Technological Vulnerability

Colin Dickey writing for Aeon on why it's dangerous for modern civilization to be so dependent on technology:

On 1 September 1859, the British astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), a burst of solar winds and magnetic energy that had escaped the corona of the Sun. The Carrington Event, as it came to be known, was not only the first recorded CME, it was also one of the largest ever on record, and it unleashed a foreboding and wondrous display of light and magnetic effects. Auroras were seen as far south in the northern hemisphere as San Salvador and Honolulu. As the Baltimore Sun reported at the time: ‘From twilight until 10 o’clock last night the whole heavens were lighted by the aurora borealis, more brilliant and beautiful than had been witnessed for years before.’

At the time, the event caused some minor magnetic disruption to telegraph wires, but for the most part there was little damage caused by such a spectacular event, its main legacy being the fantastic displays of light across the sky in early September. But should a solar flare happen on the scale of the Carrington Event now (and there’s a 12 per cent chance of one hitting the Earth before 2022), the effects might have a radically different impact on our advanced civilisation. If a CME with the same intensity were to hit the Earth head-on, it could cause catastrophic damage.

A National Research Council report in 2008 estimated that another Carrington Event could lead to a disruption of US infrastructure that could take between four and 10 years – and trillions of dollars – to recover from. Particularly vulnerable are the massive transformers on which our entire power system relies. Massive fluxes in magnetic energy can easily overload a transformer’s magnetic core, leading to overheating and melting of their copper cores. In the worst-case scenario, a repeat of the Carrington Event would cripple our infrastructure so severely it could lead to an apocalyptic breakdown of society, a threat utterly unknown to our ‘less civilised’ ancestors.

When the Body Attacks Itself

Meghan O'Rourke on the bewildering, self-alienating experience of an auto-immune disease:

To be sick in this way is to have the unpleasant feeling that you are impersonating yourself. When you’re sick, the act of living is more act than living. Healthy people, as you’re painfully aware, have the luxury of forgetting that our existence depends on a cascade of precise cellular interactions. Not you.

More Money, Fewer Feelings

There's a lot of research to show that, as long as you aren't living in poverty, making more money doesn't make you any happier. But according to Michael Lewis, writing for The New Republic, there's also evidence to support the theory (admittedly not super-shocking) that making more money can actually make you more of a jerk.

A team of researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed 43,000 Americans and found that, by some wide margin, the rich were more likely to shoplift than the poor. Another study, by a coalition of nonprofits called the Independent Sector, revealed that people with incomes below twenty-five grand give away, on average, 4.2 percent of their income, while those earning more than 150 grand a year give away only 2.7 percent. A UCLA neuroscientist named Keely Muscatell has published an interesting paper showing that wealth quiets the nerves in the brain associated with empathy: if you show rich people and poor people pictures of kids with cancer, the poor people’s brains exhibit a great deal more activity than the rich people’s.

Consciousness-Free Intelligence

Kevin Kelly writing for Wired about how artificial intelligence will differ from our concept of human intelligence:

In fact, this won’t really be intelligence, at least not as we’ve come to think of it. Indeed, intelligence may be a liability—especially if by “intelligence” we mean our peculiar self-awareness, all our frantic loops of introspection and messy currents of self-consciousness. We want our self-driving car to be inhumanly focused on the road, not obsessing over an argument it had with the garage. The synthetic Dr. Watson at our hospital should be maniacal in its work, never wondering whether it should have majored in English instead. As AIs develop, we might have to engineer ways to prevent consciousness in them—and our most premium AI services will likely be advertised as consciousness-free.

Chimp Technology

I knew Chimpanzees had been observed using some rudimentary tools but this piece by Mary Roach for National Geographic is crazy:

In 2007 Jill Pruetz, an anthropologist at Iowa State University, reported that a Fongoli female chimp named Tumbo was seen two years earlier, less than a mile from where we are right now, sharpening a branch with her teeth and wielding it like a spear. She used it to stab at a bush baby—a pocket-size, tree-dwelling nocturnal primate that springs from branch to branch like a grasshopper. Until that report, the regular making of tools for hunting and killing mammals had been considered uniquely human behavior. Over a span of 17 days at the start of the 2006 rainy season, Pruetz saw the chimps hunt bush babies 13 times. There were 18 sightings in 2007. It would appear the chimps are getting creative.

Socially Unproductive Attachments

A fascinating but creepy piece by Julie Beck in the Atlantic on the growing sex doll industry:

In her Ph.D. dissertation, [Cynthia Ann] Moya questions why there is something uniquely perverse about owning a sex doll. As she puts it, “A better spatula does not inspire lengthy monologues about human alienation and the reifying effects of technological mechanization on our lifestyles.” Sexuality is an appetite, not unlike hunger, but we treat the devices used to satisfy that appetite differently. If the doll owners aren’t hurting anyone, why should we condemn something that is basically just fancy masturbation?

But sex dolls do retain something of an ick-factor, even as vibrators and other sex toys have become more mainstream. That’s because the dolls are tied up with questions about gender and power in a way that spatulas (and even vibrators) are not.

According to [Dr. Marquard] Smith, any sort of non-reproductive sexual behavior has historically been seen as perverse. These days, though, many people are okay with sex that isn’t reproductive. We’re less okay with emotional attachments that aren’t socially productive.

Some Measure of Innocence

In a piece for the New York Times Magazine, Mark O'Connell writes beautifully about how having children can give you a whole new perspective on the world and its dangers:

Having a child feels like returning some measure of innocence to the world, and this is wonderful in its way; but we are talking here about a world with an exceptionally poor track record in its dealings with innocence. Unforgivably, perhaps, I think of this much more frequently now than I ever did before deciding to bring a child — this particular child — into the world.

Reading this piece, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my best friend from high school not long after my second child was born. My friend did not have kids yet, and wasn't even in a serious relationship, so I was trying to explain to him how it felt, and I remember saying that it's like you've had this clock running your whole life, counting down the days until the next thing happens and then the next thing, the years of school, getting a driver's license, going to college, getting a job, getting married, and so on. And all the while, you're imagining your future.

But when you have a child, suddenly you start a new clock, and you begin to re-experience and re-anticipate all those same experiences. And the worst part of it is that you begin to imagine this new future, not your future but your child's future, and all the precarious possibilities that future could bring that your child doesn't even know about yet, from war to pandemics to global warming.

O'Connell's essay also reminded me of something the writer George Saunders once said in a radio interview (which I've been unable to track down). He was talking about the day one of his children was born, probably his first, and he remembered looking down at this infinitely innocent, infinitely helpless being in his hands and thinking about how all human beings on this planet were once that innocent and that helpless, and maybe if people could remember that, remember the innocence and helplessness we're all born with, the world wouldn't be such a cruel place.

Magic and Grandeur

In reference to Bill Nye's recent debate with a creationist, Jason Kottke posted this wonderful quote from physicist Richard Feynman about the idea that an artist can appreciate the beauty of a flower, whereas a scientist ruins the beauty by taking the flower apart.

First of all, the beauty that [the artist] sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is ... I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it's not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there's also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.

I had a physics professor in college who told me about a conversation he was having with other physics professors, and one of them referred to him as a "real scientist" (he'd recently published some important research) rather than a mere teacher. He got pissed. He said something like, "I don't see my work as a teacher to be less important than my work as a scientist. If 'real scientists' don't believe that a big part of our jobs, of all our jobs, is to educate people about science, to attract people to science, to spread the gospel about the beauty of science, then science will die."

Phil Plait made a similar argument in Slate about the Bill Nye debate.

Roughly half the population of America does believe in some form of creationism or another. Half. Given that creationism is provably wrong, and science has enjoyed huge overwhelming success over the years, something is clearly broken in our country. I suspect that what’s wrong is our messaging. For too long, scientists have thought that facts speak for themselves. They don’t. They need advocates.

I agree. Scientists do themselves a disservice when they let themselves be portrayed, or even portray themselves, as mere enemies of "magical thinking." Scientists are not devoid of wonder. They are not opposed to magic. Quite the opposite. Science is the study of magic. What is matter? What is energy? What are the stars? What is life? Where did it come from? Asking and trying to answer these questions isn't ruining the magic, it's savoring the magic.

As Darwin himself wrote in "On the Origin of Species:"

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us ... Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Artificial Communication

After watching "Her," the new Spike Jonze movie about a man falling in love with an artificially intelligent operating system, I got in my car, started it up, and then briefly held my thumb down on the home button of my phone. The phone emitted a cheerful, questioning double beep. "Tell my wife," I said, "'I'm on my way home.'" The phone parsed my words into a text message. A woman's voice asked, "Are you ready to send it?" I was.

It's easy to see the movie as a exaggeration of my interaction with Siri, to argue that our current fixation with technology could lead down a slippery slope to imaginary relationships with artificially intelligent beings like Samantha, the Scarlett Johansson-voiced operating system from the movie. Several articles (like this one) have linked the movie to a famous chat bot named ELIZA, created at MIT in the late sixties, which used vaguely empathetic questions to create the illusion of a conversation with human users. Joseph Weizenbaum, the creator of the chatbot, later wrote,

I was startled to see how quickly and how very deeply people conversing with [it] became emotionally involved with the computer and how unequivocally they anthropomorphized it. Once my secretary, who had watched me work on the program for many months and therefore surely knew it to be merely a computer program, started conversing with it. After only a few interchanges with it, she asked me to leave the room.

I expect most people to find it sad, or even disturbing, that humans could be so easily duped by technology. Sherry Turkle (whose theories about how technology is driving us apart may not be supported by the evidence) has written of her horror at observing people interacting with robots.

One of the most haunting experiences during my research came when I brought one of these robots, designed in the shape of a baby seal, to an elder-care facility, and an older woman began to talk to it about the loss of her child. The robot seemed to be looking into her eyes. It seemed to be following the conversation. The woman was comforted.

That final sentence is meant to fill you with dread. The usual narrative about technology in Western culture, going back at least as far as Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein," is that technology makes a lot of promises, but those promises, at best, prove empty. And at worst, they will give rise to monsters that viciously murder everyone we care about. I've written about this before.

The problem with this narrative is that it conflates and denigrates forms of technology that have, in fact, very little to do with each other. My smartphone is both addictive (and maddening) not because it listens to me or simulates empathy, but because it can be so many things. I could use it to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, my RSS reader, my Instapaper queue, Flipboard, Tumblr, Instagram. I could also add an item to my todo list, write a journal entry, write a blog post, take a picture, listen to a podcast, read a book. And just as the device can be many things, so it reminds me that I can be many things: an employee, a teacher, a spouse, a friend, a family member, a reader, a photographer, a writer. I can feel it pulsing with obligations in my pocket. I sometimes find myself flipping through apps, and potential identities, the way I used to flip through TV channels. All that possibility can be overwhelming.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, he famously said it was three devices: a wide-screen iPod, a revolutionary phone, and a break-through internet communicator. And if you watch the video of that introduction, everyone cheers the idea of a revolutionary phone, not so much an "internet communicator." Of course, as others have pointed out, it was the internet communicator that was the real revolution. And in many ways, it's the phone that's been left behind.

Which is why it's significant that Joaquin Phoenix's character interacts with Samantha, his operating system, through a kind of high fidelity phone call. So much of what feels clumsy and alien about our experience of computers is our ability to communicate with them. What if that communication became entirely familiar, as familiar as a real conversation? This "input method" of a phone call also removes the need for a screen. Instead of staring at a device, Joaquin Phoenix spends much of the movie staring at the world. And even more importantly, rather than presenting an endless array of possibilities, Samantha unifies those possibilities into one experience, the experience of her company.

You can argue about whether such an artificially intelligent operating system would turn out well for humanity in real life, and I don't want to give anything away about the movie, but if a human being derived meaning from such a relationship, I don't see how that meaning is any less relevant, any less meaningful, simply because it's a relationship with something "artificial." Humans have always derived meaning from artificial things. As Brian Christian writes in a piece about "Her" for The New Yorker's "Page-Turner" blog, the original technology that messed with our heads was language itself.

As both an author and a lover of literature, I would be a hypocrite to condemn too strongly the power of indirect or one-way intimacy. I run the disembodied thoughts of some other mind through my own, like code, and feel close to someone else, living or dead, while risking nothing, offering nothing. And yet the communion, I would argue, is real. Books themselves are perhaps the first chatbots: long-winded and poor listeners, they nonetheless have the power to make the reader feel known, understood, challenged, spurred to greatness, not alone.

Writing, drama, printing, photography, motion pictures, recorded music, typewriters, word processors, the internet: all have at various times been called enemies of culture, even of humanity. But the fact is that technology is part of our culture, part of our humanity. Of course there's the potential that we could get lost in the rabbit hole of communicating with an artificially intelligent being, but would that be any better or worse than getting lost in Netflix TV show marathons or Minecraft expeditions? Or, for that matter, spending one's life reading the classics of literature?

What I loved about "Her" was how it depicted an imaginary relationship with technology that was neither utopic nor dystopic. It was just problematic. Like any passionate, fiery relationship.

The Gorgon Stare

There's a line in a Matthew Power's GQ article "Confessions of a Drone Warrior" that perfectly captures the disquieting, if slightly irrational, sense that drones are harbingers of a nightmare, dystopian future.

Even their shape is sinister: the blunt and featureless nose cone, like some eyeless creature that has evolved in darkness.

I read this article with equal parts fascination and horror, as I did Mark Bowden's article "The Killing Machines" in the Atlantic a couple months back. Bowden is definitely the more pro-drone of the two, making the case that, even though drone strikes do result in some collateral damage, ground operations often cause many more civilian casualties. He gives the example of the Delta Force raid in Mogadishu, which he wrote about in Black Hawk Down.

The objective, which was achieved, was to swoop in and arrest Omar Salad and Mohamed Hassan Awale, two top lieutenants of the outlaw clan leader Mohammed Farrah Aidid...We were not officially at war with Somalia, but the ensuing firefight left 18 Americans dead and killed an estimated 500 to 1,000 Somalis—a number comparable to the total civilian deaths from all drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 through the first half of 2013, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalists’ estimates.

It's a statistic that puts the death toll of drone strikes in startling perspective. Bowden also counters the notion that drones distance soldiers from the realities and consequences of war, quoting a Predator pilot who used to fly B-1 bombers:

"There is a very visceral connection to operations on the ground," Dan says. "When you see combat, when you hear the guy you are supporting who is under fire, you hear the stress in his voice, you hear the emotions being passed over the radio, you see the tracers and rounds being fired, and when you are called upon to either fire a missile or drop a bomb, you witness the effects of that firepower." He witnesses it in a far more immediate way than in the past, and he disdains the notion that he and his fellow drone pilots are like video gamers, detached from the reality of their actions. If anything, they are far more attached.

In some ways, I came away from these articles more disturbed by the surveillance possibilities of drones than I am by their potential as vehicles for assassination. Bowden mentions something known as the Gorgon Stare: a system of cameras and artificial intelligence for analyzing camera footage (named for the mythical beast that can turn its victims to stone).

Instead of one soda-straw-size view of the world with the camera, we put essentially 10 cameras ganged together, and it gives you a very wide area of view of about four kilometers by four kilometers—about the size of the city of Fairfax, [Virginia]—that you can watch continuously. Not as much fidelity in terms of what the camera can see, but I can see movement of cars and people—those sorts of things. Now, instead of staring at a small space, which may be, like, a villa or compound, I can look at a whole city continuously for as long as I am flying that particular system.

In the more recent GQ article, Matthew Power details how the burden of this surveillance, and the fatal power that comes along with it, can weigh on the person behind the camera. The article is a profile of one such drone pilot, Brandon Bryant, who describes his experience in the use of drones as an almost god-like witness to the mass of humanity he had under surveillance.

He watched the targets drink tea with friends, play with their children, have sex with their wives on rooftops, writhing under blankets. There were soccer matches, and weddings too. He once watched a man walk out into a field and take a crap, which glowed white in infrared.

In the end, it's not so much the violence that Bryant finds traumatizing, but the simultaneous sense of powerlessness (because he wasn't the one choosing his targets) and the way the technology, rather than distancing him, gave him an intimate, invasive view of his victims' final moments on earth, watching the heat of their bodies dissipating through infrared.

The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot. His blood is hot. But when it hits the ground, it starts to cool off; the pool cools fast. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same color as the ground he was lying on.

Even if drones cause less collateral damage, I can't help but fear the greater psychological damage, both to our enemies and to ourselves. Both articles are well worth reading.

Chili Pepper + Video Game Review = Brilliant Insanity

The two elements of this piece of internet performance art seem completely unrelated. Why, after all, would one eat a spicy chili pepper just before delivering a video game review into a camera? And yet the result is so utterly compelling. It's like watching someone teeter on the lip of a volcano while wearing a clown suit. Or like watching someone pretend to play a joyful game of twister on a twister mat full of broken glass. Or like watching someone try to tell a joke while being burned alive.

None of these analogies does it justice. Just watch the truly harrowing, insane 3 minutes of it.

My favorite moments:

  • The way reviewer Erin Schmalfeld responds to the experience of eating the pepper (not once but twice) by whispering fearfully, "No!"
  • The way her increasingly pained voice and teary eyes suggest despair in the face of not only the absurdity of the game she's reviewing but the absurdity of existence itself.
  • The way her pain hardens into anger, which she takes out on the game's cheesy Disney dialogue about following your heart: "Who cares? WHO CARES??"
  • The truly heroic crawl to the end.

Via Kottke

The Monster Is the MacGuffin

The Conjuring is the latest horror film by James Wan, the guy who created the Saw franchise. It's a haunted house, paranormal investigation, exorcism movie with great production values and actors. My expectations were high. The movie has gotten great press. The audience at the theater was packed. I sat next to a young couple, and the woman kept wrapping herself tighter and tighter around her boyfriend, whispering at every creepy moment, "Ohfuckohfuckofuck!" I found myself literally on the edge of my seat more than once. But by the end, I felt let down, as I so often do by scary movies. I made this video essay to explore why.

Creepiness, the Uncanny, and Mama

Growing up, I never questioned why I loved scary movies or what I loved about them. But as I’ve gotten older (and more pretentious), I feel compelled to justify my taste by asserting that it’s creepiness (rather than mere gore or shock value) that I love. Somehow creepiness is more respectable, less likely to implicate me as a potential sociopath.

But what distinguishes creepiness from mere horror? Stephen King laid out his own hierarchy of the genre in his book Danse Macabre:

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”

I would place creepiness above even terror because terror is still just reaction to perceived danger. Creepiness is something else, not fear so much as a mysterious unease, often accompanied by goosebumps “creeping” across the skin. I would argue that it comes from glimpses of the uncanny, a concept defined by Freud among others as something that combines elements of the familiar and the grotesque. The most common example of this, now incorporated into the concept of the “uncanny valley,” is the nearly-human automaton that is somehow definitely not fucking human.

It’s no accident that some of the creepiest scenes in the last decade or so have come from Asian horror films, which often feature human figures who look slightly off, from the child who mews like a cat in The Grudge, to the girl with the hair-obscured face in The Ring. One technique Hollywood has borrowed extensively from these movies is the often digitally enhanced hurky jerky movements of ghosts. Click the gif below to animate.

It can be overdone but it can also be incredibly effectve. While he watched one such scene at the height of the Asian horror boom, the film critic Mike D’Angelo wrote in Time Out New York that he was, “More frightened than I’ve ever been in a movie theater.”

The scene he's referring to is from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Pulse. I saw the movie several years ago, and I remember almost nothing about it (something to do with a haunted website) except this scene, which I also consider one of the creepiest moments of any movie I've ever watched.

I don't think the scene in isolation does it justice; essentially it consists of a woman walking toward the camera in a strange slow motion, almost as if she doesn't quite know how to walk. The moment that makes the scene indelible, unforgettable, for me is the way the ghost woman, as she walks forward, suddenly stumbles. Her walking was already strange, automoton-like, but that stumble is even worse, as if she wants badly to pass herself off as one of the living, but in the time since she died, she's forgotten.

Mike D’Angelo writes of this moment,

That’s the point where I started to lose it, and I can only conclude that what freaked me out was that I no longer had any idea what I was looking at, which meant that I didn’t know what would happen next. This woman’s intentions were not clear. This woman’s freakin’ movements were not clear. She was silent, she was implacable, she was mysteriously clumsy. Looking at the stumble again (and again), it almost seems like a glitch—not as some lame “she’s a computer program” reveal, but in the much more vaguely menacing sense of just plain Does Not Belong."

This is the uncanny, the thing that we both recogize as familiar and yet instinctively recogize as not belonging. And it gives us (or some of us) a shivery thrill of both dread and wonder. We both want to look away and yet can’t.

And so it is by the creepiness factor that I can highly recommend Mama, which came out months ago in the theater but that I (like many, I assume) can finally enjoy on DVD and BluRay. If by some unlikely chance you are reading this before you watch the movie and you’d prefer not to know anything more, I implore you to just go watch it. Few modern scary movies are genuinely satisfying, but this one is.

It’s not a perfect film, and in some ways, I wish the director had stuck with the more low budget approach to special effects utilized in the short film that was the germ of the full length movie. You can watch that short film on YouTube, with an intro by Guillermo Del Toro, which certainly packs an uncanny wollop, though it has only the barest hint of a story.

The full-length Mama is a ghost story, and like most ghost stories, the plot is essentially a mystery, built around the unraveling of the ghost’s identity. A man and his girlfriend take in his two young nieces after they’ve been living alone in the woods for years, only to find that the girls have brought a ghost with them: the same ghost who cared for and protected them while they survived in the forest. Unfortunately, the ghost is a jealous ghost and does not appreciate being supplanted by new caretakers.

What makes Mama unique, and uniquely dramatic as a ghost story, is not how the main characters are affected by the haunting. In fact, the two adult characters’ backgrounds and motivations are sketchy and underwritten at best. What makes it worth watching is the two little girls. They carry the movie, both as characters and as actresses. The movie’s dramatic center turns out not to be unraveling the mystery of the ghost’s identity, but rather the struggle between (and within) the girls of whether to continue their relationship with the ghost.

This struggle is underscored repeatedly by the uncanny visual effects of the girls talking to, interacting with, and even playing with the ghost. Every one of these scenes is creepy, moving, and riveting. The girls radiate wildness and danger from the moment they are first discovered in the woods to the way the younger girl sits in the corner and sleeps under her sister’s bed. I also love how the ghost could be read metaphorically as an embodied and totally pissed off case of post traumatic stress disorder.

And unlike so many recent scary movies, this one manages to reach a conclusion without a gimmicky, false, or surprise ending. Rather than just hoping the innocents would survive or the monsters would be vanquished by the end, I actually cared about decisions these little girls were making. This is what makes a work of suspense (supernatural or otherwise) rise above mere formula. Does it elicit emotions other than fear along with the fear? Mama certainly does. It’s that rare thing: a genuinely creepy movie that a grownup can be proud to have enjoyed.