(& OTHER TALES FROM THE CABINET OF RANCIÈRE’S IGNORANT MASTER)
It is good to know that this colloquium is taking place in Prague, as the very word ROBOT is of Czech origin, invented by Karel Čapek as far back as 1920 & used in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots.
It’s 2018 now but it feels as if we are still the characters from that Capek’s play, fighting the robots.
I started pondering about the problems imposed by the development of the Artificial Intelligence more deeply when I read Dennis Scimeca’s rather benign article “How virtual reality developers are using brain science to trick you” in the beginning of 2016. There the author spoke of a ms Kimberly Voll, a PhD computer scientist & a specialist in artificial intelligence & he commented on her work “You may doubt that you’ll ever fall for the illusion of virtual reality but your brain is already working against you.” Allegedly, Dr Voll was developing the puzzle game Fantastic Contraption as “she KNEW how our brain worked & subsequently explained how it is specifically affected by VR”:
We have historically, particularly in games, really tried to bring the player into that experience. We have spent time taking flat screens & trying to pull people into those screens. With VR we throw all of that out, because in many respects we are literally putting the person in the game, or in the experience. The key to this door is to understand the tools & senses that our brain uses to figure out what is real in the so called real world & then – give those tools & senses the same data but in the virtual world. The brain is also gullible & easy to fool. Have you ever seen an optical illusion where two objects are actually the same size, but one looks larger than the other? Your brain falls for it every time. The way a VR developer fools your brain into thinking that a virtual space is real is by knowing what tools your brain uses to construct reality, & then giving your brain the same information, but presented in virtual reality. VR developers in a simulation give your brain all the building blocks it needs to say “THIS IS REAL.” Because your brain can be so thoroughly fooled into thinking the virtual is the real, players may need to be warned about the content that awaits them in the simulation. Not warning people that a VR game is scary & then giving them a jump scare can make people really upset.
And worse than “upset” I would add – a “jump scare” can drive people mad. But, the pertinent question here is: How do we start learning to see? How do we see things in their true light, lit by the artificial light of our extended self, that is , a computing object at hand? Gene Tracy, a professor of Physics & an expert in Plasma Wave Theory claims that the most brilliant scientific insight depends, like the everyday faculty of sight, on distinguishing meaningful signals from among random ones. When Galileo looked at the Moon through his new telescope in early 1610, he immediately grasped that the shifting patterns of light & dark were caused by the changing angle of the Sun’s rays on a rough surface. Learning to see, professor Tracy says, is not an innate gift; it is an iterative process, always in flux & constituted by the culture in which we find ourselves & the tools we have to hand.
In Galileo’s time, the Florentines were masters of perspective, using shapes & shadings on a two-dimensional canvas to evoke three-dimensional bodies in space. Galileo was a friend of artists & someone who in his youth might have considered becoming one himself. He believed with a kind of religious fervour that the creator of the world was a geometer. Galileo likely imbibed these mathematically deep methods of representation based as they are on the projective geometries of light rays. When Galileo looked at the face of the Moon, he had no trouble understanding that on the moon, mountaintops first catch fire with the rising Sun while their lower slopes remain in darkness. When we consider often complex scientific observations we find them contingent much like human vision itself.
Assemblies of machines that detect the undetectable, from gravitational waves in cosmos to the minute signals within human cells, rely on many forms of “sight.” By exploring vision as a metaphor for scientific observation, & scientific observation as a kind of seeing, we might ask: HOW does prior knowledge about the world affect what we observe?
If prior patterns are essential for making sense of things, how can we avoid falling into well-worn channels of perception? And most importantly, how can we learn to see in genuinely new ways?
And how do we learn to see something that is truly new & unexpected? If the brain is a taxonomising engine, anxious to map the things & people with experience we experience into familiar categories, then true learning must always be disorienting. Learning shifts the internal constellation of the firings of our nerves, the spark of thought itself. This mental flexibility is an inheritance, hard-won over eons by our ancestors, & it serves as a good metaphor for how scientists can learn to see with new machine-eyes.
Perhaps Jacques Rancière had musings similar to Gene Tracy’s concerning the unattended & unlimited possibilities of the learning process as such when he wrote his treaty on the learning process of languages taught by “the ignorant master” Joseph Jacotot, in that distant 1818. By teaching the subject-matter to his Dutch students in Louvain & in French, a language they did not understand, Jacotot entered into the specific domain of the science of learning. His epistemology comfortably claimed that if it is clear that while seeing & hearing might be believing, it is also true that believing affects our understanding of what we hear & see, & learn for the first time.
But how are we to believe that everything we hear & see for the first time should have some true cognitive value? Or that we should believe in the intrinsic value of things optically created for us on the side of Artificial Intelligence? The danger of believing something which has a high potential to harm us really undermines its true cognitive worth: perhaps the effort of trusting AI should be placed into the realm of the cognitive bias, notwithstanding our ability of how to protect ourselves from it. And what are the areas of the potential danger where the Artificial Ignorance is likely to intervene?
Well, all the areas of human interaction are exposed to the contemplation of virtuality, & as William S. Burroughs once said in an interview I conducted with him in 1986, “whenever people use something, soon enough they abuse it.” VR is undergoing rapid new developments & as the tech preachers trumpet an imminent explosion in accessibility, artists are exploring the darker contours of these responsive environments. Traditionally speaking, the artists would be the first to rebel against algorithm, as they have a general tendency to easily become enraged throughout the ages. Quite recently in ARTFORUM (November 2017) there was a study on Art & VR entitled Deep Dive where the invited visionary artists & thinkers such as Douglas Coupland, Daniel Birnbaum, Paul McCarthy & Marina Abramović tried to examine the technology & the questions it raises about artifice & resemblance, perception & truth, omnipresence & repression, alienation & existence. Douglas Coupland, for instance, made a general complain that his real world was much grimmer that his experiences in VR. (He wrote a book on Marshall McLuhan in 2009). He sees VR as the logical end point of a data- bombardment process that started with Gutenberg & accelerated with radio then TV, then the internet until data became, according to Coupland, addictive, & “our need for it has grown the way addicts need bigger & bigger fixes to get high.” The artist says “our days are largely spent behind screens, with greatly reduced somatic experience, & our memories of the day come from those screens that are fire-hosing data into our brains. We now calibrate our sense of time passing by how much information we absorbed that day. Data is the new time &, by extension, the cloud is the new infinity. And VR is a kind of temporal accelerator. VR is as much data as the human brain can handle. VR is your brain flying straight up the Y Asymptote.” Many people think that VR when fully established, will change the way we inhabit this planet & like with the invention of electricity, they think that life without VR would be intolerable, on a sexual level, & on the level of providing dense fight or flight experiences, porn & gaming basically. However, notwithstanding the fact that VR is really harsh on our vestibular system & the reptile cortex, the artist reminds us of the positive fact that whenever a new technology triumphs, it also allows the technology it’s rendered obsolete to become an art form: VR could allegedly allow for a golden age of internet art, synthetic arts etc. The real limitation of VR is that it presents itself as an amniotic dream state with which we go into a state of fundamental solitude. All the communal aspects of art are gone here as it shows to us its masturbatory aspect, namely- it has its solipsistic aspect of a tendency to isolate. Are we a Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi who dreamed that he was a butterfly or are we that butterfly who dreams that it is a philosopher Zhuangzi?
I know I am an eagle, & that my only problem is that I don’t have the artificial wings to help me fly back to Paris, but even if I had those artificial wings, I am not sure that I would know how to use them correctly! But should I be worried about the right use of the wings? Douglas Coupland exclaimed appropriately, “If Surrealism happened today it would be over in a week.” Or over the week-end. But you cannot walk faster than a brain wave, otherwise you get totally burnt by the algorithm, & if you’re self-indulgent & like the leap into the algo-burns you may even say, like the artists such as Jordan Wolfson, Jeff Coons or Marina Abramović, “IT’S BETTER THAN REAL LIFE.” However, most of the artists cringe from any further advancement of algorithm; there have been great moments of techno-optimism in art, from Futurism around 1910 to Group Zero & Net Art more recently but most of the intelligent artists cringe the possibility of being qualified as potentially obsolete. They neither like to be linked to commercialism & entertainment industry. There’s a bigger respect for the Situationists & Walter Benjamin then in the heyday of their existence, untainted by glitch.
The person I have a great respect for , is a philosopher & urban-planner Paul Virilio who has recently passed away. In an interview he had given for the French newspaper Libération, as early as 1996, he appeared as a great visionary warning us against the “highways of information” where a possibility for the appearance of various accidents related to the acceleration of the world had already seemed enormous & inevitable. His vision was dark & filled with pessimism, but nonetheless seemed pertinent to us. It appeared at the times when his encounter with the world of Web was in its cradle & before the real web adventure had fully kicked off. In this dialogue with the journalist, Virilio said “that he was willing to put on his face the mask of Cassandra because there was an enormous amount of publicity related to the launch of Windows 95 & he had to react to it. In fact, his outcry was not directed against technology & the technological progress as such, but against their advertising as such. He was refusing to enter the “mythology of communication” which seemed to be a meta-story taking advantage of the “highway of information.”
Obsessed by the problem of speed & its harmful consequences for our entire civilization, Virilio declared to be afraid of the shrinking of the world as such by the advancement of the speed propelled by the modems. The TV advertising for the Windows 95, followed by the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” appeared to him like the synthesis of everything he cringed from. Virilio’s prophecies about the world appear to us much more contemporary than the outdated menus of Windows 95. In his sermon, he did not deny the role of the Internet in the process of the democratization of knowledge, but the philosopher neatly refused to ignore the historical origin of the new technologies. He remembered that it was the US Defence Department who installed the first net of the nets in the beginning of the 1960s. And for Virilio, the cold war & the nuclear one was just being replaced with the “war on information” championed by the Net. To that effect he described the troubling dystopia of our contemporary Internet – “on one hand, allegedly, we had the investment in advertising executed by Time Warner, Microsoft or Disney corporations, coupled with the secret information control organized by the National Security Agency & other forms of military powers.” Some of his concerns were displayed overtly to us in 2013 after the Snowden affair, but we should not forget that Virilio had begun his warnings as early as in 1990s. In an interview (Towards a Total Accident) that I conducted with him for the journal EREWHON 2 (1995), he stated:
The world is, in fact, controlled by the National Security Agency, & Internet & NSA are intertwined & interdependent, but I wonder to what degree they are going to agree with one another? And to what point will Internet resist the occupation of the National Security Agency? In Pentagon, & also perhaps throughout Europe in future everything will be connected & in the hands of those who rule the world.
However, what Virilio had named “Internet” would really mean Web to us, that is, the big interconnection which helps us, general folks, connect to the net of the nets. The philosopher recognized the web pilot as a bait for a citizen to enter the dark net held by the hands of the American government system. “Internet is just an advertising tool which will lead us to the future highways of information; it is a sort of publicity, very attractive, on a discount, predestined to attract those who previously had certain doubts as to the origin of the worldwide information,” he said. Virilio did not believe in the Democratic intentions of Internet, & his critique of it was a part of the more general critique of the speeding up of the world as such. “I definitively don’t believe in the “automated democracy,” as I believe in reflection & not in reflex, an impulse in the world. New technology is the technology of the conditioning of men & in that sense it is a suspicious thing which believes in an opinion poll & a survey.” If Virilio’s theory of catastrophe & a general accident seems pertinent to us today it is also due to the fact that a number of the accidents related to Internet which he had predicted a while ago have come true. The incidents in question have surely damaged if not entirely destroyed our earlier optimism we cherished for technology. Somewhat like Burroughs a bit earlier in that decade, Virilio exclaimed “When we invent an object at the same time we invent its accident.” And to build a ship also implies creating a shipwreck, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandals, WikiLeaks etc.
In the four centuries since Galileo bent to look through his optic tube, the human brain has not changed all that much. Rather the current revolution comes from our new tools, new tubes, new theories & new methods of analysis made possible by new hardware. Detectors make visible what was previously hidden, & the learning process involves ever more powerful computer algorithms that seek patterns in those new observations. As Daston argues in his book The Image of Objectivity, the scientific observation does mean the parsing the world into pieces, & naming those pieces through shared idealizations. Today this is done using a data stream from a global network of detectors aided by smart algorithms to assist in our naming, learning to navigate an information flood that each second dwarfs the amount of data collected by Galileo, for example. But can the machines really give us new eyes so that we can see things in the world that have been there all along?
“Rage against the Algorithm” / Prague, November, 2018
published in Alienist #4 (December/January 2018/2019)