Who gets the praise in our society? The individual, of course.
Who deserves the praise in our society?i That’s a little more complicated. It’s said that behind every great man is a great woman, but this observation is perhaps even more generalisable: holding together every great society is not simply great individuals, but also great glue.
So what is glue? It’s the tether for our balloons, the strong nuclear force between our quarks, and the mortar between the bricks that allow us to build towers to the heavens, but glue unfortunately doesn’t get the praise it (arguably) deserves in our increasingly atomised and individualistic society. We’re all bowling alone, to borrow a phrase from Robert D. Putnam, but who puts the pins back up after we knock them down? This is an important question not only for our builder-averse western culture, but also for the builder-focused crypto-culture that’s emerging from the shadow of the leviathan.ii
Yes, machines and digital communications allow us to decentralise much of the glue in our interconnected and networked society, but people aren’t to be ignored in this calculus, not least of all because someone needs to install and maintain all the routers, cables, and servers underpinning the scaffolding. So even after we’re all diddling mixed-reality cubesiii and astrally projecting our kitchen designs to our architects without ever lifting a pencil,iv we’ll still need glue. We’ll still need people at the behind the scenes equipping the Icaruses with emergency ‘chutes.v Indeed, it’s not as easy as we think to tease apart the insignificant from the significant – the Cain from the Abel – as Rabbi Zohar Atkins reminds us in his recent piece “You Can’t Take It With You” (archived):
The first two children in the Torah are Cain and Abel. Cain, the firstborn, whose name means acquisition, repeats what his parents do—he tills the soil. Abel (Hevel), whose name means “fleeting” discovers a new trade; he becomes a shepherd. How did he know one could become a keeper of livestock? A cursory glance at Biblical anthropology suggests the second born is less influenced by tradition than the first born. The priest is a rule follower, to be sure, yet the rule he follows is contrarian. Priests don’t own property. They do not buy into the same prideful illusions as everyone else.
Ecclesiastes begins, havel havelim, hakol havel. “Fleeting, fleeting, everything is fleeting.” The usual translations parse hevel as vanity or futility. The word is Abel’s name, the name juxtaposed with Cain’s. “Everything is fleeting” is an insight possessed by those who are themselves Abel-like, which, I am offering, means priest-like.
A quick rendering into self-help speak of Ecclesiastes 1 is something like “You can’t take it with you.” No amount of worldly glory or achievement will matter in the end. The Judge of Judges, as it were, won’t care much about any of the things on our resumes. Death has the final word in response to all our pursuits. But you can also read the text another way. Hakol means the entirety of the spiritual kingdom, all the profundities of heaven—it, too, is vanity, is fleeting, ethereal. Insight is granted to us only insofar as we aren’t attached to it. Just as we can’t take material possessions with us into the world of spirit, we can’t take spiritual insights with us into the world of matter. We can’t take true enlightenment to earth, can’t preserve our epiphanies in language. Soon, this d’var will end. A new word will be needed. But this is a positive thing. That which is like Abel is the source of discovery and difference. Cain energy is technically impressive, but creatively stale. The risk of the priest is that he becomes complacent, bringing a sacrifice because “that’s what one does.”
Let’s say that Cain (first born) and Abel (second born, substitute) are two aspects of the self; that our natural inclination is to kill the part of ourselves that just is in favor of the part of ourselves that has something to prove, to boast, to accomplish. What need do we have for our sheer existence when there is so much to do? But when we do this—when we kill our inner Abel, our simple shepherd—God retorts “the voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me.” That is, “I, God, want your fleetingness, your sheer existence. It is only apparently insignificant. You thought it had no body, nothing of substance. But behold, it is very much alive. Here is its blood.” Less allegorically put, the priests have an important task even as they apparently are cut off from the “practical” folks. They could have been “chosen ones,” they could have been “doers,” but in not pursuing what society tells them they should, they mirror for everyone the possibility of greater agency and freedom.
So it is that our “significance” is ultimately insignificant too. Or maybe it’s all significant? We can hardly be sure a priori! All we can know is that any attempts by the current échafaudage of post-post-modernity to identify the useful from the useless is ultimately misleading, probably maliciously so.
This will certainly be the case for as long as we see the world as anything other than what it fundamentally is – numbers and information – a journey towards enlightenment that will almost certainly take decades if not centuries. Neuroscience aspires to square the circle of this inconvenient truth – that life is computation – but it’s lagging behind genetics by 70 years and counting. Still, the seeds have been planted, as Join Activism outlines in “Is This the Most Interesting Idea in All of Science?” (archived):
It’s basically impossible to get neuroscientists to pay any attention to what behavioral scientists have discovered in the last 50 years about the simplest forms of “associative” learning. Information-theory plays no role in the search for the engram. And no role in computational neuroscientists’ efforts to model Pavlovian/instrumental learning.
But the lessons from molecular biology should not be ignored—“information” (in the sense that physicists and communications-engineers use the term) was discovered to be the foundation of life.
The search for the engram doesn’t include the notion of a code. But the notion of a code is at the core of information-theory and molecular biology.
And computational theorists never attempt to specify what the code might be that makes it possible to store a fact. They theorize about the material substance of the engram, but they don’t ask what code might enable that substance to encode a simple fact. A simple fact like how long it takes to boil an egg.
We rarely think about simple quantitative facts, but our knowledge of them constantly shapes our everyday behavior. These facts are simple because you can represent them with single numbers.
The logical/arithmetic manipulation of numbers is the foundation of any effective computing-machine. Psychologists and other cognitive scientists have come to understand in the last 50 years that brains are dazzlingly-good computational machines. This transformative insight is called the computational theory of mind.
The key to an effective computational machine is its memory—the place where the facts are stored. No memory can store a fact without a code. And all codes are written in numbers (as communications-engineers understand). It’s numbers all the way down in any computing-machine.
So the logical first goal in what will be a long, long, long scientific enterprise is to find the engram itself—the gene-equivalent substance that stores the information. The engram differs functionally from a gene only in that it stores acquired information, whereas genes store inherited information. If we could discover the physical realization of the gene, we can also find the physical realization of the engram. But to find that we have to understand that the function of the engram is to store information in the scientific sense of that word. We are looking for something that has the same function as the bit-registers in a conventional computing-machine.
Who could’ve predicted that Rashi (and his fellow ancients) would’ve been so far ahead of the curve?vi It’s a big data world out there and it’s never really been otherwise. It’s just that we’re only now starting to build the analytical tools to make sense of it all (and no technical analysis doesn’t count – that’s still charlatanism).
We have much to learn… and unlearn… on the winding road ahead, but keeping it all together is the quiet, unglamourous glue. So tip your waitress, and sure, why not, try the veal.
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- I’m not typically one to shout about people “deserving” this, that, or the other, but bear with me here. I have a point to make! ↩
- If you follow Balaji Srinivasan, which you should, you’ll have heard his thesis on The Network Union (archived), that which evolutionarily precedes The Network State. His thesis is eerily reminiscent of the Apple Newton-esque efforts of TMSR~, which I’d be shocked if Balaji wasn’t familiar with (and even more shocked if he ever said so publicly). The crypto-networked geographically-independent future is also, how shall we say, completely inevitable. ↩
- As Microsoft is currently developing with their HoloLens 2 (archived). ↩
If a network like Dall-E could be trained to use brain data instead of text as an input, it could likely take even the faintest patterns of brain activation and determine the exact mental picture that a person was holding in their mind’s eye. Doing this would require capturing a large amount of training data — asking people to imagine millions of different photos while recording their brain signals for the network to analyze. If this data gathering could be done — and generative networks continue to improve — it’s conceivable that a noninvasive consumer-level brain interface could read accurate pictures from your head within a decade.
If that happens, the implications would be massive. Artistic and design-based fields would transform dramatically. Imagine being able to think of your vision for the perfect kitchen (or the perfect user interface for your startup’s app) and have a computer transform your ideas into a realistic photo. You could hand off the photo to an architect or developer and have your dream space built to your exact, imagined specifications.
- There’s a reason that Atlas Shrugged reads like “exit porn,” because that’s exactly what it is. So just as the pizza delivery boy isn’t actually going to fuck your hot wife, we’re not actually going to have a society of just geniuses. ↩
- See also the semitic roots of the word for “Eve” (as in Adam and Eve) translating to “snake,” implying an animist myth that aligns rather neatly with our contemporary framings of “reptile brains” when referring to the cerebellum, hypothalamus, and brain stem. ↩