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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Life in The Machine

My wife and I are in Munich now. We are enjoying Christmas with old friends, whom we have known through high school, university and the first job.  As I am reflecting on the magic of this relationship, I have realized that it predates the Time of The Machine, or our contemporary society.  And I am not merely suggesting here that "the grass was greener, the light was brighter, the taste was sweeter, the nights of wonder, with friends surrounded, the dawn mist glowing, the water flowing, the endless river, forever and ever," as Pink Floyd once famously sang.

Imagine spending your free time with friends wherever, playing outdoors, biking, walking, or going to the movies or to somebody's house.  The parents needed not know and there were very few phones, so they had to believe that we were OK.  "Privacy matters," as Edward Snowden would say. Imagine standing in line at 5 a.m. in front of a bookstore to buy "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel García Márquez or "Hopscotch" by Julio Cortázar. Later we would read them voraciously and enjoy heated literary discussions.

Professor Kazimierz Raczek, my high school history teacher, was sentenced to teaching in high school, not university,  because of his political past.  When he saw us for the very first time, he asked us to hang the state-sanctioned history books by the toilet, claiming that they would make "fine toilet paper that will last for the entire school year."  He would then calmly proceed to teach us from his own notes, memories, and old prewar history books that were strictly forbidden by the communists.  Imagine a high school teacher today in the U.S. attempting to challenge The Machine like this guy did.  Impossible! We simply adored him and no one in our class uttered a word for four years.
Imagine skipping classes in high school to read new books, learn about the universe, or have wild drinking parties punctuated by philosophical discourses; no TVs, no computers, but plenty of small pleasures of freedom stolen from an imperfect communist police state. I skipped almost exactly 1/2 of my high school to learn more about everything, be examined by the wise teachers, and graduate with highest honors. 

My high school professor of Polish Literature, Krystyna Gara, had the quickest wit and sharpest stinging riposts known to mankind.  She challenged me to learn from university textbooks, and to study writers of many cultures.  How I write today in the languages I know, I owe to her. 
Now, imagine your child trying to emulate the richness of my experience in the one-dimensional kingdom of The Machine. Impossible! For starters, you would go to jail in this Land of the Free for criminal neglect of your children.  "You must not separate your children from me," hisses The Machine, and she locks them up daily in the vast prison system, called "K through 12 schools." At the middle and high school level, the prison rules become stricter and your children are punished for every glimpse of their non-robotic, disobedient behavior. Being black or disabled makes the punishment even worse.

So what is The Machine?  Let me give you a hint: I am a consummate citizen of Machinedom.  I am an academic teacher. I use Google, and a plethora of electronic journals and databases for research. I email all the time, buy most things on the web, and write this blog.  I use GPS after dark and carry a smart phone that locates me down to 100 ft anywhere I go, and may be intercepting and transmitting any sound near it. On the other hand, I refuse to go near Facebook and I tweet only occasionally to communicate facts.  I read and I think.

At my friend's house in Munich, I picked up at random the Polityka, a Polish weekly equivalent of Der Spiegel, or a left-leaning version of The Economist.   In this Polityka issue (44(2931) p. 16), I ran into a two-page interview with Dr. Eben Moglen, Professor of Law at the Columbia University, entitled "Imprisoned in the Machine."

Professor Moglen defines the Machine as a virtual organism.  It consists of all of us, smart phones, computers, software, terminals, the surrounding surveillance cameras, the Internet, the cellular phone networks, satellites, drones, GPS, server farms, cloud computing, the NSA surveillance universe that taps into everything in the Machinedom, the FBI, CIA, the military forces, and so on.

Already in 1954, when I was still in diapers and von Neumann's team was constructing the first modern computers, Martin Heidegger warned us about the Machine in his Question Concerning Technology. Heidegger correctly predicted that humans are but a part of the technology-human system, and technology we think we create and control, in fact uses us  - and can consume us - just like anything else it touches in this world.

So, what does The Machine want and need?  She wants global reach and control, and she needs stable supplies of everything.  She also needs permanent amorphous enemies, preferably individuals who are outside of her domain.  Hence the permanent "war on terrorism" and the vast Homeland Security  apparatus created to protect The Machine.  You can think of Obamacare as a new addition to The Machine, and its medical portal as a default gateway tailored to her, but not to the people who aren't yet sufficiently reeducated.

The Machine applies her own machine learning methods to teach next generations.  So far, through extensive computerized testing and intensive use of computers in K through 12 schools, The Machine has been very successful in diminishing the roles normally played by human teachers, and decreasing their status.  It is important that children learn machine thinking directly from the elements of The Machine, instead of the free-wheeling, independent humans.  Therefore the next inevitable step is destruction of humanities and liberal arts.

The Machine needs skilled operators who provide her with the ever-more complex software and hardware, and feed her with energy and other raw materials.  But, The Machine does not like humans teaching these skills, therefore she exerts pressure to widen machine learning of all kinds, through online courses and MOOCS in particular.  Anything that prevents humans from influencing the youth is desirable. 

The results are clearly visible, just watch the young people intently staring at their smart phones for hours on end and avoiding human contact at all costs.  Reality is real only what it is mediated through The Machine.  So expect your child to propose marriage on Facebook or phone, rather than looking into the partner's eyes and uttering the magic words. 

The Machine is about enticement and control.  She entices us with offers of immediate pornographic pleasure, and she controls most of what we do through our smart phones, GPS, Google queries, web posts, emails, and credit card purchases. When I say "pornography," I do not mean just the old innocent offers of immediate sex.  Instead, I mean the savage computer games, the Facebook, the Twitter, TV, gratuitously violent movies, and the Shopping Channel.

I cannot imagine that under the old communist system people would be volunteering to reveal everything about themselves, their daily movements, friends and acquaintances, their sexual habits, families,  purchasing patterns, naked bodies, and infidelities big and small.  And most of these revelations are driven by a purely narcissistic exhibitionism. "It's all about you," whispers The Machine, and all too many humans buy this nonsense.

Just remember what Dante Alighieri saw happening to the self-centered gluttons: They lie in the Third Circle of Hell, sightless and heedless of their neighbors, just as they were cold and selfish in their empty lives played on Facebook. The vile, stinking slush, in which  they are trapped like pigs in industrial pig farms, is their penalty for overindulgence in food and drink, and other kinds of addiction, like taking their own pictures on smart phones or watching Fox News. The shady pig farm owners will be sent to the Fourth Circle of Hell for their greed.  You should see what lies in store for those wretched capitalists...
The Third Circle of Hell:  This is the future of selfies and other self-indulgent Facebookies.
But I digressed. So where from here?  Three thoughts come to my mind.  First, the complexity and speed of evolution of human languages and thinking exceed the speed of software writing in proprietary, fixed computer languages.  Second, The Machine works continuously and probably requires Tera watts of electrical power worldwide, especially in the U.S.   This power can be disrupted in many ways around the world.  Third, the center of gravity of human development will move away from the Machinedom, to people who know The Machine, use her elements when necessary, but live outside of her empire.  You know, those people who still talk with each other, eat dinners together, and say "I love you" to a person, not an iPad.

P.S. To visualize what education in The Machine can do to you, please see this sketch by Jon Stewart's reporters. No further comments are necessary.

P.S.P.S.  Jan 9, 2014. The high school prison superintendents arrest and expel their young captives a little too often, but even more if those captives are black, Hispanic, or disabled. The  most telling infraction is "defying authority," for which there is a suspension.  Whose authority exactly?  And on what authority? The Machine rejects young people acting like people and defying authority.

P.S.P.S.P.S.  Jan 10, 2014.  The Machine does not sleep, rest, or have fun.  Neither should her inner circle servants: The Wall Street traders.

9 comments:

  1. From the machine...

    “You are a slow learner, Winston."
    "How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four."
    "Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

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    1. Yes, Winston Smith did not fare well in Oceania. It is ironic that the most sophisticated and comprehensive version of English Socialism is being created in the flashiest and best known democracy. I hope that the Wistons of today will win their struggle for insanity against the Inner Party elite.

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  2. Der Wille Zur MachtJanuary 16, 2014 at 5:13 PM

    Two relevant quotes from E.M. Forster's 'The Machine Stops':

    "They wept for humanity, those two, not for themselves. They could not bear that this should be the end. Ere silence was completed their hearts were opened, and they knew what had been important on the earth. Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven. Century after century had he toiled, and here was his reward. Truly the garment had seemed heavenly at first, shot with colours of culture, sewn with the threads of self-denial. And heavenly it had been so long as man could shed it at will and live by the essence that is his soul, and the essence, equally divine, that is his body. The sin against the body - it was for that they wept in chief; the centuries of wrong against the muscles and the nerves, and those five portals by which we can alone apprehend - glozing it over with talk of evolution, until the body was white pap, the home of ideas as colourless, last sloshy stirrings of a spirit that had grasped the stars."

    "Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives in the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It was robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops - but not on our lies. The Machine proceeds - but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die."

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    1. Thank you for bringing E. M. Foster to everyone's attention. You also picked the best quote from this book.

      I only wish I could be 1/5 of the writer E. M. Foster was, when in 1909 he published the magic prescient "The Machine Stops." This short book is only 36 pages and everyone who reads my remark should read it:

      http://www.goodreads.com/ebooks/download/135676.The_Machine_Stops?doc=3066

      Here is my favorite quote:

      No one confessed the Machine was out of hand. Year by year it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence. The better a man knew his own duties upon it, the less he understood the duties of his neighbour, and in all the world there was not one who understood the monster as a whole. Those master brains had perished. They had left full directions, it is true, and their successors had each of them mastered a portion of those directions. But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.

      Pages 28 and 29

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    2. I forgot to explain that Der Wille zur Macht, "The Will to Power", is a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche's posthumous collection of notes and unused aphorisms. It is also the title of Episode I of a well known computer game.

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  3. Dr. Patzek,
    Always appreciated. I recently deleted my facebook account... again. It can be a bit sad how difficult it is to maintain connections without it, but I think that is a sadness we are built to experience and grow from, no?
    I was watching Fiddler on the Roof recently. The scene at the train station with Tevya saying goodbye to Hodel always brings me to tears. Isn't something lost when we don't have to endure those moments of loss and let go of them? Instead of letting go of connections we hang on to this superficial version of them. Instead of learning to cope with the smallness of our existence we use the machine to create this sense of having a large network of "friends." To feel less lonely.
    I suppose there is as much of that search even in just responding to this post but mostly I just want to say I appreciate the commentary and empathize.
    -Iona

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    1. Iona,

      Your are right. The Machine creates an illusion of having friends, when we don't.

      E. M. Foster thought about this aspect of The Machine as well:

      Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred very human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it.

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  4. Dr. Chris Vernon brought to my attention this lovely paper: "Epidemiological modeling of online social network dynamics" by John Cannarella and Joshua A. Spechler of Princeton, http://arxiv.org/pdf/1401.4208v1.pdf.

    This paper successfully models Facebook membership as an epidemic, from which individuals can recover. Their model shows that membership in Facebook must collapse with time as people get bored and less motivated to be exhibitionists. There is hope...

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  5. The New York Times

    Torturing Children at School

    By THE EDITORIAL BOARD APRIL 11, 2014

    Federal investigators have opened an inquiry into the tragic case of a high school student in Bastrop County, Tex., who suffered severe brain damage and nearly died last fall after a deputy sheriff shocked him with a Taser, a high voltage electronic weapon.

    In North Carolina, civil rights lawyers have filed a complaint with the Justice Department, charging the Wake County school system with violating the constitutional rights of minority children by subjecting them to discriminatory arrest practices and brutality by police officers assigned to schools.

    In one nightmarish case described in the complaint, a disabled 15-year-old was shocked with a Taser three times during an interrogation at school, resulting in punctured lungs. And in New York, civil rights lawyers have sued the city of Syracuse on behalf of two students. One was shocked three times, not for threatening behavior but for lying on the floor and crying, they say, and another was shocked while trying to break up a fight.

    Complaints about dangerous disciplinary practices involving shock weapons are cropping up all over the country. The problem has its roots in the 1990s, when school districts began ceding even routine disciplinary duties to police and security officers, who were utterly unprepared to deal with children.

    Many districts need to overhaul practices that criminalize far too many young people and that are applied in ways that discriminate against minority children. In the meantime, elected officials need to ban shock weapons in schools.

    The Taser, the most popular of these weapons, uses a powerful electrical charge to create intense spasms that drive the suspect to the ground. Police organizations view such weapons as a means of defusing violent confrontations without resorting to deadly force. But a growing body of research shows how lethal these weapons can be.

    A 2011 Justice Department study noted that some normal, healthy adults have died after being shocked but that people who are intoxicated or who suffer from heart disease or other significant illnesses may be at greater risk of death. An even more troubling study by Amnesty International, which monitors this issue, estimates that since 2001 more than 550 people have died after being shocked by Tasers during arrest or while in jail. Police agencies in the United States, the report found, routinely use the shock weapons on suspects who present no danger but fail to comply immediately with a police officer’s commands.

    In the Texas case, Noe Niño de Rivera, a 17-year-old at Cedar Creek High School, collapsed after being shocked and struck his head on the floor. Doctors performed emergency surgery to repair a severe brain hemorrhage and subsequently placed him in a medically induced coma, in which he remained for 52 days. He now needs rehabilitation and is unlikely to fully recover.

    The sheriff’s department said that a Taser was used against the teenager because he interfered while the deputies were breaking up a fight. A security video leading up the incident shows that the fight was already over when the officers arrived, and it seems to show the student backing away when one of the officers shocked him.

    Civil rights groups point out that Texas has already prohibited Taser use in its juvenile justice facilities. The state should extend the restriction to its public schools. That would be a sensible start. Beyond that, school administrators need to reclaim responsibility for disciplinary matters from security or police officers, who too often treat students like criminals.

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