Monday, February 21, 2011

Twittering Tunisia, Cloning Cairo

I don't think the world has ever seen anything quite like this: whole populations massing and simultaneously rising up against their governments. It seems like every day there's a new "Facebook" revolution somewhere, with chain-reactions that resemble nothing less than the flocking behavior in birds or the schooling behavior in fish. First Tunisia, then Egypt... Bahrain... Iran... Yemen... Sudan... Jordan... Morocco...and now Libya (where, it seems, the regime will do anything to stay in power, including shooting people in cold blood with heavy-caliber weapons). All of it happening at lightning speed--faster than human brains can comfortably process. Nobody can say for sure who is in charge of the program.

Who would have thought that revolutions could self-replicate like computer viruses, leaping from mind to mind, country to country, propagating out of control? Everything now is so hyped up, it's as if the whole world is in an altered state, while long-term systems suddenly diverge into unpredictable thrashing, or simply collapse because they can no longer support themselves.

Is this what the first stage of the "Singularity" looks like, I wonder? The Singularity, by definition, is that moment "when technological change becomes so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history."

I am quoting here from an article by Lev Grossman in the Feb. 21 issue of Time magazine, describing the potential transformation of our species into something no longer recognizable, which supposedly will happen when computers become much more intelligent than humans. (IBM supercomputer "Watson" already proved its superiority by winning the million-dollar prize on the nightly game-show quiz "Jeopardy" last week.) At some future point, according to Ray Kurzweil, a primary guru of the superhuman "intelligence explosion," organic intelligence will have merged with artificial intelligence in ways that usurp what was once the exclusive realm of human creativity. Kurzweil predicts the culmination of civilization as we know it by 2045, 35 years from now.

So how prepared are you to mutate? (I'm not.) The key idea here seems to reside in the fact that human brains are hardwired for linear progress, whereas technology progresses exponentially, which means that as computers increase in speed and power, they will take over their own development and become more autonomous. By contrast, humans will become ever more dependent, unable to function without their symbiotic connection to technology. Not a good equation, when you really think about it.

Eventually, says Kurzweil, we will do really delicious things like scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software. Things that were once fantasized as science fiction (like the possibility that computers may turn on society and annihilate us) will become absolutely real. "Nae. nae," pleaded the antropologists. "Yeah, yeah," shouted the blonde.

By 2045, Kurzweil estimates that the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of human intelligence that exists today--to the point where Singulatarians "cannot believe you're walking around living your life and watching TV as if the artificial intelligence revolution were not about to erupt and change absolutely everything."

Meanwhile, in case you're worrying about those Facebook and Twitter revolutions convulsing the Middle East, wondering how it will all end, you might want to consider a stint at the three-year-old Singulatarian University, co-founded by Kurzweil and sponsored by NASA and Google, where interdisciplinary courses for graduate students and executives teach you to evaluate the power and speed of computers, and to track the pace of technological progress in the future.

To grasp the way technology affects our perception of reality and even how we think, Joseph Weizenbaum (in his 1976 book "Computer Power and Human Reason") suggests how technologies from the past, like the map and the clock, became part of "the very stuff out of which man builds his world." Once adopted, he argues, technologies tend to become so indispensably integrated with, and mirrored by, neural structures that they can not be abandoned without fatally impairing the whole system, and plunging society into "great confusion and possibly utter chaos."

Blurring the boundary between brains and machines is an "irreversible commitment." Do you know what that means? Once the double doors screech open and cybernetic blurring renders human brains and computers inseparable, we will no longer know for sure who (or what) is doing the programming. By then, however, there will be no going back. The simply and straightforwardly human will have been lost in the confusion. I can only imagine that some people find the prospect of Kurzweil's 2045 a lot more palatable than I do. Luckily, I will be under the sod by then.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Winged Victory of Cairo

Hosni Mubarak is gone. The citizens of Egypt rose up, rallied, and successfully ousted their dictator. And as at other times in history, it was the moral force of non-violence--not terrorism or mindless killing--that bent the arc of history.

In the end, how will it all turn out? Will the Egyptian people be able to continue what they started and find their way to a fledgling democracy? Will they be able to sustain and build, brick by brick, the necessary institutions for legitimate elections, legislatures, and courts? At this point, nobody knows, not even the Sphinx.

"Perhaps the transformation taking place isn't only for Egypt," writes columnist Kathleen Parker, "but for all mankind. Perhaps we are not doomed after all." I couldn't help but think how recent events in Egypt are a huge vote of confidence for the Desmond Tutu philosophy I struggled with way back in November. "...There is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail...[and that] the perpetrators of injustice or oppression...will bite the dust," Tutu has stated this unequivocally, and he truly believes it, so it was thrilling to watch an ideational comment seemingly spring to life, right in front of our eyes.

For Parker, hope presented itself in the form of a single vignette: when unarmed protesters, reacting to Mubarak's refusal speech, raced to his palace and stood in front of the tanks. "It was a stark image of the prolonged battle between good and evil that humans apparently have been fated to fight," she writes. This time, evil did not win.

For me, the iconic moment of hope and victory over evil came later, when fleets of ordinary citizens could be seen, via TV cameras, cleaning up the debris in Tahrir Square after eighteen days of harrowing demonstrations. Men, women, and children were all hard at work sweeping the Square with brooms, hauling bulging black garbage bags, and lovingly repaving the bricks and stones that had been dug up earlier to use as weapons against the police. Most especially for me, the sight of some dozen people carrying aloft the carcass of a burned vehicle with their bare hands had to count as an exemplar of the triumphal human spirit worthy of the Louvre's "Winged Victory," Nike of Samothrace, redrawn for modern times.

My fellow blogger, Andrew Sullivan, who was too ill to man his blog, The Daily Dish, during the past month but is now back at his post, says he can't believe he missed out on a whole revolution. "What I will say," he writes, "is that, as I watched these miracles on television, I found my love of freedom and joy for the people of Egypt and Tunisia (as for the people of Iran) overwhelmed for a few days by my worries about such events spiraling out of control. But revolutions differ in their trajectories. Burke famously opposed the French one and backed the American one. What will make the difference is the character of the people, and the prudence of the statesmen and women who emerge in both countries. And others. In the end, we live in an era where hope is battling fear. Suddenly, hope is winning again. Let us not lose our skepticism. But let us not be intimidated by it either."

At the same time, we have the tide of history interpreted in gibberish by right-wing pundit, Ann Coulter. Like an ill-trained Labrador retriever, she yanks us headlong into traffic: "The way things are going, Obama may want to look into becoming the president of Egypt. Nobody would complain about him being a Muslim then," she said to cheers at the recent Republican CPAC meeting.

Good Lord, what would we do without these succulent Republicans mass-marketing insanity? They continue to illuminate a wider area than that which their maker ever intended. It is sad to think that while Egyptians attempt to establish a viable democracy, our own country is in the mind-boggling, self-destructive process of withdrawing vital government services, encouraging increased pollution, permitting its infrastructure to further decay, fomenting a class warfare not unlike Egypt's, and, bit by bit, letting a real democracy slip away.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Not All Revolutions Are Political

During the same weeks that have borne witness to chaos in Cairo--with the shocking and convulsive events in Tahrir Square aimed at ending the 30-year regime of Hosni Mubarak--in New York, the fashion industry was on a roll. I should immediately point out that not all revolutions are political--and having been turned on recently to the current revolution in fashion by a new young friend, Alex Harrington, I happened to notice in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal, a front-page review on the industry's latest extravaganza: clothes made entirely of FOOD. Unhinging events might be happening in the Middle East that are draining stability right off the planet, but I am going to shock myself and everyone else by writing instead about waffle pants, octopus ski hats, and cabbage dresses.

The fact that we now live in a marketing wonderland of totally surreal objects called "clothes," is for me just another parable for life in "end times." That said, however, the kale collars and cherry necklaces featured in Barney's holiday catalogue are undoubtedly more fun to ponder than what is happening in the Middle East. Maybe it all started when MTV gave its Video Music Award to Lady Gaga, who shocked everyone by wearing a dress and shoes made from strips of flank steak. But if you want to check out this latest fashion phenomenon further, Google "Hunger Pains" on the Internet. It's the title of a photo shoot by Ted Sabarese, documenting the young avant-garde designers who make dresses from chocolate or fresh croissants, create astounding shoulder pads with loaves of challah--or, as in the photo here, invent an evening gown fabricated entirely of artichoke leaves (by Wesley Nault).

As for my new friend Alex, he is a young fashionista living in Brooklyn and working as a stylist. I met him recently at the home of his parents in Roanoke, when he was visiting them over the holidays. We bonded over the fact that I took serious note of his spirallng pants, which, it turns out, came from one of the most esoteric clothing boutiques in New York, Comme des Garcons. Alex now considers me the only person in this entire region who has ever heard of Comme des Garcons. So he then introduced me to an avant-garde English fashion magazine called I-D (as in, "what's your big I-Dea for the decade ahead?) in which his work has been featured. Quite honestly, the combination of creativity with revolutionary outrageousness just knocked me flat. I loved it.

I went through the magazine just now to pick out some examples of what I mean. The first thing you notice is that many of the models have deliberately blackened spaces between their teeth. In one case, a model is on crutches, wearing checkered bloomers and bra, with one leg encased in a plastic see-through cast. Two hydrangea blossoms cover her ears like earmuffs. Another wears an unbuttoned checkered shirt tucked in to a plaster cast (complete with scribbled get-well messages) that covers the rest of her torso. One model is stark naked except for thigh-high macho black boots and a hat. (You have to love it when a fashion magazine features models who don't wear clothes.) And one in which a strand of Mikimoto pearls spills out from a turquoise condom across two pages.

I wrote Alex to ask about the clothes in the shoot he was a part of, because the sweaters are thickly padded, and most of the models have a mysterious, stuffed object protruding from their backs. I wanted to know what on earth that was or was supposed to be (if anythng). Alex told me the styling had been "inspired by the lumps and bumps Comme collection from 1993, with a little Botero and Puritan thrown in for good measure." Everything was stuffed with pillow batting, he explained, to give it that kind of bloated proportion. A lot of stylists and fashion kids, he informs me, are doing more interesting/conceptual things and I-D caters to that audience.

Is it too far-fetched and quirky on my part to connect the interactions between reality and the imagination by making a link between a Middle Eastern political rally and a Western fashion show? Because that's what I regularly tend to do here: exercise my "smell all the flowers" attitude in unlikely ways and see what comes of it. Could there be a connection, do you suppose, between food shortages predicted to worsen in Egypt after years of long bread lines, and those croissant dresses and challah shoulder pads?

Because, if there is a connection, says Virgil, we are in dreadful trouble. But we're already in dreadful trouble, I say.