In response to the question “What Do You Think About Machines That Think?” Brian Eno responded that artificial intelligence has been with us for millennia and understanding it is more a matter of managing our ignorance of how it works.
My untroubled attitude results from my almost absolute faith in the reliability of the vast supercomputer I’m permanently plugged into. It was built with the intelligence of thousands of generations of human minds, and they’re still working at it now. All that human intelligence remains alive in the form of the supercomputer of tools, theories, technologies, crafts, sciences, disciplines, customs, rituals, rules-of-thumb, arts, systems of belief, superstitions, work-arounds, and observations that we call Global Civilisation.
Global Civilisation is something we humans created, though none of us really know how. It’s out of the individual control of any of us — a seething synergy of embodied intelligence that we’re all plugged into. None of us understands more than a tiny sliver of it, but by and large we aren’t paralysed or terrorised by that fact — we still live in it and make use of it. We feed it problems — such as “I want some porridge” and it miraculously offers us solutions that we don’t really understand. What does that remind you of?
Interesting perspective. There’s lots more on this question in the book What to Think About Machines That Think, which includes thoughts from Virginia Heffernan, Freeman Dyson, Alison Gopnik, Kevin Kelly, and dozens of others.
Today’s jam — ok, not a jam exactly but more like marmalade spread on soft white bread — is Music for Real Airports by The Black Dog.
The title of the album is a play on Brian Eno’s Music for Airports:
Airports have some of the glossiest surfaces in modern culture, but the fear underneath remains. Hence this record is not a utilitarian accompaniment to airports, in the sense of reinforcing the false utopia and fake idealism of air travel. Unlike Eno’s Music for Airports, this is not a record to be used by airport authorities to lull their customers. The album is a bittersweet, enveloping and enormously engaging listen. It is ambient, but focused. This is not sonic mush, nor adolescent noise. Nor is it a dance album. Much of the raw material of the album was made in airports over the last three years. While on tour, the Black Dog made 200 hours of field recordings, much of which was processed and combined with new music in the airport itself, waiting for the next flight. This vast amount of content has been slowly distilled into a set of particularly evocative pieces of music.
(via the scissors video)
Bryce Roberts riffs on an idea presented by Zappos founder Tony Hsieh: collision hours.
The idea is called “collision hours” and Tony posits that the success of the [Las Vegas] downtown project hangs on creating spaces to maximize “collisionable” hours.
What is a collision you may be asking? It’s simply colliding with new people and ideas. Sharing your own and being open to others. It’s unfiltered serendipity. Stepping onto the street, or into the cafe, or into the conference and making an effort to collide with as many people and ideas in a designated timeframe. And being open to the possibilities and changes of course that collisions often enact.
It strikes me that maximizing collision hours is not what you want. Per Milton Glaser, just enough is more. One of the secrets in achieving Brian Eno’s concept of scenius might be to find just the right amount of collisions for a given space.
Brian Eno believes that singing is the key to a good life.
Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call “civilizational benefits.” When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.
A list of predictions about the unthinkable future by Kevin Kelly and Brian Eno, made in 1993. This one by Eno isn’t half bad:
A new type of artist arises: someone whose task is to gather together existing but overlooked pieces of amateur art, and, by directing attention onto them, to make them important. (This is part of a much larger theory of mine about the new role of curatorship, the big job of the next century.)
Since my internet access has been somewhat spotty at the conference (I’m trying to pay attention and power is hard to come by here so the laptop is closed most of the time), I’m going to do rolling wrap-ups as I go, skipping around and filling in the blanks when I can. Here we go, soundbite-style:
Alex Steffen: Cars equipped with displays that show gas mileage, when compared to cars without the mileage display, get better gas mileage. That little bit of knowledge helps the driver drive more economically. More visible energy meter displays in the home have a similar effect…people use less energy when they’re often reminded of how much energy they use. (Perhaps Personal Kyoto could help here as well.) At dinner, we discussed parallels between that and eating. Weighing yourself daily or keep track of everything you eat, and you’ll find yourself eating less. In the same way, using a program like Quicken to track your finances might compel you to spend less, at least in areas of your life where you may be spending too much.
Bruce Sterling is the Jesse Jackson of technology. He has this cadence that he gets into, neologism after neologism, stopping just short of suggesting a new word for neologism. Wonderful to experience in person. Perhaps not as upbeat as the Reverend, though.
Bruce also related a story told to him by an engineering professor friend of his. The prof split his class into two groups. The first group, the John Henrys, had to study and learn exclusively from materials available at the library…no internet allowed. The second group, the Baby Hueys, could use only the internet for research and learning…no primary source lookups at the library. After a few weeks, he had to stop this experiment because the John Henrys were lagging so far behind the Baby Hueys that it is was unfair to continue.
Kevin Kelly noted that the web currently has 1 trillion links, 1 quintillion transistors, and 20 exabytes of memory. A single human brain has 1 trillion synapses (links), 1 quintillion neurons (transistors of sorts), and 20 exabytes of memory.
Kelly also said that technology has its own agenda and went on to list what it is that technology might want. One of the things was clean water. You need clean water for industrial manufacturing…so water cleanliness is going to be a big deal in China. In a later talk, Thomas Friedman said, “China needs to go green.”
Hasan Elahi, during his ordeal being mistaken for — what’s the term these days? — an enemy combatant, learned that language translates easier than culture. That is, you can learn how to speak a language fluently way easier than to have the cultural fluency necessary to convince someone you’re a native. In his interrogations, Hasan liberally sprinkled pop culture references in his answers to questions posed by the FBI to help convince them that he was a native. Workers at call centers in India for American companies are not only taught to speak English with an American accent, they also receive training in American geography, history, and pop culture so as to better fool/serve American callers.
“The best laid plans of mice and men turn into a nonlinear system.” — Will Wright, with apologies to Robert Burns.
Speaking of Wright, a couple of Spore trivia bits. The data for a creature in Spore takes up just 3K of memory. And entire world: just 80K. And these worlds are amazingly complex.
Brian Eno: With large groups of people, the sense of shame and the sense of honor that keeps the members of small groups from misbehaving breaks down. The challenge for larger groups is to find ways of making honor and shame matter in a similar respect.
Stewart Brand: “We are terraforming the earth anyway, we might as well do it right.” Stewart also noted that cities are very effective population sinks. When people move to cities, the birthrate drops to the replacement rate (2.1 children per family) and keeps on dropping. Combine that with the fact that by early next year, more people in the world will live in cities than in rural areas, and at some point in the next hundred years, the earth’s population will start to fall.
The Brian Eno/Will Wright session kicked things off quite well at PopTech. Lots of interesting stuff to say about this one, but I quickly wanted to highlight two things that Eno and Wright said independently in their presentations. Eno:
Art is created by artists so that the viewer has the opportunity to create something.
Later, Wright said in relation to games:
The real game is constructed in the player’s head.
Eno started his presentation by wondering about a overall system for describing culture, from high to low. He and Wright may be onto something here in that respect.
Onstage at PopTech just now, Brian Eno said that a musical piece by Steven Reich had a huge influence on how he thought about art. He said that Reich’s piece showed him that:
1. You don’t need much.
2. The composer’s role is to set up a system and then let it go.
3. The true composer is actually in the listener’s brain.
I’d never heard of Reich, but the name sounded familiar when Eno mentioned it. I realized I’d seen it yesterday when reading about Cory Arcangel’s show at Team Gallery in reference to his piece, Sweet 16:
Cory applied American avant-garde composer Steven Reich’s concept of phasing to the guitar intro of Guns and Roses’ track Sweet Child O’Mine. Rather than use instruments, Cory took the same two clips from the song’s music video and shortened one clip by a single note. As the videos loop, the two intros grow farther apart until they are back in sync.
He’s veered away from video games, but Cory’s new work is looking really interesting these days.