Cables are disappearing.[2] Communication between components, such as pointing devices, microphones, displays, printers, and the occasional keyboard, uses short-distance wireless technology.

Computers routinely include wireless technology to plug into the ever-present worldwide network, providing reliable, instantly available, very-high-bandwidth communication. Digital objects such as books, music albums, movies, and software are rapidly distributed as data files through the wireless network, and typically do not have a physical object associated with them.

The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition (CSR) dictation software, but keyboards are still used. CSR is very accurate, far more so than the human transcriptionists who were used up until a few years ago.

Also ubiquitous are language user interfaces (LUIs), which combine CSR and natural language understanding. For routine matters, such as simple business transactions and information inquiries, LUIs are quite responsive and precise. They tend to be narrowly focused, however, on specific types of tasks. LUIs are frequently combined with animated personalities. Interacting with an animated personality to conduct a purchase or make a reservation is like talking to a person using videoconferencing, except that the person is simulated.

Computer displays have all the display qualities of paper—high resolution, high contrast, large viewing angle, and no flicker. Books, magazines, and newspapers are now routinely read on displays that are the size of, well, small books.

Computer displays built into eyeglasses are also used. These specialized glasses allow users to see the normal visual environment, while creating a virtual image that appears to hover in front of the viewer. The virtual images are created by a tiny laser built into the glasses that projects the images directly onto the user’s retinas.[3]

Computers routinely include moving picture image cameras and are able to reliably identify their owners from their faces.

In terms of circuitry, three-dimensional chips are commonly used, and there is a transition taking place from the older, single-layer chips.

Sound producing speakers are being replaced with very small chip-based devices that can place high resolution sound anywhere in three-dimensional space. This technology is based on creating audible frequency sounds from the spectrum created by the interaction of very high frequency tones. As a result, very small speakers an createvery robust three-dimensional sound.

A $1,000 personal computer (in 1999 dollars) can perform about a trillion calculations per second.[4] Supercomputers match at least the hardware capacity of the human brain—20 million billion calculations per second.[5] Unused computers on the Internet are being harvested, creating virtual parallel supercomputers with human brain hardware capacity.

There is increasing interest in massively parallel neural nets, genetic algorithms, and other forms of chaotic or complexity theory computing, although most computer computations are still done using conventional sequential processing, albeit with some limited parallel processing.

Research has been initiated on reverse engineering the human brain through both destructive scans of the brains of recently deceased persons as well as non-invasive scans using high resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of living persons.

Autonomous nanoengineered machines (that is, machines constructed atom by atom and molecule by molecule) have been demonstrated and include their own computational controls. However, nanoengineering is not yet considered a practical technology.

Education

In the twentieth century, computers in schools were mostly on the trailing edge, with most effective learning from computers taking place in the home. Now in 2009, while schools are still not on the cutting edge, the profound importance of the computer as a knowledge tool is widely recognized. Computers play a central role in all facets of education, as they do in other spheres of life.

The maority of reading is done on displays, although the installed base of paper documents is still formidable. The generation of paper documents is dwindling, however, as books and other papers of largely twentieth-century vintage are being rapidly scanned and stored. Documents circa 2009 routinely include embedded moving images and sounds.

Students of all ages typically have a computer of their own, which is a thin tabletlike device weighing under a pound with a very high resolution display suitable for reading. Students interact with their computers primarily by voice and by pointing with a device that looks like a pencil. Keyboards still exist, but most textual language is created by speaking. Learning materials are accessed through wireless communication.

Intelligent courseware has emerged as a common means of learning. Recent controversial studies have shown that students can learn basic skills such as reading and math just as readily with interactive learning software as with human teachers, particularly when the ratio of students to human teachers is more than one to one. Although the studies have come under attack, most students and their parents have accepted this notion for years. The traditional mode of a human teacher instructing a group of children is still prevalent, but schools are increasingly relying on software approaches, leaving human teachers to attend primarily to issues of motivation, psychological well-being, and socialization. Many children learn to read on their own using personal computers before entering grade school.

Preschool and elementary school children routinely read at their intellectual level using print-to-speech reading software until their reading skill level catches up. These print-to-speech reading systems display the full image of documents, and can read the print aloud while highlighting what is being read. Synthetic voices sound fully human. Although some educators expressed concern in the early ’00 years that students would rely unduly on reading software, such systems have been readily accepted by children and their parents. Studies have shown that students improve their reading skills by being exposed to synchronized visual and auditory presentations of text.

Learning at a distance (for example, lectures and seminars in which the participants are geographically scattered) is commonplace.

Learning is becoming a significant portion of most jobs. Training and developing new skills is emerging as an ongoing responsibility in most careers, not just an occasional supplement, as the level of skill needed for meaningful employment soars ever higher.

Disabilities

Persons with disabilities are rapidly overcoming their handicaps through the intelligent technology of 2009. Students with reading disabilities routinely ameliorate their disability using print-to-speech reading systems.

Print-to-speech reading machines for the blind are now very small, inexpensive, palm-sized devices that can read books (those that still exist in paper form) and other printed documents, and other real-world text such as signs and displays. These reading systems are equally adept at reading the trillions of electronic documents that are instantly available from the ubiquitous wireless worldwide network.

After decades of ineffective attempts, useful navigation devices have been introduced that can assist blind people in avoiding physical obstacles in their path, and finding their way around, using global positioning system (GPS) technology. A blind person can interact with her personal reading-navigation systems through two-way voice communication, kind of like a Seeing-Eye dog that reads and talks.

Deaf persons—or anyone with a hearing impairment—commonly use portable speech-to-text listening machines, which display a real-time transcription of what people are saying. The deaf user has the choice of either reading the transcribed speech as displayed text, or watching an animated person gesturing in sign language. These have eliminated the primary communication handicap associated with deafness. Listening machines can also translate what is being said into another language in real time, so they are commonly used by hearing people as well.

Computer-controlled orthotic devices have been introduced. These walking machines enable paraplegic persons to walk and climb stairs. The prosthetic devices are not yet usable by all paraplegic persons, as many physically disabled persons have dysfunctional joints from years of disuse. However, the advent of orthotic walking systems is providing more motivation to have these joints replaced.

There is a growing perception that the primary disabilities of blindness, deafness, and physical impairment do not necessarily impart handicaps. Disabled persons routinely describe their disabilities as mere inconveniences. Intelligent technology has become the great leveler.

Communication

Translating Telephone technology (where you speak in English and your Japanese friend hears you in Japanese, and vice versa) is commonly used for many language pairs. It is a routine capability of an individual’s personal computer, which also serves as her phone.

Telephone communication is primarily wireless, and routinely includes high-resolution moving images. Meetings of all kinds and sizes routinely take place among geographically separated participants.

There is effective convergence, at least on the hardware and supporting software level, of all media, which exist as digital objects (that is, files) distributed by the ever-present high-bandwidth, wireless information web. Users can instantly download books, magazines, newspapers, television, radio, movies, and other forms of software to their highly portable personal communication devices.

Virtually all communication is digital and encrypted, with public keys available to government authorities. Many individuals and groups, including but not limited to criminal organizations, use an additional layer of virtually unbreakable encryption codes with no third-party keys.

Haptic technologies are emerging that allow people to touch and feel objects and other persons at a distance. These force-feedback devices are widely used in games and in training simulation systems.

Interactive games routinely include all-encompassing visual and auditory environments, but a satisfactory, all-encompassing tactile environment is not yet available. The online chat rooms of the late 1990s have been replaced with virtual environments where you can meet people with full visual realism.

People have sexual experiences at a distance with other persons as well as virtual partners. But the lack of the surround tactile environment has thus far kept virtual sex out of the mainstream. Virtual partners are popular as forms of sexual entertainment, but they’re more gamelike than real. And phone sex is a lot more popular now that phones routinely include high-resolution, real-time moving images of the person on the other end.

Business and Economics

Despite occasional corrections, the ten years leading up to 2009 have seen continuous economic expansion and prosperity due to the dominance of the knowledge content of products and services. The greatest gains continue to be in the value of the stock market. Price deflation concerned economists in the early ’00 years, but they quickly realized it was a good thing. The high-tech community pointed out that significant deflation had existed in the computer hardware and software industries for many years earlier without detriment.

The United States continues to be the economic leader due to its primacy in popular culture and its entrepreneurial environment. Since information markets are largely world markets, the United States has benefited greatly from its immigrant history. Being comprised of all the world’s peoples—specifically the descendents of people from around the globe who had endured grea risk for a better life—is the ideal heritage for the new knowledge-based economy. China has also emerged as a powerful economic player. Europe is several years ahead of Japan and Korea in adopting the American emphasis on venture capital, employee stock options, and tax policies that encourage entrepreneurship, although these practices have become popular throughout the world.

At least half of all transactions are conducted online. Intelligent assistants which combine continuous speech recognition, natural-language understanding, problem solving, and animated personalities routinely assist with finding information, answering questions, and conducting transactions. Intelligent assistants have become a primary interface for interacting with information-based services, with a wide range of choices available. A recent poll shows that both male and female users prefer female personalities for their computer-based intelligent assistants. The two most popular are Maggie, who claims to be a waitress in a Harvard Square café, and Michelle, a stripper from New Orleans. Personality designers are in demand, and the field constitutes a growth area in software development.

Most purchases of books, musical albums, videos, games, and other forms of software do not involve any physical object, so new business models for distributing these forms of information have emerged. One shops for these information objects by strolling through virtual malls, sampling and selecting objects of interest, rapidly (and securely) conducting an online transaction, and then quickly downloading the information using high-speed wireless communication. There are many types and gradations of transactions to gain access to thes products. You can buy a book, musical album, video, etcetera, which gives you unlimited personal access. Alternatively, you can rent access to read, view, or listen once, or a few times. Or you can rent access by the minute. Alternatively, access may be limited to a particular computer, or to any computer accessed by a particular person or by a set of persons.

There is a strong trend toward the geographic separation of work groups. People are successfully working together despite living and working in different places.

The average household has more than a hundred computers, most of which are embedded in appliances and built-in communications systems. Household robots have emerged, but are not yet fully accepted.

Intelligent roads are in use, primarily for long-distance travel. Once your car’s guidance system locks onto the control sensors on one of these highways, you can sit back and relax. Local roads, though, are still predominantly conventional.

A company west of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line has surpassed a trillion dollars in market capitalization.

Politics and Society

Privacy has emerged as a primary political issue. The virtually constant use of electronic communication technologies is leaving a highly detailed trail of every person’s every move. Litigation, of which there has been a great dea, has placed some constraints on the widespread distribution of personal data. Government agencies, however, continue to have the right to gain access to people’s files, which has resulted in the popularity of unbreakable encryption technologies.

There is a growing neo-Luddite movement, as the skill ladder continues to accelerate upward. As with earlier Luddite movements, its influence is limited by the level of prosperity made possible by new technology. The movement does succeed in establishing continuing education as a primary right associated with employment.

There is continuing concern with an underclass that the skill ladder has left fare behind. The size of the underclass appears to be stable, however. Although not politically popular, the underclass is politically neutralized through public assistance and the generally high levels of affluence.

The Arts

The high quality of computer screens, and the facilities of computer-assisted visual rendering software, have made the computer screen a medium of choice for visual art. Most visual art is the result of a collaboration between human artists and their intelligent art software. Virtual paintings—high-resolution wall-hung displays—have become popular. Rather than always displaying the same work of art, as with a conventional painting or poster, these virtual paintings can change the displayed work at the user’s verbal command, or can cycle through collections of art. The displayed artwork can be works by human artists or original art, created in real time by cybernetic art software.

Human musicians routinely jam with cybernetic musicians. The creation of music has become available to persons who are not musicians. Creating music does not necessarily require the fine motor coordination of using traditional controllers. Cybernetic music creation systems allow people who appreciate music but who are not knowledgeable about music theory and practice to create music in collaboration with their automatic composition software. Interactive brain-generated music, which creates a resonance between the user’s brain waves and the music being listened to, is another popular genre.

Musicians commonly use electronic controllers that emulate the playing style of the old acoustic instruments (for example, piano, guitar, violin, drums), but there is a surge of interest in the new air controllers in which you create music by moving your hands, feet, mouth, and other body parts. Other music controllers involve interacting with specially designed devices.

Writers use voice-activated word processing; grammar checkers are now actually useful; and distribution of written documents from articles to books typically does not involve paper and ink. Style improvement and automatic editing software is widely used to improve the quality of writing. Language translation software is also widely used to translate written works in a variety of languages. Nevertheless, the core process of creating written language is less affected by intelligent software technologies than the visual and musical arts. However, cybernetic authors are emerging.

Beyond music recordings, images, and movie videos, the most popular type of digital entertainment object is virtual experience software. These interactive virtual environments allow you to go whitewater rafting on virtual rivers, to hang-glide in a virtual Grand Canyon, or to engage in intimate encounters with your favorite movie star. Users also experience fantasy environments with no counterpart in the physical world. The visual and auditory experience of virtual reality is compelling, but tactile interaction is still limited.

Warfare

The security of computation and communication is the primary focus of the U.S. Department of Defense. There is general recognition that the side that can maintain the integrity of its computational resources will dominate the battlefield.

Humans are generally far removed from the scene of battle. Warfare is dominated by unmanned intelligent airborne devices. Many of these flying weapons are the size of small birds, or smaller.

The United States continues to be the world’s dominant military power, which is largely accepted by the rest of the world, as most countries concentrate on economic competition. Military conflicts between nations are rare, and most conflicts are between nations and smaller bands of terrorists. The greatest threat to national security comes from bioengineered weapons.

Health and Medicine

Bioengineered treatments have reduced the toll from cancer, heart disease, and a variety of other health problems. Significant progress is being made in understanding the information processing basis of disease.

Telemedicine is widely used. Physicians can examine patients using visual, auditory, and haptic examination from a distance. Health clinics with relatively inexpensive equipment and a single technician bring health care to remote areas where doctors had previously been scarce.

Computer-based pattern recognition is routinely used to interpret imaging data and other diagnostic procedures. The use of noninvasive imaging technology has substantially increased. Diagnosis almost always involves collaboration between a human physician and a pattern-recognition-based expert system. Doctors routinely consult knowledge-based systems (generally through two-way voice communication augmented by visual displays), which provide automated guidance, access to the most recent medical research, and practice guidelines.

Lifetime patient records are maintained in computer databases. Privacy concerns about access to these records (as with many other databases of personal information) have emerged as a major issue.

Doctors routinely train in virtual reality environments, which include a haptic interface. These systems simulate the visual, auditory, and tactile experience of medical procedures, including surgery. Simulated patients are available for continuing medical education, for medical students, and for people who just want to play doctor.

Philosophy

There is renewed interest in the Turing Test, first proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 as a means for testing intelligence in a machine. Recall that the Turing Test contemplates a situation in which a human judge interviews the computer and a human foil, communicating with both over terminal lines. If the human judge is unable to tell which interviewee is human and which is machine, the machine is deemed to possess human-level intelligence. Although computers still fail the test, confidence is increasing that they will be in a position to pass it within another one or two decades.

There is serious speculation on the potential sentience (that is, consciousness) of computer-based intelligence. The increasingly apparent intelligence of computers has spurred an interest in philosophy.


… Hey Molly.

Oh, so you’re calling me now.

Well, the chapter was over and I didn’t hear from you.

I’m sorry, I was finishing up a phone call with my fiancé.

Hey, congratulations, that’s great. How long have you known ….

Ben, his name is Ben. We met about ten years ago, just after you finished this book.

I see. So how have I done?

You did manage to sell a few copies.

No, I mean with my predictions.

Not very well. The translating telephones, for one thing, are a little ridiculous. I mean, they’re constantly screwing up.

Sounds like you use them, though?

Well, sure, how else am I going to speak to my fiancé’s father in Ieper, Belgium, when he hasn’t bothered to learn English?

Of course. So what else?

You said that cancer was reduced, but that’s actually quite understated. Bioengineered treatments, particularly antiangiogenesis drugs that prevent tumors from growing the capillaries they need, have eliminated most forms of cancer as a major killer.[6]

Well, that’s just not a prediction I was willing to make. There have been so many false hopes with regard to cancer treatments, and so many promising approaches proving to be dead ends, that I just wasn’t willing to make that call. Also, there just wasn’t enough evidence when I wrote the book in 1998 to make that dramatic a prediction.

Not that you shied away from dramatic predictions.

The predictions I made were fairly conservative, actually, and were based on technologies and trends I could touch and feel. I was certainly aware of several promising approaches to bioengineered cancer treatments, but it was still kind of iffy, given the history of cancer research. Anyway, the book only touched tangentially on bioengineering, although it’s clearly an information-based technology.

Now with regard to sex—

Speaking of health problems…

Yes, well, you said that virtual partners were popular, but I just don’t see that.

It might just be the circle you move in.

I have a very small circle—mostly I’ve been trying to get Ben to focus on our wedding.

Yes, tell me about him.

He’s very romantic. He actually sends me letters on paper!

That is romantic. So, how was the phone call I interrupted?

I tried on this new nightgown he sent me. I thought he’d appreciate it, but he was being a little annoying.

I assume you’re going to finish that thought.

Well, he wanted me to kind of let these straps slip, maybe just a little. But I’m kind of shy on the phone. I don’t really go in for video phone sex, not like some friends I know.

Oh, so I did get that prediction right.

Anyway, I just told him to use the image transformers.

Transformers?

You know, he can undress me just at his end.

Oh yes, of course. The computer is altering your image in real time.

Exactly. You can change someone’s face, body, clothing, or surroundings into someone or something else entirely, and they don’t know you’re doing it.

Hmmm.

Anyway, I caught Ben undressing his old girlfriend when she called to congratulate him on our engagement. She had no idea, and he thought itwas harmless. I didn’t speak to him for a week.

Well, as long as it was just at his end.

Who knows what she was doing at her end.

That’s kind of her business, isn’t it? As long as they don’t know what the other is doing.

I’m not so sure they didn’t know. Anyway, people do spend a lot of time together up close but at a distance, if you know what I mean.

Using the displays?

We call them portals—you can look through them, but you can’t touch.

I see, still no interest in virtual sex?

Not personally. I mean, it’s pretty pathetic. But I did have to write the copy for a brochure about a sensual virtual reality environment. Being low on the totem pole, I really can’t pick my assignments.

Did you try the product?

I didn’t exactly try it. I just observed. I would say they put more effort into the virtual girls than the guys.

How’d your campaign make out?

The product bombed. I mean, the market’s just so cluttered.

You can’t win them all.

No, but one of your predictions did work out quite well. I took your advice about that company north of the Mason-Dixon line. And, hey, I’m not complaining.

I’ll bet a lot of stocks are up.

Yes, the boats keep getting higher.

Okay, what else?

You’re right about the disabled. My office mate is deaf, and it’s not an issue at all. There’s nothing a blind or deaf person can’t do today.

That was really true back in 1999.

I think the difference now is that the public understands it. It’s just a lot more obvious with today’s technology. But that understanding is important.

Sure, without the technology, there’s just a lot of misconception and prejudice.

True enough. I think I’m going to have to get going, I can see Ben’s face on my call line.

He looks like a St. Bernard.

Oh, I left my image transformers on. Here, I’ll let you see what he really looks like.

Hey, good-looking guy. Well, good luck. You do seem to have changed.

I should hope so.

I mean I think our relationship has changed.

Well, I’m ten years older.

And it seems that I’m asking you most of the questions.

I guess I’m the expert now. I can just tell you what I see. But how come you’re still stuck in 1999?

I’m afraid I just can’t leave quite yet. I have to get this book out, for one thing.

I do have one confusion. How is that you can talk to me from 1999 when I’m here in the year 2009? What kind of technology is that?

Oh, that’s a very old technology. It’s called poetic license.

1 A consortium of eighteen manufacturers of cellular telephones and other portable electronic devices is developing a technology called Bluetooth, which provides wireless communications within a radius of about ten meters, at a data rate of 700 to 900 kilobits per second. Bluetooth is expected to be introduced in late 1999 and will initially have a cost of about $20 per unit. This cost is expected to decline rapidly after introduction. Bluetooth will allow personal communications and electronics devices to communicate with one another.

2 Technology such as Bluetooth (see note 1) will allow computer components such as computing units, keyboards, pointing devices, printers, etc. to communicate with one another without the use of cables.

3 Microvision of Seattle has a product called a Virtual Retina Display (VRD) that projects images directly onto the user’s retinas while allowing the user to see the normal environment. The Microvision VRD is currently expensive and is sold primarily to the military for use by pilots. Microvision’s CEO Richard Rutkowski projects a consumer version built on a single chip before the year 2000.

4 Projecting from the speed of personal computers, a 1998 personal computer can perform about 150 million instructions per second for about $1,000. By doubling every twelve months, we get a projection of 150 million multiplied by 211 (2,048) = 300 billion instructions per second in 2009. Instructions are less powerful than calculations, so calculations per second will be around 100 billion. However, projecting from the speed of neural computers, a 1997 neural computer provided about 2 billion neural connection calculations per second for around $2,000, which is 1 billion calculations per $1,000. By doubling every 12 months, we get a projection of 1 billion times 212 (4,096) = 4 trillion calculations per second in 2009. By 2009, computers will routinely combine both types of computations, so if even 25 percent of the computations are of the neural connection calculation type, the estimate of 1 trillion calculations per second for $1,000 of computing in 2009 is reasonable.

5 The most powerful supercomputers are twenty thousand times more powerful than a $1,000 personal computer. With $1,000 personal computers providing about 1 trillion calculations per second (particularly of the neural-connection type of calculation) in 2009, the more powerful supercomputers will provide about 20 million billion calculations per second, which is about equal to the estimated processing power of the human brain.

6 As of this writing, there has been much publicity surrounding the work of Dr. Judah Folkman of Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and the effects of angiogenesis inhibitors. In particular, the combination of Endostatin and Angiostatin, bioengineered drugs that inhibit the reproduction of capillaries, has been remarkably effective in mice. Although there has been a lot of commentary pointing out that drugs that work in mice often do not work in humans, the degree to which this drug combination worked in these laboratory animals was remarkable. Drugs that work this well in mice often do work in humans.

See HOPE IN THE LAB: A Special Report. A Cautious Awe Greets Drugs That Eradicate Tumors in Mice, New York Times, May 3, 1998.

— Ray Kurzweil (1999), The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Chapter 9, 2009, pp. 189-201. New York: Penguin.

Oh, well, whatever.

I think what’s interesting about this is not so much what Kurzweil predicts which hasn’t come to pass, but rather the number of things he failed to predict which have come to pass—and why the things he predicts coming to pass haven’t come to pass. Sometimes it’s because Kurzweil is too optimistic about technologies that never materialized, or which are still in their incipient stages at best. But a lot of the time, it’s just that people found they have better things to do with their limited time and resources. So it turns out that a lot of people do book travel reservations online now, but nobody books it by talking with some animated virtual customer service agent. Not because it would be impossible for clever folks to program that sort of thing, if they’d spent the last 10 years working on it. But rather, even if they did, who would want to waste time on that kind of goofy shit, when you can just get the tickets through Kayak? Similarly, I’m sure that if folks had spent the last 10 years working on virtual reality games, or on establishing fancy new paperless Information Superhighway channels for great big established media companies to push their DRMed-up chosen publications, you probably would have seen something like what Kurzweil predicts. But instead of that, we have people who put their time into developing IndyMedia, Craigslist, blogging software, and Flickr, MySpace, and so on—tools which, technically speaking, are mostly dead-simple HTML over HTTP. The real awesomeness of the future — so far, at least — turns out to have not nearly so much to do with technical fireworks and the kinds of techno-conveniences that brute-force computational power can achieve, but rather with the new lifestyles, new patterns of autonomy, and the new forms of social relationships that relatively simple but increasingly pervasive technologies, have helped facilitate. And which are going to continue to grow, and transform, and, ultimately, are going to turn this old world upside-down and inside-out.

Have an awesome new decade, y’all.