Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 4th, 2018

The time bind

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Last month, The Verge posted a leaked copy of a fascinating short film titled “The Selfish Ledger,” which was produced two years ago for internal consumption at Google. It’s only eight minutes long, and it’s well worth watching in its entirety, but this summary by journalist Vlad Savov does a good job of capturing its essence:

The nine-minute film starts off with a history of Lamarckian epigenetics, which are broadly concerned with the passing on of traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime. Narrating the video, [Google design head Nick] Foster acknowledges that the theory may have been discredited when it comes to genetics but says it provides a useful metaphor for user data…The way we use our phones creates “a constantly evolving representation of who we are,” which Foster terms a “ledger,” positing that these data profiles could be built up, used to modify behaviors, and transferred from one user to another…The middle section of the video presents a conceptual Resolutions by Google system, in which Google prompts users to select a life goal and then guides them toward it in every interaction they have with their phone…with the ledger actively seeking to fill gaps in its knowledge and even selecting data-harvesting products to buy that it thinks may appeal to the user. The example given in the video is a bathroom scale because the ledger doesn’t yet know how much its user weighs.

With its soothing narration and liberal use of glossy stock footage, it’s all very Black Mirror, and when asked for comment, a spokesperson at Google seemed to agree: “We understand if this is disturbing—it is designed to be. This is a thought-experiment by the Design team from years ago that uses a technique known as ‘speculative design’ to explore uncomfortable ideas and concepts in order to provoke discussion and debate. It’s not related to any current or future products.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’m hoping to discuss various aspects of the film over the next few days. For now, though, I’d like to focus on one detail, which is the notion that the “ledger” of a user’s data amounts to a repository of useful information that can be passed down from one generation to another. (The title of the film is an open homage to The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, which popularized an analogous concept in the realm of natural selection.) In a voiceover, Foster says:

User data has the capability to survive beyond the limits of our biological selves, in much the same way as genetic code is released and propagated in nature. By considering this data through a Lamarckian lens, the codified experiences within the ledger become an accumulation of behavioral knowledge throughout the life of an individual. By thinking of user data as multi-generational, it becomes possible for emerging users to benefit from the preceding generations’ behaviors and decisions. As new users enter an ecosystem, they begin to create their own trail of data. By comparing this emergent ledger with the mass of historical user data, it becomes possible to make increasingly accurate predictions about decisions and future behaviors. As cycles of collection and comparison extend, it may be possible to develop a species-level understanding of complex issues such as depression, health and poverty. Our ability to interpret user data combined with the exponential growth in sensor-enabled objects will result in an increasingly detailed account of who we are as people. As these streams of information are brought together, the effect is multiplied: new patterns become apparent and new predictions become possible.

In other words, the data that we create is our legacy to those who will come after us, who can build on what we’ve left behind rather than starting from scratch.

The funny thing, of course, is that we’ve been doing something like this for a while now, at least on a societal level, using a decidedly less sexy format—the book. In fact, the whole concept of “emerging users [benefiting] from the preceding generations’ behaviors and decisions” is remarkably close to the idea of time-binding, as defined by the Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski, whose work had a profound impact on the science fiction of the thirties and forties. In the monumental, borderline unreadable Science and Sanity, the founding text of General Semantics, Korzybski describes this process in terms that might have been drawn directly from “The Selfish Ledger,” using language that is nearly a century old: “I defined man functionally as a time-binder, a definition based on a…functional observation that the human class of life differs from animals in the fact that, in the rough, each generation of humans, at least potentially, can start where the former generation left off.” Elsewhere, he adds:

The human rate of progress is swifter than that of the animals, and this is due mainly to the fact that we can summarize and transmit past experiences to the young generation in a degree far more effective than that of the animals. We have also extra-neural means for recording experiences, which the animals lack entirely.

The italics are mine. Korzybski uses the example of a mathematician who “has at his disposal an enormous amount of data; first, his personal experiences and observation of actual life…and also all the personal experiences and observations of past generations…With such an enormous amount of data of experience, he can re-evaluate the data, ‘see’ them anew, and so produce new and more useful and structurally more correct higher order abstractions.” And this sounds a lot like “The Selfish Ledger,” which echoes Korzybski—whose work was an important precursor to dianetics—when it speaks of reaching a better understanding of such issues as “depression, health and poverty.”

I don’t know whether “The Selfish Ledger” was directly influenced by Korzybski, although I would guess that it probably wasn’t. But he provides a useful starting point for understanding why the world evoked in the film feels so disturbing, when it’s really a refinement of a process that is as old as civilization itself. On some level, it strikes viewers as a loss of agency, with the act of improvement and refinement outsourced from human hands to an impersonal corporation and its algorithms. We no longer trust companies like Google, if we ever did, to guide us as individuals or as a society—although much of what the video predicts has already come to pass. Google is already an extension of my memory, and it determines my ability to generate connections between information in ways that I mostly take for granted. Yet these decisions have long been made for us by larger systems in ways that are all but invisible, by encouraging certain avenues of thought and action while implicitly blocking off others. (As Fredric Jameson put it: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”) Not all such systems are inherently undesirable, and you could argue that science, for instance, is the best way so far that the ledger of society—which depended in earlier periods on myth and religion—has found to propagate itself. It’s hard to argue with Korzybski when he writes: “If the difference between the animal and man consists in the capacity of the latter to start where the former generation left off, obviously humans, to be humans, should exercise this capacity to the fullest extent.” The problem, as usual, lies in the choice of tactics, and what we call “culture” or even “etiquette” can be seen as a set of rules that accomplish by trial and error what the ledger would do more systematically. Google is already shaping our culture, and the fact that “The Selfish Ledger” bothers to even explore such questions is what makes it a worthwhile thought experiment. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a closer look at its methods, as well as the question of how speculative design, whether by corporations or by artists, can lead to insights that lie beyond even the reach of science fiction.

Quote of the Day

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You must be old to see all this, and have money enough to pay for your experience. Every bon mot I utter costs me a purseful of money; half a million of my private fortune has passed through my hands that I might learn what I know now—not only the whole of my father’s fortune; but also my own salary, and my large literary income for more than fifty years. I have also seen a million and a half expended for great objects by the princes with whom I have been intimately connected…More than mere talent is required to become a proficient. The person must also…have an opportunity of watching the cards held by the players of the age, and of participating in their gain and loss.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, quoted by Johann Peter Eckermann in Conversations of Goethe

Written by nevalalee

June 4, 2018 at 7:30 am

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