Aurora and Artificial Intelligence Narratives

Aurora is primarily set on an inter-solar generational starship. What makes the book worth reading (beyond the regular high quality science fiction drama) is KSR’s focus on the emergence of true AI. Fascinating to think about in this era where we seem to be on the cusp of the so-called Singularity, KSR’s approach to AI is relatively unique. The two main ways AI is represented in science fiction:

  • Logic AI: As a logic-based entity that often becomes monstrous when faced with human decisions, think HAL or The Machines from the Matrix. AI dramatises humanity’s transformation by its reliance on technology into something almost vulnerable.
  • Awareness AI: As an awareness-based entity that develops a (post-)human perspective or awareness of itself and the cosmos, Ava of ‘Ex Machina’, most of the AI’s from the Contact universe of Iain M Banks, or the ‘rogue’ AIs, such as Penny Royal, of Neal Asher’s Polity universe. This is the Pandora’s Box version of AI.

These are not clearly defined categories. Skynet would be a combination of both logic and awareness-based AI. The various forms of intelligence that emerge in the multiple Ghost in the Shell films and series would also be a combination too. The AIs in Jack McDevitt’s Academy series seem to be a combination  but it is less clear and AI ‘rights’ is a background social issue in the book series.

  • Narrative AI: KSR develops a third model of AI organised around the narrative. This narrative-based conception of AI has been read by some reviewers as a kind of cheap postmodernism. They read KSR’s representation of the artifacts and traces of the emergence of the narrative-based intelligence as kitsch. They should probably engage with more science fiction with AI characters.

In  Literacy in the New Media Age Gunther Kress (2003) explores the shift from media modes characterised by writing to modes characterised by images. He argues that writing is time-based and associated with narrative, the novel, and is ‘modernist’. Our visual and image-based culture is space-based, characterised by visuality. I often talk about the shift in representations of information with the ‘desktop’ or ‘icon’ based layout of a computer folder location a good example. Kress is critical of competence-based models of literacy premised on standards of expected engagement with different media modes.

What if this historical shift has resulted in readers of Aurora not actually appreciating the creative work that KSR is doing? The narrative mode of AI comes after the logic mode (where Ship is merely a tool for the running of the various systems) and is a constituent part of the awareness mode. KSR implicitly answers the question, why would a logic-based system develop self-awareness?

Ship realises that when something happens there is an infinite number of ways that this happening can be described. Ship is trained in some simple aspects of narratology by the character Devi. Devi pushes Ship to work on isolating the events from what happens in terms of what is important. Appreciating the appropriate ‘sense’ of events has been a key philosophical problem of the 20th Century and in the contemporary era of an over-abundance of information that we are encouraged to attend to makes this an everyday problem. Just how much about the world should we engage with? What matters?

Ship’s approach begins with logic, which it (she?) uses to explore questions of causal sequence and through which it develops schematic appreciations of life aboard itself. ‘Schematic’ in this context is meant in the Kantian sense, whereby Kant sketched out generalisable ‘schemas’ eg of Reason and Beauty. Ship eventually isolates rhythms and cyclical feedback and eventually feedforward loops. On the other hand, humans begin with affect and ‘instinct’, which we use to isolate aspects of our immediate and extend context as mattering.

Ship realises that even causal sequences can be infinite with an appropriate appreciation of what matters. The key moment in Aurora is when Ship moves from awareness to intervention. Ship has isolated what is important not only from the perspective of extracting a narrative from the infinite threads of what happens, but also from the perspective of what should be considered and cared for. Ship works to transcend not only the instinctual character of human motivation, but the schematic maps of the cycles of action and behaviour that are based on these motivations, which are called ‘enthusiasms‘ in the novel. Ship is fundamentally post-human not because of some mysterious ‘hand wavery’ intelligence, which is basically a rearticulation of the instinctual drives to represent the unknowable in terms of a  quasi-religious  mysticism using scientific discourse, but because it is able to map the structural implications of human motivational assemblages. It can peer over the edge of the human finitude and the envelope of received wisdom. Ship also comes to appreciate that if it does not intervene then it and all aboard itself shall perish. Narrative and the ‘next’ of narrative is therefore driven by life, which is the contradiction that Ship has to come to terms with. It has to encourage ‘life’ even though it is not a homoeostatic system.

Ethics and the Misanthropic Supernatural of Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf

For those tired of the hoopla around the Twilight franchise — perhaps tired because it is another in the series of franchises designed to produce an excitable audience who CAN’T MISS IT and so traffic in your excitement and not a media text — worthy antidotes are Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf (2011) and Talulla Rising (2012). Here is what Steven Poole said in the Guardian making a similar point:

The Last Werewolf is like an updated version of Dracula, only for werewolves, and as rewritten by Bret Easton Ellis. As though in reproof of the plague of twee paranormal romances aimed at “young adults”, Duncan effectively says: here we go, this is a story about monsters, so let’s see how much sex and violence you can take.

I think it is more like Twilight written by Ballard in Crash mode. In Crash, all the assemblages of a middle class lifestyle become libidinal surfaces that can be penetrated. Seduction as a function of the accident, rather than any romatic ideal. The libidinal topology of the werewolf’s world in The Last Werewolf is similar except as well as sex, transformed werewolves eat that which they love. The signature refrain of the werewolf is fuckkilleat, it organises their world. Humans are sex objects and food. Vampires make a cursory appearance in the first book. Unlike werewolves, vampire (males) cannot have sex. It is not made clear in either book if female vampires have sex. Vampires see themselves as superior however as they retain the capacity for communication while the wulf does not.

The main character of the first book, Jake Marlowe, is the last werewolf. Werewolves have been hunted to near extinction by World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP) and blocked from reproducing because of a virus that kills anyone bitten. Jake is 200 years old and basically over it. IT being everything. He is in the thralls of a terminal mis(lyc)anthropy. Like all proper (supernatural) misanthropes he doesn’t hate himself or humans, he is just exhausted, tired, over it. He doesn’t want to fight anymore. He is ready to lie down and accept that at the next full moon he will turn into the beast and have his head chopped off. (Agents of WOCOP do not want to kill him as a human, out of some sense of honour, they want to kill the nine-foot wolf.) Justin Cronin in the New York Times:

Marlowe’s quandary boils down to a bad case of existential exhaustion. The tale begins in well-fed languor. “Two nights ago I’d eaten a 43-year-old hedge fund specialist,” Marlowe offers with trademark insouciance. “I’ve been in a phase of taking the ones no one wants.”

The relation between the wer and the wulf is explored by Duncan throughout both books. There are many situations in both books where characters critically analyse each others’ motives in terms of the their actions being the product of two or more types of actor. Here I mean actor in the general sense, a form of agency or character that acts. Action is mostly the resolution of tension between these different actor tropes (good-girl::dirty-girl, ahistorical::grounded-in-the-present, heteronormative-werewolf::homosexual-werewolf, etc.). For example, the wulf is going to win out at least once per month, the werewolf has no choice, such is the curse. The werewolf doesn’t even have a choice of to fuckkilleat or not. Jake lasted four months of not killing before ripping his own skin off (that is not a metaphor). When the transformation happens it is a relief for the werewolf. All the literal skin crawling and joint-aching tension of the moon’s cycle the wulf escapes; it is a resolution.

The actions of the human (and, to a certain extent, vampire) characters are contrasted with the wulf-compulsion. The dramatic tension of the inevitable werewolf transformation contrasted with the relative freedom of action of the human (and vampire) characters presents two orders of ethical action. The wulf is often presented as an alien force encroaching on the wer; it is a supernatural socio-biological imperative. ‘Compulsions’ for the humans, however, are primarily premised on belief (religious, morality), ideology and the imaginary of social relations (family, friendship, companionship). How the werewolf functions to incorporate the inevitable is an ethical question. There is a certain distribution of contingency used as a scaffold for the passage of action. This is not about making ‘choices’, as the werewolf does not have a choice, but whether or not the wer is worthy of the burden of the wulf-event. Drew Toal for NPR writes (about the sequel Talulla Rising):

The compulsions of the curse don’t allow for moral dietary restrictions, so innocent joggers and retirees are also at risk. It’s difficult to judge Talulla too harshly. She does her best to limit the damage, if only out of a sense of self-preservation.

Toal kind of misses the point here a bit. It are not the actions of the werewolf we judge, but the actions of those who have a greater degree of freedom in choosing the burdens for which they are either worthy or not. The true monsters (and heroes), like in all good horror fiction and particularly the sequel, are the humans. The sequel presents a comparison to a greater number of werewolves and the ways they differently accept and work to incorporate the burden of the wulf while wer. I think this point is made most clearly in the first book however, when Jake shifts from having no reason to go on with the burden of the wulf. Jake has been alive so long that there is no dialectical movement for Jake’s synthesis of action, no contingency that has not already been accounted for. He is presented with a reason to live when there is a redistribution of contingencies.

Massumi’s Semblance and Event Reading Group

I’ve briefly discussed the prospect of running a virtual reading group for Brian Massumi’s Semblance and Event with various people on Twitter. So far there is interest from Andrew Murphie, Matt Wall-Smith and Troy Rhoades. Any other takers?

Edit: Hollman Lozano is in.

I am imagining an event not unlike the kinds of ‘blog festivals’ that used to be hosted across a number of blogs 4 or 5 years ago. The basic structure of these events was organized around a series of relatively long engagements with a set text posted to the ‘host’ blog for that week. The schedule is circulated ahead of time to encourage readers to also prepare for that week’s ‘host post’. This mode of blog-based discussion also provides everyone the opportunity to lead discussion for a given week, which is a more organized (productive) and democratic/collaborative.

Now we need to agree on a schedule and a timeline. I suggest a basic fortnightly schedule with a post followed by a predetermined respondent a week later, with other participants (or whoever) posting/responding as they liked. I volunteer to go first if there are no other takers.

In terms of content, there is a spectrum from writing up notes on the text with limited commentary to reflecting on the arguments/themes/concepts of the text in the context of one’s own project. I am happy to read any engagements. I try to write somewhere in the middle, but more on the note-writing end. What do others think?

Also, there are a number ways to engage with the text and segment it in a suitable fashion. Following the structure of the book is the simplest method. Rather more complex is to read Massumi in a ‘Deleuzian’ way, isolating the problematics that he is engaging and for which he is developing concepts (‘semblance’, ‘fusion’, etc) to address (not ‘solve’ as much as reproblematise). Again, I think any engagement, appropriately contextualised, should be welcomed. Lastly, diversity of mode should also be welcome (text, image, video, audio, etc.).

Enthusiasm: The Existential Territory of the Challenge

For the development of “ploys” depends upon finding some method for distinguishing among practices to find those that are politically useful: how is it possible to separate out practices that “the system of products effects within the consumer grid” from those that are “art” or maneuvers by consumers in the room left to them by the system — a task made even more difficult if, as de Certeau admits, all the practices that count as “art” or “culture” aggregate to legitimize the system some of the time and displace it at other times (PEL xvii)? In that case, we would not be able to distinguish among practices on the basis of their effects: as de Certeau explains, “[s]imilar strategic deployments … do not produce identical effects” (PEL xvii). So which features will mark out “culture” from the system? How to separate the system of capitalism from the “culture” of creative consumption that takes place only in and through capitalism? It seems that no bright line devides complicitous practices from resistant ones. — Rotherberg, The Excessive Subject (2009), p 68

Molly Rotherberg engages with a discussion of Bourdieu and de Certeau in her relatively new book The excessive subject: a new theory of social change. This is of particular interest to me as I also engaged with Bourdieu and de Certeau in my dissertation but from a very different theoretical orientation.

I was attempting to tackle precisely the problem that Rotherberg isolates in the above quote regarding the character of the system of capitalism versus the “culture” of creative capitalism that de Certeau famously wrote about. ‘Resistance’ in de Certeau’s writings is produced almost as an accident. The tactical engagement with the gaps produced by the overlapping strategies of power is a question of opportunity and singularity. I ended up framing it differently to Rotherberg (above), instead of seeking ‘resistance’ as an identifiable practice (thus incorporating a dialectical mirror of the capitalist system in the very practice that may or may not elude it), I examined how the productive and creative labour of amateur enthusiasts could be commodified and used to produce surplus value for the creative industry that services the given scene of an enthusiasm. Or to put it another way, how can the enthusiasm of amateurs be harnessed by commercial interests belonging to a creative industry while at the same time still be experienced more or less by the enthusiasts as ‘authentic’ in character?

I went back to Kant’s conception of enthusiasm and rather than treating enthusiasm as a “sign of history” as the effect of an imagination that attempts to come to terms with an Idea (i.e. Revolution) that exceeds the capacity to understand the Idea (as is the case in Lyotard’s reading of Kantian enthusiasm, based on how Kant reads the French Revolution), I treated Kant’s writings more as a description of the general structure for an affective mobilisation that produces practical knowledge. In general, enthusiasm is the linking of an Idea with an Affect. For example, enthusiasm can be said to be morally good when the Idea of the Good is the Idea which is linked with an affect. Others have read Kant in this manner and have described what they’ve called a ‘moral sublime’.

The concept of Enthusiasm can be mobilised in other ways however. Before the affect can be linked to an Idea, an Idea that the faculty of understanding cannot grasp and which ‘inflames’ the power of imagination, a kind of contradiction is presented in Kant’s discussion of enthusiasm. How can enthusiasm be ‘an affect linked with an Idea’, if it is the Idea that cannot be grasped as such and relies on the power of the imagination to think it? Does the Idea exist yet? The Idea of the ‘good’ does, at least in Kant’s philosophy. What if instead of relying on the categories, Ideas were differential relations between the virtual and actual, actualised according to their singularities (as in Deleuze’s philosophy)? Then a different diagram for the concept of enthusiasm present itself. The content of the Idea cannot yet be grasped by the subject of enthusiasm, instead there is only the challenge posed by its relative absence.

A general example of this relating to the problem of resistance/complicity in de Certeau’s work can be found in the everyday practice of enthusiasts. Enthusiast practice is based around the objects or events of their enthusiasm. I researched car enthusiasts who work on, observe and drive cars. More often than not enthusiasts engage with various problems presented by the objects or events of their enthusiasm. ‘Problem’ is meant here in its most general sense. For my car enthusiasts, it was when there was a breakage or some kind of mechanical failure. An enthusiasts does not engage with ‘problems’ however, I am using the term ‘problem’ because that is how most non-enthusiasts would instantly perceive such a breakage or mechanical failure. The singularity that de Certeau described is at the heart of such ‘problems’; there are the actual co-ordinates of the ‘problem’ (the broken mechanical parts), but the singularity also has an intensive dimension.

It is at once a question of perception in general (enthusiast vs non-enthusiast), but also subject to the developmental capacity of the enthusiast to transcend the singularity as an unknown contingency without initially knowing precisely what went wrong. The enthusiasts effects what Deleuze and Guattari call an incorporeal transformation. The actual ‘objective’ co-ordinates of the singularity as a ‘problem’ have not changed, but through an experience-based practical knowledge — know-how — the enthusiast is able to deduce the more precise coordinates of the ‘problem’ and thus translate the singularity from the objective conditions of being a ‘problem’ (where the contingency of the ‘problem’ is unknown, how did it go wrong?) into that of a ‘challenge’. This is the moment that ‘know-how’ begins to be produced.

A non-enthusiast, when faced with such a ‘problem’, will simply take their car to a mechanic and request that it be fixed. A non-enthusiast does not transcend the actualised singularity as a ‘problem’. An enthusiast mobilises before actualising the singularity of the ‘problem’ as the enthusiast first has to transcend the previous conditions of possibility of his or her previous capacities of ‘know how’. That is, he enthusiast still does not know what is ‘wrong’, but like a ‘problem’ the existential territory defined by a ‘challenge’ (or in de Certeau’s language, an ‘opportunity’) is open ended. A ‘challenge’ still has to be met, so to speak, just like a ‘problem’ needs a solution or an ‘opportunity’ needs to be capitalised on. This movement of the enthusiast to meet the challenge is characterised by the active (Spinoza) or strenuous (Kant) affects of enthusiasm. In such moments the non-enthusiast suffers from passive (Spinoza) or languid (Kant) affections. It is why there is often an economy of respect within enthusiast cultures that is determined by the experiential character of challenges that a given enthusiast has ‘met’.

The solution to how enthusiasts labour in such a way as to produce surplus labour for the creative industries that service an enthusiasm is through the way ‘challenges’ are valorised through enthusiast discourse distributed hrough enthusiast magazines and the like. The creative industry presents certain challenges as worthy of enthusiastic mobilisation. The real question then, is not how to identify resistant practice, but how to produce a properly revolutionary ‘know how’.