Given that I am not someone who specializes in this stuff, I am especially tired of thinking and writing about AI chatbots. But there are at least two thoughts in this area I’d like to see get more attention:
How the OpenAI’s nonprofit status contributed to the breakthroughs it made. Over the last few weeks, since the shake-up on the board, the company’s unusual legal structure– a nonprofit controlling a for-profit corporation–has mostly been the subject of ridicule. This is a reflection of how badly the current moment has been captured by a certain type of profit-motive narrative about creative breakthroughs–at least the capture of those who are in a position to do most of the reporting on OpenAI. The consensus I read is that OpenAI’s non-profit structure has been holding it back for a while, that it was an accidental property of its naive founders. I hope, with time, that the stories move past this prejudice, and some journalist or ethnographer gets enough access to study if and how the company’s unusual corporate structure contributed to what it did. Innovation–especially profitable innovation–will always be unpredictable, but shouldn’t a non-profit environment for technical innovation be taken more seriously? Was there a relaxed field here–maybe a different relationship to work, goals, and play–that nurtured the achievements that the for-profit partisans now want to take credit for?
All the ways in which ChatGPT reflects a a larger civilizational readiness, a cultural priming, to accept automated text generation. If bots like this really do maintain their status as breakthroughs once the hype has settled down, one of the more curious aspects of its origin story will be how long the basic technology was out in the open without any real mainstream reaction. This is true since at least 2020 from OpenAI, and Google reportedly had in-house chatbots with significant capabilities before that. Why did it take it so long to land, and why did it explode when it did? Is there a story here about post-pandemic mental exhaustion? Certainly there’s a story here about large numbers of people wanting to do–doing more of–the things that chatbots do well: sit for long periods of time in front of screens, sending chat bubbles back and forth, and write the things (e.g., code) that chatbots are trained to do well. I wonder, without the conditions that lead large numbers of educated people to sit inside in front of computers all day, if chatbots would seem so impressive. There’s also a backstory here about an algorithmic way of life, of which chatbots are just the latest, strangest chapter. Chatbots may be philosophical zombies that usurp human qualities in the body of a computer, but computers had to draw humans a little closer before that became possible.
Over the past year, as OpenAI’s ChatGPT has gone from a specialist tool to a worldwide cultural phenomenon, there has been one anxious question controlling the discussion: is this time different–are computers now really intelligent–and what does this change about the human self-understanding? If human beings are exceptional, then it is in large part because of intelligence.
It didn’t help that a computer was now considerably more likely to pass one of the most clearly defined, functional tests for artificial intelligence, the so-called “Turing test:” give a human being the chance to pass messages back and forth with a partner behind a veil; if the human cannot tell that he or she is conversing with a machine, it passes the test. It is intelligent, practically speaking.
There are a lot of problems with this test. Still, the bar was raised. Furthermore, if the standard for “real” artificial intelligence is a moving target, always a few steps ahead of whatever computers are currently capable doing, then maybe the questions about artificial intelligence are hopelessly philosophical, likely to generate new pathways for analysis but impossible to answer with any closure.
When I wrote above that human intelligence is an essential quality of the human–of human exceptionalism–I meant it in two senses of that word: that intelligence is (1) a distinguishing quality of the human, and that (2) as a quality, it has the special status of an essence. The essential quality and its object are hard to separate. What is intelligence? Look to human beings, see it in action. What are human beings? Homo sapiens, thinking things, subjects with intelligence.
What we may be seeing right now is a shift of intuitions, a breakdown of confidence that intelligence is an essentially human quality. This does not mean that artificial intelligence is like human intelligence, or that computers are (will someday be) more intelligent than humans. But it does suggest that intelligence is increasingly detached from how it was previously defined: through human beings.1
A new situation emerges; imagine pieces, bits, scraps of (general) intelligence circulating throughout the environment. More people may have to make constant judgments about the scope of the intelligence of various things.
I cannot see into these scraps of intelligence, know what they are. Their capabilities and intentions (if they exist) are opaque to me–like those of other human beings. Maybe there is a new standard for artificial intelligence: is it necessarily unknowable? Then it is intelligent.
I am reminded of the debate about viruses and life: are they alive? If so, how? Are viruses alive in the same way that living things (people?) are? Here is another philosophical question that is difficult to operationalize. Viruses interface with life, need life, latch onto life and push it in new directions. One cannot help but ask the question about viruses because they are so strange; maybe what is being sought is another, comparable essence that applies to the virus. The virus, by suggesting a comparison with life, makes life seem less like an essential thing and more a definable set of processes which can be recombined in ways so strange that categorization falls apart.
I wonder if something similar is happening with intelligence right now. What was once a unitary essence that attached to the human is now being decomposed into X number of parts, parts that we can see, uncover, build into new entities that display some of the qualities of intelligence, without the human.
There are other reasons for this shift in understanding about human privilege related to intelligence, like a better understanding of the capabilities of other animals.
The means of computing was industry, and the end of computing was control.
Geoffrey Bowker, “The Ends of Computing,” in The Ends of Knowledge, (2023)
This new machine-based mind would lend to human thought permanent existence, not just in Heaven, as Kepler imagined, but on earth as well.
David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology (1997), 148
The most suggestive clue that the computer contains a divine aspiration might be the unresolved disagreement over its purpose. Computing inserts itself into every describable aspect of life, and the result is that existence itself becomes a computer-tractable unit , the “it from a bit” as the physicist Joseph Wheeler said.
But what about the relativist claim, that computers structure and condition–blind–our reality? Regardless of one’s position on what computing is, what cannot be doubted is that the computer is a tool–a means to doing things. It is obvious that some tools have an effect on the how their users know the world (e,g., trains, plastics, firearms), but the tools that condition reality most comprehensively work through people who are not even trying to use them; maybe they don’t even know that the tool exists, or are compelled to use it against their will.
The existence of any real and definite computer is neither miraculous nor obscure. Only the cooperation between immense numbers of people–friends, unknown collaborators, even enemies–makes the computer possible, and each realized design can be traced back through corporate, professional, and research associations whose human participants are–at least in historical terms–well-documented. The computer is a device with utterly mundane (as in mundus, of this world) origins. As inventions go, the history of the computer contains what is arguably the most comprehensive proof that it was not divinely inspired.
But by another aspect, the computer is one of the best examples in technological history of how the purpose of a device cannot be reduced to its origin story. The computer today reveals an aspiration to turn any possible qualia into a repeatable form, to create a Platonic abstraction machine. It becomes harder to take a deflationary, reductionist view of the computer (e.g., it’s just a logic device) without adopting a reductionist view of human beings. That is, the claim that “reality is just a computer” can often be found alongside the argument that humans are mere biological accidents, machines and other very un-divine material.
I imagine a specialist job someday with the title resembling “techno-archaeologist,” or “digital paleontology.” Right now paleontology might be the study of ancient beings, but would it be surprising if information gained the status of a living being one day? And if someone worked painstakingly to recover ancient technology, like they do today for dinosaur bones?
Digital technology makes it possible to create and store immense amounts of information. And to destroy it. Most of the new information created today is likely to live a short lifespan, at most until it stops being useful to someone. But a small number of informational units are likely to persist–“live”–much longer, indefinitely. Today the planet is overrun by space junk above and oceanic plastic above, but someday the material remnants of broken information may become as common as dirty air. The thing about technology, as a distinctive category of human endeavor, is that it first distinguishes itself by being new. Today old technology first ceases to exist when it becomes obsolete: “not-new” is its own kind of non-being.
If information achieves a transition to a kind of being, a personhood, maybe it will be worthy of being dug up, preserved, archived–because age itself will make it worthy of an archive. It becomes valuable not for what it can do, but because of what it is, what it suggests about the line between past, present and future.
I was in western Wisconsin over the weekend, in a rural area, and was struck by the grandeur of the the power transmission lines. Something about the emptiness of the countryside makes the infrastructure seem larger–against naturalistic settings more obviously unnatural. In this part of the country, there are no mountains. No other object is this tall, this long (you can’t follow its beginning or end), this exact in its proportions. And it can’t blend in with other traces of civilization. Here, there is nowhere for these lines to go but against the trees and the sky.
Western Wisconsin has an embattled recent history with electricity generation and transmission; the objections are, at least in part, aesthetic. I can sympathize: I don’t know how I would feel if I had to look at this feature everday. But for me this object fell closer to the sublime, as if these devices were some sort of unintentional monument whose true purpose was still waiting to be discovered.
I know when I have visited a beautiful place because I convince myself, almost without reasoning it out, that this place has made itself essential to my life.
A beautiful place exists in time. One among many magic tricks that it performs is to break out of the constructed specifics of its appearance. Even beautiful cityscapes, with a view that changes every day, become monumental, geologic, in stature. Disasters in the city derive some of their visual power from buildings that take on the qualities of mountains, crumbling.
The beautiful place is essential because it reconfigures life, points it in a different direction. This does not mean I know where I’m now headed (usually not). Still I feel that, no matter how accidental my arrival, I couldn’t have done otherwise than be here. I will do it every chance I have.
But firm hindsight crumbles. It’s all too easy to turn away from the next opportunity: I’m too busy, I’ve seen that before, I know what it’s like. When I arrive again, I have the thought: beautiful places are as necessary as eating or drinking. This necessity has a different pace. Like water for a plant, it can seem indifferent to being ignored from one day to the next. But to go without is to let something die, to be newly vulnerable. Other dangers rise up, the real cause will never be traced back because the language and concepts for the loss have themselves been lost.
But that the present order of things was not to be taken for granted, that it presupposed a certain harmony between the world and the guardians of culture, that this harmony could always be disrupted, and that world history taken as a whole by no means furthered what was desirable, rational, and beautiful in the life of man, but at best only occasionally tolerated it as an exception—all this they did not realize.
Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game
Yascha Mounk had the political philospher Michael Walzer on his Good Fight podcast a few days ago, and they had an exchange about the rise of the so-called “post-liberal” political thinkers. The full version is too long to quote here, but a few highlights:
According to people like Patrick Deneen, liberalism is responsible for everything that has gone on in the modern world. And what is most amazing about his work is all the factors that he omits in his description of the rise of modernity, like the Protestant Reformation, which is perhaps the truest source of the individual and individualism—the individual and his God. The Protestants invented that singular pronoun. The gathered congregation, the critique of hierarchy—all that comes from the religious side, not from secular liberal ideology. And Deneen just doesn’t talk about it. One crucial aspect of individualism (which already also begins in primitive forms among the Protestant radicals) is the equality of women. Genuine equality of women, the end of the patriarchal regime, is going to change the way families live and the way familial life is organized. And they continually invoke the traditional family which has been destroyed by liberalism, and they are not prepared to say that women are not equals, they’re not prepared to say that.
…When you look in a little bit more detail it is absolutely unclear what that new society would look like. One of the things that strikes me is that a lot of the post-liberals are either Catholics, or Catholic converts, and they seem to think that this would be a majoritarian society in which the elect few, or perhaps the democratic many, impose their religious values on the rest of society in the name of the higher good. But it’s an irksome fact that virtually all of the societies in which they operate have become very secular, and Catholics, in particular, are a minority in the United States. And so it’s very, very hard to actually make heads or tails of what it is that this post-liberal society would look like. This still does not appear to be an obvious competitor ideology, and the travails of the post-liberals in making up a competitor ideology seems only to underline that point.
Even if you are not a post-liberal, narratives of decline are a major force. We live within a minefield of hypothetical declines–cultural, theological, economic, political, environmental–and they are usually related. The type who embraces one declensionist explanation is more open to others. It’s a pessimism with a cross-partisan appeal, even if disagreement over what to do about it fractures any consensus about the decline itself.
But I have found myself thinking lately that while some theories of decline might have historical merit, most post-liberals have the ethical import of the decline backwards. Perhaps the declensionists are in the grip of the most essential Enlightenment idea: that the world could be anything other than disordered, bleak, knocked off its marginal high points. Bad things happen, and keep happening. What we are dealing with is not a decline but a baseline. From this vantage, restoration from the decline looks something more like a fantasy, wanting to return to a set of unattainable circumstances. This is not a fatalism–the point isn’t to step back and do nothing–but an approach to the future without a sense of revenge, and without a bitterness at having lost something that could have been. Good work (whatever that work is) can still happen, if it accepts that it will coexist with rough and fragile circumstances–just like any progress that results.
Alexander Etkind, historian of Russia and an expert on the trade in natural resources, discusses the privatization of agriculture after the 1991 breakup the Soviet Union:
Members of the Soviet collective farms had used (but did not own) micro-slots of land, mostly vegetable gardens. After 1991, millions of peasants and dacha owners privatized their small households and gardens. In 1999, a quarter of the Russian population owned a subsidiary plot and was cultivating it. They worked 7 percent of the country’s arable land but produced more than 40 percent of its agricultural output. Amazingly, they provided 92 percent of Russia’s potato harvest, three quarters of its vegetables, almost all of its fruit, and half of its milk and meat. In 2009, the numbers were similar. This was an intensive but premodern agribusiness: whole families worked with shovels on miniscule plots, while elderly women sat on the side of the road, selling herbs by the gram or potatoes by the kilo. But these people were free: the only levy they paid was property tax; they chose their seeds, tools and methods; they owned their land and could sell it whenever they so desired. Russian agriculture had the same two-tier structure as other sectors: one part of the system, populous but mostly poor, fed the ordinary folk with perishable produce that could not be exported; another part, small but wealthy, produced the staples at volume, selling them abroad for convertible cash.
–Russia Against Modernity (2023), “Parasitic Governance”
This is amazing. Post-Soviet privatization of the economy in Russia usually meant privatization in the hands of a few, so that the resources could be sold on an international market for international cash, which went to the international bank accounts of those same few owners. As a result, the fruit, vegetable and meat consumption of around 150 million people was treated as an afterthought by the domestic authorities. And so a nation’s grocery store worth of fruits, vegetables and meat was effectively provided by a bunch of subsistence and hobby farmers.
Jacques Ellul on pre-modern European attitudes toward technical progress and the improvement of practical tools:
The deficiency of the tool was to be compensated for by the skill of the worker. Professional know-how, the expert eye were what counted: man’s talents could make his crude tools yield the maximum efficiency. This was a kind of technique, but it had none of the characteristics of instrumental technique. Everything varied from man to man according to his gifts, whereas technique in the modern sense seeks to eliminate such variability. It is understandable that technique in itself played a very feeble role. Everything was done by men who employed the most rudimentary means. The search for the “finished,” for perfection in use, for ingenuity of application, took the place of a search for new tools which would have permitted men to simplify their work, but also would have involved giving up the pursuit of real skill.
Here we have two antithetical orders of inquiry. When there is an abundance of instruments that answer all needs, it is impossible for one man to have a perfect knowledge of each or the skill to use each. This knowledge would be useless in any case; the perfection of the instrument is what is required, and not the perfection of the human being. But, until the eighteenth century, all societies were primarily oriented toward improvement in the use of tools and were little concerned with the tools themselves. No clean-cut division can be made between the two orientations. Human skill, having attained a certain degree of perfection in practice, necessarily entails improvement of the tool itself. The question is one of transcending the stage of total utilization of the tool by improving it. There is, therefore, no doubt that the two phenomena do interpenetrate. But traditionally the accent was on the human being who used the tool and not on the tool he used.
–Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, “Technique in Civilization”
It is a fairly common idea among those who study the origins of life that the regular pulsations of nature as we know it on earth —the alternation of the seasons, of day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon and the rising and lowering of the tide— may have provided the crucial impetus to abiogenesis. Even if the chemical compounds necessary for life may be found floating, say, in an interstellar cloud, the absence of cyclical alternations in that environment would likely guarantee that no more complex organic system should ever evolve. We need the pulsations, the gentle rocking, that the circadian, the lunar, and the seasonal cycles provide.
The whole neigborhood was in an uproar, setting off firecrackers. I lighted sparklers and pinwheels for the children, liked to see in their eyes the fearful wonder that I had seen as a child. Lila persuaded Melina to light the fuse of a Bengal light with her: the jet of flame sprayed with a colorful crackle. They shouted with joy and hugged each other. Rino, Stefano, Pasquale, Enzo, Antonio transported cases and boxes and cartons of explosives, proud of all those supplies they had managed to accumulate. Alfonso also helped, but he did it wearily, reacting to his brother’s pressure with gestures of annoyance. He seemed intimidated by Rino, who was truly frenzied, pushing him rudely, grabbing things away from him, treating him like a child. So finally, rather than get angry, Alfonso withdrew, mingling less and less with the others. Meanwhile the matches flared as the adults lighted cigarettes for each other and cupped hands, speaking seriously and cordially. If there should be a civil war, I thought, like the one between Romulus and Remus, between Marius and Cilla, between Caesar and Pompey, they will have these same faces, these same looks, these same poses.
–from Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend
We are living, supposedly, in a boom time for narrative, or for the recognition of the role of narrative in human affairs. For the last few years, since the “power of narrative” became a refrain picked up in mainstream U.S. culture, I found myself asking what the alternatives might be, and how we might conceive of the imagination, in a mode other than that of storytelling.1
For one, I think we can oppose a narrative form to that of a mythical or cyclical presentation. Perhaps narrative becomes prominent in times that think of themselves as particularly novel or unprecedented. Narrative, after all, is constructed by means of a progression of events, a distinction made between a beginning and an end.
A narrative can draw on something recurring, something like a myth, of which a story is just latest instantiation.
Today we also see cyclical accounts broken down into narrative. Weather becomes climate becomes climate change. Over a long enough time, you find the beginning and end of temporality itself. The James Webb telescope attempts to look back into the past, not to better understand the regular cycles of celestial phenomena in the present, but to discern the governing narrative that created these–temporary–regularities. Narrative can be generative; even life, defined by the ability to reproduce itself, had a start. But in a time of narrative, instability rules.