Science Technology

Enhanced reality: Noise in Space?

So it occurred to me (while watching some dumb sci-fi TV series set in space) that maybe spaceships that make noise in a vacuum isn’t such a dumb idea after all. I mean, obviously they wouldn’t (couldn’t) make any noise, but there would be all kinds of reasons why it would be in the best interest of neighbouring ships to simulate the sensation. After all, noise can convey all kinds of useful information – different guns make different noises, different engines make different noises, you can tell the location – perhaps even the speed – of an object by pure noise alone. If we were to assume that – in space – the computers and sensors on ships would most likely be taking in much more information than a human could easily assimilate through a visual interface, then it makes total sense that you’d try to deliver some of it through sound. In fact it seems astonishing that you wouldn’t!

In such an environment – detached from everything outside your pressurised container by metal and vaccuum – the only sense that you’d otherwise have much use for would be sight. Smell would be pretty much redundant, you couldn’t reach out and touch anything and taste (bluntly) wouldn’t be that useful. Even the limited amount of motion senses that we have would probably be quite dramatically interfered with by the unfamiliarity of space and either an absence of, or a highly localised and disorientating forms of, gravity. That being the case – making use of a sense that would otherwise have very limited input would seem to be eminently practical and useful. Overlaying this enhanced – information-delivering, but yet still artificial – reality over normal video footage would create an outer-space that was more obviously comprehensible to human beings. That simple layer of mediation would help transform the insanely complex and alien into the routinely prosaic (this being – after all – precisely the reason that TV series put the noise in). So From now on I’m going to pretend that’s what they’re doing when the Romulan ships let off a volley of patouieee-ing distruptor blasts. I’m going to pretend they have a special insight into the world of the future and the ambient interfaces that they might use. I’m going to remark to myself, “How clever they were to think of that!”

For more information on various kinds of enhanced reality, you might try out some of these links:


Reactions to "The Blank Slate" (Part Two)

Some really interesting stuff in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate about responsibility, free will and guilt:

“When we say that we hold someone responsible for a wrongful act, we expect him to punish himself – by compensating the victim, acquiescing to humiliation, incurring penalties, or expressing credible remorse – and we reserve the right to punish him ourselves. Unless a person is willing to suffer some unpleasant (and hence deterring) consequence, claims of responsibility are hollow. Richard Nixon was ridiculed when he bowed to pressure and finally “took responsibility” for the Watergate burglary but did not accept any costs such as apologizing, resigning, or firing his aides.”


Reactions to "The Blank Slate" (Part One)

I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate – recently published in paperback. Even though I’m only a fraction of the way through it, I can already recommend it. Part of me is prejudiced, of course. During the time I was failing to complete my doctorate, I spent a lot of time working with Freud. Many people are rightly suspicous of Freud – I would argue that you can’t employ his work effectively if you are not suspicious. You have be prepared to investigate some of the cultural baggage of his period and to be aware of some of the science and philosophy that has emerged since he died. But whether you’re suspicious or not – I asserted then and I still assert now that there is more value in having an explicit model of the mind to play with than to generate a fresh bastardisation on the fly every time you approach a problem which involves human agency. I suppose that’s why I’m quite keen on this quote:

“The interplay of mental systems can explain how people can entertain revenge fantasies that they never act on, or can commit adultery only in their hearts. In this way the theory of human nature coming out of the cognitive revolution has more in common with the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature, and with the psychoanalytic theory proposed by Sigmund Freud, than with behaviorism, social constructionism, and other versions of the Blank Slate. Behavior is not just emitted or elicited, nor does it come directly out of culture or society. It comes from an internal struggle among mental modules with differing agendas and goals.”

If I get a chance later I’ll stick up a reaction paper I gave internally at Bristol University years ago about Haydn White’s The Content of the Form. It’s related. Honest.

Politics Science Social Software

Steven Pinker and the Perfectibility of Man…

There’s fragments of a paper in my head. I need to find ways of noting this stuff down that doesn’t collide with my writing on this site. It goes back before Clay, to a place of darkness that is somewhere around the edges of some work I did in classics about a million years ago around constructivist and essentialist views of human nature and history (of which there is much written). Arts disciplines normally concentrate on that which makes the past a different place – alien and weird. Science concentrates on what is permanent and unyielding. The questions are always relational – is science skeletal to humanities meat (or meat to skin maybe)? Are the bones of science demonstrated to be brittle by philosophical poststructuralist critiques? Or are the relativisms of cultural studies shed like the masquerading shell of a scientific Terminator?

So this is the point where I talk about Freud and my interest in models of the mind at that abstracted level – that it’s maybe ‘unscientific’, but it’s still essentialising (just at a different level). I delivered a paper on anachronism and identification in Aristotle and Freud a million years ago at a conference in New York. I can’t remember what I said – and I finished it on sheets of hotel stationary while inhaling the minibar, so I’ll probably never find a useful copy of it anywhere either… Maybe there’s stuff that’s permanent – maybe we just accept that. I believed that then and I think I believe it now… Interesting, but not obvious questions these – whatever you may wish to believe…

So Steven Pinker’s on TV and he’s talking about the perfectibility of man and that sense of a “Blank Slate” that he writes about in his latest book of the same name. And he’s talking about stuff I already knew, but I don’t know where from – the association of the political left with ideologies that deny human nature as something fixed and permanent (which explains to me the resistance that feminism always had to Freud and reminds me of an incredibly brief and nerve-wracking conversation that I had with Alan Sinfield [profile] back when I was an intellectual before I became an artisan). He said that Freud was “bad for gay people”. Same thing. Is essentialising philosophy bad for the left? Anyway – and Pinker is also talking about the right’s acceptance of natural humanity – that the right operates on assumptions that society works around and in concert with fundamental humanity (greed, acquisition, ambition, competition) while the left abstracts out – tries to find ways to make the world more fair by denying or suggesting we change human nature… [cf Juliet Mitchell’s earlier work]. That this ideology of human perfectibility can be considered to lie behind China’s revolution and communist ideology (for example) which considered people malleable enough to be transformed into good non-competitive, collaborative citizens.

And anyway – so I’m back to thinking about Clay again and how much my personal ideologies of community development and the value of social software coincide with his, but that at the same time the statements that he made at ETCon (that I missed, but which were extensions of comments that I’ve heard him say before) are not obvious – “groups act against their own interests” is a statement that needs contextualising. And that although we may feel comfortable asserting it, the ways in which studies of this kind are phrased and the fact that they are based on statements of limited cultural or historical difference between individuals – of an essentialised abstracted almost timeless humanity – might be correct, but are also implicated in much larger battles about the nature of identity and what it means to be human, and what is permanent and what can change. That difference between human groups is obvious and pronounced in many areas of hierarchy and interaction – as obvious as the similarities and that the line between what is human nature and what is acculturation or interpolation/relationships with language is not and may never be entirely clear. Which is not to say that it’s not appropriate to use research of this kind as the basis for social software work – simply that the very principle that we balance out inbuilt human limitations with prostheses and band aids (this is very much core to one of the senses of social software that I’m most comfortable with) is potentially wrapped up in a much larger and scarier and less morally or politically obvious debate than we tend to acknowledge…

This may make no sense to people who aren’t me. It’s messy enough to be only vaguely useful for me – gestural vocabularies, messy arguments and references are all I can offer… But maybe it’ll help me feel less uncomfortable with some of the collisions between my current and previous occupations…

Religion Science

On America, Science and Fundamentalist Christianity…

Probably the one thing I understand least about America is its relationship with religion. American is a country that (i) is particularly known for not being hide-bound by convention in science or business and (ii) often demonstrates an astonishing (and often laudable) amount of bombast and rule-breaking in both domestic and foreign-affairs. How then can it be that so many elements of American life can be held so firmly under the sway of religious fundamentalism?

You’d think this kind of thing would be more of a problem for countries like the UK – old European powers whose organisation includes no inbuilt distinctions between church and state. I mean – look at the facts – in the UK, the monarch is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The same woman is also the country’s Head of State and has been for over fifty years. The UK also has – by law or convention – several representatives of the Church of England in our Upper House (The House of Lords), although there is considerable discussion ongoing about whether they should be there or whether all religions in the country should be represented.

But in fact the UK’s religious right has radically less power within the country than in the US. Presidents of the United States essentially have to be church-going Christians. Church-going in the UK is simply considered a bit odd. We have anti-abortion campaigners just like in the US, but nowhere near as many and nor are they so overtly religious. And while it would be naive of me to say that there are no schools in the UK in which creationism or intelligent design are taught, I can’t find any evidence that it’s even mentioned in the UK’s National Curriculum or that any religiously-tinted competitors for evolution are presented as of equal plausibility.

It’s the effects of religion on science, I think, that most appals me. I don’t believe – never have believed – that science is a completely value-free space. Decisions are made every day about what to study, who to study (and what not to study as well). Initial hypotheses are almost necessarily built upon assumption, intuition and the influx of current mainstream political consensus. But the idea that challenges to theories like “evolution” can circumvent the entire academic peer-review and testing process by way of the courts – inspired by people who want to find ways to equate the world with their religious beliefs… Well, it’s scandalous! Totally, utterly scandalous!

The Guardian is running an article in its new Life section today on exactly this subject: The Battle for American Science. It’s this article that part-inspired me to write about this subject today. Here’s a quote from it:

Critics speak with similar alarm about other theories that have been getting a new airing recently, on Aids and abstinence and global warming, for example – theories presented as rival scientific ideas asking only for a “fair hearing”. “It’s a very good rhetorical strategy, because it appeals to the very American sense of openness and fair play,” says Miller. “But there’s something called the scientific process, you know – involving open publication, criticism, and rejection of things that aren’t convincing. We don’t teach both sides of the germ theory of disease and faith-healing. Evolution isn’t in the classroom because of political action or court decisions. It’s in the classroom because it made it through, it stood up to scrutiny and became the scientific consensus. It fought the battle and won.”