Hey! It’s been a long time again! Long enough that the “Remember Me” portion of the title holds a lovely double-meaning. This is where we normally do a little house-keeping and then move on to the article, but there’s way more house-keeping than article this week, so we’re going to do things in the opposite order, and that will make sense in a minute.
One of the biggest downsides to writing two-part articles separately is that you never know what will strike between setting down one collection of type and the next. It’s the risk we take in indulging serialized media. I’m sure we all know what it’s like to have something simply cease (#Firefly Feels). But, that’s the dread truth of life, isn’t it? The systems, patterns and truths we use to live our daily lives can betray us at any moment. Not that they will, but they can. And we have to live on in spite of that sonorous unknown. We have to, and we do.
Yet, even benign undulations affect us, which brings us nicely back to where we should have been all along: Google. Search engines are a pretty fascinating element of the internet, because they seem to exist as a clear window of exploration. But, even that’s a clever trick. “What trick?” you might ask. The trick of appearing unbiased and helpful while still encouraging a homogeneity of thought. Whether that’s good or bad, I’ll leave to the scholars.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to go off on some paranoid tangent about big-brother and the NSA. The internet does that enough on its own without me gracelessly adding to it. Believe me, if I had something interesting to say, I’d be all over it, but think of what we’re discussing here as a technology that is related to the algorithm that lets someone build a psychological profile from your browsing history. I’ve beat around the bush enough, so let’s make sure the question that leads to the actual discussion is a mirrored crystal: How does Google decide the order and availability of search results, and how does that affect knowledge distribution, as well as understanding?
This question, and those related to it, are part of a growing sector of academia called the digital humanities. The Humanities, if you’re not familiar with them, are all areas of study that are related to humans, culture and history. This includes Psychology, English, Sociology, History, Anthropology, etc. The Digital Humanities is a sub-set of the Humanities that focuses on how the advent of the computer is changing the ways we understand things. The information sources we rely on. The mediators through which we experience culture. The gate-keepers that control the flow of information that informs our daily life.
Because, if we could be said to have experienced an Apocalypse in the last few decades, then it’s definitely the Rise of the Machines. Computers, obviously. You, as you are right now, sitting in your chair in front of a high-def computer-screen with a touch-phone in arm’s reach, have probably grown up with the idea of computers and the internet, but it’s a serious historical game-changer. Or rather, it could be, but that depends on how we use it. Completing the circle of blather and bringing us back to…
Google is the most popular search engine on the internet. It’s capable of delivering millions of search results in a matter of seconds. It organizes those results based on your prior viewing history, anticipating what you’re probably looking for. Typing in “Titan?” If you’re an anime fan, then you’ll probably see “Attack On Titan” as an option. More of a Final Fantasy 14 aficionado? You’ll probably find an entry or two about his boss fight, if not get an outright suggestion in your search box as you’re typing. Then again, there’s always the Titan missile. A Wiki page on The Titan Rocket family (Yes, I’m Googling as I type…). The Teen Titans. The Titans of ancient legend. Personally, the first thing that popped up for me was Titan, the moon.
But, remember, it’s not just the things you’re most likely to enjoy. Google uses a process that orders your search results based on the viewing habits of other people. That’s why Wikipedia is usually one of the first results you get: everyone goes there. This is a pretty neat system, but it’s got a few obvious problems. The first is that it encourages group-think by increasing the chances that we’ll all be seeing the same information. Which sounds bad, but it also makes it easier for us to communicate, because we’re more likely to have seen the same entries, so we might have some common ground. Just think about the sheer amount of legitimacy and authority that being the first search result alone would lend you as a result.
Of course, it takes a lot of views and a lot of traffic to become the very best. So, if you’re peddling grass-grazer gas, you’re probably not going to get there. It’s a sort of quality-control thing, but it’s not perfect. Then again, what is? It can certainly be manipulated. When I’m working as a freelancer, one of the primary things people worry about is SEO (Search-Engine Optimization). This basically means writing the article such that it’s more likely to be picked out by a search algorithm based on its content. Basically, they want mimetic density in the first paragraph. (If you knew how much I was over-simplifying, you might want an apology. If you do know, then sorry!) If you’re writing about sausages, you’ve gotta make sure you squeeze in every sausage-related tid-bit that might be important to the sausage community into the article. Even your jokes should be sausage-based. Pro: Top results are more likely to be related to your topic. Con: It could just be pandering propaganda.
Again, though, it’s hard for pandering bullocks to hold a slot. Eventually, the popular, the informative and the useful rise to the top. And, it’s not like there’s going to be a standard search-result screen; it’s an active, adaptive process. Come on, admit it, Google is elegant as balls.
So, now that we’re on the same page, you can see how easy it would be for Google to alter the course of human understanding. Hell, even Wikipedia could become a hive of scum and questionable sources. We rely on their integrity and the work of a bunch of anonymous fact-checkers to ensure that the information that guides large portions of the digital world is reliable. We’ve all learned to be sceptical, though, right? You always follow the blue links at the bottom of the Wiki article to make sure it’s not just bollocks? Because, I sure don’t.
So, to be 100% clear, Google is controlling your mind by showing you: the information you already know you want, and therefore already agree with, and exactly what everyone else is looking at. It’s a truism that no one looks past the first page of search results, but it could also be reality. The real question is: do we use Google because we trust them or do we trust Google because we use them? It’s the main problem with having one source of information or a Total Institution. Churches, Schools, Prison systems, Legal Systems, they all face this reality with greater or lesser denial and greater or lesser concern.
Come on, though, it’s not like you only get information through Google. And it’s not like you can’t trust them. I do, wholeheartedly, but I know how easy it is for me to simply accept the information and understanding that I’m given, so I’m wary. It’s even easier if you think you ‘re the one that found the information in the first place. Remember, though, you didn’t: Google did.
Where is all this unhealthy scepticism leading us? Right back to the two games we were discussing in the first post. The reason that a search engine needs to be subjected to that level of scrutiny is that it is the tool you use to explore. To perceive. On the internet, Google is like one part of your sensory system. It feeds you information that you can use to direct your behaviour. It also functions as an extension of your body, as a literal tool, because the functions you can perform are restricted and enabled by the engine. Weird, right? Let’s go further.
Now, say, instead of Google, we were talking about a set of prosthetic legs from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. And, let’s say it’s a bit after the game, so we’ve gotten a little creative with our designs. Now, instead of your flesh-sticks, you’re rocking a set of quadruped robot-legs! Pretty cool, right? It’s not all walking up buildings and winning three-legged races, though. The change is going to fundamentally alter how you understand your ability to shimmy. The design of the legs themselves, the way they bend, their length, size and weight, are going to affect how you can move with them. As a result, your understanding of your body and your relationship to the environment will change.
Bringing it all together… What about your mental environment? If you’ll remember, last time, we talked a bit about mental augmentation, storing memories digitally and increasing processing power by fusing metal and flesh. Now, the issue at hand. Take what we said about Google and apply it to your memories. Your brain. Your understanding of everything you are and will be. Make one memory salient and bring someone to their knees. Make the memories of a sickness seem to last too long and you can shatter someone’s resolve. Associate stomach flu and a food, then BAM! Instant life-long distaste. It goes without saying, then, that the search protocols we use in supplemental prosthetic memory must be under even greater scrutiny.
I can’t stress this super obvious, but easy to underestimate, idea enough: your brain and body enable and constrain everything you are. The tools we use, both mental and physical, refine those abilities even further. From those copious refinements comes a multiplicity of interactions that create you. Change any one of those elements and you’ll change the end result. When we start augmenting people, we’ll start changing what we consider to be human.
Okay, stop, I’m going to break the 4th wall even harder, right now. This is all I can really remember from the original post I had prepared. However, looking back, I can see I put a couple points in the wrap-up that I promised to cover, so I’m going to do that, now. But, I’m going to talk to you in my own voice, instead of Triv’s. I know it’s a small difference, but there is one. Trivial Punk can’t discuss Trivial Punk with you, and that’s what I want to do. But first…
Procedural memories are those you use to perform actions and tasks. Think of your procedural memory as an instruction booklet for your motor systems. There are two things that immediately shake out from this concept, based on our discussion here; 1: Changing your procedural memory will change how you perform actions. If you could hack into that digitally, we’d have… issues. 2: More applicable to robotic augmentation: if you change the tools used to perform the actions, then your procedural memory will develop very differently. Obvious, again, let’s go deeper. What do we use procedural memory to do besides just perform actions? Inform understanding.
We have a complex empathy system that lets us try to guess at the intentions and motivations of the people and things around us. We know when people are happy, because they smile, but we all know that smiles can mean different things under different circumstances, and we know that, because we’ve smiled. We’ve smiled under hundreds of different circumstances in many different ways. But, what if you didn’t have a mouth? How would you interpret a nervous foot-tap if you didn’t have a foot. Or legs. Or a body? Don’t worry, you definitely can, but you might experience the interpretation of the gesture differently. The memories you use to do the interpretation might be more symbolic than kinaesthetic. Obviously, I’m in full speculation mode, at this point.
In the coming generation, we’ll have to begin talking about the strictures of the human form as we begin to download minds, or human-like minds, into currently inhuman forms. That’s enough to consider on its own. Usually, this whole piece would come down to questions of whether or not they’re human. I don’t have that question; I don’t really care if they’re human or not. If they have minds, then we should unite around that commonality. But, you know, xenophobes will be xenophobes. And maybe they won’t care about us silly flesh-babies, but that’s another future to be decided on at a later date. Any ways, the question I’m eager to ask is: should we place any restrictions on form?
Your first answer would usually be, “Of course not!” That was mine, too, until I really thought about it. If we extend those potential-minds people-privileges, and we DAMN-WELL BETTER! (No, seriously, let’s try to never be slavery-genocide stupid ever AGAIN! That’s going to be the social problem of that age, you heard it here 4, 940, 342nd!) Okay, so let’s say we do extend them those privileges, and we can control their physical form, then how far are we away from slavery? No, seriously, if you give something a mind, but only give it the ability to Roomba around a house, then you’re purposely constraining its physical form in order to ensure that it does your chores. It’s a topic to approach carefully; those are some serious future-crimes.
But, okay, maybe you don’t care about robots, so I’ll leave you with this culmination of these ideas. The human brain is a remarkable processor. I actually don’t know the words to make you realize how amazing it is. It contains a universe that actively understands itself based on electrical signals. Seriously take that all in, now look at yourself… your existence is amazing. Moving on, have you considered the computational abilities of your brain, apart from when it’s actually doing mathematics? Each of us is a phenomenal information processor. You know where I’m going with this. You could take the brain of a developing human, a child, and insert it into a system a ‘la The Matrix, but instead of harnessing bio-energy like an inefficient newb, you control the brain’s environment such that the brain develops into a pure information processor.
Between the man-machine interface we discussed last post and this post’s ramblings about how your physical form affects your mental understandings, can you see the rows and rows of bodies? You don’t need the skin if they’re in a tube. You just need to keep the brain nourished and the nerves alive. Or, maybe you don’t. Maybe you just need it functioning and you’re controlling the nerve-inputs, because they’re inefficient. Plato be damned, brains in vats could represent more computing power than currently exists, if you could access it properly.
Or worse, you could end up a helpless, motionless tube that feels and digests food for another set of organisms, depending on how inefficiently we’re running this thing. So, be glad of your body! Never let anyone tell you that your body is your humanity. And always accept augments from strangers.
Okay, let’s get to that house-cleaning now that there’s a way longer post than I intended to write in front of it!
As you might know, I went on a little hiatus to knock my head-brain around a bit. I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life. I want to write stories. I want to make short movies and silly letsplays. There are so many ideas that I haven’t dared try, yet. You know, standard creativity-dreams. However, I’m also kind of a science-nerd, in some respects. Academia could provide me a life doing the thing I find most interesting: thinking. This year, I’ve got to make a decision about where I begin my future. And, as of right now, Trivial Punk isn’t shaping into a career.
Don’t get me wrong, I do this because I love it. And I’m taking the chance to keep doing it, because I want to make interesting ideas and the primal grips of fantasy the central conceits of my life. I want to encourage people to dream, because the future is forward. It’s up in space. It’s beautiful, terrifying ideas about the nature of our developing consciousness. It’s equality as a given, not something we have to continually fight for. It’s finding humanity in the post-human and hope in our most crushing defeats. And if I write nothing more for the rest of my life, or if you read not one screed, not one iota, more of my writing, then, please, accept this final plea, “Don’t give up on what we can be.”
In the spirit of that idea, I’m going to spend the summer working on videos, articles, letsplay and the like with my friends. We’re still learning, but we’ll put all we have into it. All I ask is that you share the things you like. I’m one person; I can’t do much on my own. But, if each single person does just a tiny bit, then we can accomplish great things. Or plug our work, either one. I don’t like talking, or even thinking, in a mercenary fashion. I don’t enjoy self-promotion, unless it’s too true to be manipulative. So, that’s what I’m doing here. Please, share the stuff you like so that I can do this with my life.
Regardless, I’ll still finish the novel I’m writing. We’ll still make videos and put in the time. It’s up to us to make this work. But, let’s be honest, all my work means nothing if nobody sees it. That’s it, cards on the table, honest. Any number of things could change in a given life, so who knows if any of this will hold true in the long run. Literally no one can say. But, it will always be helpful to share the things you like on the internet.
I’m sure you’ll notice some new stuff in the next couple of weeks; here are a couple of new things I’m trying, let me know what you think!
Dead Space Letsplay – Trying something a bit different with this one. Let me know what you think! Did you have enough time to see them all? Were they in the way? Entertaining? Funny? Existentially disturbing?
Doom 3: BFG Edition Letsplay - Simple and sweeeeet.
Dark Souls Letsplay Turbo Preview – The best and fastest way to see us die over and over again.
That’s it for today! Thanks for reading and I’ll see you on the other side.