Simulated Selves

“This Mum and Dad live inside an app on my phone, as voice assistants constructed by the California-based company HereAfter AI and powered by more than four hours of conversations they each had with an interviewer about their lives and memories. (For the record, Mum isn’t that untidy.) The company’s goal is to let the living communicate with the dead. I wanted to test out what it might be like.

Technology like this, which lets you “talk” to people who’ve died, has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades…

…“The biggest issue with the [existing] technology is the idea you can generate a single universal person,” says Justin Harrison, founder of a soon-to-launch service called You, Only Virtual. “But the way we experience people is unique to us.” …

But she warns that users need to be careful not to think this technology is re-creating or even preserving people. “I didn’t want to bring back his clone, but his memory,” she says. The intention was to “create a digital monument where you can interact with that person, not in order to pretend they’re alive, but to hear about them, remember how they were, and be inspired by them again.”

-Charlotte Jee, “Technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?” technologyreview.com. October 18, 2022

Advances in artificial intelligence are opening up new possibilities of creating virtual representations of people. It’s a kind of advanced Turing test, not of a machine intelligence being able to pass itself off as human, but instead, being able to pass itself off as a person that you know or had known.

If you provide enough data – in the form of video, voice and text – you presumably can approximate what a person might do or so in certain contexts. It becomes possible to create individual avatars or constructs that approach the real thing.

The first application is for people to process grief. It seems obvious that this will be a thing, where people will use this technology to capture people around them and keep them alive in a sense. As with most change, there are benefits and risks to consider. On one hand, it would be nice to be able to talk with and confer with digital avatars of people that have died or left our lives for one reason or another. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine that these “relationships” would become maladaptive, where they call upon the limited time that we have and prevent us from meeting new people and spending the time necessary to have meaningful relationships with them.

Beyond grief, I think, in some sense, we already have inner representations of people in our minds. For example, I will sometimes want to make a comment that lacks tact, I sometimes have a version of my wife in my head saying something like, “You can say that, but say it nicely,” which, in fact, is something my wife says to me several times a year. I’d guess a digital assistant version might be better than the version I have in my head who I could consult about the right way to handle certain social situations. But, then again, I could just ask her in person. Wouldn’t the digital version get in the way of the real person, and ultimately damage my real relationship?

I like the idea of having multiple versions of myself. I imagine the process of adding data to be much like working on a blog, where the process of documenting surfaces thoughts that you might not have had otherwise. It changes you.

Then, you’d be able to consult with a different version of yourself. You’d be able to check in with past versions, and see how you have changed. You could get second opinions, from a close approximation of your self. There are also hazards here because ultimately this is a past facing exercise, and temperamentally, I try to live more in the future, or in the moment, when I can manage it.

In any event, this is interesting food for thought. I’d expect using this technology at funerals or by people that want to live on in a sense beyond when they die to be common within the next decade or two. It’s probably useful to think about the various tradeoffs before then.

Theater, Circus & Being

“In Acts: Theater, Philosophy, and the Performing Self, Tzachi Zamir proposes a theory of persons that allows participants in the theater to amplify and improve their own sense of self. According to Zamir, “a person is a cluster of possibilities, and actualizes a small portion of these.” The personal benefit of acting is that it broadens the scope of a person’s usual set of possibilities, potentially leading to a wider range of opportunities or ‘live options’ in real life for the person acting. Zamir calls this “existential amplification.” Acting (not merely observing acting) can help someone better understand themselves as they actually are, against a broadened backdrop of what’s possible for them…

…In Duncan Wall’s The Ordinary Acrobat, Jonathan Conant, one of the founders of Trapeze School New York describes the flying trapeze as “a machine for helping people re-evaluate what they are capable of.” He continues: “Before a flight, people are invariably uncomfortable. They’re pissed off, they’re scared, they’re sad. There’s a real fear of getting hurt.” They think that the trapeze is “…magical. It’s unattainable. It’s hugely difficult. It’s completely out of the realm of possibility for most people’s minds.” Yet after flying, “[t]here’s an evolution, an acceptance of what’s possible. The trapeze is so built up in people’s heads. And then someone says, ‘You can actually do this, too.’ That totally shifts the realm of what’s possible.” Conant continues, “People like to say that the trapeze is a metaphor for overcoming your fears. But this is wrong. A metaphor is just a symbol. The trapeze actually works.” Circus literature is rich with such accounts, especially in connection to the flying trapeze. Very often, there is talk of a great shift in perspective, of seeing the world differently, experiencing life anew, and even: becoming a whole new being.”

-Meg Wallace, “Circus and Philosophy: Teaching Aristotle Through Juggling.” aesthticsforbirds.com. December 2, 2021

Interesting throughout. I like the idea that trying new things, whether they be new ideas or ways of being in the world, can help us reconstruct ourselves into “a whole new being.”

Identity: Obscurity, Anonymity & Fuckwadary

The history of The Residents is shrouded in obscurity and aptly covered elsewhere (we recommend Ian Shirley’s definitive text and Don Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity as starting points). We should also point out that there will be no discussion here speculating on the band’s identities. Who they may be is irrelevant to the sweeping vision of their art and music.

The Residents have continuously operated under what they dubbed “the theory of obscurity.” Under this idea, they could work on their art without worrying about anything getting in the way. Per Shirley:

[the theory of obscurity] laid down the mantra that The Residents would conceal their identities so that people could focus on the music, art, and visual presentation they created.

-David Buck, “Resident Memories:
How a San Francisco art collective carved a unique path through the creative combination of art and technology.” Tedium.co. August 20, 2021.

I was going to add this history of The Residents as another entry about them in this blog. I’m not a huge fan of their music, but I love the idea of The Residents. The theory of obscurity really gets at the idea of how our creativity is hemmed in by the identities we create for ourselves, and it is good to find ways to transcend them. This, in turn, reminded me of a talk that Christopher “moot” Poole, the creator of 4chan gave years ago.

I like Poole’s ideas about identity. The fact it is multifaceted is clearly true. People do need a certain degree of freedom from their identity in order to explore interests and potentially evolve into someone else. It’s easy to imagine the different experiences of say, a Frank Zappa or Tom Waits, compared to The Residents. At one level, even the title “musician” would preclude trying to create a video game, or even be a part of one. David Bowie and Omikron: The Nomad Soul shows how difficult this kind of exploration can be.

But, on another level, it’s also clear that some of the comments haven’t aged well. I don’t pretend to know what is going on in 4chan these days, but the general drift seems to be away from anti-establishment to alt-right. And, it raises the critique of Penny Arcade’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, or the idea that a normal person who is anonymous and in front of an audience will turn into a total fuckwad. What happens when you have a community of fuckwads? Or, a significant subset of a community of fuckwads that are some subset of bots, trolls and so forth that currently call Twitter home?

And what is the relationship between being different and being a fuckwad? I don’t really know the answer to that. I think we need to develop the capability to be different, and in order to be different, it helps to see other people being different. But. we live in a cultural environment of homogeneity and appropriation. There’s a world of difference out there, but most of us are being different, just like everyone else. The easy route to difference is to cast yourself in opposition to the mainstream. It’s looking to the “alt”, whether that is music, politics or something else.

And, I guess what I personally want to embody, or find ways of bringing out in myself, is not by defining myself in opposition, but by trying to reduce the ways I define myself at all, like that Paul Graham essay about keeping your identity small. I think the way to do that is to just follow our interests, for as far as we can. Like the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, so few of us develop a distinct voice or worldview because we are constantly being influenced by new things that are being surfaced to our attention, whether that’s 5G or the latest event in the outrage cycle. The only way we can develop into someone different is to unplug from that world, that way of thinking, and decide to try on a different point of view, and once we find a point of view that works for us, to keep at it.

In the beginning, mountains are mountains. Then, mountains become something else. In the end, mountains are mountains again. But, it’s never about the mountains. It’s about the person experiencing them.

Privacy is For Finding Out Who We Are When We Are Not Performing Ourselves

“Privacy is essential to human agency and dignity. Denying someone privacy—even when it’s as seemingly small as a parent who won’t let their kid close the door—has a corrosive effect, eroding trust as well as our sense of interiority. When we scale up the individual to a body politic, it is the private sphere that’s crucial for our capacity for democracy and self-determination. As individuals, we need privacy to figure out who we are when we’re no longer performing the self. As a collective, we have to be able to distinguish who we are as individuals hidden from the norms and pressures of the group in order to reason clearly about how we want to shape the group. Elections have secret ballots for a reason.

If we do care about privacy as a collective value, then it cannot be an individual burden. Right now, privacy is essentially a luxury good. If you can afford not to use coupons, you don’t have to let retailers track your shopping habits with loyalty points. If you’re technically savvy, you don’t have to let Gmail see all your emails. Not only does that make access to privacy incredibly inequitable, it also affects our collective understanding of what is a ‘normal’ amount of privacy.”

-Jenny, “left alone, together.” phirephoenix.com. May 3, 2021.

No. 1 Rule: Keep Your Shit to Yourself

“A day before I sent Malcolm the email saying I wanted to break up, I came across a term online: solo polyamory. It described a person who is romantically involved with many people but is not seeking a committed relationship with anyone. What makes this different from casual dating is that they’re not looking for a partner, and the relationship isn’t expected to escalate to long-term commitments, like marriage or children. More important, the relationship isn’t seen as wasted time or lacking significance because it doesn’t lead to those things.”

-Haili Blassingame, “My Choice Isn’t Marriage or Loneliness.” The New York Times. April 2, 2021.

It starts with an email that reads like a PR piece for an event. It has talking points. She’s trying to sell it.

This piece seems to be generating a lot of discussion on Twitter, to the point I’m hearing about it, and I don’t use Twitter. And, sure, it’s sophomoric and stupid. You don’t break up with people you are in relationships with over email. She’s adopted the passive voice of the corporation to try to spare herself, and perhaps this man, some pain.

The effort is inept, but I think the heart of it is kind. They graduated from college, and they lived on opposite coasts. This man was her first boyfriend. They’ve been together for five years. While there are a few exceptions to how this plays out, the normal course is a breakup, typically within a year. This is obvious to anyone with any life experience.

Another thing that becomes obvious to everyone over time is that relationships are defined by limits. She says:

“My entire girlhood had been consumed by fantasies that were force-fed to me. Love and relationships were presented as binary, and in this binary, the woman must get married or be lonely (or, in classic novels, die). The path to freedom and happiness was narrower still for Black women. Even in our extremely loving relationship, I had felt confined.

ibid.

To be in a relationship is to be confined. But, it is through constraints that we open up other kinds of freedom. Infinite options are just another kind of confinement. At some point, you choose or time chooses for you. Even in polyamorous relationships, there are limits. In fact, I’d wager that there are more limits in polyamorous relationships simply by virtue of the fact that there are more people involved, even if those limits may not apply all the time. But, there are limits because relationships imply limits.

It’s easy to crack on the naiveté of the author of this article. But, there’s an important lesson to be learned. When you learn something new about yourself – your needs, your wants, your desires, your thoughts about who you are – keep it to yourself and the people that care about you, at least for a few years. Integrating insights is hard work, and it takes time, particularly when they are part of the process of identity formation and how we define ourselves.

In general, it’s a good idea to work with the garage door up, to share your thoughts and processes in how you think about the world and how you do whatever it is that you do. But, your feelings, your sense of identity and your issues, and we all have issues, are not where you do it.

When you close the door to go to the bathroom, everyone knows what you are doing in there. There’s no need to throw open the door and put yourself on display. It isn’t doing anyone any favors, least of all yourself.

So, close the door. Keep that shit to yourself. Work it out. Flush when you’re done, and as a courtesy, light a candle or a match on the way out, so the person behind you can focus on their business and not yours.

And What Do You Do? I Live Here.

“A monk walking through the woods came across a couple strolling and answered their greetings. ‘And what do you do?’ the woman asked. The monk replied, ‘I don’t do anything. I live here.” She insisted. So did he. She thought of life in terms of what one does for a living, but the monk did not. He insisted that he did nothing, he only lived here. She was vexed…

…Is a person only a machine to make money? Is being a parent, a spouse, summed up in what a person does for a living? Is it how much you bring home that makes you what you are? If it is, many a wife and mother has little value, for in terms of economics she may be more like us monks, performing useful and necessary tasks and services. But there is no money in any of it…

…For granted having no income, no job, is a most dreadful worry, it is not the end of everything. Not the loss of humanity, identity, personhood. For trial, trouble, sickness and affliction and death are with us today as they were yesterday and they will be tomorrow. Characteristic of life anywhere. Any time. Only in some times more than others.”

-Matthew Kelty, “Every Reason to Be Merry,” in The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publicans, 1996.

Upon re-reading The Call of Wild Geese, this passage felt especially relevant in the middle of a pandemic. Who are we if we cannot go into the office? If we are not earning an income? If we are isolating and socializing through screens? Do we have value apart from this life we have constructed? Obviously, we do. The question is: why is this even a question? The answer is that our culture is busy reducing people into categories: type of job, ethicity, religious belief, down the line. None of these things is who any of us are. Yet, the provide a shortcut, just enough to process and move on with our lives and ideas, let’s not have too much disruption please.

Brook

“The reality is that societal stigma limits young people’s ability to take control of their sexual health, enjoy healthy relationships and explore their identities.

We are committed to changing attitudes, challenging prejudices and championing equality so that all young people can lead happy, healthy lives.

https://www.brook.org.uk/

Relationship and sex education that seems inspired compared to what is the norm in the United States.

Standardized Thought

“From this [advertising] expert he learned that the key tool of the ad trade was to “standard[ize] thought by supplying the spectator with a ready-made visual image before he has time to conjure up an interpretation of his own.3 In that instant before the process of making sense was completed, a presupplied image and, subsequently, a thought (not quite your own) could take hold. Thought was being standardized.”

—Rebecca Lemov, “Into the Whirlpool.” The Hedgehog Review. Summer 2020.

A discussion of legibility and mass manipulation from print media through YouTube and Facebook algorithms. Nothing new here for people familiar with James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State or Edward S. Herman’s Manufacturing Consent. However, I did like this idea of standardizing thought, which is clearly what the 24 hour news networks, YouTube, Twitter, etc. are doing.