It’s the Part I Was Born To Play!

I listened to a neat interview with Brian Christian on the Monocle Weekly podcast last week (it’s edition 98, if you wanna download it). The lead interviewer, host Tyler Brule, admitted that he hadn’t read Mr. Christian’s new book, The Most Human Human (subtitled, “What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means To Be Alive”), so some of his questions were a little off-topic or perhaps naive. But Mr. Christian gave the impression that he’s used to having to carry the conversation about his chosen topic, and did so wonderfully (to my ears).

The premise of the book (and here’s a good review of it) is that our interactions with computers may help us learn more about what it means to be human.

One of the interesting points in the Monocle interview was that, while computers have grown ever more advanced and nearly won a Turing contest a few years ago, humans are veritably regressing to a less nuanced, less sensual world. That is, while they’re becoming more human, we’re becoming more computer-like. It’s a theme I’ve pondered for many years (including, probably, on this blog, but I’m too lazy to look it up). As Mr. Christian put it in the interview (transcription by me, with a little editing):

The computer represents simultaneously a chance to achieve the next enlightenment about what the human condition is all about, as well as a threat to that very condition. That to me is one of the great ironies. For example, if you look back over the history of philosophy, there’s been this ancient question: what is it that makes the human being different, special and unique?

Typically, philosophers, starting from Aristotle and Plato and on to Descartes have begun by trying to contrast human beings with animals. To differentiate humans from animals, you have to write the body out of the equation. Right from the start, philosophers zeroed in on the most abstract aspects of cognition, things like algebra and symbolic logic.

I think one of the great surprises for that line of thinking is that the development of the computer in the 20th century represented an intrusion into precisely those areas that were considered to be the unique hallmarks of human intelligence. What we’re finding is that a lot of what we considered to be the embodied, sensory, in-the-world experience actually represents a greater degree of cognitive and computational sophistication.

But one of the great ironies is that we’re now living in the world in a more disembodied way. Instead of actually going somewhere, we just go onto the internet and remotely interact with somebody who’s far away. To an observer from space, most jobs — regardless of what it is your job entails — would look the same: sitting at your laptop for 8 hours. Maybe you’re an architect, maybe you’re a lawyer, maybe you’re a journalist, but the experience has become almost totally disembodied.

Earlier in the conversation, he notes:

One of the strange things about the development of AI is that it’s sort of like biological evolution running backwards. Computers proved themselves capable of what we think of as being high-level tasks, like multivariable calculus and grandmaster chess, but they’re still trying to get their hooks into things like recognizing a face or understanding an ambiguity in a sentence.

I think it points out the unsung and not very celebrated complexity of life. It turns out that a lot of these tasks, precisely the things we take for granted, are many of the things that have proven the most difficult and most complicated for programmers to try to simulate.

In the interview, Mr. Christian doesn’t get at the notion that computers also don’t ask, “Why?”, which I think is a big deal, but I bet that comes up in the book at some point. Still, it’s a great leaping-off point, to explore how the heavy-duty, advanced, abstract thought isn’t exactly what “makes us human.” To Mr. Christian, who played the part of the human in a Turing Test competition in 2009 (hence the title of this post), graceful language remains the key to us.

In the Monocle interview, he talked about one of the ways in which our technology actually seems to lessen us:

Why are people talking in such a flat, emotionless way? Part of it is that so much of communication in modern life is happening through a technological medium. This takes the form of everything from e-mail and text messages and even cellphones. Compared to a landline, which has a vocal lag of 1/10th of a second, a cellphone has six times as long of a lag, 6/10ths of a second. By the time you’ve said something and the other person’s reacted, it’s going to be a minimum of 1.2 seconds before you get that feedback. Whereas, when you’re sitting across from someone, it’s instantaneous.

So there’s a certain style of humor or a certain grace that will leave a pause at the end of a sentence, that implies “I could be done talking, if you want me to be, or I could keep going.” There’s a certain grace to these 10ths of a second. And the more that we talk to each other over cellphones, the more that communication starts to enter this very rigid walkie-talkies style: “Now I’m talking, now you’re talking.” And we lose something as a result.

Being really aware of the kinds of concessions that technology forces us to make, gives us an opportunity to think more deeply about what’s going on when we sit down across a table from someone. It gives us an opportunity to approach those interactions a little more mindfully and, I hope, better.

I don’t think it ever occurred to me that latency is why I hate talking on cellphones. I figured it was something wrong with me, my feeling that the other person is always distracted, but now I think it’s an instinctive reaction to that extra half-second delay of conversation, the unbridgeable distance it signifies. (Of course, that doesn’t explain why I find so many face-to-face conversations unbearable or awkward nowadays.)

But as I mentioned, this idea of human flattening-out is something I’ve turned over in my head for quite a while. While singing along to The National’s “I’m Afraid of Everyone” this past year, I’ve had to deal with the fact that my language is deteriorating. Years of editing trade magazine articles, of denuding press releases of their adjectives, of keeping up with RSS, Twitter and Facebook feeds, of forgetting poetry: they’ve taken a toll on me. I’m at a loss for words. When I’m nearly asleep, I find my thoughts getting structured in terms of screens of information. It’s not a condition I’m happy about (as I type away on this screen).

This weekend, I decided to cut my computer usage back a bit. I read a book over that span, wrote almost no e-mails, didn’t work on the long post about our Toronto trip last weekend: nada. It was refreshing. This morning, I zapped a bazillion RSS items, ignoring whatever recording angel thinks I should be monitoring them all. I marked-as-read, I closed tabs, I deleted bookmarks. Then I reread and savored the last two chapters of The Leopard.

Time for some poetry, before I get back to writing about single-use/disposable systems for bioprocessing tomorrow.

Unrequired Reading: December 31, 2010

Happy New Year’s Eve, dear readers! Welcome to the final installment of Unrequired Reading! That’s right! Not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story! This feature is O-V-E-R!

For a while now, I felt like I’ve been battling against the tide of instant/mini-blogging by posting a weekly collection of links I enjoyed and wanted to share. The thing is, most of the items I put on Unrequired Reading are recycled from my twitter feed or my facebook page, so it hasn’t made much sense to collect them here, except to allow me to say, “I posted something!”

So, it’s the end of the Unrequired Reading era. I’m planning to use this blog for longer writing, travelogues and the like. If you’re interested in keeping up with those links I posted to Unrequired Reading, then follow my twitter feed:

Twitter also auto-tweets links to my new blog posts, but adding my RSS feed to your reader will clue you in to any long-form posts I write, as well as my What It Is posts (the necessity of which I’m also reassessing). I really hope to do some longer writing next year, but I make no promises. I’m much more intent on getting a regular podcast series off the ground.

(I know, I know: podcasts are even more passe than short-form link-blogging, but I’ve wanted want to work in that form for a while now, and I think I have a recurring segment that’ll make it something more engaging than The Gil Roth Show.)

If you want to keep up with my pictures, check out my flickr posts here or subscribe via RSS.

In other news, I turn 40 in less than 2 weeks, so if you want to buy me something nice, you can check out my wish list on Amazon.

And now, on with the show! Have a happy new year, dear readers!

Continue reading “Unrequired Reading: December 31, 2010”

What It Is: 11/1/10

What I’m reading: The Odyssey. Also, after reading this great Frank Santoro post, I reread Chester Brown’s Helder and Showing Helder. And I was feeling nostalgic for feeling nostalgic for superheroes, so I reread Grant Morrison & Frank Quietly’s Flex Mentallo mini-series. The ’90s sure were a funny time.

What I’m listening to: A bunch of Anthony Hamilton records. Whoa, nelly.

What I’m watching: Outside of American Splendor (on Halloween, because we didn’t get around to watching it on Harvey Pekar’s birthday earlier in October) not much of anything, besides some World Series games.

What I’m drinking: Fifty Pounds gin & Q-Tonic.

What I’m eating: A peach and blueberry pie. It’s the last one of Farmers’ Market season, which saddens me. It was my Saturday tradition (formerly our Saturday tradition, but Little Ms. Gluten-Free Diet can’t participate anymore), picking up a 5″ fruit pie from the Concklin Orchards stand for weekend devourification. The dogs will be sad/confused, too, since they somehow figured out the 7-day schedule and knew that Saturday mornings were when they get to promenade around the market and get love and affection from unsuspecting locals.

What Rufus & Otis are up to: They enjoyed some longish mid-week walks, courtesy of some unseasonably lovely weather. And when things started to cool down again, they still managed to get in another 5-mile grey-hike! Pix here! Spex here! And then, they got dressed up for Halloween . . .

Where I’m going: Back to Ithaca, even if I didn’t think too much of this essay.

What I’m happy about: Getting that first podcast out of the way. Also, discovering that Tyler Brule of Monocle has many of the same poor mannerisms that I do when conducting interviews/conversations: too many “um”s and “you know”s and a tendency to speak in full — and multiple — paragraphs.

What I’m sad about: That he’s much more successful than I’ll ever be. Also, that whole peach and blueberry pie thing.

What I’m worried about: Writing two articles in the next two days to wrap up my Nov/Dec issue. So, um, don’t call, okay?

What I’m pondering: Whether to consider the Odyssey in terms of a whole with the Iliad, or whether to contemplate the Iliad on its own, without considering Odysseus as an alternative to Achilles as Best of the Achaians.

What It Is: 10/27/08

What I’m reading: A whole ton of magazines that have piled up, including the recent issues of Monocle, New York, Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, and Fantastic Man. Not Montaigne, which is why there’s no Monday Morning Montaigne this week. Sorry. I know you were looking forward to it.

What I’m listening to: The Four Tops’ Definitive Colection, La Radiolina by Manu Chao, and Underworld’s Oblivion with Bells.

What I’m watching: NOT THIS! AAIEE! (We did watch Casino Royale, which sucked)

What I’m drinking: Stella Artois . . . and my first G&T since Sept. 26! It was eh!

What Rufus is up to: Convincing more of my coworkers to adopt retired racing greyhounds! Another trek up to Wawayanda state park! Developing some sort of fatty tumor on the “elbow” of his left foreleg! (probably not serious, but I’ll take him down to the vet this week to check)

Where I’m going: Maybe to the Cowboys/Giants game next Sunday!

What I’m happy about: One of my mom’s pals, whom I haven’t seen since I was around 13, recognized me and called me over while I was out walking Rufus. We had a nice chat. Okay, actually, I’m not happy about this so much as I am weirded out. I mean, one of mom’s friends didn’t know who I was last month when I actually told her my name (despite the fact that I wrote her daughter’s college application essay), until I said, “Miriam’s son,” so the fact that I was identified this one — whom I haven’t seen since around 1984 when I was part of the Dungeons & Dragons gang that played in her basement — is frankly bizarre.

What I’m sad about: Fantastic Man doesn’t put its articles online. Otherwise, I’d link to some neat interviews with Fergus Henderson and Tyler Brule, as well as a funny piece on Karl Lagerfeld’s mysterious Chanel menswear line.

What I’m pondering: I find most “acclaimed” contemporary novels start out strong but get mighty dull. Is that a sign that these writers blow their creative load early on, or that my attention span is for crap?