Confluence, part 2

This morning I gave a talk about the future. It was one of my sunny optimistic talks, focusing on the possibilities, the excitement, the wonder of what we might all be able to do as advancing technology permits. In fact, it was much like this talk that I gave a few months back.

But then during the Q&A somebody asked me about the larger implications for society. I said that until three days ago I had been very optimistic, but that my views had darkened considerably this past Tuesday.

As I indicated in yesterday’s post, two things happened on that day. One of them I wrote about the other day: The Republican majority in Congress passed a law that allows Telecoms to gather and sell your digital data. The rather odd argument used to justify this vote was that Google and Facebook already do this.

But of course that is a false parallel. You can live your digital life just fine without Google or Facebook, but in most parts of this country you must use a Telecom even to connect to the internet.

The other thing that happened this past Tuesday was that Elon Musk publicly announced Neurolink — a company which proposes to develop neural implants that will allow people to directly connect their brains to the world. The goal, as I understand it, is that everything which now requires you to perform a physical action, from shopping to hailing a cab to turning on lights and opening doors, will eventually be a mere thought away.

If you put these two events together, we are now on a direct path to an interesting world: The very thoughts you think will soon create a digital footprint, and will therefore become part of Telecom traffic.

So the Telecom which carries your thoughts — a Telecom that you are most likely stuck with — will be legally entitled to listen in on those thoughts, store them as its property, look for patterns in them, and sell them or otherwise exploit them for commercial gain.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Soon everybody will.


I have to say that I am overwhelmed by the confluence of two extremely important events that both happened the other day, on Tuesday March 28, 2017. Perhaps the synchronicity between them was mere coincidence. Perhaps not.

One of these events I wrote about in yesterday’s blog post. The other is something else entirely. But then again, perhaps not really.

I am going to need a day to process all of this. Taken together, it’s all quite overwhelming.

The top 0.0001%

When Abraham Lincoln referred to “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” how many of those people was he talking about? Perhaps the top 1%?

By the ethical standards of today’s Congress, that would practically make our 16th President a Communist. After all, given our nation’s current population, the top 1% is an awful lot of people — about 3.26 million. Asking the government to care about such a huge number of the unwashed masses would be crazy. Although admittedly those 3.26 million one-percenters are slightly better washed than the other 99%.

So maybe Lincoln meant the top 1% of the top 1%. But that too seems wildly generous. We’re still talking about 32600 people. I mean, has anyone in Congress even met 32600 people?

If you’re going to talk about legislation that benefits a meaningful group of U.S. citizens, you need to tone it down. Our nation’s laws should benefit at most a few hundred people, right? After all, that’s a manageable number — roughly the number of individuals who own significantly large shares of stock in our nation’s Telecom companies.

Yesterday our Congress passed a bill to honor Lincoln’s famous statement, with suitable adjustments.

Until one day ago, you legally owned your personal digital data. As soon as our current president signs this bill (which he strongly supports), you won’t. Somebody else will.

What used to be the digital portion of your personal wealth — which can translate into potential earning power — will now pretty much be owned by just a few hundred people. In particular, your data will mainly be owned by the small group of individuals who have significantly large ownership shares in Telecom stock.

What about the other roughly 325,870,000 people who currently reside in these United States? I think the message from the Congressional majority was extremely clear on that point: We can all go fuck ourselves.

By the way, I am typing this in a Tor Browser, which I switched to this morning. It stops a Telecom provider from being able to collect and then sell all of my browsing data.

Tor is a free download which works on all computers, and I highly recommend it. Such privacy-protecting browsers are still legal, but who knows how long the Congressional majority (and their extremely wealthy and generous donors) will tolerate that?

Folded spaces

I have been thinking about parallel universes. But not so much the arcane mathematical constructs of physicists. I mean the possibility of everyday parallel universes.

After we start wearing those cyberglasses or contact lens implants, the digital world and the physical world will fold together — even more so than they do now. The reality that we walk through with our physical bodies will be filled with bits, all stored in the Cloud and delivered to our eyes as needed.

Will this all converge to a single reality? For example, will we always go to a particular place to have a conversation about some agreed upon topic?

Or will all of these virtual universes become layered on on top another, imparting any physical place with a kind of multiplicity? If so, then you might walk into a particular room on Tuesdays to discuss some sports-related topic, whereas I might walk into the same room on Wednesdays to talk about the opera.

I suspect the latter to be the case. After all, we already do this sort of thing with the physical world around us.

When I teach my class at a certain time every week, the classroom becomes a microcosm of the world of our course topic, just for that hour. Two hours later, that same physical room might become a microcosm for discussion of some other topic entirely.

I suspect that this folding of multiple meanings into physical spaces will only grow more complex and multifaceted with time. Soon the world of our physical surroundings and the world of our digital realities will have become so thoroughly intertwined that people will find it hard to imagine that it was ever any other way.

Reflecting on mirrors

As I was leaving a restaurant today, where I had just eaten a very nice lunch, I happened to glance in the mirror. Or at least I thought it was a mirror.

Turns out it was another section of the restaurand that just looked a lot like the one I was currently in. A perfectly understandable error.

Yet that brief moment of confusion, before the situation becams clear, was interesting. For in that moment all sorts of thoughts passed through my head.

My first thought was “Wow, I don’t have a reflection.”

My next thought after that was “Maybe I have somehow become a vampire.”

Then I tried to think back to the night before, for a memory of who might have bit me. After all, reason dictates that such a change would require at least a few hours to take effect.

Then I found myself feeling thankful that I was about to walk out into a cloudy, overcast day. Direct sunlight could be very problematic.

This all happened in about one second. In the next second, it finally dawned on me that I had been positing some very low probability events.

Which is when, tracing backward through my earlier logic, I concluded that the mirror couldn’t have been a mirror at all. And the realization finally hit me that I had been looking into another room.

As you might imagine, I was very relieved by this news.

The Wolverine as political allegory

I saw Logan tonight, with my brother, sister-in-law and nephew. My nephew, who is in his early twenties, thought it was a great film.

I thought it was a great film for a person in their early twenties. So in a sense we were in agreement.

What surprised me was how much everything I was watching seemed like a pointed critique of the ugliness and stupidity of the Trump administration. But that couldn’t literally be the case, because surely this film was already in production before the Election.

So my conclusion is that the Trump administration is so offensive in its blatantly xenophobic goals, so ethically bankrupt, so embarrassingly transparent in its agenda to transfer our nation’s wealth to the top 1% — no matter how much of our collective wealth needs to be destroyed in the whole stinking currupt process — that pretty much any allegory of good guys versus venal bad guys will fit.


A cure for loneliness

I was having lunch with a friend today, and the topic came up of loneliness. Why do people feel lonely? Are they not happy with their own company?

My friend suggested that it is not so much being by ourselves that causes such a feeling, but rather the back-and-forth between being alone and being with other people. The contrast encourages a mindset that expects the company of others.

She related a story told to her by a friend who had visited North Africa, where he had encountered a nomadic tribe. Individuals of that tribe would sometimes end up all alone for weeks at a time, with nobody else for miles around.

When told of this extreme way of being, her friend had asked one of the tribesmen whether he ever became lonely. “No,” the man replied, “I am always with myself.”

A definition of magic

I am still pondering all the things the illusionist Prakash Puru said at the Rubin Museum event yesterday. One thing in particular continues to roll around in my mind.

It was a quote from Teller (of Penn and Teller), a definition of magic as: “The theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that – in our hearts – ought to.”

To me this thought speaks to the heart of all fictional narrative. We know that Lizzy and Mr. Darcy are just words on a page, that the guy playing Hamlet up on the stage is just an actor in a costume, that Humphrey Bogart isn’t really Rick Blaine.

Miraculously, it doesn’t matter. Because these characters and the narratives containing them are beautifully constructed, we feel that they ought to exist. In our heart of hearts, they are real to us.

I think narrative Virtual Reality will need to find its own version of that magic. It is not yet clear to me what that will be.

I do know that even VR pieces that I really love do not have that effect on me. Dear Angelica, Pearl, Giant, all of the other wonderful and award winning VR pieces, they are all great. But they don’t move me in the way that I am moved when Rick and Ilsa rekindle their love, or when Hamlet dies.

I am not convinced that this deficiency is intrinsic to the medium of VR. I think, rather, that we have not yet figured out how to use this medium to create magic.


This evening, as part of the Rubin Museum’s excellent Brainwave series of talks, I had the pleasure to hear an on-stage conversation between neuroscientist Tony Ro and master illusionist Prakash Puru. The general topic was why stage magic is so effective, which clearly relates to the way our human brain works, and therefore to neuroscience.

Mr. Puru said many fascinating things about how stage magic works, some of which I found to be very profound in their implications. He showed how easy it is to direct peoples’ attention, even when they know you are doing it.

These techniques of misdirection, if done well, are so effective that when the magician finally switches the card, or pockets the coin, or bends the spoon, nobody in the audience is looking. And it seems that the magician’s patter adds to this distraction in very specific ways.

For example, magicians will often tell jokes during their act. He pointed out that while you are laughing, you are not really paying attention to things. During a good laugh, he said, a magician can pull a switch, and nobody will notice.

Then Mr. Puru added another thought, one very topical. “For example,” he said, “I cannot think of election where the funnier candidate lost.”

I realized he was right. And that realization brought me back to the real world.

Some very unfunny things are happening in my country now. They will get even less funny when our Joker in Chief manages to pull our world into a tragic and devastating war, simply because reality is not part of his magic act.