"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

World Mind vs AI and Big Brother

People's versions of the Apocalypse are particular to their culture. When I lived in rebel Humboldt County, it was all about the red dawn, visions of economic and/or ecological collapse, etc. Down in Silicon Valley, you get a lot more people talking about a technocalypse, some variation on Singularity theory, concern that AI will undo us all. Additionally, the recent revelations of the NSA's vast surveillance programs have cast a shadow over the optimistic vibe that comes long with a growing internet.

In this post, I want to talk about why I believe humanity will likely not be overmatched by machines, with bonus observations on how digital democracy can still thrive in an era of Big Data Big Brother.

Moore's Law Has Been Broken For About Ten Years

There is no good account of how "powerful" the human mind is as an information processing system. There are random-ass guesses from futurists and AI researchers, but nobody really knows what the capabilities are for the mind to run, let alone how to compare it to silicon based computers. That said, the random-ass guesses generally conclude that it will take a lot of CPU power to model a brain. Like, more than all the computing power that exists in the world today.

No big deal, say the preachers of AI - computing power is growing ever more rapidly, because Moore's law, etc. But that's not actually true. Moore's "law" was more of a smart observation: that circuit density was doubling about every 18 months. However, this hasn't been true for a while — Moore's law is collapsing, because of the physical limits of silicon.

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Arts, Sciences and Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Reading a bit of trashy sci fi over the past weekend — good "hardboiled cyberpunk" about the encoding of consciousness into data and transferring between physical bodies as a way of managing interstellar exploration — while traveling in Mexico got me thinking about the old "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" argument. I think I came up with some good riffs, and even some navel-gazing about me and my weird mercurial career, so here goes.

It's easy to dismiss outlandish ideas about interstellar travel as flights of fancy, and indeed there are good physics reasons to be skeptical we'll make it beyond the Solar System in any real way in the next few generations. But that also kind of misses the point. The original quote by Arthur C Clark is meant to position us as "people of the past", encountering some awesome technologogy of the future, possibly alien. How can we not react with awe? But what about all that we've learned to take for granted already? There's another threshold which we pass over when fantastically complecated and difficult processes become six or seven-sigma reliable and ubiquitous, things like Big Macs or indoor plumbing. You go from magic to assumed fact of life.

Take for instance the MP3 player going poolside on a carribean beach resort, playing Elvis. Here you have a device manufactured from raw materials that might come from three continents (rare earths, etc), forged into components in a number facilities about 8,000 to 10,000 miles away, assembled and delivered via an international shipping and retail process that is literally hundreds of thousands of people's jobs to operate.

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On The Ethics of Knowledge Work

Recently I tried out the service "99 Designs", largely with good results. However, this got some pushback from peers of mine in the web development community, which prompted a good bit of thinking on my part about the various ethics and contingencies of Knowledge work and Digital Labor. So, here goes.

First Principles

I'm sympathetic to the "No Spec" movement, especially when considered in the historical context of design and creative as a profession. To this day, much of the business of design involvs doing the work first, "on spec", and then only getting paid if the client liked it. If you're a fan of Mad Men, you've seen this. Don Draper forces Peggy and the gang to pull an all-nighter in a desperate bid to try and land a big new account. It's a staple of the show.

At its most extreme, the spec work process requires a completely finished product before payment, and a buyer will solicit this from several different individuals or firms, ultimately choosing only one to get paid. Or in the ultimate dick move, choosing nobody and "taking the campaign in-house" — which usually means stealing the best ideas and assets but handling the final execution internally, without paying anyone.

Clearly, this is no bueno: as one of my internet heroes Mike Montiero says, "F-you, pay me".

But, It's Maybe a Little More Complicated

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In Which I Badmouth the Scene for a Minute

There's a lot to like, even love, about being an entrepreneur. There's agency, opportunity, creativity, the singular challenge and potential rewards of doing something different and new. I wouldn't want any other kind of career.

That said, there are things I really don't love about the Startup Scene, and I've had a stressful week. At the risk of bemoaning what are undoubtedly "first world problems" (and then some), I want to write a bit about what I find irksome about the Valley. Writing helps me process, and maybe my scribbles will help some fellow traveller somewhere down the line.

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Food Fight!

Basically I've heard enough stuff that I don't trust Jerome Armstrong, who does a lot of technology consulting to sell people stuff and subcontract the work. So I finally had to call him out on something and it got a little unpleasant.

We'll see how this plays out. I hope I'm wrong about Jerome's motivations here, but it really looks to me like he's trying to take a lot of credit and sell a lot of snakeoil, and then abuse his admin rights when I try and call him out on it.

UPDATE: After sleeping on it, I really do need to explain the whole "snakeoil" smear up there. There are too many ways to read what I wrote, and it's not really what I mean. I have to work and get on a plane today, but I will write a post clarifying this in the air.

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