Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

August 4, 2008

I began reading Rainbows End ready to be amazed.

The story is set in 2025 San Diego. We follow
the famous poet Robert Gu.
Now cured of Alzheimers, but missing all
recent changes in technology.
Which we are now introduced to
through Robert’s experience.
So far so good.

We learn that everyone is plugged into the net on a constant basis
via wearable computers with contact lenses for output display.
Through your contact lenses you can “google” in midair.
There is a complete visual overlay on the “real” world,
allowing everyone to effectively “live” in whatever fantasy world they desire.
And the DHS – departmentment of Homeland security – logic
is deeply embedded in all hardware.
Athletes are on drugs …etc.

Its all very neat and all very likely,
but not very exciting, and not very amazing,
actually. This is more
like today than 17 years out in the future ….
I wanted to be excited about this book –
but in the end I was not. I am afraid.

-Simon

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How good people turn evil – Stanford Prison experiment

August 3, 2008

In the classic Stanford Prison Experiment
Philip Zimbardo took a group of ordinary students
and placed them in a mock prison, guarded by fellow
students. In less than a week, the study had
to be terminated, when the “guards” became
increasingly sadistic and the “prisoner” pathological.
Raising fundamental questions on good and evil.
Apparently most of us can be initiated
into the ranks of evil doers.

The book, the Lucifer effect, explores
how good people becomes bad.

Lucifer has of course done his job over
the centuries. In the middle ages we had
the inquisition. Where Philip Zimbardo
gives us thought provoking examples on how
good becomes bad.
I.e. The Malleus Maleficarum was required reading for
the judges of the inquisition. It begins
with a problem. How can evil exists in a world
created and governed by an all-good, all powerful
God? The answer is (was) that the Creator
allows evil to test the souls of man. Yield
to the temptations – and go to hell. Resist,
and be invited into heaven.
So to do good – evil had to be found and eliminated.
Especially, find witches and heretics and burn
them on the stake. The ardent and sincere desire to combat evil
generated evil on a larger scale than
ever seen before.

To Philip Zimbardo much of it starts when
human relationships becomes “I – it”.
Humanized relationships are “I – Thou”,
while dehumanized relationships are “I – It”,
The misperception of certain humans
as subhuman, bad humans, inhuman, dispensable,
is facilitated with labels. stereotypes and slogans –
and most importantly – when others are treated as “it”.
The Stanford prison experiment created an ecology
of dehumanization. It started with loss of freedom,
loss of privacy, and finally loss of personal identity.
It separated inmates from their past, their families etc.
Eventually, external coercive rules and arbitrary rules by guards
dictated the prisoners behaviour. Prisoners who just one week
before had been average students.
Tender caring emotions were absent among guards and
prisoners after only a few days.

“Proof” of sorts that Zimbardos thesis , that
external situations decides much of what is good
and evil, – is in fact true.

If one wants to defend human decency by saying that
the students in the Stanford Prison Experiment
were not average – Zimbardo tells you that
they were exactly that. Average.
Even though noone likes to think of themselves as average.
I.e. In a study – 86 percent of Australians rate their
job performance as above average. And 90 percent
of american business managers rate their performance
as superior to that of their average peer.

Worse – it follows that evil is within everyone:
An inventive teacher, Ron Jones, would teach
his high school students something about
Hitlers Nazi regime. Despite his forewarning to
the class about all of this – he quickly established
a new rigid classroom rule, that should be obeyed
without question.
All answers must be limited to three words or less and
preceded by “sir”. When noone challenged this or other
arbitrary rules – the classroom atmosphere began to change.
The verbally fluent students lost their positions and
the less verbal, more physically assertative took
over.
The classroom movement was named the third wave.
Each day there was a new slogan. like – “strength through
discipline”, “strength through action”, “strength
through pride”. And there would eventually be
more than 100 kids attending “a third wave rally”
outside the classroom.
When Jones finally told his students what he had
been up to – and what he wanted to demonstrate –
noone ever admitted to attenting the rally.

Another teacher, Jane Elliott, created third grade hell, when she
divided the class into blue eyed and brown eyed kids and began
telling stories about what blue eyed kids or brown eyed
kids really are like.

In Zimbados words –
Our personal identities are socially situated.
we are what we live, eat, work. It is possible to predict
a wide range of your attitudes and behaviour from
knowing your status factors – your ethnicity, social class,
education, and religion.

But still – not all is said. Occasional
a hero comes along – and can not be bullied
into accepting evil. It might be a John McCain
in Vietnamese prison that will not rat on his
country. Or it might be a Nelson Mandela
that will not answer violence with violence.

Evil does not always have the last word.
and most people eventually know what is right and
what is wrong –
But the immature, it be one prison guard, or an entire nation,
you can apparently always trick into being evil by
creating a “lucifer situation” – where evil is
“ok”.

I would have given the book better marks had there be
more on teaching us all to be Jedi in the
face of evil – as it is, to me, it only demonstrates
that circumstance plays a big part in making
average people evil. I dont think
Zimbardo is out there to explain away evil and
take responsibility away from the individual.
But he should be far more concrete and have much more
focus on all of this.

-Simon

The Lucifer Effect
Philip Zimbardo
Rider 2007


Getting to the Singularity, Charles Stross’ Accelerando

September 23, 2007

Charles Stross book accelerando is a nice read. No doubt about it. But we kind of heard
the singularity plot outline before (e.g. Ray Kurzweil):

One day in this century, machines will have more processing
power than human brains – and that will make for a completely
new society. The singularity.
In Charles Stross’ words: “Sometime in this century laboring women will
produce forty-five thousand babies a day, representing
10^23 MIPS of processing power. Also around the world,
fab lines will churn out out thirty million microprocessors a day,
representing 10^23 MIPS of processing power.
After that day most of the MIPS being added to the solar
system will be machine hosted”.

And obviously human minds will be connected to
the machines. In accelerando we have the meta cortex –
a distributed cloud of software
agents that surrounds humans in the near future –
a thing which is as much a part of the books characters
than the society of mind that
occupies their skulls.

Eventually, human minds are running more on machines than they
are inside human skulls. Death and biology conquered.
No problem, except perhaps for the legal system. I.e.
“the law didn’t recognize death as a reversible process.
people pay for having their heads frozen after their death,
but when they wake up all reconstructed in some simulation
and without any rights – was that what they wanted ?”

And off we go to the fourth decade,
where the machines are up to 10^33 MIPS and rising, allthough
there is still a long way before the solar system is fully awake.

People (kind of) with neural implants, that feel as natural
as lungs or fingers, with half their wetware running
outside their skull in a personal metacortex, i.e. cyborgs,
gets the first alien nessage – on where to find the router to plug
into the galactic internet.
This we also kind of expected – think Timothy Ferris here.

The new stuff (for me) comes with the ceti
– communication with extraterrestrial intelligences –
Surely, you need a piece of software, that you put into
your head to allow you to have a highlevel protocol service that allows you
to connect to the router and start the ceti.

After that you transfer yourself into the alien network –
and find yourself in a simulation where you dont need to simulate breathing.
Oh sure, you dont feel all that human if you dont breathe?
But so what, you are a posthuman now.

Eventually you catch up with other superintelligences.
Or at least you know they are there. Superintelligences don’t
go travelling, as they cant
get enough bandwidth to transport themselves from one place
to another through the routers … and perhaps
they don’t really need the outside input anymore –
having become a superintelligence what is their really to learn
from the outside. And so Charles Stross neatly solves
the Fermi Paradox for us.

The planets are all dismantled and used as materials
to build a Matrioshka super brain.
The only question now is if information from such a superintelligence
will ever become apparent to someone
from the outside (think fred Hoyle here)
– or it will just die living nothing behind.

I don’t think we really get the answer form Charles Stross
on that one. But he does make the impact of technology on human society, identity and consciousness totally believable. Of course things are really
going to go down this road. It is inevitable.
Highly readable, techno-babbling at times, exciting, but not all that new.
We kind of heard it before.
So now we are certain thats the way it is going to play out.
Don’t know if thats a relief or not …

Simon
http://www.fortunecity.com/skyscraper/lol/1165