Fighting the machine

After watching “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, I began to think more about how AI is impacting our lives and communities. While I don’t think it’s as simple as saying “Big Tech is evil,” I believe we are seeing the fruit of a laissez-faire policy around AI.

Digital technologies — and especially the internet — have given large companies the tools to deploy AI as a tool of psychological warfare. Unlike typical warfare, however, the goal is not destruction, but profit. This confuses our pro-business society, because profit is generally considered good.

Besides, in the past (we tell ourselves), people have been able to adapt and learn defenses against disinformation and seductive advertising — the solution is education, not regulation. (Because obviously “regulation” is a dirty word.)

Many years ago, everyone assumed that computers would never be able to beat humans at chess — a game that requires strategic thinking, and intuition. Computers with insight and creativity? Ridiculous.

Yet it turns out it’s possible to simulate some aspects of organic brains, and hone them to a peak of capability unmatched by messy biology. As a result, the number of people in the world who can beat a modern computer at chess is vanishingly small — perhaps only the top 10 in the world. The average person has zero chance.

The folk song “John Henry” tells the legend of a railroad construction worker — presumably the best of the best — who raced against a new-fangled steam-powered drill. In the end, John won the content — and then died of exhaustion and stress.

It’s the perfect metaphor for this unequal battle we find ourselves in. For that machine was not self-existing; there was a human wielding it — and an entire team of humans who designed and manufactured it. John Henry may have won a pyrrhic victory for humanity (huzzah!) but the next day, that team got busy designing the next generation of drills — and the next, and the next.

The idea of a rematch today — a human with a sledgehammer going toe-to-toe with a modern pneumatic jackhammer is quaint — perhaps good for a few laughs and a middling viral video on YouTube.

So why do we think we can match wits with the machines and win? Because in this contest, we won’t even know when we’ve lost.

Violence. Incitement. Empathy.

In a tweet which is now inaccessible, Donald Trump wrote: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

He was, of course, referring to two things: the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021; and the conspiracy that the 2020 was fraudulent.

But he’s partly right: These are the things that happen when folks believe that they have been cheated and betrayed by those in power, and that they have no recourse but violence. In this CNN video, a rioter yells at a reporter: “What are we supposed to do? The Supreme Court’s not helping us. No one’s helping us!” The mob built a gallows and chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” Why? Because Pence betrayed Trump — and them — by failing to overturn the election.

If any of them broke laws, they need to face justice. Period.

But can we have empathy for them? Yes, I think we should. It’s easy to isolate them as extremists and “not true Trump supporters,” as some are trying to do. Some are trying to place the blame on the Antifa boogeyman. But many — if not most — of these folks appear to be typical Trump supporters whose biggest mistake is placing their trust in Trump. Trump (and his enablers) have been feeding them a steady diet of conspiracy theories in which they are the good guys, and a bunch of very bad, very powerful people have illegally — illegally! — stolen the election from them. The Supreme Court didn’t stop this illegal activity, the RINOs in George didn’t stop it, Mike Pence didn’t stop it. The rhetoric goes further: “This is our 1776 moment” posted a George rep. “Let’s have trial by combat!” said Rudy Guiliani at a rally just before the riot.

These folks have been told for decades that they need to horde guns and be ready to overthrow the government. That they are the only true Patriots, standing against corrupt encroaching liberalism. What are these folks supposed to think and believe and do? How can we be surprised when they take this message seriously and then act on it?

So let’s stop for a moment and look at the demonstrations — and yes, riots — that occurred earlier this year. The protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, and yet a great deal of violence did occur. There was rioting and looting by the protesters, by some bad actors, and also unnecessary violence by law enforcement.

We cannot excuse violence and lawbreaking, no matter who is doing it. Period. (Though we do need fewer, fairer, and more consistently enforced laws.)

But again, as Trump said, these are things that happen when people believe they are being betrayed and oppressed by those in power.

And in this case, there is ample evidence that people of color are badly treated by the justice system in our nation. There are studies that show that incarceration rates are significantly higher for poorer folks than for rich; and even higher for people of color for exactly the same crime. Our so-called War on Drugs has punished users of cannabis, who were overwhelmingly black, even though cannabis is a far less dangerous drug than alcohol. Systemic racism is real, and does not require the racism to be intentional, or the people enforcing it to themselves be racists.

There is, of course, plenty of debate on this topic, with scholarly articles (mostly by white people) debunking the idea of white privilege and systemic racism. But it is impossible to deny that people of color perceive it and believe it.

Great civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis went to great lengths to protest peacefully. And given that people of color are so angry — and have been angry for a very long time — it’s all the more impressive that so little violence occurs. Because these folks are not being handed a conspiracy theory — they are living it.

It’s not enough to disown the “lawbreakers.” They have crossed a line, for sure, but the question is: What has pushed them to cross that line? How many more are really close to that line? If we do not pay attention to this, we will fail to learn anything from these events.

Because we all need empathy, and we all need to have empathy for others. Only with empathy can we create peace.

Fare well, old friend

I don’t remember the first day we met, Greg, but I know it was in fifth grade when I needed a friend. I think we became fast friends because we were both a bit weird and very nerdy.

On the playground in fifth grade, we asumed ourselves by coming up with innovative ways to curse. I remember us both laughing uproariously after a particularly long and creative string of invective. That didn’t last long though, and it’s a good thing our parents never found out.

My fondest memories are the comic strips we used to write together about The Adventures of Thomas Edison. They were inexplicably set in present day, and Edison was more of a James Bond with lots of vehicles and gadgets than an inventor. We also had very different styles, so the two sets of strips were really like two alternate universes. Mine were more concerned with architecture and realistic design (For one thing, I carefully crafted a large-screen conference room for remote meetings.) Yours were less concerned about detail and more with fantastic (and silly) stories and characters.

The details are fuzzy now, but I also remember The Nimmoscotian, a submarine that we designed. We created screens and control panels on paper and put them on the walls of your room, then acted out adventures as we piloted the submarine through ocean depths.

Somehow, along with Leon Stratikis (also of blessed memory), we started a really terrible “band” called Sky High, and recorded several albums of dismal quality. (Mom’s Tupperware standing in as a drum set is the most vivid recollection.) Somehow we actually got booked to play at a club — I don’t remember how, why, or who on earth thought that was a good idea.

When your parents divorced, I could see your pain and struggles, but I didn’t know how to help. Today, forty-plus years later, I am well acquainted with trauma and I can see how we were both shaped by them. Sometimes I wonder if you remained in Chicago in an attempt to start fresh.

Being so distant after college, we mostly lost touch. I do regret not doing more to keep up with your life, Greg. But I was starting a family and on my own journey of questioning, loss, trauma, depression, anxiety — and yes, healing, a renewed faith, and a measure of peace. I hope your journey was also healing.

I always thought we would be able to reconnect in our later years, when pressing responsibilities had lessened. I assumed we would reminisce together, laugh at our ridiculous childhood antics, and share deeply about our lives. I’m going to grieve for a while that that will never happen.

Fare well, my old friend. I love you.

Rob Scott

September 24, 2020

The Flood: a depression journey

Before the flood, my valley was beautiful.
Then the rains began, harder than they ever had before.
The waters rose quickly, and I could barely hold my own against the rush.
The flood raged and swept me away. I flailed to keep my head above the surface and began to despair of life.
Miraculously, I was swept against a staircase that rose from the flood. I had just enough strength to climb the slippery steps.
Somehow I reached the top — and the rain had stopped. The sun just began to show through the clouds, and I felt that I could rest. Surely the worst was over.
As the floodwaters receded, I descended the stairs. I was grieved to find that everything beautiful in my valley was dead and decaying.
Worse, everywhere lay jagged piles of debris that scratched and poked me if I got too close. I grieved the valley I had once known, realizing that it was gone forever.
After I wept, I began to look around me and see that life was starting to return. Even in the wreckage and rot, there was beauty to be found. I began to accept the new normal of my valley, and accepted the task of tending and nurturing it for the next season.

Undone by undone

This is a series of thoughts about Season One of the TV series undone. Rating: TV-MA. Content warnings: Language, car accidents, suicide. It assumes you have already watched the series, and contains spoilers for Season One.

Alma knows her life is a mess, and is hoping for a quick fix. They never happen.

She ends up learning to connect to the world.

This is the true journey, not the magical poof! that solves all problems and erases a painful past. In the final scene, she hopes to see her father emerge, but — I believe — instead sees a glorious sunrise over the ancient temple. Her father will not appear, but now she is is on a new journey toward wholeness.

Jacob, her father — at least the one in her head — has a different journey. At first, as in life, he’s very driven, single-minded, and driven to accomplish his objective. He feels fully justified in lying and unethical behavior for the greater good. He has no doubt that he is (and was) the “good guy.”

In one moment, he realizes that he was not the hero he thought he was. His response is despair; to give up.

Despite all of his research — and even some practice of — spiritual connection, he remains a typical Western detached thinker. Untouched and unmoved, he sees all as a means to an end.

Since he is physically dead, Jacob’s journey becomes Alma’s. She, too, begins to see that she was not “the good guy.” But she now has an opportunity to grow and move toward wholeness.

In her mind, her father’s trajectory has changed; he has now made the choice to stay rather than leave. She is beginning to make the same choice.

She is at peace with the end of her father’s journey, because it means closure — like two streams merging to create a third, more rich and robust.

She had been living under the burden of her father’s absence (betrayal? neglect?) and it was a convenient excuse for her failing life.

She has had these two journeys going on in her head for 17 years, both denying and trying to integrate them. It took the crisis of the car accident to show her that this journey was not healthy or sustainable — if she didn’t deal with these two broken streams, she would continue in this pattern forever.

Was all this “just” schizophrenia? Probably. But as we watch Alma we see how the inner landscape is a real part of us. Does it happen in her head? Yes, but so does everything, for all of us. Our somatic, subjective interpretation of the past and present is reality.

The presence of mental illness doesn’t mean we can just discard and disregard everything we experience. Our lived experience is our journey. Like a human trying to ride an elephant, we don’t have control so much as influence over the journey.

Jacob trains Alma for his own goals, and Alma learns. But Alma integrates the training in a way that Jacob never could. She uses it intuitively to train the elephant, to guide her inner self.

So while she is outwardly still hoping for a magical fix, inwardly she knows that it’s the long journey that counts. She ends at peace with the messiness to come.

Everything is creating you

Thoughts on Remergence by Alyssa Coffin.

In my earlier days as a Christian, I would often hear sanctification described as an art metaphor: I was a block of stone and God was chipping away everything that didn’t look like Christ. As if we were all merely passive rocks, and our differing shapes and sizes made no difference — each and every sculpture had to be identical.¹

I also heard salvation described as the “good” flip side of demonic possession — we were to be “possessed” by God’s spirit.

These metaphors seem to reduce humans to raw materials; or broken and faulty devices which can only be “fixed” by remaking/remolding them according to the Platonic blueprint². Very either/or.

Instead, it seems to me that the true image/incarnation of Christ is in infinite expressions of beauty. Both/and. Everyone and everything is gloriously beautiful, but also often twisted and poisoned.

In this view, sanctification is pruning and healing, to better bring out the unique beauty that is Christ incarnate. Unique and diverse, not a single Platonic “perfect” expression. A divine wholeness that incorporates weakness and imperfections.

As Richard Rohr says, “God loves all things by becoming them.” The incarnation wasn’t a one-and-done thing. Christ is creating everything.

And Christ in everything is creating you.³

¹ I actually think this can be a decent metaphor, but we have a tendency to take our metaphors too far and too literally.

² Christian thought has been significantly influenced by Ancient Greek philosophy. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but we do need to be aware of pitfalls in taking it too far.

³The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr

Is it any wonder?

Is it any wonder that Western Christianity is failing? Since the Enlightenment we’ve been trying to prove that the Bible is 100% true, inerrant, and infallible — in the historical/scientific sense. A good example of this, of course, is Answers in Genesis. But it has crept into our church culture in more subtle ways.

Years ago, a Christian classical school opened in our city and we were very excited because we believed strongly in the trivium — the three-fold path of learning that follows the developmental process of the child. They also believed in Sola Scriptura, but what harm could that do?

Too slowly, however, we realized that there was a deeper worldview at work: the “clear teachings” of the Bible superseded any fallible human knowledge.  Psalm 51:5 says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” then clearly all negative behavior in an infant or toddler is sinful and must be punished. The headmaster of the school would slap his infant’s hands when he threw food off his high chair. They paid lip service to child development, but clearly regarded it as suspect in the light of original sin and total depravity.

We finally left the school, but not until a great deal of damage had been done to our children’s faith.

In this worldview, there is no such thing as interpretation; the Bible is extremely clear on almost every topic. Any human knowledge that contradicts it is therefore immediately suspect if not obviously ideologically motivated. The very idea that we may need to periodically re-examine our interpretation of the Bible is liberalism, secular humanism, and so on.

In this way, Western Christianity has reduced the Bible to a set of flat cerebral statements of fact to be accepted, instead of a majestic story that can penetrate us to the heart and transform us from the inside out.

Over centuries — and especially since the Enlightenment — we have gathered a great quantity of scientific and historical knowledge about the cosmos, the history of our planet, and the human psyche.  Not surprisingly, this knowledge has diverged from what a “flat reading” of the Bible tells us. There are even fringe groups that still believe in a flat earth and physical firmament! Even the hard-core Young Earth Creationists disavow them, though they must use impressive mental gymnastics to explain why their own beliefs are so different. And why do they believe this? Scriptural authority.

Like most younger people, our children have grown up in a post-Enlightenment culture, and accept the scientific consensus on global warming, evolution, the age of the earth, and so on. When they encounter the Bible — and Jesus — in this environment, they see nothing but an rigid alternate reality. This alternate reality claims that it has never changed; that it based on God’s unchanging, perfect, inerrant, and infallible Word.

And yet, history proves them wrong; during the American Civil War, many churches believed that slavery was acceptable because of Scriptural authority. In our own city, many church splits took place because of this. But now, you will be hard-pressed to find a church that believes the Bible justifies slavery. Why? Our interpretation changed. But could our current interpretation be incorrect? Of course not, because we aren’t interpreting.

These younger folks are faced with this rigid alternate reality, plus the history that puts the lie to it. Is it any wonder that they reject the whole affair?

Toxic faith environment

A toxic faith environment — like any toxic environment — doesn’t mean that all (or even most of) the people in it are deliberately evil.

For example, when I was immersed in the evangelical church, I heard a lot about how sad our post-Christian culture was. So many couples are in counseling — they just need Jesus! So many people are depressed — they just need Jesus! And so on.

Then I became “one of those people” who was depressed. What had my environment taught me? That I obviously wasn’t trusting Jesus enough. That I never had trusted Jesus enough. But I couldn’t do it myself, I just had to “Let go and let God,” but apparently I wasn’t even doing that. Then there was the inevitable guilt because of my inability to apparently even let go.

I’m sure the people in my church were well-intentioned — after all, I’m not saying that people don’t need Jesus. But a subtle (or not-so-subtle) American individualism underlies much of its teaching. When I realized I was broken, my instinct was to blame myself and not to press into community.  I heard that community telling me that Jesus Himself would fix me.

I realize now that I should have known that we all are healed together in community as the body of Christ. Why didn’t I then?

Ex Nihilo: Why it’s okay to throw away code – CodeStock 2018

I gave this talk at CodeStock 2018. Some of the slides are (semi) original artwork, inspired by ReverentGeek and Schlock Mercenary.

Watch the video of the talk here, or view the slides here.

If you have suggestions on how I could improve the talk, please contact me! My Twitter handle is @spamagnet.

… and yes, I need to stop saying, “But here’s the thing.”

Abtract

Managers often have a bad reaction to hearing developers say that they need to throw away or rewrite code. Source code is expensive, taking hours/weeks/months/years of painstaking work to develop and maintain. “Why couldn’t we have done it right the first time?” “Is there any way to salvage the code and reuse it somewhere else?”

This comes from a faulty view of code as the end product; in reality, the end product is the service that the code provides.

To illustrate this, take an extended construction metaphor. When constructing a house or commercial building, the blueprint is a fairly minor part of the cost. You don’t want to scrimp or cut corners on the blueprint because you run the risk of far more expensive problems during the construction phase.

In software, however, the construction (build) phase is nearly free. Not only that, but a newly built “house” can be duplicated and deployed as many times as you like.

Semi-original artwork for CodeStock talk

In a couple of weeks, I’m giving a talk at CodeStock 2018 called Ex Nihilo: Why it’s okay to throw away code. It’s based on an extended analogy of software as a city — but a city built by nanobots out of nothing in a digital post-scarcity environment.

I wanted some fun, engaging slides — and what better nanobot design than Howard Tayler’s from Schlock Mercenary? (If you haven’t heard of it, and you’re a science fiction fan, set aside a block of 8-10 hours to read it. You have been warned.)

I contacted them, and Sandra Tayler graciously gave me permission to use the nanobot designs. Many thanks to Howard and Sandra!

Without further ado, here are my first imperfect pieces of art featuring the nanobots:

If you want to know the context, you’ll have to come to my talk at CodeStock. (I might post a video afterwards.)