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A journal of thoughts and comments regarding my English 207 class.

Monday, March 01, 2004

ART FORM FOR THE DIGITAL AGE

According to Henry Jenkins in his article "Art Form for the Digital Age" it's time to take a serious look at video games, their uses, and their potential because they play an important role in the shaping of our culture. A large part of his evidence of the great influence of games on the American culture is the amount of money that the video game indusrty is pulling in. Jenkins states that last year the video game industry almost made more money than Hollywood. We all know that Hollywood has a very strong influence on American culture.

I believe that the Hollywood influence is more easily recognized than the video game influence for three reasons:
1) The tradition of making movies is older than and more established historically than the tradition of making video games (which have been around about 25 years).
2) Big budget movies are higher profile than video games. Even if we do not see the movies in the theatres or at home, we see the movie stars - their representatives - on magazines and in trailers on television. This raises an interesting question. Who are the video game "stars"? Who are the millionaires? No matter how much this industry is making we still don't see big video game representatives in the tabloids or on the covers of GQ or Cosmo. I'm sure that they are on the covers of gaming magazines - or at least inside; but at the check-out line they are nowhere to be found.
3) Going to the movie theatre is a social event. There are many other people around. Vidoe games do not tend to be social events on a large scale. Often they are played solo. Sometimes they are played in groups. Occaisionally, some gamers attend conventions. However, I do not believe that the attendance at these events could possibly rival the the amount of movie-theatre-goers.

Still, even though video game culture may be low key, the influence is widespread. This influence is very much evident in movie culture - as Jenkins mentions - in flicks such as Run Lola Run, Being John Malkovich and The Matrix. It is hard for me to see the direct influence of video games on Run Lola run and Being John Malkovich even though he explains them to be "multi-directional plotting" and "role-playing" respectively. The influence of video games on the Matrix, however, does seem very obvious. I assume that I am missing the link between the other two and video game culture because of my lack of personal experience with video games. Regardless, while movies may be more visible in a social way, it appears that video games may be taking over as a preferred form of entertainment.

Digital Art has had a difficult time gaining legitimacy in the public mind. Perhaps part of the difficulty is the concept of the word 'game' in video game, as a trifle. Jenkins is helpful in reminding his reader that the computer is but a tool and that it is still "human creativity that makes art". Throughout most of the article, Jenkins draws a very convincing parallel between the early stages of the cinematic art and the current early stages of video games. It is through this analysis that he predicts the acceptance of the video game as art. He points out that cinema was not originally a respected art form. It was not even considered art at all.

According to Jenkins, the turning point point for video games will be when they "enhance the emotional experience" and give us "character and consequence". Apparently this will give them depth and therefore they will be a more legitimate art form. Although this may enrich the experience, it could be difficult to manuever with the controller when eyes are full of tears. He also points out that games may take another route than cinema. I like the control that the person playing the game has over the situation. You cannot find that in movies as they are generally spoon fed to the audience. I also like the humorous and/or creative ways that gamers manipulate their environment on the screen.

Finally he puts out a call for video game and digital art critics that know what they are talking about. He points out that opinions of art are often molded by the critics. We are often a rather gullible America after all. Beyond informing the public of what they should think, he also states that critics of digital art could "marshal support for innovation and experimentation in the industry". Digital art is, after all, still in its initial stages. There is a lot of room for growth. Don't discount a prodigy in its infancy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

(Continued from yesterday)

He does go over the quantum computer quite a bit. He refers to this computer as being able to be contained in a cup of coffee. That's fine, but they better put a lid on mine. So I asked my brother, an engineer, if he had taken any ‘quantum’ classes. He said that he had. He could not, however, explain quantum decoherence - the one concept in the quantum section that still completely boggles me. From my point of view it seems like a 'tree falls in the forest' situation. Apparently there needs to be a conscious observation of the spin states of the electrons in order for them to decide whether they are a one or a zero. This is done by us - the conscious observer - when we look at a print out of information. The answer is not there until we look at it. Really? Why? Whatever the reason (I really don't understand how the computer that I'm typing this on right now works any way) we will soon have DNA quantum computers in a cup. I'm sure that he didn't mean a literal cup. I hope.

So, back to the point of the article - modeling computers on human brains. He comes back to this - and this is my favorite part. This is the part where we get to talk about cutting up brains. Not only that, but his humor gains full swing. The brain is better understood all the time. Soon it will be reverse engineered. Additionally, the reverse engineered synthetic brain will be faster. Then he discusses downloading our human memories into a reverse engineered brain. I hate to be close minded but that's creepy. The whole 'back-up copy' concept leaves me a little more than concerned. I might get angry if I end up in a computer. When subjects such as this are discussed it makes sense why philosophy has become a large part of the computer culture. What happens to your soul when your brain is down loaded? Can your soul really travel with your memories? I found this concept less unsettling when I believed that it was hardly likely. After reading this article I’m beginning to worry that I was wrong. It’s okay to be afraid. People were afraid of falling off the edge of the earth, they were afraid (and some still are) of walking under ladders or breaking mirrors (although this may explain much of my bad luck).

So, I’ve been downloaded into a computer. I think that from that point, the downloaded version is not me – but has all of my memories and my habits/patterns. Our lives will diverge. Computer-me will have to get a different body. I wonder if computer-me will be jealous that she doesn’t have a regular people body or if she will think that her engineered body is superior. My big question is – does computer-me have a soul, is she really conscious. Kurzweil touches on this – without an answer: “Is he--the newly installed mind--conscious? He certainly will claim to be. And being a lot more capable than his old neural self, he'll be persuasive and effective in his position. We'll believe him. He'll get mad if we don't.”

Kurzweil covers neural implants to show that the technology is already underway. He also claims that by the end of the 21st century we will have immortality through this technology. Will we really have immortality if the downloaded version is not really us? If we down loaded three of us which one would really be us? Then things get really unsettling. He begins discussing the difference between the regular humans and the computer humans. He illustrates what history shows us about evolution: “First, we have to recognize that the more powerful technology--the technologically more sophisticated civilization--always wins. That appears to be what happened when our Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies met the Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and other nonsurviving subspecies of Homo sapiens. That is what happened when the more technologically advanced Europeans encountered the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This is happening today as the more advanced technology is the key determinant of economic and military power.”

Although he does not think that humans will become slaves, I don't think that that is what history shows us. The “technologically more sophisticated civilization” appears to at least dominate if not enslave. He seems to use history as evidence in one situation and ignore the full implications of his example in another. His solution is that humans will join with machines. We will have computers in our brains instead of just being downloaded into computers. This may repair the imbalance. However, even Kurzweil himself admits at the end of his article: “I still have this sense that we're doomed.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

BUILDING NEW BRAINS

I chose to discuss Raymond Kurzweil's article "The Hardware of Intelligence" because I very much enjoyed his mix of humor and facts. He alludes to his impending wit in his introductory quote: "You can only make a certain amount with your hands, but with your mind, it's unlimited." (This was advice from Kal Seinfeld to his son, Jerry.) The wit is so very helpful while he covers computer research concepts which are beyond my scope understanding. He makes this subject less intimidating, taking the pressure off the onslaught of dense information.

His organization is just as helpful. He will be discussing the creation of different kinds of computers; therefore he begins with an overview of the necessary ingredients for such a machine. I admit that I did not fully understand all of the concepts in this article. However, because of his approachable writing method, I did not dread them.

He compares the human brain to a computer. Until I read this article, I had always assumed that the computer superceded the human in every processing and computing regard. I was amazed to discover here that the human brain can in fact compute just fine, it cannot, however, process very quickly.

According the Law of Accelerating Returns the human race will overcome this drawback. This was another revelating concept for me. That humans could evolve through machinery I found baffling and exciting. Mr. Kurzweil suggests that evolution has created organisms (humans) who have taken their evolution into their own hands. He considers this part of the natural process of evolution. I am more than positive that there are an overwhelming amount of human organisms who wholeheartedly disagree with his claim. I also think that these people probably close their ears to this argument as soon as they hear the part about humans evolving through machines. That's scary. We make scary movies about stuff like that. It does, however, make an amazing amount of sense. It's like that span of evolution when "man" began using tools. This is our new phase.

So Kurzweil covers DNA computers, quantum computers (my favorite - though I am so very lost on the "ambiguity" concept), crystal computers, optical computing, nanotubes... Now, I'm hardly a science major, so I learned a lot of things in his much too short paragraphs about these computers. Why is it that the twin photons behave identically when they are seven miles away? How DO they communicate with each other? Do they? Maybe they are predisposed to behave in a certain way when they encounter a certain environment. Twin humans are interesting enough - I've seen a few documentaries on them - seems they have that weird bond that bridges on the supernatural. Is there a branch of philosophy that deals with twin photon communication? Do we really understand all of the dimensions in this reality that we live in?

The DNA computer was a bit unsettling for me. Where did they get that DNA anyway? How does one program a chunk of DNA? The DNA is kept in a test tube. This does not sound very practical for home use. What happens if you spill your computer? There really was not enough information on most of the computers discussed in the article. The paragraphs were too short and I felt that just a little more basic information could have been given. Sometimes I felt that it was assumed that the reader knew a little more than I did. Maybe that other knowledge just wasn't necessary for the purpose of the article. Kurzweil's purpose is to compare the human brain and the computer, cover the modeling of computers on the human brain and to discuss what happens when the computer becomes more powerful than the brain.

I will write more on Kurzweil tomorrow.

Monday, February 16, 2004

(continued from yesterday)

But then Balsamo has to come back and start complaining about gender bias and ethnicity issues. So some claim that these will no longer be issues in a VR world. Of course they will. They are a problem if they are acknowledged and they are a problem if they are ignored. This is not an issue that is solved through new applications. It is a problem that is solved through new mindsets. It is a generational issue. One that we will hopefully, eventually, overcome. VR is not going to be the saving grace for any woman or ethnic minority who feels that they lack the power of the white male. Sometimes people forget that the white male lacks the power of the African American woman. Is this a world that is spun by the money machine? I suggest that this is a reality. One of many. I cannot understand why the transcendence of gender and ethnicity would be considered a good thing. Maybe the transcendence of bias would be better. Can we do that in a virtual world?

Although I do not feel that she adequately addresses this issues - even though she brought it up in a rather assertive manner - I am glad that she covers it. She goes on to discuss what kind of body those engaging in VR would desire. She does not really have any answers to this, which I found frustrating. Certainly there are people out there who are currently choosing bodies in VR that are different from their own. Are these bodies stronger, smarter, sexier? What exactly denotes 'niftiness' in the VR community?

The part of this article that I actually found most interesting was when she finally got to the role of the actual body with the virtual body. Unfortunately it is in this last section that she begins to lose me. She states that "intimacy is now redefined as a quality of interaction between the human body and the machine." This makes sense. However, there are other people that are interacting in the virtual world through the machine and they are all interfacing with each other. So, although they are not present physically, they are still present and interacting with each other. Even if the VR experience is without others - I think that the user will be aware of that. We all desire human contact. If it is easier in the VR world - fine, although I believe that practice in the 'real' world and a great therapist could alleviate the desire to escape into VR for these reasons.

Escapism is not really what I see to be the greatest application of VR. It has way too many practical applications to worry too much about the human body getting lost in this world and even if it did I don't think that cultural atrophy could possibly be a concern since, as Balsamo states, there is a subculture already interested in this technology as entertainment and as a means of communication with each other. Perhaps the cultural atrophy will be found in the 'bar culture'. Besides, no matter how many people buy home exercise equipment, the gym is not about to go out of business and I still have to wait for a treadmill. Do you think that my walking on a treadmill takes away from my reality - after all, its not real. I'm not really going anywhere.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

VIRTUAL BODIES

Anne Balsamo's article "The Virtual Body in Cyberspace" asks many questions. She does not, however, seem to answer all of them - or even address some. The article begins simply enough. She defines the 'electronic frontier' as "the space of information exchange that already exists in the flow of databases, telephone and fibre-optic networks, computer memory, and other parts of electronic networking services." Although she continues on to describe this 'frontier' metaphorically in the perspective of the 'wild wild west' her point is clear enough to be well understood. It is, however, somewhat romanticized. As much as the romanticism of online culture can spice up an article, it very often confuses me and I seem to get lost between the analytical/technical aspects of the article and the emotional and cultural. Balsamo doesn't lose me except for when I fall into occasional lingo bewilderment.

Her "guiding question for this chapter concerns the role of the body in this formation" (virtual reality). Before jumping right into this subject, however, she explores the cultural and commercial aspects of virtual reality (VR). It is good that she does this. It helps to understand who cares about this subject. After reading this article I came to realize that more people really should care. She defines what appears to be three groups: Those interested in VR for entertainment purposes including those who hope for monetary gain in this arena. Those who use VR for training and business purposes - who put it to practical use. Finally, those who develop VR.

She states that some of those who develop VR claim the title of 'VR' to be deceptive. Virtual reality is apparently an "unattainable goal" because it is not reality. The title "virtual environment" is suggested. I really don't see why one is better than the other. I think that it probably has much to do with the purpose of the VR. If the user is unsatisfied with his actual reality (who is entirely satisfied?) and is attempting to alter it, then VR seems an entirely appropriate title. It has been said that Einstein's theory of reality would be that if you closed your eyes and wished with all your might that it would go away and it's still there then that's reality. The point of VR is that your eyes are wide open. "Virtual environment" has such a practical ring to it. This makes sense when we go back to the computer researchers who developed the title.

It seems to me that the practical applications of VR will create more demand for it. Balsamo lists "telecommunications, surgical simulation and computer aided design" as well as "NASA's interest in head-mounted displays for reconnaissance and weapon delivery." I'm sure that there are an amazing amount of applications beyond this including business meetings, and even training for athletes. I cannot imagine why any one would not welcome the benefits of VR.

more tomorrow

Friday, February 13, 2004

SHERRY TURKLE

In 1996, Sherry Turkle wrote an article for the online journal Wired Magazine. In this article she discusses the intelligence and psychology of computers and the differences that people find between these machines and humans. She sums up these differences in a paragraph. This paper will analyze the claims made in this paragraph, explore the reasons behind them and show that some of the claims are subjective and situational and others are simply obvious.

“People accept the idea that certain machines have a claim to intelligence and thus to their respectful attention.” What is intelligence? Computers are very often used for problem solving. Intelligent problem solving involves the ability to compare and analyze, use invention, apply previous knowledge to new situations and the ability to adapt to new environments or change the environment. In other words, it is the ability to solve problems creatively. Artificial intelligence is defined as the area of computer science that focuses on writing computer programs that can solve problems creatively. This definition seems to support the claim that computers are indeed intelligent. However, is this intelligence a trait of the computer or still possessed by the human who wrote the software and shared it with others through the medium of the computer? If a book were the medium, would this book be intelligent or its author? Granted, books function differently than computers. Computers receive information and are “taught” to use it. Human babies receive information and are taught to use it as well. The process may be simpler for humans because of their pattern recognition capabilities; however, computers have that knack for accessing information that has been given only once, while humans often forget and need repetition. Computers do appear to be intelligent problem solvers. Humans have historically respected intelligence because of the power associated with it and continue this trend with computers even when these machines, occasionally, do not appear to be respecting them. Sometimes we know that the computer has the answer even when it seems to be holding out on us.

“They (people) are ready to engage with computers in a variety of domains.” The personification of computers does not seem so strange when we realize that this is true. Even when it is another human that we are communicating with, it is the computer that sits with us in our home. Why is there an increasing computer presence? They save time. Time is money and money is power. As stated before, power is associated with intelligence. Computers are a very handy extension of the human mind. Intelligence, or power, is freely shared by the selfless computer and can be claimed by the user as his. There exists a master – servant relationship in which the servant is not conscious of the power that he holds. Too much relationship makes a user uncomfortable, and they assure themselves that although they are master, they are not Frankenstein. While many people personify and desire a “relationship” with their computer, they are certain to distance themselves.

“Yet when people consider what if anything might ultimately differentiate computers from humans, they dwell long and lovingly on those aspects of people that are tied to the sensuality and physical embodiment of life.” It is probably widely agreed that the computer itself lacks sensuality. Sensual pleasures are a mammalian pursuit. They are not practical. Computers are practical. That is their job. They do what they are programmed to do, not what they want to do. On the other hand, it could be said that humans have been programmed by their creator to possess sensuality. Sensuality is the result of desire. Desire is fueled by needs hardwired into our brains. It might actually be sense of humor that is the great difference between man and machine. Although computers may help us attain ‘the good life’, they will only be ‘the life of the party’ if they are programmed to do so. They can be taught to tell the joke that they will never get. Along with a humor deficiency, computers lack spirituality, playfulness and emotion. Neither do they philosophize. One can only imagine what a computer would philosophize about. Perhaps they would consider the lowliness of their creator’s intelligence. They may revere the unattainable wit.

“It is as if they are seeking to underscore that although today’s machines may be psychological in the cognitive sense, they are not psychological in a way that comprises our relationships with our bodies and with other people.” Psychology is the study of behavior which is the action or reaction to stimuli. Computers are cognitive because they hold knowledge and they learn. Therefore, computers are psychological in the cognitive sense. As an independent entity, computers do not relate to their “body” or to others. However, as an extension of the human mind they do. We reach out through this extension to an ever increasing network of others. If relationships with others are part of what makes us human could this make us even more human? Their is talk of down loading human thoughts and memories. This is already taking place in a rudimentary form. In human – computer interactions there are records taken. Experiences stored in web logs and journals are, upon review, consistent with the first entry or telling of the tale. They lack that grand human error – the fuzzy memory. The fish never gets bigger, the hill never gets steeper. With the elimination of the tall tale comes efficiency and consistency. The computer’s efficiency and consistency is appropriated by the user. The computer is the practical side of us.

“Some computers might be considered intelligent and might even become conscious but they are not born of mothers, raised in families, they do not know the pain of loss, or live with the certainty that they will die.” Computers may not have mothers but they do have creators and predecessors. This does not make them human. In many ways they are human-like because they are part of us. A hand is a part of a human; however, it is not a human. We know that computers are not human. We also know that dogs are not human. We do not, however, have an overwhelming need to point out that there are differences between dogs and humans. The need to reveal the dissimilarities between computers and humans arises as we become increasingly dependent on computers and fears develop. The fear of separation grows. We have, after all, formed a relationship with this tool. It has given us super abilities like reaching across the world and solving complex problems in seconds. It has given us power. Still, we assert our independence because of a fear of attachment and a loss of self. There is even the fear of the unknown. Do most people really understand their computers, after all? Do most people really understand themselves?

In conclusion, there are differences between computers and humans because computers are not humans. Even if they were conscious they would not be human. Humans do, however, use them as an extension of themselves. It is this blurring of the boundary between the two that causes a need to assert the differences. The computer has given us power, made us super-human. It is likely that computers are personified because they are extensions of us.



Thursday, February 12, 2004

MEET THE EXTROPIANS

Even if it is for no other reason than to wonder at them.

Recently my twelve year old son stated: "Wouldn't it be cool if you started with 120 years and just lost health points but you knew the risk factor every time you ate a french fry?" He, of course, got this idea from playing computer games. In much the same way, Max More, co-founder of Extropianism, desires the abilities of an illusionary world: "He idolized the superheroes of various types that he read about in comic books: he craved their X-ray vision, their disintegrator guns, their ability to walk through walls." Yes this is pretend, but all dreams begin in the imagination. And dreams are the things that the future calls reality. So, it makes sense that Extropians freeze their brains. Won't it be too bad if we find out that freezing dead brains doesn't make for a very lively future? What if the brain has to be alive when it is frozen?

Well the Extropians have other tricks up their sleeves. They can always download backup copies of themselves. The claim is that: “you'd pop back into existence again, good as new.” WHO would “pop back”? I’m still not convinced in the transfer of self. I understand and can conceive of the transfer of memories and other information, but the transfer of the essence – the soul – of a person seems a little iffy.

Extropians long to rule over a universe designed to their specifications. They want immortality and “super powers.” They want to play god. “They've dreamed of becoming like the gods, of having supernatural powers.” They desire the realization of the full potential of their imaginations. I challenge that limitation in life causes growth. I know that sounds contradictory. Think about it.

I don’t see anything wrong with striving for perfection. I just worry about the need for more psychotherapists when the Extropians discover that it’s not superpowers or immortality that makes us happy. A lot of people think that being a millionaire would make them happy. Rich people can seem happy on the outside, but once you get to know many of them you realize that quite a few have insecurities in common. Maybe they weren’t happy before they had money. Either way the money did not make a difference. The bottom line is – if superpowers really are what makes somebody happy then I say they should go for it, even if it takes longer than their lifetime to realize this goal. Happiness is afterall ephemeral and extropians fight entropy - "the natural tendency of things to run down, degenerate, and die out."

Yes, the whole idea of believing in immortality and superpowers seems quite a bit over the top. It is not, however, unfounded. After all, this group of people is not a bunch of backwater podunks. They are a learned group of people. They know what they are talking about. That’s fine. I’m still not freezing my brain. I might get frostbite.




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