March 29, 2007

Facebook and the ongoing demise of anonymity

The recent upswell of interest in Facebook and other social networking sites has taken us one step closer to the all-knowing and all-seeing social panopticon.

Like everyone else (it seems), I'm on Facebook now and enjoying it tremendously. As Simon Smith recently noted, it has a killer UI and is far, far too much fun to use. Users can provide an endless barrage of information about themselves which in turn appears instantly on their friends' news feeds.

You are now tuned into the George News Network: All George, all the time:

George has joined a new group.

George has been tagged in a new photo.

George has edited his relationship status and religious affiliation.

George is brushing his teeth.

George should probably be using his time more productively....

Exciting stuff, to be sure. You're watching me and I'm watching you. It's a thrill a minute.

Personally, I'm getting to the point now where after I successfully add a new friend I can actually feel the release of dopamine in my brain. Mmmm, new friend.....that's the good stuff....

In addition to all the masturbatory self-affirmation that goes on in Facebook, however, there are some broader social issues to consider. I'm speaking specifically of the rapidly evaporating phenomenon of anonymity. You remember 'anonymity?' There was a time not too long ago when barely anyone knew who you were outside of your family and immediate group of friends.

Today, social networking sites allow users to post as much information about themselves as they want -- everything from who they're currently dating to their favorite book. This could eventually come back to haunt them on account of unscrupulous individuals or Big Brother.

Take, for example, the ability to tag photos; if your image is on the Web, chances are your visual anonymity has been lost forever. Facebook lets you upload images, drag a square cursor around your friend's face, and with a click of the mouse tie that person's image to his or her profile. Eventually, given one's visual prominence on the Web, these sites will use photo recognition software to automatically tag a photo with your name. In fact, Google is already using this technology on Picasa.

But when taking the Facebook phenomenon into consideration, and seeing how unabashed people are about sharing their personal information, this appears to be a non-issue. At least at this point in time anyway. Those who partake in social networking are a select group of individuals who, for the most part, don't care or don't realize that they're putting themselves 'out there.'

And I'm certainly a member of this group. I could avoid these sites and leak agonizingly little information about myself to the Web, or I can share the most trivial details of my life with others, form new friendships and connections, and have fun.

I'll gladly choose the latter.

Old bridge post

March 21, 2007

The rise of 'biocentrism'

There's a provocative article over at Astroroach: "A Biocentric and Holographic Universe." The general idea behind biocentrism is that our cosmology and metaphysics cannot ignore the important interplay between conscious observers and quantum effects. As Robert Lanza notes,
"The trees and snow evaporate when we’re sleeping. The kitchen disappears when we’re in the bathroom. When you turn from one room to the next, when your animal senses no longer perceive the sounds of the dishwasher, the ticking clock, the smell of a chicken roasting—the kitchen and all its seemingly discrete bits dissolve into nothingness—or into waves of probability. The universe bursts into existence from life, not the other way around as we have been taught. For each life there is a universe, its own universe. We generate spheres of reality, individual bubbles of existence."
This fits in very nicely with not just the revealing sciences, but with the foundations of consciousness-centric Buddhist metaphysics as well.

Doomsaying: It's a 'status' thing

According to Freeman Dyson, the prevalence of doom-and-gloom prognosticators at Cambridge University (a group that would include Sir Martin Rees) is a consequence of the English class system. He says,
Has rising status for commercial middle and upper classes made academics feel slighted and lower in status? Have some of them responded by generating more arguments about looming disasters as a way to boost their own importance and status in the eyes of government leaders and general public?

I find the argument plausible because the desire to raise one's status seems an obvious basic human instinct. The desire for higher status can be seen as a motivation for everything from the drive for wealth, political power, and fame, The desire for higher status may well be the biggest driver of large scale philanthropy by the famous and wealthy.
Gee, and here I thought all the doomsaying was on account of academic due diligence and responsible foresight. Oh, and all those nasty apocalyptic technologies we're about to unleash....

Cyborg birth sequences

Here are several visually stunning cyborg 'birth' sequences:

The intro to the Six Million Dollar Man: "Better than he was before.....better, stronger, faster."

The first-person rebirth sequence of Robocop.

The opening sequence to Ghost in the Shell.

The opening sequence to Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence.

Bjork's video, "All is Full of Love."

March 20, 2007

Signs of the coming apocalypse

Whole lotta bits 'n bytes

I recently bought a pair of 250GB hard drives for my computer. At first it seemed like a tremendous amount of storage capacity, but now I'm not so sure.

There's probably a computer law out there which states something about storage capacity and a user's unfailing ability to fill it up in short order. Thankfully, hardware manufacturers keep pushing the envelope when it comes to expanding the limits of data storage.

Here's a list of data storage units and their approximate storage capacity:
  • 1 byte: A letter
  • 10 bytes: A word or two
  • 100 bytes: A sentence or two
  • 1 kilobyte 103: A very short story
  • 10 kilobyte: An encyclopedia page (perhaps with a simple picture)
  • 100 kilobyte: A medium-resolution photograph
  • 1 megabyte = 106: A novel
  • 10 megabytes: Two copies of the complete works of Shakespeare
  • 100 megabytes: 1 meter of shelved books
  • 1 gigabyte = 109: A pickup truck filled with pages of text
  • 1 terrabyte = 1012: 50,000 trees of paper
  • 10 terrabytes : The printed collection of the U.S. Library of Congress (which consists of 130 million items on about 530 miles of bookshelves, including 29 million book, 2.7 million recordings, 12 million photographs, 4.8 million maps, and 58 million manuscripts).
  • 1 petabyte = 1015: The Internet Archive Wayback Machine contains almost 2 petabytes of data and is currently growing at a rate of 20 terabytes per month; and as of October 15, 2005, all the files being shared on Kazaa totaled around 54 petabytes.
  • 1 exabyte = 1018: Berkeley studies estimated that by the end of 1999 the sum of human-produced knowledge (including all audio, video recordings and text/books) was about 12 exabytes of data. The study also estimated that "telephone calls worldwide on both landlines and mobile phones contained 17.3 exabytes of new information if stored in digital form", and "it would take 9.25 exabytes of storage to hold all U.S. [telephone] calls each year." International Data Corporation estimates that 161 exabytes of digital information were created, captured, and replicated worldwide in 2006.
  • 1 zettabyte = 1021: The IDC estimates that by 2010, there will be 988 exabytes, just under a zettabyte, in all computer storage world wide.
  • 1 yottabyte = 1024: IBM estimates that soon after 2010 the volume of online data accessible either on the Internet or on corporate networks is expected to approach a yottabyte, or 1 trillion terabytes.
That's a lotta data.

March 19, 2007

Managing your 50,000 daily thoughts

A number of years ago the NSF estimated that our brains produce as many as 12,000 to 50,000 thoughts per day depending on how 'deep' a thinker you are (other estimates run as high as 60,000/day).

For those of you who meditate this is unlikely to be a surprise. Meditators are familiar with the 'monkey mind' phenomenon in which the mind is observed as an out-of-control thought generator. As part of my meditation practice I try to remind myself to harness and slow down the 'meme machine' inside my head.

As for regular life, what's disturbing about these 50,000 thoughts per day is that the vast majority of them are pure nonsense. We often dwell in the past or the future, obsessing about mistakes we might have made, battling guilt, planning ahead or worrying. We are constantly drifting into fantasy, fiction and negativity.

Consequently, an absolute minuscule number of our thoughts are actually focused on what is truly important and real: the present moment. The moment is all that is, every was and will be. Everything else is elusive and illusory, particularly as our subjective awareness and feelings are concerned.

Some people have estimated that upwards of 70-80% of our daily thoughts are negative. That's very sad if true. The human mind, it would seem, is wired for neuroticism. A healthy first step to alleviate this problem, therefore, would be to increase one's awareness of these negative and bogus thoughts. This is what's referred to as mindfulness. It's a type of self-reflexivity and enhanced self-awareness that helps Buddhists root themselves in the moment. Once individuals have awareness of these thoughts they can sweep them away from their thoughts like fallen leaves.

You'd be surprised how much control you can have over your thought processes and your ability to control your emotional responses. Even if they number 50,000 a day.

March 15, 2007

Buddha Break 2007.03.15

  • A new videogame teaches Buddhist principles.

  • New book: Horizons in Buddhist Psychology (2006), edited by Maurits G.T. Kwee, Kenneth J. Gergen and Fusako Koshikawa.

    Description:This book is for those who are interested in Buddhist teachings and all who seek routes to growth in human well-being, particularly therapists, coaches, and scientists. It is a vanguard work that sets a cultural revolution in motion by bringing the fruits of the Buddhist heritage together with contemporary therapy, systematic research, and postmodern thought. The volume contains 28 chapters by 38 contributors from 12 countries, and introduces a range of useful practices, evidence of their efficacy, and integrative theoretical deliberations. Its contents move toward a climax called New Buddhist Psychology.

  • A single, specific memory has been wiped from the brains of rats, leaving other recollections intact.

  • Is there a moral obligation to be intelligent? Is faith a moral failing? Is dogmatism dangerous?

  • Through the ages, the killjoys of governing elites have been threatened by public expressions of collective joy; it's time to reclaim what makes us human.

  • A new study reports on the state of human happiness.

  • Buddhism lures tourists.

  • Nichiren Buddhism fits Western lifestyle.

  • Belinda Carlisle talks about becoming a Buddhist. Here's a concise list of celebrity Buddhists (how cool is it that Lisa Simpson is on the list?).

  • Deepak Chopra on consciousness.
  • March 14, 2007

    Kurzweil, Shatner and de Grey to speak at TransVision 07

    And I'll be speaking, too :-) Not sure about what, though -- maybe postgenderism or animal uplift. I'll also be speaking about the ethics of radical life extension at the pre-conference event, Securing the Longevity Dividend: Building the Campaign for Anti-Aging Science.

    March 10, 2007

    Bailey on Fukuyama's 'eugenics'

    Looks like I'm not the only one who interprets over-the-top regulation of human biotech as a form of eugenics. Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey has penned a piece in which he warns, "Francis Fukuyama wants to control your reproductive decisions."

    In the article, titled "Medievalizing Biotech Regulation," Bailey describes Fukuyama's recent initiative to create a regulatory agency in the United States that would be modeled after the British Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HEFA). This new agency would regulate the safety and efficacy of new biotechnologies and rule on their ethical merits. Fukuyama argues that it's time for "social control."

    More specifically,
    Fukuyama explained that the new agency would regulate anything having to do with assisted reproduction techniques (ART). This would include IVF, ooplasm transfer, sex selection either by pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) or sperm sorting. The agency would also regulate research involving human reproductive tissues including all embryonic stem cell research and anything dealing with human developmental biology....

    Fukuyama would completely ban human reproductive cloning, the creation of human animal chimeras for the purpose of reproduction, germline genetic modifications, any procedure that would alter the genetic relationship of parents to children, and the patenting of human embryos.
    I'm not opposed to regulatory agencies in principle; institutions such as these are both necessary and fairly inevitable. What concerns me, however, is when extreme bioconservatives like Fukuyama take the initiative. These regulatory precedents are dangerously constrictive. It is Fukuyama, after all, who has made it painfully clear that he is opposed to not just human enhancement, but life extending technologies as well.

    As Bailey points out in his article, these regulatory bodies often function as bureaucratic obstructions to research and development. Moreover, when given too much political clout, and if guided by anachronistic notions of human reproduction and biology, these agencies may also act in a way that's reminiscent of 20th century eugenics.

    Ultimately, Fukuyama's agency will work to enforce a preconceived, non-normative and state imposed vision of human reproduction and health in general.

    March 7, 2007

    A death in the family

    My ex-wife's mother died two days ago. This is the woman who for years I referred to as 'mom.' And of course, this is the person who my children call Gramma.

    Monday was imposed upon me earlier than usual; it's never good news when the phone rings so early in the morning. It was my ex-wife. Her father couldn't wake-up her mom. I hustled over to my ex's place to get the kids ready for school while she attended to her parents (we have split custody and it happened to be my off-week).

    Later that day we learned that Gramma suffered a massive stroke while in her sleep. Her mind and body started to degrade at an alarming rate about four years ago. She already had a couple of strokes and was suffering from Alzheimer's; her short-term memory was all but gone. We all knew she wasn't long for this world.

    After performing the CatScan the doctors said there was no hope for recovery. The stroke created a large lesion in the brain and she was bleeding internally. Her speech centers were wiped out and she was permanently unconscious. She had only a few days or mere hours to live.

    There was nothing the doctors could do. Nothing. In this day and age. I felt as if we were living in the medieval era. It just seemed strange to me that no interventions or treatments were even possible.

    At the end of the work day I took my kids to the hospital. I had the uncomfortable task of having to tell my 7-year old and 9-year old that their grandmother was going to die and that we were going to say our last goodbyes. The shocked look on their faces is something I won't soon forget.

    Another jolt awaited us when we arrived at the hospital. Gramma lay on the bed connected to a morphine drip. Her breathing was steady but labored. Vital sign monitors beeped and clicked in the background. Her body twitched in uncontrollable spasms every few minutes. She looked as if she had aged 20 years overnight. The stroke had clearly inflicted considerable damage.

    We all took turns holding her hand and consoling her, desperately hoping she could hear us. Her hand was so warm. The kids and I reluctantly offered our last goodbyes and went home while the rest of the family stood guard.

    She died three hours later.

    Gramma was 77-years old, which is still young in my opinion. I think it's wonderful that she lived a reasonably long and full life, but her death still seems like such a waste. A lot of rationalizing goes on during times like these; we are socialized to feel less saddened by the death of an elderly person than, say, the death of a child. This kind of thinking disguises the fact that every death is a terrible tragedy.

    And then there's that whole aging process. Aging doesn't just kill us, it kills us horribly. Sitting next to my mother-in-law in the hospital I was outraged -- outraged at all those who feel we shouldn't interfere with the aging process; outraged at all those who obstruct research into life extending medical technologies; outraged at all those who are blind to horrors of aging.

    I'm reminded of a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien,
    "There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that happens to Man is ever natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die, but for every man his death is an accident. And even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation."
    Fight Aging and be inspired by the medical possibilities.

    New Air CD: Pocket Symphony

    Air's new CD, Pocket Symphony, was released earlier this week. Check out the lyrics to the track, "One Hell of a Party" (which I can't help but feel has end-of-the-world conotations):
    Please do not follow where I am leading
    Someone must clear these things away
    Here in the burnt out husk of the morning
    Struck out with nothing left to say

    Yeah this was one hell of a party
    Nobody ever got to bed
    But the morning after's killing me
    And I have to rest my head

    And just where were we trying to get to?
    I can't recall one single word
    And the faces that pushed themselves before you
    Come into one, nothing transferred

    This was one hell of a party
    And it's still living in my head
    But the morning after shines so cold
    So follow where I live

    This was one hell of a party
    Nobody got to go to bed
    Let's face it now, it's over
    But this morning after's killing me
    And I have to rest my head
    These guys often have interesting lyrics. Check out "Biological" from their previous release, Talkie Walkie:
    Thousands of hairs
    Two eyes only
    Its you

    Some skin
    Billions of genes
    Again its you

    XX XY
    That's why it's you and me

    Your blood is red
    It's beautiful genetic love

    I don't know why I feel that way with you
    I need your DNA

    Your fingerprints
    The flesh, her arm, your bones
    I'd like to know
    Why all these things move me

    Let's use ourselves to be as one tonight
    Apart of me would like to travel in your veins

    I don't know why I feel that way with you
    I need your DNA
    BTW, Arcade Fire and Amon Tobin also released new albums this week.

    March 3, 2007

    'Tis the season to go to concerts

    I've got four delicious rock concerts lined up over the next several weeks: The Shins (Kool Haus on March 17), Isis (Opera House on March 20), Placebo (the Guvernment on April 9), and Kaiser Chiefs (Kool Haus on April 18).

    Life is good.

    March 1, 2007

    Second Life's in-world terrorism and the struggle for digital rights

    Second Life, the immensely popular 3-dimensional virtual world, is really starting to take on a life of its own. There are things going on in there that have undoubtedly gone beyond the wildest expectations of its developers.

    The latest issue to grab my attention is the phenomenon of in-world terrorism and the rise of self-professed freedom fighters. These folks aren't your run-of-the-mill hackers or griefers looking to cause mischief. Rather, these are 'activists' who are working subversively within Second Life (SL) to achieve political ends. Their goal is to extend digital rights for SL users beyond the standard customer-company relationship. Subsequently, by dealing with current in-world problems they are, perhaps unintentionally, looking ahead to the day when Second Life and other virtual worlds play a much more meaningful role in our lives.

    Avatars of Second Life, unite!

    Specifically, I am referring to the Second Life Liberation Army (SLLA). Their intention is
    to liberate SL users from the perceived tyranny of Linden Labs, the developer of SL. The group was formed as the in-world paramilitary wing of a national liberation movement. They argue that universal suffrage is a right that should be established within SL immediately. The SLLA, who is led by 'political officer' Marshal Cahill, contends that Linden Labs has gone beyond its mandate and is now functioning as a de facto authoritarian government. Consequently, they see in-world fighting as the "only appropriate response."

    Annoyed by the steady encroachment of corporations like Reebok and IBM, the SLLA works to undermine their virtual presence through disruption -- what has been dubbed in-world terrorism. They set off "atomic bombs" and fire guns at other users. Their shenanigans are often posted on YouTube.

    Obviously no one really gets hurt, but the intention is to create annoyances that will make the gaming experience uncomfortable and bring attention to their struggle. They say they will not seek to harm the normal operation of the world and will only attack "agents of the state" and other strategically important sites within SL.

    The SLLA demands are,
    The establishment of basic 'rights' for Second Life Players. Having consulted widely we now believe the best vehicle for this is for Linden Labs to offer public shares in the company. We propose that each player is able to buy one share for a set-price. This would serve both the development of the world and provide the beginnings of representation for avatars in Second Life.
    A growing concern among users is land scarcity. Second Life has experienced such rapid growth that Linden Labs has been unable to keep up with the demand, which has in turn created land scarcity. Corporations, say the SLLA, are scooping up land and putting up eye sores.

    A new world order?

    Cahill describes himself as a kind of John Adams -- a revolutionary who is just trying to make the world a better place. The analogy is certainly interesting. Many New World settlers who emigrated from Europe were certain that they could establish radically new social orders in the Americas. Early settler John Winthrop was famous for saying "we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." The goal was to create a new Zion free from European conventions and political baggage.

    Today, Second Life and other virtual reality environments reveal the very real possibility that virtual space is livable space. Like the New World, it is virgin territory, unspoilt and open-ended (with all due respect to native Americans). The prospect for social renewal has some political ideologues (including some transhumanists) frothing at the mouth in consideration of the possibilities. In their mind utopia is only a few mouse clicks away.

    At least until the big nasty corporations come in and rain on the parade. And that is precisely why the SLLA has taken it upon themselves to uproot what they perceive to be a very serious problem.

    Personal livelihood and distributed personhood

    Linden Labs claims that by allowing corporations to operate in Second Life they have opened a legitimate revenue stream. It's only recently, they say, that they have become a profitable company.

    Which brings up an important question: is Linden Labs accountable in the way the SLLA claims they should be? There are a number of factors to consider.

    First, Linden Labs is a company, not a government. Users are paying customers who voluntarily enter SL for entertainment purposes. Some even make a couple of bucks on the side. At the same time, however, users are the cogs that run the machine. In this sense they are like collaborators or workers who keep the environment running. The l
    ine distinguishing customer and collaborator is becoming hazy.

    That said, there are two critical aspects to consider as virtual worlds mature: personal livelihood and distributed personhood.

    Linden Labs opened a huge can of worms by allowing an internal economy to exist in-world. Savvy users are finding ways to make a living by exploiting scarcity in SL. Consequently, more and more people are becoming dependent on SL for their income. Moreover, it's not unreasonable to suggest that many future business models will come depend on virtual environments of this sort. They will be places to conduct business.

    Second, due to rich and realistic in-world experiences, a significant degree of personhood is transmitted into cyberspace. Users tend to become attached to their SL personas; their avatars are their extended self.

    Looking ahead to regulation

    These considerations suggest that tangible harm and injustice can be done to an individual in the virtual world. The line separating the real from the synthetic is blurring, which necessarily means that civil laws will at some point have to extend into cyberspace. If it can be determined that customers are being harmed by the company running the virtual environment, and that the activities and ventures within the world transcend the company-customer relationship, then regulation and policing will have to be considered.

    I completely anticipate the day when virtual worlds become regulated. How this will be accomplished, however, is a mystery to me -- particularly considering the fact that a nearly unlimited number of virtual worlds can run independent of one another, each with their own rules and agendas. There will be as many worlds as there are ideas, including anarchist states, communist utopias, religious havens, hedonistic wonderlands and surreal environments.

    My initial suspicion is that sanctioned and unsanctioned virtual environments will arise. Sanctioned worlds will be regulated and relatively safe, while users will take their lives and livelihoods into their own hands by venturing into unsanctioned areas.

    On a related note, a time will come when people start to demand ubiquitous access to the Internet and the right to enter and operate within specific virtual worlds. People will start to insist on safe and fair environments in which they can work and play. Further, they will insist on citizenship rights for integral virtual worlds.

    In the meantime groups like the SLLA will, perhaps naively, continue to agitate and fight for increased political rights and economic privileges in cyberspace. They will undoubtedly fail in their attempt to alter Linden Labs' business model, but it's the precedent of their work that's important. Human activity is very quickly migrating into cyberspace and it appears that humanity is taking their baggage with them.