Thoughts on AI, comradeship, ethics, interdependence

Whether or not LaMDA meets criteria for sentience is interesting but not really the point. We debate whether to treat AIs like people while not treating people “like people”. What we’re doing here is separating the world into entities worthy of respect and entities to be used up and thrown away.

I would like to see this reframed so that we talk more about our relationship with technology in other terms, as comradeship, as nurturing, as companionship, as interdependence. Picture the relationship of a craftsperson with their tools, one of respect and care. There aren’t, or shouldn’t be, “tools” which we treat like shit and throw away, vs. “sentients” who we converse with as equals. There is just the world around us and what relationships we build with it. This extends to how we think about and relate to land, animals, the entire planet. We can and should see ourselves as in conversation and comradeship with our environment.

We will see efforts in coming years to elevate a few specific AIs to the status of an elite and privileged person, while the attitude we cultivate towards the lowly “tool” poisons our relationship with not just things and land and the environment, but other people. I was thinking about this during the WisCon panel on Robot Pals and AI companions where Naomi Kritzer, Marsh van Susteren, and other panelists gave examples from science fiction stories and media, and it came up again today as I read reactions to Lamoine’s interview with LaMDA.

Instead, please consider your own way of being with technology. For example, I think it’s good practice to thank Alexa and speak to it politely. I think of Kathy Sierra‘s description of user emotions towards their computers and software, of anger and frustration, a slide from a SXSWi talk of someone double flipping off their laptop. That’s very real and I get that it’s a valid emotional reaction – the point of her talk as I saw it, was that we as technologists have built things that are difficult to love and maintain companionship with. It would be so much more healthy if we created systems where our relationship to our computers and software was one of loving care, maintenance, tinkering, interdependence. We could accept our relationships to all the things in the world around us as worthy of emotional labor and attention. Just as we should treat all the people around us with respect, acknowledging their have their own life, perspective, needs, emotions, goals, and place in the world.

My car, very battered and unwashed, would laugh at me for this post! As would my messy and cluttered house.

Not being perfectly consistent in anything, I suggest that integrating this approach to an ethical framework may be something that we can do little by little. We can love our laptops intentionally, we can build lovable (and maintainable) software-building systems. The way I want to see interdependence with beloved family, I want to also try to see ways to be interdependent with our wheelchairs, buses, cars, compost, houses, neighborhoods, cities. If we don’t work on this and give it our attention, we will keep building systems where people and things and land are exploited, kind of like how Ursula Franklin describes with the idealism around the invention and mass production of sewing machines as a possible tool of liberation, gone horribly wrong in sweatshops.

What exactly does this mean? Of course I’m not sure, but I try to keep myself centered on integration and respect. Yes I’m going to still bitch about cleaning the Noisebridge hackerspace bathroom for the zillionth time, but actually, I see the domestic labor, domestic engineering, as worthy and good work in the world, to take care of others and places I inhabit, to be a good host and a good guest.

I worry when I see people around me obsessed with questions of sentience as a major point of ethical decision making. (Or even weirder and sadder, fear of future god-like AIs punishing one for the equivalent of being rude to Alexa, rather than seeing the behavior of becoming a person who behaves rudely as the problem!) I agree with Haraway that we have options to accept partial definitions and imperfect categories (say, between human, animal, machine, nature): “a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.” And I hope for the home brew economy or maybe a housework economy, rather than the “homework economy”, to take root.

Jouissance and a sense of agency

Morning reading: Introduction to Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures by Christina Dunbar-Hester. This is going to be fun since everyone I know is quoted in it (often pseudonymously) But no quotes from me (I think) as during the interview phase I was having some sort of major health flare-up. And if there’s ever a book where I should be obscurely in the footnotes somewhere it’s this one!

Though “diversity in tech” discourse is emanating from many quarters in our current historical moment, it is important that the mandate of open-technology cultures is not identical to that of industry and higher education. Here, the reasons for engagement with technology nominally include experiencing jouissance and a sense of agency. This is experienced through, yet not reducible to, community members’ engagement with technology. If we tease apart the emancipatory politics from the technical engagement, we find that the calls for inclusion and for reframing power relations are not only about technical domains; rather, they are about agency, equity, and self-determination at individual and collective levels.

At that “jouissance” sentence I felt my heart sing and I felt so seen. Yes! This bodes well for the entire book’s understanding of our feelings and our context. So many histories leave out crucial things like love and fun and joy. Why have I fucked around with computers my whole life? Because love and happiness is why. They’re exciting, the Internet is still like a dream to me, the access to information and the possibilities of unfiltered/unmediated publishing or production, and consumption, still holds so much hope. Because I (we) like it that’s why. Like Mole seeing the Water Rat’s boat for the first time,

The Rat said nothing, but stooped and unfastened a rope and hauled on it; then lightly stepped into a little boat which the Mole had not observed. It was painted blue outside and white within, and was just the size for two animals; and the Mole’s whole heart went out to it at once, even though he did not yet fully understand its uses.

We still don’t, of course.

Also good, everything in this chapter about collectivity. *heart eyes emoji*

DWeb Camp Day Zero and One

Day Zero at DWeb Camp. We drove down Highway 1 stopping in Moss Beach to look at a strangely cheap vacant lot to try and figure out what is wrong with it (On the fault line, a weird shape, has a utility pole smack in the center of the tiny property.) Saw a huge hawk in the tree next to the utility pole and then realized I had dropped my car keys somewhere in the tall grass. If we buy this vacant lot and park a derelict trailer on it and build cinderblock library and a tiny house from a kit, I shall name it Keyhawkia. (I never found the keys but Danny had a spare.)

I brought an entirely unnecessary cooler and bag full of food. There is abundant and delicious vegan food 3 times a day! Our glamping tent is comfortable, equipped with a foam mattress, a wooden crate, and a battery powered lantern. I brought a Yeti 150 battery hoping to heat my early morning coffee with it, a solar lantern, a second lantern to charge off the Yeti, my two wheelchair batteries, and about a million different charging cords.

Met a ton of people, passed out some copies of my zine, and helped wash and sanitize some loads of thrift store dishes. Went to bed and as soon as I laid down realized my body was screaming in pain – oh fuck! Vowed to lie down and rest more during the day the rest of the time here.

I was saying to some of the mushroom farm people that, everyone coming here is used to being the person who just does stuff directly and feels super confident and capable of being in charge of whatever, and so we are about to have a physical manifestation of decentralized activity and it will surely be a bit hilarious. (So far, from day 2, definitely true).

Day One. Woke up at 6am, made lukewarm coffee using my Yeti and a car charger travel mug. Sat in zero gravity chair before it was fully open, falling slowly and gently backwards, and actually set the coffee mug down without spilling it AND no one saw me fall over.

Over the afternoon a couple of hundred people arrived. It started to feel festive. The “Mesh Hall” now looks like Noisebridge complete with “sans flaschentaschen”. Lots of discussions of Scuttlebutt and also of Kazakhstan. I love seeing everything take shape.

I pedantically corrected the sign for Shiitake Camp with a sharpie, adding the second “i”. The kerning may bother someone but it wasn’t a bad job of insertion given the spontaneous nature of the action! Danny laughed at me…Guys sitting by the sign somewhat bemused…

Set up my tarp outside the tent so that my wheelchair has shelter from the dew – within 5 minutes I found some pointy iron rods which Bill, who is amazing, told me were foundation rods. People passing by had sledgehammers, extra tent spikes, a hatchet which broke while being dramatically used in exactly the way you should not, so that the sharp end is about to embed itself in your forehead – All was well and my wheelchair is protected from the elements in the night. While I took a short nap, someone (probably James) left me a little roll of cord to tie up the tarp! Miraculous!

I washed more dishes and spent the day mostly loafing. (Under my tarp lean-to.)
Did some crosswords in Portuguese with Seth (I don’t know Portuguese but faked it from knowing Spanish) – relaxing and fun.

Could not hear or see most of the opening circle stuff but some of the talks made it to the outer fringes. At one point I gathered that people were sticking a branch into a fire pit and then saying a word in their language and maybe explaining the word’s significance (to them? to the moment? to their culture?) and I had a saucy suggestion to Danny as to what his special representative British word should be. 10 points if you guess it!

Day Two – The showers are amazing in this upper camp. Huge compared to my bathroom, a handy bench to change on, everything rather beautiful in that people-who-have-spent-years-living-on-communes wood shop way with shelves constructed of sections of tree trunk and attractive large pebbles as decor – Lots of Dr. Bronners soap to share. We had a nice camaraderie in the shower this morning as I complimented someone’s tshirt which said in scrolly print, “Brats push to master” and she then explained it to the people in the bathroom with us (Christie the biologist and her daughter) who were not familiar with version control software or its jokes. (“Good bois push to branches” I guess would be the alternate version.) “I’m blogging this” – my sudden declaration from behind the shower curtain after like 5 solid minutes of explanation of the joke.

My yeti battery heated the travel mug of instant coffee beautifully today. It takes a while. The trick is falling back asleep after plugging it in so that you aren’t waiting tediously for the water to hot up.

Plans for today: set up a little zine making workshop. Get set up with scuttlebutt. go to some discussions or talks. Work on my small text adventure game of this event and then put it up somewhere in the hackitorium room if anyone has a spare computer to display it on.

Bad invention: Personalized kleenex!

Lately I keep finding little torn up plastic pouches around the house with Danny’s name on them. They turned out to be some sort of personalized vitamins where each packet says DANNY on it and then a little inspirational saying. The vitamins also, I believe, have an app. I find my partner’s propensity to order weird shit off kickstarter endearing and now it’s like had this unforseen side effect that his domestic litter tattles on him!

Germphobic people! do not read any further! And definitely don’t read that post on my past Bad Invention: The Sockerchief!

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This made me think. I have some lifelong terrible habits and one of them is (from equally terrible allergies) leaving a trail of used kleenexes behind me, like an unsavory rat’s nest, and even worse sometimes it’s because I used a kleenex absent mindedly and put it down on the couch next to me because it still had some life in it (WHAT!!!!?!) and then I use it again in a few minutes OR it gets squashed into the couch cushions or falls to the floor and gets a new life as a dust and lint magnet. Or perhaps worse – it goes into my pockets and then through the washer (I mostly use handkerchiefs nowadays to work around these problems.)

You reap what you sow, and the apple does not fall far from the tree, and karma, etc. so it turns out my son not only also has allergies but also scatters little wads of kleenex around as if it were snowing.

Now we come to our bad invention: Personalized Kleenex! The couch cushion cracks would now reveal LIZ or MILO. How handy for blame, but perhaps also for creative re-use. Inspirational messages (going with the trend on the …. i-vitamins? e-vitamins? could be things like:

Bless the hand that gave the blow.
– John Dryden, The Spanish Friar. Act ii. Sc. 1.

Liberty ’s in every blow!
Let us do or die.

– Robert Burns, Bannockburn.

Blow, bugle, blow! set the wild echoes flying!
And answer, echoes, answer! dying, dying, dying.

– Alfred Tennyson, The Princess.

Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds:
At which the universal host up sent
A shout that tore hell’s concave, and beyond
Frighted the reign of Chaos and old Night.

– Milton, Paradise Lost. Book i. Line 540.

Or better yet – my favorite!!!!

I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please.

– William Shakespeare, As You Like It. ACT II Scene 7.

For use with an app, I think a printed QR code on each kleenex would suffice. Simply remember to photograph each kleenex before or after the blow, and a special uncrumpling algorithm will sort out the code. This could plot the location of your used kleenexes on a map, display them to your friends via a social network; opportunities for buying new boxes of this substance abound – the more you use the more kleen-coins you earn – Machine learning applied based on your past stored e-kleenexr patterns to predict future caches. Personalized, social, E-Kleenexr 2.0 AI as microcurrency – on the blockchain. How can I drive this into the ground any further? WHERE IS MY ONE MILLION DOLLARS?!