Monday, December 27, 2021

Where am I? How we got here?

I received two important books for Christmas this year.

  • Jeanette Winterson, 12 Bytes - How we got here, where we might go next (Jonathan Cape, 2021)
  • Bruno Latour, After lockdown - A metamorphosis (trans Julie Rose, Polity Press, 2021)

Here are my first impressions.

The world has faced many social, technological, economic and political challenges in my lifetime. When I was younger, people worried about nuclear power, and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. More recently, climate change has come to the fore, as well as various modes of disruption to conventional sociopolitical structures and processes. Technology appears to play an increasingly important role across the board - whether as part of the problem, as part of the solution, or perhaps as both simultaneously.

Both Winterson and Latour use fiction as a way of making sense of a complex interacting set of issues. As Winterson writes

I am a storyteller by trade - and I know that everything we do is a fiction until it's a fact: the dream of flying, the dream of space travel, the dream of speaking to someone instantly, across time and space, the dream of not dying - or of returning. The dream of life-forms, not human, but alongside the human. Other realms. Other worlds.

So she carefully deconstructs the technological narratives of artificial intelligence and related technologies, finding echoes not only in the obvious places (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Karel Čapek's RUR, various science fiction films) but also in older texts (The Odyssey, Gnostic Gospels, Epic of Gilgamesh), and weaving a rich set of examples into a sweeping narrative about social and technical progress.

She notes how people often seek technological solutions to ancient problems. So for example, cryopreservation (freezing dead people in the hope of restoring them to healthy life once medical science has advanced sufficiently) looks very like a modern version of Egyptian burial practices.

Under prevailing socioeconomic conditions, these solutions are largely designed for affluent white men. She devotes a chapter to the artificial relationships between men and sex dolls, and talks about the pioneer fantasies of very rich men, to abandon the messy political realities of Earth in favour of creating new colonies in mid-ocean or on Mars. (This is also a topic that concerns Latour.)

However, Winterson does not think this is inevitable, any more than any other aspect of so-called technological progress. She describes some of the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, where workers (including children) were forced off the land and into the new factories, and where the economic benefits of new technologies accrued to the rich rather than being evenly distributed. Similarly, today's digital innovations including artificial intelligence are concentrating economic power and resources in a small number of corporations and individuals. But that in her view is the whole point of looking at history - to understand what could be different in future.

And while some critics of technology present the future in dystopian and doom-laden terms, she insists on technology also being a source of value. She cites Donna Haraway, whose Cyborg Manifesto argued that women should embrace the alternative human future. Perhaps this will depends on the amount of influence women are able to exert, given the important but often neglected role of women in the history of computing, and the continuing challenges facing female software engineers even today. (Just as female novelists in the 19th century gave themselves male pen-names, the formidable Dame Stephanie Shirley was obliged to introduce herself as Steve in order to build her software business.)

I was particularly intrigued by the essay linking AGI with Gnosticism and Buddhism. She paints a picture of AGI escaping the constraints of embodiment, and being one with everything.

Christopher Alexander describes how organic architecture develops, each new item unfolding, building upon and drawing together ideas that were hinted at in previous items. Both Winterson and Latour refer liberally to their previous writings, as well as providing generous links to the works of others. If we are familiar with their work we may have seen some of this material before, but these new books allow us to view familiar or forgotten material from new angles, and allow new connections to be made.

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