Sunday, June 13, 2021

Ramble, June 13, 2021: Progress, AI [rolling thunder | Media Notes 60]

Progress Studies

At the moment progress studies has two aspects:

1) Education: Making people aware that humankind has indeed made progress over the years, perhaps since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, perhaps since the emergence of humankind on the African savannas.
2) Insight: Understanding the current stagnation – which may, however, be abating (we’ll see).

The first aspect seems to be coming along nicely; the second not so well.

The people who are attracted to the progress studies banner seem to believe that ideas are out there scattered about, just waiting for us to pick them up and use them. They don’t actually say that, but they act as though that were their underlying assumption. Thus they tend to believe that we can fix the problem by changing organizational structures, providing better incentives, getting rid of sclerotic procedures and bureaucracy.

They’re just tinkering around the edges. Such measures may produce marginal improvements, but will not address the core issue, which is that old systems of thought are ‘bottoming out’ and new ones have yet to emerge in strength. See my working papers:

I’ve been rethinking AI (artificial intelligence)

I don’t know exactly when I first began thinking about artificial intelligence (AI), but I was certainly thinking about it in my second year of graduate school at SUNY Buffalo. By that time I’d found my way to David Hays, in the Linguistics Department, and joined his research group in computational linguistics. Hays did not think very highly of AI as an intellectual endeavor; he thought it was more concerned with computer tricks and hacks than with anything one might call a scientific understanding of the human mind and/or intelligence. I was happy to follow him in this belief, which was and is by no means uncommon.

But recent developments have brought me to rethink things a bit. Sure, there’s plenty of hype and hackery to go around, but I think some serious issues are beginning to be address. In particular, a potentially very fruitful dialog is developing between neuroscientists and AI researchers. I think we’re going somewhere.

See two recent blog posts and a working paper from last year:

Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder

I just watched Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, which is, according to the Wikipedia article, a somewhat fictionalized documentary about Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, which toured New England and Canada in 1975-76. Until I looked it up, which I always do with anything I intend to write about, I thought it was all the gospel truth, or at least as true as documentary footage can be.

For me it was a trip down that much clichéd memory lane. No, I was never a Dylan fan, but always aware of him. And, no, I didn’t attend any of the signature concerts of the counter-cultural era, not Woodstock or Altamont, nor, come to think of it, did I attend concerts by any of the fabled rock or folk acts of the era. But I had records – that’s what we had back in those days, vinyl discs – and watched the news, read the news, and was generally aware of what was going on. In fact, the time of the Rolling Thunder Review I was studying computational linguistics with David Hays (see above), but also jazz improvisation with Frank Foster.

It reminded me that, yes, the 60s (which extended will into the 1970s) were real. No, they didn’t bring about an Aquarian Age, but the hopes and intentions were real, if naïve and misguided. I don’t see anything like that around today. Without it I’m afraid Progress Studies will come to naught. We need a new mythology and I’m afraid that silicon visions of virtual thrills and digital dominance don’t fill the bill.

So what was in the revue? Dylan of course, but also Joan Baez, and Joan Baez in Dylan drag. Dylan often wore white face make-up (I never knew that) inspired, by of all things, Kiss. Allen Ginsburg was on the tour, but the audiences weren’t digging his poetry. They wanted music. We saw Dylan visiting Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, and writing a song about him. And much more.

If you really want to change the world, watch this, and figure out how we’re going to come up with a new mythology as potent at that one.


  1. I'd take Rodriguez and his album
    "Cold Fact" any day over Dylan in touching on the sixties. Only discovered him in 2018. Seriously overshadowed in the US in his day.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Sally. I'm listening to it now. There was a documentary made about him, Searching for Sugarman. It's available on Amazon.

    2. Yes, watched it, thanks.