Thursday, July 12, 2012

Contextualizing the digital: Qualcomm, Gimbal, and human devolution

A recent post by Scoble discusses a budding new age of mobile development that will bring our cyber realities back down to Earth. I had originally mentioned this idea in reference to Y!kes here. In this context, Qualcomm, through the Gimbal SDK, is bringing a method to track everything about a user at a hardware level. No longer will the developer just know general data like your longitude and latitude. They will know when you are in the kitchen, living room, car. They will know who you are with and what you are doing. They will be able to anticipate your every behaviour. Especially given the current spin in AI (1 2).

Those of you who have been following my posts will recognize this as a theme I have talked about before: the death of privacy. No matter that Qualcomm is 'protecting your information' by some means (never letting it leave your phone, if Scoble is correct). Ultimately, it is accessible and there will be a growing pressure to release it to advertisers. Beyond that, you will want to release it as the features that you will get in the process will be worth it. Finally, your privacy will be less valuable and the loss of treasured secrets will probably slip right by the average person (e.g., Scoble's favourites). I think this is a good thing. Our contemporary context requires that we get better acclimatized to machinic forms of organization as I described here.

There is, however, a concern outside of such reified concepts as 'Privacy.' Initially the contextual augmentation provided by frameworks like Gimbal will be incredibly beneficial. It can expand our capacity to include related and relevant information in a particular context. However, this kind of augmentation simultaneously has the ability to restrict information by accentuating people's current frailties. Let us take an example: global positioning systems (GPS).

For someone who is familiar with maps, the cardinal directions (N E S W), the general layout of a city, etc., GPS is an excellent augmentation of the skills you already have. It offers constant updates to the maps; it can mark exact positions on the map; it can offer routes, modifications of those routes, and approximate times for those routes, among other things (traffic density, etc.). In a reversed sense, it can even describe the routes that other people who have the same GPS are most likely to take; though, I would be surprised if anyone has ever used it in this way (I have not). All of these things are beneficial and they do not detract from your skills nor reduce or restrict your informational intake. 

On the other hand, if you lack these skills then the GPS accentuates this fact. You can function that much longer without learning the skills and you could even come to the not entirely unreasonable conclusion that they are unnecessary. In your world, this is 'True.' That is, until something untoward happens and a lake is where it should not be, a road just ends where it should continue, or (heaven forbid!) your GPS breaks. Then suddenly you are at a huge deficit. The Road God has failed to answer your prayers. You had forgotten, or never knew, that the system has its limitations. Your faith was mistaken and something like this happens. However, to blame this occurrence on technology is absurd.

I have often heard such arguments as "the evolution of technology results in the devolution of man" and there is certainly legitimacy in the claim. This post is a brilliant examination of the problem. Amusingly, it took the GPS as an example much as I did. However, I believe that the overall claim of the author is mistaken. To be brief, I will restrict myself to a few points or rebuttals.


The soul, when retroactively revolutionized through the contemporary, hyper-individualistic framework of the West, is obviously individualistic (here is a counter example to what follows and a case in point to what preceded). Interestingly, philosophical claims like Socrates', "Do your own work" are better approximated in the "collectivistic" frameworks that technology requires of us (not to be confused with "communistic" ideologies that may sound equivalent):

"And therefore we must consider whether in appointing our guardians we would look to their greatest happiness individually, or whether this principle of happiness does not rather reside in the State as a whole. But the latter be the truth, then the guardians and auxillaries, and all others equally with them, must be compelled or induced to do their own work in the best way. And thus the whole State will grow up in a noble order, and the several classes will receive the proportion of happiness which nature assigns to them." (1, italics mine)

Thus, and to re-frame what I said about GPSs, it is not technology that makes humanity face all of the challenges described by Jorund and Junger, it is the very soul that these authors choose to defend. The mistake, as is often the case, stems from the presentist interpretation of the philosophical works in question. Though, I will restrict this claim purely to the individualism of the arguments of the aforementioned individuals. Their theories in general I cannot speak to. Regardless, this idea is best illustrated by my next point:


Jorund goes on to critique technology with reference to Grasse's stigmergy: spontaneous, indirect responses to the historical remains of other members of a society's previous actions. And, with disdain, humanity is immediately compared to Grasse's topic of investigation: termites. However, in rebuttal I would indicate a similar, stigmergic insect: ants.

Ants, despite Jorund's disdain, are one of the most successful species that live on land (terrestrial metazoa) both for themselves and the ecosystems in which they participate. In a nutshell:

"Today ants occupy keystone positions in most terrestrial environments, serving as major conduits of energy and organic material. They are, for example, important turners of the soil, matching or exceeding the activity of earthworms in this role. They are among the leading predators of invertebrates in most ecosystems, and in the Neotropics they are the leading herbivores as well, with leaf-cutter ants taking more than 15% of the fresh vegetation (feeding it to a symbiotic fungus, which they in turn eat). Interactions with ants have shaped the evolution of diverse organisms to an astonishing degree."

Once more in contrast to Jorund, it is not the case that the success story of ants is driven by their "well-rounded, educated individuals." Ants tend to be rather specialized in their behaviour, and, even though this cannot be directly tied to their success, its abundance in the species must be indicative of some evolutionary use. This article discusses the topic and mentions an alternative explanation: specialization is beneficial simply because it prevents having to consider which task to do. Again, interestingly, this fits right into a machinic conception of organization. Neither the individual's skill nor the sub-population's specialization is key. It is merely the continued functional role that they provide in sum and this role can easily be filled by another, no matter the skill or genetic design.


Jorund also notices the "convergence between the real and virtual world." However, it is viewed in a negative light with reference to The Matrix and something like E. M. Forester's The Machine Stops. The emphasis is naturally on our use of technology to forward our indulgences while humanity gets further lost in its fantasies-made-real in VR. Naturally, it is the very use of the term 'real' that irks me.

It is not that video games, synthetic pleasures, or virtual reality are more real. It is that real is no longer relevant. The term is obsolete as is the task of approximating and/or representing 'reality' (again, see my previous post). Both are artifacts of the past. And the search for capital 'T' truth is just as much so.

For those of you interested in this topic, I highly suggest the book Objectivity by Daston and Galison. It provides an excellent historical description of the search for this kind of 'Truth.' Thus contextualized, it is much easier to understand the usefulness of the methods we developed in search for truth while abandoning the unnecessary ideologies that are currently attached to them.


If the The Matrix is at all telling, humanity will not be able to survive without the suffering Jorund seems to enjoy--a suffering of thought projected.

"Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization." (1)

And, I might add, that the privileged Western position being critiqued is also being enjoyed by the author, if I am not mistaken. I, too, am privileged and believe suffering is productive, but I do not believe it is the only way: it would be hubris to think that the way things are now or the way things have been is the way they should or have to be.


In brief, humans are less dangerous to the planet and themselves when pacified. If this comes through VR, so be it.

I will leave you with two quotes from Dostoevsky, who Jorund was so genius to quote:

And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, "Make us your slaves, but feed us." They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? Or dost Thou care only for the tens of thousands of the great and strong, while the millions, numerous as the sands of the sea, who are weak but love Thee, must exist only for the sake of the great and strong? No, we care for the weak too. They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them- so awful it will seem to them to be free. But we shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name. We shall deceive them again, for we will not let Thee come to us again. That deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie.


And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in Thy name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity. Though if there were anything in the other world, it certainly would not be for such as they. It is prophesied that Thou wilt come again in victory, Thou wilt come with Thy chosen, the proud and strong, but we will say that they have only saved themselves, but we have saved all. We are told that the harlot who sits upon the beast, and holds in her hands the mystery, shall be put to shame, that the weak will rise up again, and will rend her royal purple and will strip naked her loathsome body. But then I will stand up and point out to Thee the thousand millions of happy children who have known no sin. And we who have taken their sins upon us for their happiness will stand up before Thee and say: "Judge us if Thou canst and darest." 

From Chapter 5: The Grand Inquisitor

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