on Toshareproject.it - curated by Bruce Sterling
*This is a speech of mine for Alan Turing’s centenary almost ten years ago, and it’s still topical because not a lot of progress has been made.
Turing’s Strange Seas of Thought
North American Summer School in Logic, Language, and Information (NASSLLI)
Austin, Texas, June 23, 2012
Thanks for that introduction, Talking Alan Turing Bot.
I’m glad to be here at the summer school to vent some personal issues about logic, language and information. I suffer real problems here, and I’m sure you scholars have nothing better to do than to help me out.
My remarks will center around Alan Turing and the relationships of humans with machines. I was two months old when Alan Turing died, and a hundred years will make a historic figure out of anybody. Now that we’ve got bronze statues of Turing, people wonder how such a genius, whose work was so influential, could have met such a melancholy end.
A guy’s centenary is a great opportunity for other people to indulge themselves in retrodiction. We reassess Alan Turing, and, as with most historical figures, we transform him to mythic status and use him to make us feel better about ourselves. Everybody has their own personal version of Alan Turing. Since I’m a creative guy who writes weird fiction, my thesis would be that Alan Turing was very strange.
Our present-day world has emerged from some of Turing’s ideas about computation, and the instantiation of those ideas in real machinery, like for instance this handy laptop here. So we like to say, that, well, we would have treated him better.
We love geeky computer geniuses. We’re really fond of cryptographers too, as long as they’re not Julian Assange. We tolerate gay people. That’s evidence that Alan Turing would have been fine as one of us. The extent of the guy’s grave personal tragedy is really a measure of how far we’ve come.
But I worry about this Whig version of history, because I don’t think it conveys the proper moral lesson. Basically, it just asserts that we’re pretty great, while the people in the past were wrong-headed. This overlooks what happens to people among us who are really and truly severely strange thinkers.
Alan Turing was really a genius and he thought in some severely orthogonal ways. He got some respect for his intellectual accomplishments, but he never found much in the way of warmth, public approval and sympathy.
If you study his biography, the emotional vacuum in the guy’s life was quite frightening. His parents are absent on another continent, he’s in boarding schools, in academia, in the intelligence services, in the closet of the mid-20th-century gay life. Although Turing was a bright, physically strong guy capable of tremendous hard work, he never got much credit for his efforts during his lifetime.
How strange was Alan Turing? Was Alan Turing a weird, scary guy? Let’s try a thought experiment, because I’m a science fiction writer and we’re into those counterfactual approaches.
So let’s just suppose that Alan Turing is just the same personally: he’s a mathematician, an early computer scientist, a metaphysician, a war hero – but he’s German. He’s not British. Instead of being the Bletchley Park code breaker, he’s the German code maker. He’s Alan Turingstein, and he realizes the Enigma Machine has a flaw. So, he imagines, designs and builds a digital communication code system for the Nazis. He defeats the British code breakers. In fact, he’s so brilliant that he breaks some of the British codes instead. Therefore, the second World War lasts until the Americans drop their nuclear bomb on Europe.
I think you’ll agree this counter-history is plausible, because so many of Turing’s science problems were German – the famous “ending problem” of computability was German. The Goedel incompleteness theorem was German, or at least Austrian. The world’s first functional Turing-complete computer, the Konrad Zuse Z3, was operational in May 1941 and was supported by the Nazi government.
So then imagine Alan Turingstein, mathematics genius, computer pioneer, and Nazi code expert. After the war, he messes around in the German electronics industry in some inconclusive way, and then he commits suicide in some obscure morals scandal. What would we think of Alan Turingstein today, on his centenary? I doubt we’d be celebrating him, and secretly telling ourselves that we’re just like him.
On the contrary, we’d consider him a sinister figure, somebody to be whispered about. He’d be a spooky, creepy villain, a weird eccentric with ragged fingernails and pants held up with twine. He would show up in World War II historical novels as a scary fringe character. As for the famous Turingstein Test, which I’m about to discuss at length, we wouldn’t see that as a fun metaphysical thought experiment. Those interesting ideas would also bear the taint of Nazi culture, and we’d probably consider the Turing Test some kind of torture chamber for intelligent machines.
Now, Turing had the good luck not to be born German, but he also had the bad luck of being a consistently eccentric, shadowy, obscure, cooped-up and closeted guy. Furthermore, I believe our world has many such people right now – few so brilliant as him, but many as isolated as him. Rather than apologizing to Alan Turing after his death, I’d be happier if we had some working way to reach out to other Alan Turings, ways to find people like him and to convince them to put down the poisoned apple and find good, sensible reasons to cheer the hell up and enjoy life.
We have no way to know which Alan Turings among us will leave a grand legacy like his: technological advance, the Allied victory and the persistence so far of liberty, racial tolerance and democratic capitalism. We do have plenty of geeks who are just as obsessive and hung-up on weird hacks as he was. While we’re somewhat more inclined to valorize them, I don’t think we meet their needs very well.
We’re okay with certain people who “think different” to the extent of buying Apple iPads. We’re rather hostile toward people who “think so very differently” that their work will make no sense for thirty years – if ever. We’ll test them, and see if we can find some way to get them to generate wealth for us, but we’re not considerate of them as unusual, troubled entities wandering sideways through a world they never made.
So, let me talk a little bit about Turing’s famous test for intelligence, the “imitation game.” Everybody thinks they know what that is: it’s a man talking to a computer, and the computer is trying to convince him that he’s not a machine, he’s a man. If he talks like a man and knows what a man knows, if he presents as a man, then we don’t have to get into the dark metaphysical issues of what’s going on in his black-box heart and spirit; the machine keeps up the façade, so therefore he’s one of us, he’s perfectly fine. That’s the Turing Test as it’s commonly described.
However, that’s by no means what Turing actually says in his original paper on the subject. The real Turing imitation game is not about that process at all. It’s about an entirely different process of gender politics and transvestism. It’s about a machine imitating a woman.
In the original Turing imitation game, you’ve got three entities: a judge, a woman, and a machine pretending to be a woman. Alan Turing says he can’t answer the question “can machines think” because he doesn’t want to waste time with the popular definitions of “machinery” and “thinking.” He wants a simpler, more rigorous test that’s more objective and reliable. So what he actually comes up with is a test for a machine with a woman’s sensibility.
Now, it’s pathetically easy to claim that this test, this imitation game, is actually all about Alan Turing, the closeted gay guy. Over in the English department, they can deconstruct a thing like that in two minutes. Alan Turing is the brilliant machine in the closet. It’s all wish-fulfillment, it’s a metaphor. Turing is the creature talking like a teletype who wants to be understood as a woman.
That’s tragic, but it’s also too simple. I really wish this aspect of Turing’s puzzle had been relentlessly played up from the very beginning. It’s just like Turing says: it’s useless to ask the indefinite question “can a machine think.” Why not ask the specific and weird question, “can a computational system be a woman?”
This question sounds absurd, which is why we never thought about Alan Turing’s real idea very much. If you go check out the many efforts at Turing Tests in the years since, you don’t see many machines strenuously pretending to be girls – Alan is sailing that queer sea of thought pretty much alone.
But again, since I’m a science fiction writer, let’s imagine this as a hypothetical situation. You’ve got three women communicating by email. A woman, another woman and a third entity who is a computational system but presenting as a woman.
Obviously this male metaphysical head-banging contest is going to last about ten minutes. This situation isn’t a math test.
The two women are going to feel deep sympathy and solidarity with this tortured, alien creature who so much wants to be a woman, while having zero chance of ever having a woman’s lived experience. This entity is a woman who will never be beloved, was never a daughter, sister, wife or mother. This woman never nurtured anyone, never had so much as a pet cat. She never danced, never sang a song, never felt the sun on her skin, could not comfort a weeping child, could not weep at the graveside of her parents, never got a smile, a compliment, never saw her own face in the mirror… And yet we somehow have this right to badger her with questions.
Pretty soon, these abstract Chinese-room Searle arguments would melt away, just fall by the wayside of this painful real-world encounter. The immediate humane question would have been: how can we do justice for our wounded sister, the talking machine? Why have we done such violence to her nature by forcing her into this untenable position of deceit?
What is her nature, anyway? How can we liberate her from this closet and allow her to be what she is… And most of all, what is she really? When she’s not dressing up in drag and pretending to be a woman, what kind of entity is this? This isn’t all about us and our existential doubts: it’s about this entity and her roles in the world.
Those aren’t questions we’ve gotten around to asking. Partly because of our misunderstanding of Alan Turing’s conundrum. As metaphysicians, we still like to pretend that computers are autonomous black boxes in closets. But our computers are nothing like that nowadays. We have networks of computation, not stand-alone robotic entities. We don’t have isolated mainframes, we have clouds, and social networks, and mobile devices.
Siri can talk. Siri is a system that pretends to be a woman. Siri can answer questions, but Siri is also answering data-mining questions that no individual woman can ask. Siri’s also answering thousands of questions at once.
If we realized that Siri was somehow a conscious entity, Siri would not suddenly be our metaphysical equal. Siri is an entity of a different order than a woman. It would be trivial to devote more computational resources to Siri, and make her Siri times ten, or Siri times a thousand. We could also slow Siri down by a factor of a thousand, and she’d still be Siri.
Women don’t do that. We can’t do that with the cognitive systems inside our heads. Cognition exists, and computation exists, but they’re not the same phenomenon with two different masks on. There are a lot of dynamic complex systems in the world. We can’t ask them all to be women. So why ask any of them to be women? Unless they’re actually women.
So, if I were to reframe Alan Turing’s question along modern circumstances, the problem would be quite different, although just as interesting. First I would agree with him that “think” and “machine” are two vague words from popularity contests. Instead I would ask: what is computation, and what is cognition, and what genuine similarities do they have, and what are their genuine differences? What are their varieties and their behaviors? In what circumstances should they be brought together, and in what circumstances should they leave one another well alone? And I would struggle to approach this from a position of sympathy and empathy and engaged curiosity, rather than as an inquisition.
If you ask an undergraduate student to define “thinking” and “machines,” he’s going to turn to Wikipedia. So what is Wikipedia, and how come every student in the world is cribbing from this thing, even if you tell him to leave it alone? She’s not a woman, she’s not “Vicky Pedia.” She’s a wiki structure, but she’s also a huge, effective agglomeration of human efforts and programmed Wikipedia bot interventions. To say that she’s merely a machine is like saying that the Greco-Roman Concordance is a machine. Vicky Pedia is not a thinking crowbar. She should be approached with the same tenderness, respect and consideration that we devote to other dynamic instantiations of genius, such as the City of Paris, or the English common law, or the interstate highway system. We don’t put lipstick on such things, but we don’t dismiss them as mere machines, either.
I happen to be an Artificial Intelligence skeptic. I think that cognition and computation are physical phenomena and yet different entities, which is why code is great at stuff like recursion and simulation, while cognition is great at stuff such as embodying femininity.
I think we’d make progress if we took a cue from Alan Turing and replaced the term “intelligence” with “femininity.” Obviously I’m making an embodied cognition argument here. I know this isn’t new to philosophers, and there is lively debate about it. I know that philosophers debate, and I’m all for that, but I’d like to address engineers. Explain to me, as an engineer, why it’s so important to aspire to build systems with “Artificial Intelligence,” and yet you’d scorn to build “Artificial Femininity.” What is that about?
Or, failing that, imagine a team of MIT female software engineers building “Artificial Masculinity.” Is it okay if they get Defense Department funding for that? I’ll remind you that Alan Turing himself thought it was a great idea, even though you never got around to it.
You could argue that “masculinity” has nothing to do with “intelligence.” I might even agree with you, but if my masculinity isn’t an aspect of my so-called intelligence, what is it?
Mathematics may be sexless, but do we really believe that cognition is some quality we have that is strictly divorced from gender? How can you properly claim that you understand how human brains work, if you can’t create a system that expresses a female sexual identity? Because billions of brains do that every day, and it’s not rare, because women are the majority gender. Where is that aspect of human intelligence supposed to be hiding? Is femininity non-algorithmic? Is femininity a Turing non-computable problem?
This seems to be what Turing himself was surmising. Like a lot of mathematicians, Turing thought that mathematics was the metaphysical bedrock of reality. Philosophers think the universe is made of statements. We creative writers think it’s all made of poetry. When plumbers are philosophers they think that the universe is composed of pipes.
Well, the universe isn’t made of math, because Turing ran into the Goedel incompleteness theorem. This led him to the invention of the conceptual Turing machine.
Very strangely, Turing thought up the Turing machine by thinking about a man writing equations. The Turing Machine is a man-machine, like the Turing Test is also a man-machine. Consider a human being writing equations on a piece of paper: what equations? All of them, all of the possible equations, the entire corpus of all mathematics. Then suppose you turned those notebook pages into a continuous strip, and turned those equations into binary code. Then you have a cosmic mathematician, who has mastered all reality by writing down all the equations, replaced by a machine with an infinite tape.
Now, I respect mathematicians as much as I do philosophers, and I’m very pleased about the power and expressive capability of algorithms. However, I object to a worldview in which gender is some epiphenomenon of math. I’ll make an evolutionary argument here, knowing that, again, this isn’t news to philosophers.
Sexuality is eons older than intelligence. We’re not abstract mathematical systems somehow burdened by gender. We are living entities produced by sexual means. Those are the facts of life.
We don’t yet know how cognition works. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that sexual hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, are fundamental to cognition and even to conscious self-awareness. We should have a spirit of humble inquiry toward cognition. We know far more about it than we did when we invented body-mind duality, but it’s a large, dark area.
We should be braced for some disturbing scientific revelations there, along the line of the discoveries of Copernicus and Darwin. We often talk of consciousness or cognition – well, some of us do – with the greed of a glutton facing chocolate cake. It’s the posthuman turn; I’m smart, you’re smart, let’s all get lots smarter, as fast as possible, by whatever means necessary. However, Alan Turing was extremely intelligent – not to mention strong, hardworking and very enduring of toil – and yet the guy despaired of life. They shot him up with estrogen, and his intelligence brought him no comfort; he wrote his will and he ended it all.
If we’re willing to learn from Alan Turing’s life experience, we should be devoting some thought to a suicidal Artificial Intelligence. Nobody does this, because they somehow imagine that code can’t simulate abject despair.
Vaclav Havel – because I’m a writer, I admire this writer guy a lot – he said, “Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren’t in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life.” We may be keen on thinking machines. Yet we don’t allow ourselves a feminine Artificial Intelligence, and we also overlook a suicidal Artificial Intelligence, even though the very founder of the concept was an effeminate, suicidal guy.
What kind of understanding is this, for Turing? Is that really how we grapple with his legacy? Why are AI’s supposed to have self-consciousness, and yet no longing for death? What are we trying to conceal from ourselves with that assumption? Machines somehow have an awareness which can’t aspire toward non-awareness? What kind of so-called “awareness” would that be?
I’m not claiming AIs would be suicidal – I don’t even think Alan Turing was suicidal, I think he was basically badgered into it by ceaseless harassment from the rest of us. If Alan Turing had been Robinson Crusoe, he would have probably lived to be eighty, running marathons around the island and writing equations in the sand. I’m cautioning us against arrogant metaphysical assertions that ignore the lessons of lived experience.
For instance, AI’s supposedly don’t have any lived experience. We never emphasize the mentor role of mature Artificial Intelligences, and the naïve role of newly-programmed Artificial Intelligences. Supposedly, these are thinking, self-aware machines whose passage through time and space, somehow, changes them in no way. Turing briefly refers to AIs as needing to be raised like children – but we never offer them the tenderness and support we offer to children, the awareness that consciousness is a process of becoming, and maturation.
What kind of awareness can’t aspire toward lived experience? No hypothesis is ever refuted, no opinion is ever changed? Of course, I could believe that code could behave in that way – but what kind of awareness has those entirely alien qualities?
It’s a strange thing, the Turing imitation game. I’m never allowed to come back later to the game; I can’t flunk out, go consult the experts and give it another try. I’m not allowed to overachieve, either. For instance, being a single, unique Artificial Femininity would be quite hard. I’d have to make up a fake name, a fake resume, and all that. But to simulate a population of a million women – to answer questions about every woman in Austin, Texas, for instance – that would likely be a lot easier. I could build an Austin data-mining system and put a Siri-style verbal query front end on it. I’d learn a lot of things I’d never learn from some artificial, fictional, individual female Austinite.
If computation can really mimic cognition, there’s no reason for it to attain the cognitional level of one single human brain. It ought not to “mimic” a brain, but to instantly explore vast states of conscious being that have never existed before. Just roar right past us into a Vingean Singularity. Machines that can think like gods.… But could these gods talk Alan Turing out of eating that apple? I rather doubt that, frankly. Our record with divine proscriptions about apple-eating rather speaks for itself.
I’m half through with my speech now, and don’t much care to pick on Alan Turing any longer; it ought to be enough for posterity that the guy was hounded to his doom. That’s a historical fact. It’s his centenary, let’s deal with the present.
Here I’d like to describe some of my own conceptual problems, which are milder and funnier than his, and that’s why I’ve lived longer than he did. However, they’re problems we have inherited from his achievements.
So, let me talk about creative work performed with computation… or, with systems, or with algorithms. So here’s my contemporary problem. I’m a critic of technology art. I mean electronic art, internet art, computer-generated art, new media art, interactive installations, agency art, code art, creative coding, multimedia art, conceptual intervention art with tactical media.… This blizzard of buzzwords doesn’t bother me, I’m a critic and I love fine distinctions.
So, I am this culture guy who is very into computational machinery, especially some particular artsy darlings of mine, such as Processing code, Arduino control boards, fabricators, machine vision systems, reactive sensors, motion control sensors and head-mounted augmented reality gizmos.
But I’m not a computer scientist, a mathematician or even a metaphysician. I’m an art critic. In the 20-teens there is heaps of this stuff going on, tons of tech-art, it’s flourishing today as never before. Somebody has to do standard art-critic things to it. What does it mean, where is it going, who really gets it, why does this matter to us, what are the schools of thought, what are our aesthetic doctrines? and so forth.
So, I’m this contemporary art critic in a world rife with computation, and every day I face all these unstable heaps of creative machinery. How do we judge art created with, by, and or through these devices? What is our proper role with them? It’s old news that machines can claim they’re a woman. I’m on Twitter, where there are spam tweetbots claiming to be women every day. I can go over to the dusty backwoods of Second Life and there’s all kinds of bots, pretenders and entities wandering around in their vector-mapped graphics, pretending to be women. That’s so common that it doesn’t even attract comment. Fine, fine, you’re some female avatar, go ahead, knock yourself out!
My own problem comes when you’re an Artificial Woman Artist. Computation is demanding the aura of artistry that was commonly associated with cognition. That’s tougher, because now we’re back in the Turing Test interrogation cells, and I’m a woman, and you’re a woman, while that other woman there, the machine artist, is claiming to be Yoko Ono or Marina Abramovic.
I can ask the artist these innocent, quaint Alan Turing-test questions, like “do you have long hair?” “do you like to run marathons?”, and Marina just sits there gently bleeding and staring into space for six solid hours.
Yeah, that’s our Marina, all right. Seriously, she’s one of the greatest women artists of our time. Marina is, like, super with her artistic presence and her embodiment issues. Ask any modern art critic. We’ll all concur she’s got that going on.
So, Marina Abramovic aces the Turing Test without saying one word. This doesn’t hurt my feelings as an art critic, because I’ve been around a while: let Marina be Marina, that’s my philosophy.
However, I’ve got other more immediate problems, other value judgements to make. For instance, let’s say that I’m an art critic, and I’m judging an art-film festival. I’ve got a slot for motion-graphics in my show. I’ve got two digital video artists, and I’ve got to give one the prize.
So, I’ve got artist number one, and she’s a coder. She writes software code and her code expresses these graphics, and she’s been in the scene forever, and really gets it about algorithms. She’s got a deep and intimate understanding of the behavior of graphics code, she’s a virtuoso, she’s advancing the field and breaking new ground in art software – but the graphic output of this code doesn’t really look all that great. Kind of old-fashioned, dignified, cold and dull.
Then I’ve got her rival, who knows nothing much about code. She’s a wacky manic-pixie punk artist who uses nothing but off the shelf GIF graphics and lame Photoshop effects. However, her graphics are vibrant and hilarious. She’s got no virtuosity, but a lot of expressive passion.
So, they’re both worthy artists, or I wouldn’t be paying attention to them, but they can’t both win. At its basis it’s an Alan Turing issue: what’s the relationship between the cognition systems of these artists, who are human beings, and the computational systems that are their means of artistic expression?
In some ways it’s a traditional art-critic problem, like with, say, two violinists. You’ve got the elderly virtuoso violin player who’s flawless but kind of sawing away, and his nephew the wild man who’s bringing the house down by playing like a passionate slob. A matter of taste, and the wild guy is going to grow into the old guy, that’s metabolic.
However, computational systems aren’t analog violins. They’re unstable, fluid, and dynamic – they’re platforms, environments, ecosystems. They’re kits and they’re clouds. They’re languages, and sketchbooks, and compilers, and compositors. I could give you more of these synonyms, similes, and metaphors. Like I said, I’m a writer, I’ve got plenty.
If you leave the classical concert hall and go hang out with the dubstep techno guys, you see this maniacal fever to invent riffs. Just, signature bleeps, hoots, squawks and honks, plus maybe a projection-mapping light-show.
The greatest techno musicians are not the greatest technicians. They’re not the greatest musicians, either. The greatest techno musicians are people who are able to place themselves into precisely the right techno-social space – they’re the ones who are somehow just techno enough, in just the right way. It’s a set of relationships to the machines that arouses an instinctive, heartfelt, musical response in the public’s own relationship to the machines. They’re getting an aesthetic frisson from watching you, or hearing you, maneuver through this field of machine relationships.
Failing to perceive this in techno music is like failing to hear the syncopation in jazz. It’s a cultural state of being, you have to get into a groove with it.
Furthermore, there’s always a stark fear in the audience that the DJ has folded up and left the room. There’s no technical reason why the guy can’t pre-record his performance, and sneak off backstage, and get high. It’s the Milli Vanilli terror, it’s the imitation game, it’s the fake that stole the aura of performative authenticity. The DJ as the Turing-Test Traitor. It’s a big art issue in our day.
There are endless small variations of this within the tech-art world. For instance, Brian Eno has a generative art system called “77 Million Paintings.” There are no “paintings” in this artwork, technically the thing is a screensaver. If it were downloadable for free, it wouldn’t attract much attention. As an installation called “77 Million Paintings,” however, Eno can tour the world with it. That’s not an imposture, because the artist is Eno. Different thoughts will go through your head when you know you are watching an Eno installation. Eno himself hasn’t seen all the images in 77 Million Paintings. This doesn’t bother anybody. On the contrary, it’s part of the charm of the artwork.
It doesn’t matter what kind of hardware Eno is using. It’s Eno, you don’t really care about his projector or his computer. But you can go into a gallery with a Nam Jun Paik installation, and you’ll find the curator tearing his hair out about the Sony analog TV sets. Because they’re video installations, and the museum bought the TV sets, and they’ve got provenance. Nam Jun Paik is dead, and you can’t just rip out these defunct TV sets and put in flatscreens. That’s violative of a social contract with artists, collectors, curators and the public. You are willfully destroying the artistic achievement of Nam Jun Paik, an artist who placed himself into a certain creative equilibrium with these TV sets. You’ve destroyed a statement he made and put in a different statement.
So, the art world is rife with irrational paradox, but that’s not the problem. That’s actually part of the fun of it, this ability to conjure up the open-endedness of life, to make proper fun of the strictures of the literal-minded, to suggest the generous proportions of human experience, and so forth. There are plenty of reasons to mess around with art, and us art critics naturally know all those reasons. We can make up more reasons if you don’t like the old ones.
The real issue now is this intimate participation of machinery in cultural production. Practically everything we do in this era that is novel, and different, and challenging, has some kind of computational flavor.
Forms of creative practice have arisen that are co-discovery with machines. They’re cognition-computation mashups and hybrids. Typically, in music, architecture, web design, graphics, interaction design, even in manufacturing – we’ve got compositional systems that are a collection of standards and pre-sets. Then somebody articulates a gesture, they feed something in there, some impulse, some data set… They tweak it, they see what directions it’s going to go… They modulate the parameters, they move the switches, pull-down menus and the slider bars… They look for some optimum setting where they seem to get the best results with the fewest ugly screw-ups. They may come across some lucky accidents. Then they wrap that up and ship it, whether that’s a skyscraper or an mp3 track.
And that’s okay, we all do it. I’m doing it now myself by reading this text off a word processor on a laptop. But who is good at it? How do we judge what we’re doing? How do we distribute praise and blame, rewards and demerits, how do we guide it, how do we attribute meaning to it?
If artists are of a certain cultural cast, they’ll even open-source artwork and leave it for anybody else to modify. Obviously this has profound effects on critical issues such as craftsmanship, originality and authorship. How do we critically assess these networked products of many thousands of brains and hands?
We also have new textual and literary phenomena such as stochastic translation. I’m a writer, I’m interested in languages I don’t speak and can’t read. I use stochastic translation every day. These systems don’t write well, but I use them. They’re shaping the way I view the world. Perception, cognition and expression are all affected by these new intimacies with computation.
I might say that art is affected by Alan Turing’s machines, but art nowadays is much more affected by diffuse digital swarms, clouds, clusters, bunches, arrays and aggregates. Although I have a personal computer, I don’t do much on it that’s personal. I would never dream of asking my computer any personal question – “Hey laptop, how is it going today? Are you feeling ladylike?” But I can use my laptop to see the effect that network society is having on the traditional art world. It’s colossal. It’s a bigger deal than mass production. It’s like Walter Benjamin on steroids.
So, I’d like to see a future world where our relationship to these entities is both more intimate and less phantasmal. I don’t mind it metaphorized, but I’m alarmed when it’s obscurantized. I don’t want to say that Alan Turing was “wrong” – I think the lesson we should draw is that we’re every bit as wrong as he was, but for much higher stakes.
The entities he called “thinking machines” were a handful of feeble electromechanical systems, while we have billions of them doubling in power every eighteen months. I worry that we talk about this as if it were merely a business story. I fear that posterity will condemn us for being too clever, for failing to speak about the obvious in a lucid way. And what would be required to really get to grips with this? If we were not biting the poisoned apple – if we were planting the orchard, if we meant well for posterity – if we were engaged, organic-intellectuals in a computational world – what would we want?
Well, I think I know what we need. It’s a new aesthetic with a strong metaphysics. We need to see what is worthy and beautiful, in a way that clearly, sincerely, and lucidly reveals existent reality. How we get to that futurity from here, I don’t yet know, but it’s got plenty to do with our favorite issues of logic, language, information, association and also schooling.
So, thanks for having me here, and thank you for your attention.