Saturday, November 21, 2009

Capitalism and Infinity

Your humble blogger's devoted readers are, no doubt, already aware of your host's thoughts regarding the end of humanity.  To wit: it never really got started to begin with -- we have never been human.  At least, we have never been a certain rather naively conceived version of human that remits, at base, to a sort of ghost in the machine, a little man inside our little man, a quasi mystical conception of the rational agent, sprung, fully formed, from the head of the gods, and now buried deep within our brains.  I know it's down there somewhere, let me just take another look.

In fact, truth be told, we are surrounded by chimps.  We might even say we're possessed by them.  Namely, ourselves. 

But I won't bore you with another tirade about how we are merely a bridge between ape and superman and how the ghost in Google's machine is likely to replace us at the cutting edge of the spectral.  At best we may hope to be the sex organs of this new technology, the pliant antennae of a new consciousness.  I won't bore you because that's still so far away, really, and so ill assured when you realize that Google, too, has competition.  You needn't go futuristic to see how a large system built out of purportedly intelligent parts can take on a life of its own and, without the parts ever realizing it, orchestrate events so as to fight for its survival, expansion, and reproduction.

Before Google, we had multinationals, and before those, the state (if these last two are indeed separable -- let's lump them together for right now under the heading of Capitalism -- if I still have to explain this thought, and the way capitalism is the opposite of a market economy, you readers aren't as devoted as I thought.).  We have been building larger units since we invented language, and the history of our humanity, of our consciousness as humans, has been modified each step along the way.  The parts compose a whole, which in turn remakes the parts.  An interesting aside here would be to understand why these older composite organizations convinced us we were "human" to begin with.

A lot of the time it seems that this perspective is left out of the science fiction debates about thinking machines, network intelligence, and the singularity.  Google may be the newest trans-human (meta-human?) organism, but it is not the first, nor is its success, or even survival, assured.  In fact, this new intelligence remains in fierce competition with those lumbering dinosaurs whose operating systems are still encoded on parchment and parliament.  Most fundamentally I think these creatures compete to remake the raw material of their cells.  Or, if you prefer a strictly modern metaphor, they compete for the clock cycles and computational architecture of the human brain.  And while you may isolate regimes in this ongoing competition, or eras where the landscape changes shape, it's not as if the old organisms just give up and die -- not even the humans, who may yet inherit the earth.  These strata come mixed together in the most messy way, and aren't even limited to those I've mentioned -- the roaches and computer viruses and weather systems happily join the fray as well.

My point here dude is that Capitalism already represents a new organism, and a changed species (or perhaps the species are the institutions of state and corporation, and their symbiotic coevolution is a sort of ecosystem or landscape -- but then, what's the difference between those? isn't the ecosystem an animal too?).  Capitalism is an animal behavior pattern and a entity unto itself -- which perhaps sounds less bizarre if you realize that everything that is a thing is a pattern of behavior.  What we call things are just patterns of behavior, processes, that don't change rapidly relative to our human patterns.  I think this question of time scales is a big part of why we find it easier to imagine talking to Google than talking to Capitalism or Ford or the federal government -- it moves so fast we recognize it as one of our own.  "Is Capitalism lonely?"

But recognizing that we have been building artificial intelligence all along was actually not quite where I was headed.  I was actually trying to make sense of an related idea I've had for a number of years.  Completely lost my train of thought.

Capitalism is a game.  It's like the initial play of a child.  It's the awkward stretching and testing of a newborn trying to assess its powers and limits.  All intelligent species play.  If you want, you can almost call that the definition of intelligence.  If we talk about a new intelligence emerging on this planet, what makes us think it would be any different?  Sure, this game has real consequences for us humans, but then, really, we are just pawns in it.  Or maybe some of us are worthy fucking adversaries, but my point here is that the game has a logic of its own that doesn't necessarily care about mere human happiness.   The game will probably function more smoothly if it can find a way to engineer our satisfaction into itself -- the quirks of the East African Plains Ape are part of why the rules are laid down exactly as they are, even if it's not the apes that really designed the game.  So Capitalism would like to make us happy, if it can.  But if it can't ... well, so long as the material doesn't rebel it's internal state doesn't really matter.  In fact, if things get hairy, it might be bets to empty it of internal state entirely. 

The reason to prefer Google to Capitalism (from our little human perspective) is not that one is inherently better or more inevitable in some cosmic evolutionary sense, but simply that one is likely to be much more pleasant for us.  One may give us a chance to play too.  Google is likely to allow the consciousness of our tribe of apes to expand much further and realize itself much more fully.  And this, ultimately, is the only way to 'judge' an organism; this is how the cosmos pronounces judgment: "how far can you go?  how big can you get?  how infinite are you?" -- it's a question of being unlimited, unshackled by the Capitalist Axiomatic that would corral your proposition and convert your algorithm from generative to normative.  None of that is assured, of course, but it seems like our best new weapon in the struggle for infinity.

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