Last time, we covered US Intelligence / Security agencies, and why the hacker / geek community’s paranoia about them might not be entirely justified. And since it’s the end of the year and none of us are likely to get anything important done this week anyway, why not just continue that thought into other bizarre preoccupations of the hacker community?
To set the pace, a clip from the 1984 film Repo Man:
“You know the way everybody’s into weirdness right now?” Call it a hunch, but the present author has a strong feeling that many, many more people will be into even more weirdness in 2017. The 2016 election has spawned a whole book’s worth of conspiracy theories already, and the winner isn’t even sworn into office yet. But while we’re at it, here’s some baffling craziness we see all too often in our culture and question all too seldom…
#1: Edward Snowden
Continuing from the last post, Edward Snowden was the guy who stirred up the worst government paranoia panic we’ve seen in years. There’s two schools of thought on Snowden right now: anointed saint and condemned traitor. On the traitor side, he did seek asylum in Russia, the country currently accused of meddling in the recent US election… isn’t that interesting? On the anointed saint side… ha ha ha, no.
What Edward Snowden was, was a low-level contractor to a not-very-important government office. He lied about his wage at Booz Allen. He’s either lied about his job history, or lied to get those jobs because there’s no way a high-school dropout would have qualified for them. He’s also been called out for his story by the NSA’s former director, a CIA lawyer, and from the pages of CNET. Note, none of these sources are denying that the intelligence agencies can and do collect data on anybody they want to, but they are all calling out Snowden’s highly fanciful exaggerations of his authority, powers, or how the process works.
Nor is Snowden even that exceptional a case. Hacker culture has rallied around various infiltrators of the system before, from Captain Crunch to Kevin Mitnick to Chelsea Manning. We like our Robin Hoods, it’s to be expected.
By all means, we should be vigilant against our government doing naughty things. There’s plenty to call out, every day, with documented proof. We do need the occasional Robin Hood. Just be careful not to romanticize one with too much of a conflict of interest (such as a profitable partnership with journalist Glenn Greenwald), too much of a black-and-white picture of a very gray world, or who panders just a bit too much into conspiracies that everybody wants to believe.
This is the belief that we’re all living in a computer simulation. So, we’re all Sims. If you ever got so wrapped up in cooking dinner that you forgot to go to the bathroom until you made a mess on the floor and then cried because you were dirty for so long that you missed your car pool and got fired, this explains a lot.
As stomach-churning as it is to ponder the fact that hundreds of otherwise rational people are walking around seriously considering this scenario, it should come as no surprise in a species which harbors so many other weird beliefs. It’s the mass hysteria you want to hope will die down, and yet just this year stories keep getting shoveled to the front page of Slashdot, with people like Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Sam Altman being brutally misquoted so as to seem like they were confirming it.
Either it’s beginning to look like a very sly mass hoax the tech elite of our time are pulling on us to see how long we’ll fall for it, or we have a new Scientology on our hands. For debunking it, one can only wave in the general direction of Carl Sagan – anything you could do to prove or disprove our existence in a giant simulation would also be part of the simulation, so this amounts to trying to prove whether we’re all characters in a book. If we’re Sims, then there’s this illusionary reality layered on top of some alternate base reality which is nevertheless similar enough to our own to have people and computers in it, and that the entities of that base reality want to simulate us and yet keep that fact secret from us. Then we have to ask if they’re a simulation too. But you don’t need to conduct an experiment to see that this is a fantastically ridiculous premise which requires extraordinary proof to overcome the insurmountable illogic of it all.
#3: The Singularity
This is probably a slightly more probable belief, at least among the IT crowd. The Singularity is the idea that artificial intelligence will continue to improve and improve until one day it “wakes up” and gains sentience, becoming a conscious mind just like a human mind, and then (yes, there’s much more) will go on creating better and better models of itself, until we have a computer god looming over us all. A side belief to this is transhumanism, where we’ll be able to upload our consciousness from our mortal shackles into this computer god and become an immortal part of it.
Now, while it’s true that artificial intelligence almost certainly will continue to advance and become even more handy, we’re talking about this entire package, computer god and all. It’s a shame that many programmers harbor some belief in the Singularity, because basic principles of computer science deny it. We already know that we cannot instruct a computer to perform an operation we, ourselves, do not know how to do. Since we’re still discovering new things about human brains every day, we cannot codify a human mind into a set of computer instructions. there is also no working “evolve_yourself()” function in any known computer language. We also know that merely hooking up the biggest neural net we can build won’t do it either, because the brain also uses chemicals, which aren’t so easily simulated by wires as neurons and synapses are.
But… DNA computing? All bets are off the table then. We have yet to see what we can do when we hack cell biology with the same impunity we now do in silicon. But by then we’re aiming more for a Blade Runner future than the HAL9000.
Conclusion: A Manifesto
The present author is humbled to be touted as the resident “hack-storian” of the present website. But there’s actually a very good reason to have that for a calling. Technology, mostly in the form of the Internet and its attendant technologies, has explosively accelerated the speed of change in human society. And yet we have no modern day Marshall McLuhan to keep an eye on it. In the middle of exchanging all these ideas, both exciting and wacky, we’re mostly not asking what on Earth this medium is doing to us.
How is it changing society, and will the changes it makes take us to good places or bad? We originally assumed that the Internet would foster a human renaissance once the sum total of knowledge was instantly available for free everywhere, but it turns out – like our argument against the NSA spying on your search history – we can put all the wisdom out there but it won’t matter until we have brains that crave that wisdom and seek it out above all else. So far, the Internet is a mirror to our society, not a solution. We have seen that it transmits lies as fast as it transmits truths. We have seen that we can live in a world shaped by science and yet hang onto our magical thinking undaunted. How do we get a Matrixism movement? How do we get an #OccupyWallStreet? How do we get a #KONY2012? Is an Internet-informed public in a voting democracy better or worse off? How do we control fake news without restricting real news? Is there a hard limit to how much rationality the human brain can tolerate before it just has to bail out into a comforting faerie tale?
Somebody has to ask those questions. We’ll promise not to dwell on them too long, however. Vacation time is ending soon, and it’s back to the grindstone with us.