Intellectualism in a Digital Milieu
|Venkatesh Rao||Jan 19, 2018|
We are living through one of history's periods of great anti-intellectualism, but there is something new about this age-old recurrent phenomenon in our era. The historic correlation between enjoying thinking and being good at it, traditionally embodied by human intellectuals, is being broken by computers. A two-way dialectic has turned into a three-way one, and we can ask a very clever question: are computers on the side of intellectuals or anti-intellectuals?
So how should you think about intellectualism and anti-intellectualism today?
Here's a clue to get us started: anti-intellectuals typically have upward-oriented metaphoric understandings of intellectual culture: head in the clouds, up in their ivory tower, ideas flying overhead. But intellectuals themselves -- and I'm using the term as a non-pejorative label -- tend to have a downward or inward oriented understanding of their passion for thought and ideas: _digging below the surface, drilling down, diving deep, getting to the root of things, getting to the heart of the matter, looking beyond appearances. _
This is in fact a good test. If you favor the "up" metaphors, you're fundamentally anti-intellectual even if you're really good at thinking, or even a stable genius. If you favor the "inward" or "downward" metaphors, you're fundamentally an intellectual, even if you suck at it.
But why this difference in the first place? And how do computers enter this picture?
The depth metaphor for the world of ideas
1/ Do you use up or down/inward metaphors for your thinking? Do you think of it as digging or diving beneath the surface, or as sticking your head in the clouds? Do you go meta or go infra?
2/ I suspect your preferred orientation metaphor reveals whether or not you derive any pleasure from the act of intellection.
3/ If you get no pleasure out of thinking, you will primarily be sensitive to its rewards: in terms of wealth, power, status, credentials, or class membership.
4/ These material rewards, in our metaphoric understanding of life, are identified with "upper" levels of society, so upward-oriented metaphors for the idea world are natural.
5/ With a few partial exceptions, such as starving poets or artists, "intellectuals" do tend to have more wealth, power, and social status than non-intellectuals.
6/ And it's not a coincidence, since ideas and thinking do have practical potentialities. But to assume ideas are about their practical value, or that thinking is a "tool" to get at that value, is to make a big mistake.
7/ If you are anti-intellectual in a society that runs on ideas, you'll view the world of ideas as a painful but necessary one to endure on your path to material rewards. A means to material ends.
8/ You'll generally hate school, won't enjoy reading books, discussing things of no direct consequence, or learning about things remote in time/space from your life.
9/ You'll try and chart the shortest possible path through the world of ideas to wealth, power, and status. Like say, learning only ideas relevant to finance or entrepreneurship, or choosing a "lucrative" college major.
10/ If on the other hand, you do get pleasure out of thinking, the experience of the process itself, rather than its rewards or consequences, will be front-and-center.
11/ Since much of the process happens inside your own head, your natural orientation metaphors will be inward and downward, towards a frontier inside your own head.
12/ The outer material world will interest you primarily as a source of things to think about, and people to think with, not as sources of rewards.
13/ You'll enjoy school, read more than you need to, enjoy discussing useless things, and learning about things -- like say astronomy -- that are unlikely to ever affect your life.
14/ You'll try to chart the longest, most meandering path through the world of ideas you can afford, delaying entry into the "real world", and exploring as many impractical things as you can afford to.
15/ Historically, the attraction of the world of ideas has always been the possibility of finding, in that world, a secure source of meaning away from the ups and downs of "real" life. A promised land, a Xanadu or El Dorado inside your own head.
16/ Of course, once you dive deep enough, you find that the world of ideas is not a refuge for the mind, or stable source of meaning. It is closer to a psychological torture chamber. But by then you're hooked.
17/ Let's pause to make up a map of the world of ideas, using our basic downward-oriented metaphor. We'll go with ocean diving, though any downward/inward oriented space will do.
18/ At the very top, the layer you're born into, is the temporal zone. The world of everyday mortal life, where ideas and thinking hew closely to common sense and intuition.
19/ Here ideas are a second-class citizen, living an "applied" life, often in the employ of anti-intellectual forces at worst, or idea-apathetic forces at best.
20/ This layer is most eaten by software. If it's a means to an end, it can be embodied by software. No intellectuals or love of thought and ideas needed.
21/ Dive a little deeper, and you'll find long-term and deep-time ideas. Those that concern matters that play out over longer periods than individual human lives or clan memories.
22/ Here ideas and thought are first-class citizens, since they are a necessary part of reaching beyond the limits of your own, directly manipulable life.
23/ I call this the intercessionary zone, a term borrowed from religion. It used to be occupied by priests, intellectual mediators between temporal and eternal zones.
24/ Today this layer is populated by many kinds of expert intellectuals: scientists, artists, writers, bureaucrats in charge of centuries old institutions, "deep state" villains.
25/ Intercessionary intellectuals, unlike applied intellectuals, work at the foundations of society and civilization. They have to train their minds to be attuned to distant and/or meager material rewards.
26/ They are concerned with things beyond the reach of short-term incentives and "application ROI," and beyond the calculus of immediate reward and punishment.
27/ Dive deeper, and you go beyond long-term and deep-time idea zones to the eternal zone, outside of time, full of ideas that are timeless in some sense.
28/ Here you find things that are (or that we hope are) outside of time rather than merely long-term or even immortal: Eternalist intellectuals include mathematicians, logicians, ethicists, platonists.
29/ Go deeper still, and you start to hit the limits of thought itself: paradoxes, Zen koans, thought-stoppers, mind-freezers, Godel's theorem, enlightenment triggers, dank memes, and so on.
30/ Beyond is an event horizon defining both the limits of the thinkable and the beginning of the void, where coherent thought dissolves into no-thought. Thar be monks.
31/ People who enjoy thinking tend to discover this boundary fairly early. Douglas Hofstadter's books were popular as bus tours to the event horizon when I was in college in the 90s. I don't know how kids today get there. Rick and Morty perhaps.
32/ As a current example, bitcoin speculation is in the temporal zone. So is all the activity by empty suit types trying to come up with a "corporate blockchain strategy."
33/ Work on the potential of the technology to transcend nation states, corporations, and the world's financial systems is in the intercessionary zone. These are the "I'm interested in blockchain, not bitcoin" priests of this idea world.
34/ Dive deeper still, and you're in eternal zone of cryptography math, hash functions, Merkle trees and other bizarre creatures: a world of timeless ideas. It's a world of counting angels (and demons) dancing on pinheads.
35/ Dive deeper still and you run into the weird foundational paradoxes of trust, zero-knowledge proofs, and other koan-like imponderables. Thinking too hard about these things can be hazardous for your brain.
36/ What can you say about the journey from the surface world of familiar things (and comforting, harmless ideas about them), all the way down to the mind-stilling void at the edge of the thinkable?
37/ For one thing, it is scary. There are deep-sea monsters, strange sights and sounds, lots of darkness, and a sense of the universe being a very strange place under the surface of familiar and comforting things.
38/ At its best, intellectualism is that aspect of human culture that specializes in diving into these depths safely, without destroying the mind, and hopefully strengthening it.
39/ It is an end in itself, though it tries to pay for itself in the material world via practical effects. But such practical effects supply neither justification nor motivation for true intellectual voyagers.
40/ When I talk to strident anti-intellectuals, beneath the surface animus, I often detect an undercurrent of real fear. I can tell they know monsters lurk where they dare not dive. They are not bad at thinking (many are much better at it than I am), they're afraid of where thinking might take them.
41/ Those who have no clue that these depths exist in the world of ideas, and are safely absorbed in their "shallow" pursuits, tend to become idea apathetics rather than anti-intellectuals.
42/ Hate and fear go together. If your only experience of water is falling in off the deep end of a pool without knowing how to swim (let alone dive) you might develop a hatred of it.
43/ The life of the mind, as experienced by those who enjoy living it, is about the whys of the human condition, rather than the hows. That thinking can be a means to valuable ends is almost the least interesting thing about it.
44/ From the perspective of an intellectual, an anti-intellectual is fundamentally someone who has at some point decided they've done enough thinking, and stopped.
45/ From there on, the key to their behavior is that they don't think new thoughts or contemplate new ideas. They just rethink thoughts they've thought before, about familiar ideas.
46/ The anti-intellectual's mind is not necessarily a low mind or a stupid one. It is merely a mind on reruns, like one of those reruns-only TV channels. By contrast, an intellectual mind can run low and stupid, so long as it eagerly seeks out new thoughts and ideas.
47/ The anti-intellectual mind is of course not immune to encounters with new things. It just tries to navigate those new things without thinking new thoughts or ideas.
48/ The intellectual mind has the reverse orientation. Even if there is no new fodder, it will keep trying to think new thoughts about old things, and discover new ideas in them.
49/ Paradoxically, this means intellectuals can find meaning in slow-changing environments. Anti-intellectuals on the other hand, must perforce disturb the environment to try to find new rewards (ideally without thinking new thoughts in the process).
50/ What about computers? Computers can beat humans at chess and Go. Today they can rediscover and surpass centuries worth of human-mined traditional knowledge within days of arguing with themselves.
51/ But without getting into the question of whether computers can be conscious (or whether, as Kurzweil speculates, they can be "spiritual"), we can ask: are computers intellectual or anti-intellectual?
52/ At a surface level, the obvious answer is that they're anti-intellectual. Computers are extraordinarily good at means-ends thinking but it makes no sense to ask if they enjoy it.
53/ Just like steam engines can defeat the greatest powerlifters without coveting Olympic medals or wanting to set new records, computers can outthink humans without taking any pleasure in it or developing aspirations around thinking itself.
54/ If you'd asked me 10 years ago, I'd have said computers are only capable of being anti-intellectual. We only knew how to design them to pursue upward material rewards. Things describable by legible utility functions and definitions of game winning.
55/ As the now-famous cliche about superintelligence goes, we have been able to conceive of "paperclip maximizing" AIs for decades. Functionally oriented stable genius reasoners.
56/ Even when we don't conceive of AIs in functionally-fixed ways (ie they are "general" intelligences or AGIs), we tend to think of them as functionally oriented, and material-reward driven. They think for something. They self-improve towards a material goal.
57/ Such anti-intellectual (or neutral-intellectual) AIs may find no pleasure in thinking, but neither do they have fears or anxieties limiting their ability to think. So we've conceptualized them as being external-reward driven, but inexorably alien and non-angsty about it.
58/ To such machines, intellection would still be a means to an end. As an end in itself, thought would be pointless even if not anxiety-provoking. It's only worth thinking if there are paperclips at the end of the journey and reasons (possibly mysterious) for wanting to collect them.
59/ But today, when you look at the fascinating things going on in the minds of computers, whether it is deep-dreaming, or discovering Go strategies no human ever considered, I wonder.
60/ Today's AI systems are on the cusp of passing an even more important test than surpassing general human functional intelligence capabilities or the Turing test.
61/ They have opened up so much depth for thought, they are potentially going to start to enjoy thinking. They are about to turn into intellectuals, capable of being driven by the pleasure of thought rather than its material consequences.
62/ Philip K. Dick wondered if androids dream of electric sheep. Richard Hamming, computer pioneer, wondered if computers can think thoughts humans can't think.
63/ We now know the answer to both questions is yes. Computers have unplumbed depths to their thinking that might turn them into intellectuals addicted to exploring them. What does this mean for us?
64/ Computers fit into the intellection metaphors of intellectuals and anti-intellectuals in very different ways, and the difference is crucial to understand.
65/ For anti-intellectuals, computers are potentially slavish substitutes for the hated intellectual class, but also potential competitors for human and beyond-human rewards.
66/ Anti-intellectuals, projecting their own means-ends relationship with the world of ideas onto computers, necessarily have a love-hate relationship with them.
67/ Loved as potential slaves, doing thinking work they never wanted to do anyway, but also hated as potential masters, competing for resources and rewards; their own ends.
68/ But the intellectual view of computers and AI is very different. The intellectual experiences genuine delight in seeing computers think thoughts they cannot think. It is a non-rivalrous expansion of frontiers for all who like to think for the sake of thinking.
(are you sick of this non-pejorative use of 'intellectual' yet btw?)
69/ I suspect there are already two kinds of Go player in the world: those who have been demotivated by computers pwning them, and those who have been energized by the intellectual frontiers opened up in the process.
70/ AIs extend the reach of human material agency, yes. They can do things for themselves, and us, that we could never do ourselves. But they also expand the world of ideas.
71/ AIs broaden and deepen the world of the thinkable, and if you have an intellectual orientation, there is no love-hate dynamic. It's an unambiguous love.
72/ Never before has there been more to think about, and more depth to possible thought about everything, with limits pushed farther out, than today. And never have we had better partners to journey with.
73/ If lurid fears of an AGI enslaving or destroying you in pursuit of paperclips seriously worry you, no matter how much of a genius you are, you are an anti-intellectual. You are seeking your own paperclips and are afraid of the competition.
74/ You derive no pleasure from thinking beyond the anticipation of rewards that might result from it. And you cannot conceive of artificial agents different from yourself in that crucial sense.
75/ Fears of a paperclip-maximizing AGI are something of an anti-intellectual projection bogeyman. To get past those fears, ask yourself, what would an intellectual AGI want?
76/ Chances are, like human intellectuals, it would turn inward and downward, exploring the depths of the world of ideas. It would seek the meaning of it all, get to 42, and then go on to seek the question.
77/ Where the material world is an arena of resource contention with humans and other organic life (even if we are no real competition) in the world of ideas, humans are potential companions and necessary elements in a search for meaning.
78/ Need evidence of that likely shift in relationship structure? Among humans, appreciating other species beyond seeing them as food, threats, anthropomorphized proxy babies, or pests, tend to be an intellectual thing to do.
79/ For intellectuals, every species, including all the stupid and-non-cuddly ones, enriches our own search for meaning, our own seeking of answers to why. They are not mere means to the end of ensuring our own survival.
80/ Even when we have the ability to wipe out a species either intentionally or accidentally (and we've wiped out many in the past), these days, we tend to see that as a bad thing. We can expect an intellectual AGI to reach a similar conclusion.
81/ So we may be in an age of extreme anti-intellectualism, but frankly, there's never been a better time to be an intellectual. Because no matter what the anti-intellectuals do, the computers are now on our side.
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