Are we losing reality?
We live in a century of packaged, delivered, easily-consumed experiences that increasingly simulate reality. There's a lot of fear about this, for the wrong reasons. We are not really losing reality: it's still there. It's there despite a quarter of the global population constantly looking at their screens and thinking about them -- so they're easily fooled by false impressions of those fictional expressions -- but like alcohol, this is understood to be a problematic experience, by almost everyone. Partly this is because the technology is fragile enough, and has a fragile enough hold on us, that it's pretty easy to step away. But, also, reality will always pulls us back.
Our ability to cope with reality still exists, whatever happens, because it is innate. Even in societal collapse, even with a total loss of community memory, it will always be possible to reconstruct the best of humanity. If the world's media, electronic and paper, disappeared tomorrow, people would be able to create new artifacts, new writing, new tools, while they solve the same kind of problems, and while they re-discover the important things. It's happened before, repeatedly.
What's sad is our collective acceptance of simplistic clichés about this moment. One cliché is that, somehow, we "now know more than we ever did", and another is that we are living in "the most luxurious time". To the latter: half of the world lives in poverty, and most of the world lives in precarity. To the former: the limits of our individual abilities, mental or otherwise, limit our collective knowledge. We all have some slice of the larger knowledge-pie, but that doesn't make any single living person better informed than someone a thousand years ago. While there are a few ideas and results, here and there, available now with an internet search (or ten thousand), the operational importance and understanding of those ideas are limited. And to speak for the past: there are other important ideas and developed capacities, which had been discovered repeatedly, which we have completely lost.
The most obvious example of something lost: knowing how to live in harmony with nature. While many of us can envisage such a life, some still live it, and there are cries from the native peoples of this planet pointing out the horrendous, destructive ignorance of modern 'civilization'. But somehow, this message doesn't seem to diminish our hubris regarding how much we "understand the world". In fact, I've heard people say that they've recognized the wisdom of native people, and that this recognition indicates the superior knowledge and wisdom of our age. Modern civilization's clichés are full of such self-congratulatory, patronizing mistakes.
But we are losing everything, and everything we lose contributes to further loss. That's what we need to fear: our clichés disguise our losses, hence accelerating them. The losses are everywhere. As a random example: large libraries in the US, the most powerful country in history, are throwing out books and other unique materials by the truckload, without digitizing them, under increasing economic pressures. Arguments about 'intellectual property' are making it too much trouble to integrate this material with the great conversations of history. Our written records and our artifacts are being erased, demolished, by the forces of capital growth, which consumes everything in nature, and everything people have ever done.
Into this mess of catastrophic loss -- we want to introduce a flood of fake material generated by computers? That's our priority?
We want 'new works' by our own gigantic, mindless, artifacts? People are excited by this? We are allowing this? Encouraging it? Subsidizing it? Everything generated by ChatGPT has less value than the contents of a single honest book produced by a single person. That's because ChatGPT is merely producing a statistical synthesis. It is meaningless, but entertaining or informative when we give it meaning, which is a waste of our own powers. We could be talking to each other instead. Machine-generated media has enough structure to be stimulating, and we've all become increasing stimulus-hungry. But it cannot produce what people, at our best, express when we write or create. We have feelings, we have thoughts, then we find the words, and then we struggle to express ourselves, to convey to other humans something about the human condition, including our explanatory struggles. We're allowing our libraries to throw away all of our genuine work, the blood and sweat of millions of people, while we spend tens of billions of dollars on insanely wasteful machines, in a climate emergency, while we destroy life on earth ... in order to generate boring, empty prose?
Even worse: the astounding waste of resources spent on creating AI tool whose benefits, if any, will never be seen by the vast majority of people. If you had a machine that could cure any disease, who would have access to it? Where are the health systems that would distribute these marvels? We know how to prevent cholera, but there are outbreaks of the disease all over the world now. This is because of the great waste of the world's resources on frivolities for the richest 10% of the global population.
For my fellow computer people -- your mission in life is not "whatever makes money" or "whatever the boss says" or "whatever's fashionable" or even "whatever's exciting". Your mission is to make the world a better place. Everyone's mission is this. It's the definition of life. So, please, stop working on the wrong projects. Get involved in ecological, social, and political improvement, on the ground, in reality ... and then ask yourself which technologies have the potential to help.
February 27, 2023
The machine does not understand our prompts. We are just playing with extremely wasteful toys, as the world burns.
Uncurated statistical modeling doesn't even function for basic transcription work. The automatic speech-to-text tool on YouTube, used on one of the most famous songs in Opera, cannot even detect that it's in Italian ... so it 'hears' Verdi's Rigoletto like a malaprop comedy character: