Wednesday, January 28, 2015

J. Hillis Miller on the future of the profession

A spectacular example of this sort of thing is the State University at Albany where an administrator closed Jewish studies, French, German, and Russian studies. He just closed them arbitrarily because he had the power to do that and wanted to use the money otherwise. My advice to Albany—not to any of you, it’s your own business what you do—would have been to tell the English Department at Albany to take this as an opportunity to sit around together and concoct a new programme which would not be called the English Department but something like ‘Teaching How to Read Media’ or ‘Understanding Media’. This new department would include Film Studies and also include all those other language programs, so students could read literature and theory in the original. You’ve got to know German to read Heidegger or Adorno properly, French to read Derrida or Baudrillard. So rescue the languages as part of this programme! I don’t know whether it would work. You could at least try. You could say, ‘We’re teaching students essential skills in how to live in this world of new media. We’re teaching them how to read television ads and political ads and not to be so bamboozled so easily by the lies they tell’. Television ads have a complex rhetoric, which I have begun to study. At Lancaster I gave one example. In the United States NBC Television News shows every night over and over again from night to night an ad sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute. The speaker on the screen is not an oil tycoon, the people who are making billions. It’s a very charming young woman. She comes out on the screen, accompanied by brilliant graphics, and says ‘I have good news for you. We have enough oil and gas, especially if we accelerate fracking (which is the extraction of gas from shale), to last for another 100 years. We’ll produce millions of jobs. This is the solution’. What she doesn’t say of course is that fracking will accelerate climate change and pollute the ground water where fracking is done. There soon won’t be any New York City left, not to speak of my house in Deer Isle Maine, or most of Florida. So, it’s a lie, the ad is a lie, a gross lie. But it’s very persuasive. The speaker is a woman, an attractive woman, persuasive, a very good actress. The argument is not made by the actual people who are doing this fracking. Sometimes such ads show bearded intellectual-looking engineers doing some of the talking. They too are part of our ideology of the good guys.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Computing and the Mind: ‘Top-down’ Isn’t Natural

Just a short note.

This thought may well be tucked away somewhere in one of my posts (HERE?), but I want it here where I can readily find it.

Over the last half-century or so much has been made of the idea that the mind/brain is computational in nature. But what kind of computation?

By ‘top-down’ I mean most of the programs written for digital computers. I don’t have any very specific way of characterizing that style, or family of styles, but what I’m thinking is that programs in that style can only be constructed a programmer who has a ‘transcendental’ relationship to the program and its intended application.

The word ‘transcendental’ is a philosopher’s word and by it I mean that the programmer exist outside the program and the computer and can inspect each more or less at will. This transcendental relationship allows the programmer to design data structures and patterns of control and operation that would be inconceivable any other way. What I’m thinking is that there ought to be a way of proving this mathematically.

Obviously, I’m not up to that job as I lack the technical skills.

The sort of thing I’ve got in mind is what’s implicit in, for example, Dan Dennett asserting that memes are like apps. Well, the programmer who writes an app has a transcendental relationship to the platform he’s writing for and the language he’s using. But there is no programmer to write a meme, something that Dennett knows perfectly well. Thus the analogy papers over the fact that we haven’t got the foggiest idea how a meme could get ‘written.’ In using this analogy Dennett is, in effect, call for a skyhook.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Some varieties of the artist, and a deflation

William Deresiewicz has a piece about art and artists in The Atlantic that is both interesting and suspicious: The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur. What's interesting is the capsule history of conceptions of artists and their art. What's suspicious is Deresiewicz's sense that he is somehow more in the know that you or I and that he is above it all. He's that kind of guy.

The capsule history goes from artisan, to artist, to professional. The artisan conception held up through the 17th century. Artisans were makers, craftsmen:
A whole constellation of ideas and practices accompanied this conception. Artists served apprenticeships, like other craftsmen, to learn the customary methods (hence the attributions one sees in museums: “workshop of Bellini” or “studio of Rembrandt”). Creativity was prized, but credibility and value derived, above all, from tradition. In a world still governed by a fairly rigid social structure, artists were grouped with the other artisans, somewhere in the middle or lower middle, below the merchants, let alone the aristocracy. Individual practitioners could come to be esteemed—think of the Dutch masters—but they were, precisely, masters, as in master craftsmen. The distinction between art and craft, in short, was weak at best. Indeed, the very concept of art as it was later understood—of Art—did not exist.
Underline that last sentence. It is very important. Not the least because Art (capital "A") is what Deresiewicz himself believes in, though he can't quite bring himself to say so. It is, in fact, the default concept in use today and underlies the rest.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Studies in plastic and light




Superstition and uncertainty

I've recently been arguing that cultural evolution is driven by anxiety, by uncertainty That is, over the long term, and in the aggregate, that is what motivates the creation and adoption of new cultural patterns. Medical Express reports a recent study demonstrating the role of uncertainty in superstition:
It might be a lucky pair of socks, or a piece of jewelry; whatever the item, many people turn to a superstition or lucky charm to help achieve a goal. For instance, you used a specific avatar to win a game and now you see that avatar as lucky. Superstitions are most likely to occur under high levels of uncertainty. Eric Hamerman at Tulane University and Carey Morewedge at Boston University have determined that people are more likely to turn to superstitions to achieve a performance goal versus a learning goal... Performance goals are when people try to be judged as successful by other people. "For example, if I'm a musician, I want people to applaud after I play. Or if I'm a student, I want to get a good grade," explains lead author Eric Hamerman. Performance goals tend to be extrinsically motivated, and are perceived to be susceptible to influence from outside forces. Learning goals are often judged internally. "For example, a musician wants to become competent as a guitar player and perceive that he/she has mastered a piece of music," Hamerman says. Since learning goals are intrinsically motivated, this leads to a perception that they are also internally controlled and less likely to be impacted by outside forces.
I note that "performance anxiety" is a well-known phenomenon.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Culture, the Humanities, and the Evolution of Geist

Alex Mesoudi’s 2011 book, Cultural Evolution, says little or nothing about the humanities, about music, art, and literature, though it purports to be synthetic in nature (its subtitle: “How Darwinian Theory can Explain Human Culture & Synthesize the Social Sciences”). There is a simple reason for that: humanists have shown little or no interest in evolutionary studies of culture. There is no humanistic work for him to include in his synthesis.

There are obvious things one could say about this, but the most important thing to say at this point is simple: the neglect of evolutionary thinking by humanists is stupid and shortsighted. It must stop. At the same time I note that Mesoudi doesn’t seem dismayed by this situation; he doesn’t even note it. He’s not dismayed by the lack of literary studies (other than work on the phylogeny of manuscripts), musicology, and art history. It’s as though such things are not important aspects of culture. Likewise: stupid and shortsighted.

I don’t know if and when this will stop. While it seems obvious to me that digital humanists should be investigating evolutionary thought, they are skittish about it. To some extent that is probably a side effect of their odd disciplinary situation: high-visibility, even funding, but skepticism from more traditional humanists. It’s bad enough that they’ve gone over to the dark side and are using computers, but to think in evolutionary terms…the horror! the horror!

Again: stupid and shortsighted.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking about the work I’ve done with Matthew Jockers’ Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History. While Jockers has explicitly rejected evolutionary thinking I’ve reinterpreted it in evolutionary terms. If I am right in this, then it is one of the most impressive bodies of empirical work that has been done on cultural evolution. In particular, the work he did under the rubric of investigating literary evolution may qualify as a contribution to evolutionary thinking in general and not just to cultural evolution.

For that work demonstrates the evolution of the 19th century novel is directional. The directionality of evolution is an important general topic and, within biology is, of course, highly problematic–for reasons I find obscure and insufficient (see a paper David Hays and I wrote, A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity). Jockers' convincing demonstration that for at least a century the English language novel evolved in a direction is thus striking. Of course, that’s my interpretation of what Jockers demonstrated, not his. But he did the study, so the demonstration is his.

Time and Space and the City

The Benedictine monk Aidan Kavanagh, who straddled two worlds as both a monk and a Yale divinity professor, proposes that we understand the Church as originally and centrally an urban phenomenon. He translates civitas as “workshop” and “playground,” the space in which social, philosophical, and even scientific questions are worked out by humans in contact with their God, “the locale of human endeavor par excellence.”

By the fifth century A.D., Christian worship in the great cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople had become not just one service, but an “interlocking series of services” that began at daybreak with laudes and ended at dusk with lamp-lighting and vespers. Only the most pious participated in all the services, but everyone participated in some. The rites “gave form not only to the day itself but to the entire week, the year, and time itself,” says Kavanagh.

Perhaps just as important as the transformation of time was the transformation of space, for the mid-morning assemblages and processions appropriated the entire neighborhood as space for worship. Participants met in a designated place in some neighborhood or open space, and proceeded to the church designated for the day, picking up more participants as they went, and “pausing here and there for rest, prayer, and more readings from the Bible.” The Eucharist itself was a “rather rowdy affair of considerable proportions,” kinetic and free of stationary pews.
Let me underline the remark about time: The rites “gave form not only to the day itself but to the entire week, the year, and time itself,” says Kavanagh.

FDR Skate Park in Philadelphia

20141227-_IGP1705 EQ EXP CRVS

FDR is one of the largest DIY skate parks in the world, and is legendary in the skate boarding world. I took those photographs on December 27 and 28, 2014.


There are scads of photos of FDR on the internet, and a quick look will tell you that it wasn't always covered in graffiti. But it's the graffiti that drew me there this time around.


As the name indicates, it's at the south end of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park underneath the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Expressway in south Philadelphia. Train tracks are thirty yards away, and then there's the naval yard.



As far as I know, the place is always under construction:

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Boss, WTF! But it becomes more compelling in season 2

I was browsing through Netflix looking for another show to watch. Boss, a grim and grimy political drama from 2011-2012, starring Kelsey Grammer as Tom Kane, corrupt mayor of Chicago, looked interesting. I’d enjoyed House of Cards and I like Kelsey “Fraser Crane” Grammer. So I started watching it.

My basic reaction after the first two or three shows, well after the first show if you must know, was: WTF! I thought House of Cards put politics in a bad light, but this! If one were to go through each series counting up the acts of humiliation, brutality, deception, double-crossing, and murder, I don’t know how the two shows would line up. But Boss just felt worse, though it’s been awhile since I’ve watched any episodes of House of Cards. Maybe it’s that Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood seemed a bit more likeable, though he actually murdered a woman with his own hands, which Tom Kane hasn’t yet done. Who knows?

And then there’s plausibility, which is a peculiar consideration. I understand that politics is brutal, that corruption is real, but this? And the thing is, I don’t know how to judge such things. I’ve never been inside a corrupt big-city political machine so I have little life experience against which to judge what Boss is showing me. I mean, like, I’ve just watched Marco Polo, where the Great Khan executed men by having them trampled by horses, where Marco was forced to brand his father’s hand, where a Chinese ruler broke a young girl’s feet; and I just watched a movie where King John ordered a baron’s hands and feet chopped off, and then had his carcass thrown over a wall; but Boss seemed more brutal even than that.

But it’s not the physical brutality; it’s the moral brutality.

In the first episode we learn that Mayor Kane has a degenerative neural disorder that will kill him in three to five years. Whatever he’s doing, he’s working against that. And yet it almost seemed pasted on, not really organic to the plot and plotting. Certainly Kane had been brutal and corrupt before the disease.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The sky opens up


The mind is computational, in an extended sense

AI, invented by computer scientists, lived long with the conceit that the mind was "just computation" - and failed miserably. This was not because the idea was fundamentally erroneous, but because "computation" was defined too narrowly. Brilliant people spent lifetimes attempting to write programs and encode rules underlying aspects of intelligence, believing that it was the algorithm that mattered rather than the physics that instantiated it. This turned out to be a mistake. Yes, intelligence is computation, but only in the broad sense that all informative physical interactions are computation - the kind of "computation" performed by muscles in the body, cells in the bloodstream, people in societies and bees in a hive. It is a computation where there is no distinction between hardware and software, between data and program; where results emerge from the flow of physical signals through physical structures in real-time rather than from abstract calculations; where the computation continually reconfigures the computer on which it is occurring (an idea central to GEB!) The plodding, sequential, careful step-by-step algorithms of classical AI stood no chance of capturing this maelstrom of profusion, but that does not mean that it cannot be captured!
This "embodied" view of the mind has several important consequences. One of these is to revoke the idea of "intelligence" as a specific and special capability that resides in human minds. Rather, intelligence is just an attribute of animal bodies with nervous systems: The hunting behavior of the spider, the mating song of the bird and the solution of a crossword puzzle by a human are all examples of intelligence in action, differing not in their essence but only in the degree of their complexity, which reflects the differences in the complexity of the respective animals involved. And just as there is a continuum of complexity in animal forms, there is a corresponding continuum of complexity in intelligence. The quest for artificial intelligence is not to build artificial minds that can solve puzzles or write poetry, but to create artificial living systems that can run and fly, build nests, hunt prey, seek mates, form social structures, develop strategies, and, yes, eventually solve puzzles and write poetry. The first successes of AI will not be Supermind or Commander Data, but artificial flies and fish and rats, and thence to humans - as happened in the real world! And it will be done not just by building smarter computer programs but by building smarter bodies capable of learning ever more complex behavior just as an animal does in the course of development from infancy to adulthood. Artificial intelligence would then already have been achieved without anyone "understanding" it.

Cultural Evolution: Literary History, Popular Music, Cultural Beings, Temporality, and the Mesh

Another working paper (title above):
Abstract and introduction below.

* * * * *

Abstract: Culture is implemented in a material and biological substrate but has a distinct ontology and its phenomena belong to a distinct order of temporality. The evolution of culture proceeds by random variation among coordinators, the cultural parallel to biological genes, and selective retention of phantasms, the cultural parallel to biological phenotypes. Taken together phantasms and a package or envelope of coordinators constitute a cultural being. In at least the case of 19th century American and British novels, cultural evolution has a direction, as demonstrated by the analytical work of Matthew Jockers (Macroanalysis 2013). While we can think of cultural evolution as a phenomenon that happens in history, it is at the same time a force that influences human life. It is thus a force IN history. This is illustrated by considering the history of the European novel from the 19th century and into the 20th century and in the evolution of popular musical styles in 20th century American music, in which interaction between African American and European American populations has been important. Ultimately, the evolution of culture can be thought of as the evolution of mind.

* * * * *

0. Introduction: The Evolution of Culture is the Evolution of Mind

One of the themes that has been prominent in Western culture is that we humans have a “higher” nature and a “lower” nature. That lower nature is something we share with animals, even plants–I’m thinking here of Aristotle’s account of the soul. That higher nature is unique to us and we have tended to identify it with reason and rationality. We are rational and can reason, animals are not and cannot.

It was one thing to hold such a belief when we could believe that our nature was distinct from that of animals. Darwin made that belief much more difficult to entertain. If we are descended from apes, and so are but animals, then how can we have this higher nature? And yet, by any reasonable account, we are quite different from all the other animals.

For one thing, we have language. Yes, other animals communicate, and, with much painstaking effort, we’ve managed to teach some sign language to chimpanzees, but still, no other species has yet managed anything quite like human language. And the same goes for culture. Yes, other animals have culture in the sense that they pass behavioral traits from one individual to another through social learning rather than through reproduction. But the trait repertoire of animal culture is quite limited in comparison to that of human culture. Nor has any animal species managed to remake their environment in the way we have, for better or worse, not beavers and their dams, nor termites and their often astounding mounds.

In the process of working through the posts I’ve gathered into the this working paper, the original writing and the subsequent reviewing and revising, I’ve come to believe that it is culture, not reason, that is our higher nature. Reason is a product of culture, not the reverse.

That conclusion is not a direct result of the post’s I’ve gathered here. You won’t find it as a conclusion in any of them, nor will I provide more of an argument in this introduction than I’ve already done. It’s a way of framing my current view of culture and human nature. It’s a higher nature. It rules us even as it is utterly dependent upon us.

Conceptualizing Cultural Evolution

This working paper marks the fruition of a line of investigation I began in 1996 with the publication of “Culture as an Evolutionary Arena” (Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 19(4), 321-362). That was not my first work on cultural evolution; but my earlier work, going back to graduate school in the 1970s, was about stages conceived in terms of cognitive systems (called ranks). That work was descriptive in character, aimed at identifying the types of things possible with a given cognitive apparatus. The 1996 paper was my first attempt at characterizing the process of cultural evolution in evolutionary terms.

That paper originated in conversations I’d had with David Hays, who died in 1995, in which he suggested that the genetic material for cultural evolution was in the external world. Why? Because it is public, open for everyone to see. If the genetic material was out there in the world, I reasoned, then the selective environment must be social, something like a collective mind. That made sense because, after all, isn’t that how books and movies and records survive? Many are published, but only a few are taken up and kept in active circulation over the years.

That’s not much of a conception, but I stuck with it. It’s taken almost two decades for me to refine those initial intuitions into a technical conception that feels good. That’s what I managed to achieve in the process of writing the posts I’ve collected and edited into this working paper.

All of which is to say that I’ve been working on two levels. On the one hand I’ve been making specific proposals about specific phenomena. But those specific proposals are in service of a more abstract project: crafting a framework in which to conceptualize cultural evolution. By way of comparison, consider chapter eleven of Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. That’s where he proposes the concept of memes in thinking about cultural evolution: “Memes: the new replicators” (pp. 189-201). He gives a few examples, but mostly he’s focused on the concept of the meme itself. The examples are there to support the concept. None of them are developed very extensively or in detail; he says just enough to give some sense of what he has in mind.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Overhead Wires


Issues in Cultural Evolution 2.2: ‘Cultural Genes’ are Out There in the World

I think the thing to do at this point is post a version of my own view of cultural evolution, but one that skips the terminology that I’ve recently adopted. In this version, which more or less centers on my 1996 article, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena, I adopt the term “meme” as the name of the genetic entities of culture. Though I’ve recently dropped the term, I’ll use it in this post.

Gavagai and Conduits

First, though, I want to think a bit about the problem of evolving a communication system.

Some years ago I was engaged in an email conversation with Valerius Geist, a naturalist, who pointed out that biological communication systems are very conservative because they have to evolve two sets of matched traits. They’ve got to evolve a system to emit signals – vocal calls, gestures, postures – and one that understands those signals. These two systems have to match. If they don’t, the communication will fail.

Culture has the same problem, which we can illustrate with a classic thought experiment in the philosophy of language. This is from Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object (1960). He asks us to consider the problem of radical translation, “translation of the language of a hitherto untouched people” (Quine 1960, 25). Consider a “linguist who, unaided by an interpreter, is out to penetrate and translate a language hitherto unknown. All the objective data he has to go on are the forces that he sees impinging on the native’s surfaces and the observable behavior, focal and otherwise, of the native.” That is to say, he has no direct access to what is going on inside the native’s head, but utterances are available to him. Quine then asks us to imagine that “a rabbit scurries by, the native says ‘Gavagai’, and the linguist notes down the sentence ‘Rabbit’ (of ‘Lo, a rabbit’) as tentative translation, subject to testing in further cases” (p. 25).

Quine goes on to argue that, in thus proposing that initial translation, the linguist is making illegitimate assumptions. He begins his argument by nothing that the native might, in fact, mean “white” or “animal” and later on offers more exotic possibilities, the sort of things only a philosopher would think of–one of the possibilities was “mere stages, or brief temporal segments, of rabbits” (p. 46). Quine also notes that whatever gestures and utterances the native offers as the linguist attempts to clarify and verify will be subject to the same problem. Quine’s argument is thorough and convincing.

This situation, of course, is rather different from that of ordinary speech between people who share a common language. In the common situation both parties would know the meaning of “Gavagai.” Yet, however effective it is, ordinary speech sometimes fails to secure understanding between people and, when such understanding is achieved, that achievement has required back-and-forth speech. The mutual understanding is achieved through a process of negotiation. As William Croft reiterates in chapter 4 of Explaining Language Change, we cannot get inside one another’s heads and so must negotiate meanings in conversation.

That is to say, communication through language is not a matter of sending information through a pipeline. It does not happen according to what Michael Reddy (1993 in Ortony, Metaphor and Thought) has called the conduit metaphor. Reddy’s article is based on 53 example sentences. Here are the first three (p. 166, italics in the original):
1. Try to get your thoughts across better
2. None of Mary’s feelings came through to me with any clarity
3. You still haven’t given me any idea of what you mean
Reddy’s argument is that many of our statements about communication seemed to be based on the notion of sending something (the thought, idea, feeling) through a conduit, hence he calls it the conduit metaphor. He knows that communication doesn’t work that way, but that’s not his central issue. His central concern is to detail the way we use the conduit metaphor to structure our thinking about communication.

Of course, language is not the only medium of human communication and culture. One can craft a wheel that’s just like an existing wheel without having to know what the wheelwright was thinking. As long as your wheel is acceptably like existing wheels, it is OK. How you made it is secondary. Even there, of course, you can observe a master wheelwright at work and imitate his process. One can learn music through imitation as well.

That is, as long as there is a publicly visible physical model, of an object or a process, one can learn how to make the object or perform the process through imitation, hence the emphasis on imitation in the memetics literature. Imitation fails, however, when it comes to the meanings of words. You can learn to imitate sounds, but not meanings. The learning of meaning is different, and it is something that’s been all but ignored in the orthodox memetic literature. That literature assumes that we “transfer information” like sending oil or water through a pipeline. It uses a reified concept of information to dissolve the problem, rather than solve it. It is not well-informed about cognitive science and linguistics and so cannot be considered intellectually serious.

Why are we crippling our kids?

Jane Brody in the NYTimes:
Experts say there is no more crime against children by strangers today — and probably significantly less — than when I was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, a time when I walked to school alone and played outdoors with friends unsupervised by adults. “The world is not perfect — it never was — but we used to trust our children in it, and they learned to be resourceful,” Ms. Skenazy said. “The message these anxious parents are giving to their children is ‘I love you, but I don’t believe in you. I don’t believe you’re as competent as I am.’ ”...

In decades past, children made up their own games and acquired important life skills in the process. “In pickup games,” Dr. Gray said, “children make the rules, negotiate, and figure out what’s fair to keep everyone happy. They develop creativity, empathy and the ability to read the minds of other players, instead of having adults make the rules and solve all the problems.”

Dr. Gray links the astronomical rise in childhood depression and anxiety disorders, which are five to eight times more common than they were in the 1950s, to the decline in free play among young children. “Young people today are less likely to have a sense of control over their own lives and more likely to feel they are the victims of circumstances, which is predictive of anxiety and depression,” he said.