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    The informational realm - Part 3
    Project: Polytopia
    Two realms of self-enhancement

    In three(ish) parts:
    The concrete realm
    The informational realm (Parts 1, 2, and 3)


    Part 1
    There are aspects of ourselves that reach beyond the concrete realm.
    These are our presence in an informational realm we have made.
    The contents of the informational realm are selected for their rapid manipulability.
    Relatively simple aspects of ourselves are routinely displaced to the informational realm.

    Part 2
    More significant growth into the informational realm has been made possible with the advancement of technology.
    It is possible roughly to delineate the level of technological sophistication required to support a person's existence in an informational realm.
    However, a crucial variable is the utility of any particular aspect of informational existence, as judged by the user of the technology.
    As a result, the step beyond the concrete realm is made by the imagination, intellectually.

    Part 3
    Informational aspects of being are conceptually distinct from humanity, and can be superhuman.
    It is possible to distinguish informationally enhanced and unenhenced humans.
    There are already coexisting humans of these different kinds.
    Extra-human beings will become convincingly super-, rather than sub-, human only when technological advances and popular attitudes are appropriately aligned.
    The next big step in human capability will be a socio-psychological as well as a technological singularity.


    PART 3

    Guest lists at parties are one way to create informational entities that can be substituted psychologically for their real sources. The informational entities (records) are more easily managed and communicated than the (facts about the) actual things recorded (e.g., the event of the host coming to my house and inviting me). Some major implementations of the same principles are very familiar and adopted without hesitation, so let us start with some examples.

    Driver licensing systems came up in Part 1. By treating the contents of a driver database as basic facts about people (i.e. not merely as a probably-true representation of facts about people), we are able to ascertain quickly and with certainty the permissions of any individual. In this case, the reality being modeled in the database is the event of an examiner deeming a person suitable to drive. Discrepancies between the database system and the reality are very improbable, and the conveniences provided by the system are vast, so rationally we can treat its contents directly as data about the real world.

    Another example is a university's registration system. The reality of you attending a course or not is replaced for practical purposes by a record of attendance in a database. Your presence in lectures and the library do not make you a student in the sense that can earn you a degree - only the record does, accurate or not.

    What's more, your university degree will then serve as a record of your abilities in another system, when you seek employment. Your suitability for a job will be judged on your record of having passed a course - not directly on the real abilities that course teaches and assesses. This arrangement makes sorting through job applications vastly more practical. Your "qualifications" for something are regularly treated as being only the material records about you, not your real adeptness were you to perform the job.

    We can see a progression in these three systems - drivers database, university register, and job candidate assessment. In the first example, if we were to try and manage driving permissions of a large population without the use of such a system, we would only be able to do so less accurately (and much more slowly), if at all. The superior accuracy of the system alone means that we can rationally treat its output as more real than "real-world" stimuli, even if it were to present no additional benefit (such as speed). In the second example, anyone who has worked in a university will know that even students with the wit to get to lectures may still fall at the hurdle of actually getting round to registering. Similarly, the registration process seems to exhaust some so greatly that they will not be able to lift a book. Thus the idea of an attendance record as even a partial means of assessing aptitude in a subject leaves plenty of room for error. However, the correspondence is significant enough that it is worth requiring students to behave in a way that allows them to be counted and managed in large numbers. In this case, the system provides a pretty sloppy model of the reality of relevant course attendance, but the practical benefits are great enough to make it a sensible choice. (Indeed, a university ill-equipped for heavy student throughput may not survive in the current funding situation, so perhaps systems that treat swiped cards or online logins as real students are selected by environment rather than design.)

    In the final example, the pool of eligible job applicants is shrunk by the requirement of the university record, but the quality of the pool is increased overall. What the employer wants is the person who will perform the job best. It is very probably true in this case that there will be people excluded from the pool who would perform better than some who are included. It is quite possible that the very best candidates will be excluded or the very worst included. However, the manageability benefit of the entities the system defines as eligible - the speed of checking a document compared to performing a real practical assessment of abilities - are great enough that the system is adopted. All and only recorded graduates are believed to be people who can really perform the job.

    The progression over those three examples begins at a system that objectively surpasses the accuracy of humans without it, and so can rationally be treated as presenting reality. At the other end of the spectrum is a system with significant potential inaccuracy compared to humans not using it, but with benefits large enough that its reality can be (and is) rationally allowed to supersede the "real" world.

    Despite this variability, all these examples are well-established cases of informational constructions in which aspects of people can be manifested. It is in the newest cases, though, that things get really interesting. Recently, many people place greater and greater significance on their own self-representations in virtual space. As people use social networking websites for a growing proportion of their social networking, so those identities become increasingly important*. It is easy to see how someone can identify with the profile they create and maintain. What's more, the more a social site is used, the higher the fidelity of the representation of the person that is using it. In extreme cases, the use of a site such as Facebook (or Space Collective) could become so significantly more rewarding than "real" social interaction, and the user's presence there so detailed an interpretation of themselves, that users could identify themselves primarily with their online presence. (There must be a study of this sort of thing out there - please tell me if you know of one. See comment 2 below.) In such a case, the user might well choose to adopt the belief that they are in fact present in the informational space. They commit themselves to the social networking system like a university commits its students to its database. Either they consider the system to deliver a more accurate presentation of their real selves, or they prefer the advantages that are afforded by so committing themselves.

    And this is the key to persons being present in the informational. You and I may well look at a Facebook page and not see anything resembling a person - after all, it is just a webpage, and people are not really anything like webpages. However, believing that we have indeed found another person somewhere - walking down the street for instance - requires a leap of faith over the problem of other minds (w). We typically make the leap by analogy to ourselves: I see something's outward behaviour, and it is so similar to mine that I suppose the thing is like me even in ways unobservable. So if someone believes that the online version of their self is them, and sees another such entity that is outwardly as they are, then they might similarly suppose that that entity is another self, another bearer of mind, another person. Providing the criteria for informational identity described above are met, there would then really - as really as the words are there in front of you - be whole people in the informational realm.

    Many of us might not see this kind of personal becoming in the informational realm as desirable progress. Over-commitment to Facebook may well appear to be a sad, self-inflicted crippling of a person's humanity. We may feel that if someone thinks that their self is better represented by Facebook than by more traditional means then they are incompetent in those traditional means, or that the benefits seen in Facebook-bound existence are at the expense of much greater benefits gained from staying out of it. We think the informational leap is irrational. Nonetheless, the people who have taken the psychological step have become something we are not. If they are to examine their own nature, inside the new realm, they will see that, for example, they are things that can be interlinked in useful ways with other such entities (presumably on "friends lists" or in games of Scrabble: I don't know). They are things that are free from significant geographical location on the Earth. They are certainly not the stair-climbing things of The concrete realm. In fact, there need not even be a one-to-one correspondence between those concrete, fleshy humans (meat) and computer-housed ones (chips). Two people could collaborate on - and commit to - one online entity. Or two people you see online, may really be one - like Spaceweaver and Wildcat. Considered in such terms, they are radically different kinds of things from us.

    However, the commitment to such versions of reality is, unlike commitment to my thermometer readout, far from guaranteed-rational. The fact is that, in many popular respects, the technology presents a lower fidelity version of people than our standard people detectors do. Most of us don't think that people are really there in that informational realm. In order for us to change that thinking, then, either the technology needs to improve in terms of the details it presents about us and/or the benefits it offers, or those popular means of assessing the presence of a person need to be adjusted, so that the presentation is judged sufficiently detailed. These are exactly the variables that fall into alignment in the familiar examples given earlier. Of course, we can expect that both changes will happen together, and more open popular psychological attitudes will meet more lucid technology somewhere in the middle.

    As these factors align, more people will come to believe that it is sensible to include an informational entity as the main part of their self-image. However, this tipping point in attitudes will be reached by different people at different times. Indeed, some people have surely already tipped their psychological balances. It might be believable enough for Facebook, Second Life, and World of Warcraft, but those are just the ones that reach my newspaper. They are the clean, white tip of a vast and grubby iceberg. Who knows what goes on down there? And once we look a long way beyond existing phenomena, perhaps to brain-interfacing technology, and more detailed and rewarding possible actions within a networked community, we can expect to see those committing mainly to an informational self becoming the majority. There will be a genuine divide between two kinds of human - those vested with the opportunities for interaction that informationally enhanced beings gain (whatever they turn out to be), and those opting to stay without. And it is here, in the informational realm that the divide between the enhanced and the unenhanced will be seen. It is not because the difference will be more discrete than between different levels of concrete extension, but because the split is ultimately ideological and chosen, not enforced by the scarcity of concrete enhancements.

    A simple intellectual act will be the factor that pushes a person beyond human. The final step from mere creature-stick hybrid to superhuman lies not in some 'ultimate tool' like a bionic enhancement, nor even in an intellectual capacity afforded by enhancement or evolution, but in the mere having of a single, particular thought. So those already there - myface addicts, outcasts now - are living in the future. We can say, safely in our majority, that they are sub- not super- human. But they are already partly extrahuman, living substantially in the young habitat of later generations. That future lived now is a restrictive place to be, but although it is a much smaller step than the last rung of a moon lander, it is a much bigger leap than just another rock.


    * Like you need some evidence of that, here's a rubbish report on the phenomenon. Loved this soundbite they bit: "There were nights where I, like, spent the entire night just, like, customizing my page."

    Tue, Jan 6, 2009  Permanent link

    Sent to project: Polytopia
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    Robokku     Thu, Apr 16, 2009  Permanent link
    Robokku     Sun, Feb 28, 2010  Permanent link
    Re parenthetical request in 8th paragraph, No Lie! Your Facebook Profile Is the Real You.