Thursday, May 08, 2014

Zombie as Automaton

The zombie as a metaphor for the fear of immigrants is compelling and convenient.  As such, it holds much explanatory power, especially given the modern popularity of zombies.  It is not the only metaphor available, however, and it may not even be the best modern metaphor.  What follows is a brief meditation on zombies as a metaphor for the fear of automation.

Popular conceptions of zombies have always been relentlessly “other”, easily distinguishable from normal humans by their shambling gaits and apparent mindlessness.  If we relied only on the portrayal as other, the immigrant metaphor would suffice.  Yes, there are easy racial overtones, in the same way racist propaganda has sought to dehumanize various peoples in some way, especially in the focus on skin color as a means of determining the degree of otherness, but also in the various attempts over the years to compare intelligence scores between racial groups in an effort to support human-animal classifications that placed non-white races as more akin to animals.  And let’s face it, most zombies do act like “animals” in some sense.  I suspect that’s why these metaphors persist.

But what if, instead, we focus only on the apparent sense of self, that quality we like to use to raise humanity (all of it, if we’re feeling humanist enough) above its mere animal origins?  Sure, there is the animal connection again, the human-biased denial of the selfhood of animals.  As science slowly chips away at the supports of that argument, however, the human animal is left grasping at something else above which to raise itself.  Automation, specifically artificial intelligence, seems to be the target.  This is where a concept of self as a uniquely human (or, as we admit broader definitions of sentience, animal) trait begins to converge into a fear of artificial intelligence.  Even the name artificial intelligence implies a hierarchy, with natural intelligence trumping artificial.

In his novel Blindsight, Peter Watts paints a picture of a zombie that is so good at blending in it doesn’t know it is a zombie.  Possibly of greater importance is that neither does anyone else.  It has adapted itself to act like other people, and although it has its quirks, it appears to fall along the spectrum of roughly normal human experience.  If you are afraid of the implications of artificial intelligence, then this is the zombie that will frighten you the most.  Our intuitive understanding of such artifice is that, no matter how convincingly it portrays itself, it cannot possess a “true” sense of self.  

If we move back into the realm of popular portrayal, the metamorphosis from human to zombie requires the death of the self.  In almost no portrayals do zombies have memories of their former lives, and they instill terror by imbuing non-human life into the dead masks of people we knew.  The most dangerous people in zombie movies fall into two groups: 1) those infected who were, in life, closest to the protagonists, and 2) those infected who gain access to the protagonists’ inner circle prior to becoming recognizably other.  Both are predictable but crucial milestones.  The first requires the protagonist to confront the death of self in former loved ones, thus allowing the protagonist a viable psychology of survival against all other zombies (i.e., they become inhuman).  The second occurs later and forces the protagonist to implement a refinement of the psychology by which tests of worthiness can be applied to any applicant to group membership.  

Both scenarios can appear in a fear of automation metaphor.  We live in an age where it’s no longer readily apparent which actors with which we deal are real humans, pure automaton, or something in between.  Our world is populated by a chimera army of mechanical turks and weak artificial intelligences who, while perhaps unable to pass a Turing test, are nevertheless convincing enough that at worst, they drag us kicking and screaming into the uncanny valley but at best leave us guessing.  Add to this the existential dread conjured up by the specter of genetic engineering, mind uploading, and the perennial efforts to achieve artificial intelligence, and you have a recipe for horror that cannot easily be mapped to a horrific portrayal.  And people have tried.  It’s hard to be truly afraid of a robot uprising because there is rarely a portrayal in which the robots themselves aren’t recognizably other.  Notable exceptions include Terminator, which provides some of the most compelling horror precisely because the terminators resist identification as other.  Identification as other is the prerequisite for being able to fight against the other.  

Zombies that are more successful at appearing human will provide the basis for the most terror, according to this idea.  And the zombies that are most likely to be successful at appearing human are the automatons we’ve either created or made of ourselves, since they reduce our sense of recognizing other-than-human actors.  We fear (either for ourselves or on behalf of our loved ones) being stripped of the illusion of consciousness and having it replaced by a convincing proxy that we cannot fight because we cannot recognize it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Mapping Intention Versus Outcome

The idea for this has been percolating for a while, but it finally managed to escape my head.  I do not guarantee it’s complete or usable, but here is my attempt to map out the tension between intention and outcome.  Suggestions for improvement are most welcome.

The reason for this map is to examine the landscape within which people operate, especially as it relates to social good.  I’ve never been completely comfortable with the idea that “it’s the thought that counts,” because clearly there are situations in which this is not true.  Nor am I comfortable simply dismissing good intentions entirely, as in, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." And while this map doesn't answer the question, perhaps it can be useful in examining our own behaviors.

When I first set out to make a map some months ago, I started with a 2x2 grid.  It didn’t take me long to realize that 2x2 was not granular enough to work with, because there is significant ambiguity in this space.  Since then I have settled on a 3x3 grid, which I present below.

Let’s deconstruct this a bit.

Some things should stand out immediately.  The upper right corner is green, the lower left corner is red, and the middle box is white (transparent).  The rest of the squares are the default blue color from Google Drawings.  Thus there are three general categories of interactions here: unambiguous (red/green), invisible (white or transparent) and ambiguous.

My working assumptions are these:

  1. Any situation will be approached with intentions on a continuum between good intentions and bad intentions.  At the ends of the continuum, actions are undertaken on purpose for a specific goal.  In the center is a neutral intention, which usually just means no particular goal was in mind when the action was taken, or the action taken was accidental.  
  2. The result of an action measures along a continuum between better outcomes and worse outcomes.  At the ends of this continuum are results that can definitely be said to have improved or worsened the situation.  In the center is the neutral or negligible outcome, which usually means neither benefit nor detriment.


  • Good Intention, Better Outcome (GI/BO): I would call this good-hearted with positive results.  In situations that need changing, it is the best possible outcome, and the one all people with good intentions will strive to meet.  For lack of a better word, I will call this Saintly.
  • Bad Intention, Worse Outcome (BI/WO): People who engage in this kind of behavior regularly fit most working definitions of evil, or mean-spirited.  Otherwise it’s just acting in a mean or spiteful way.  This is Deliberate Successful Sabotage.


  • Neutral Intention, Neutral Outcome (NI/NO): There is nothing particularly mindful about actions undertaken here, and since the results do not change a situation, there’s little to examine from a values perspective.  Probably a great number of actions fall into this category.


The rest of the items create significant ambiguity by way of either self-negation, inconsequentiality, or simple mindlessness.  These form the sub-categories of the ambiguous item set.

Mindful Self-Negation

  • Good Intention, Worse Outcome (GI/WO): Due to gross misunderstanding, significant blind-spots, or some other reason, efforts to improve a situation have made it worse.  This one can be termed Mind Your Own Business.
  • Bad Intention, Better Outcome (BI/BO): Due to gross misunderstanding, significant blind-spots, or some other reason, efforts to worsen a situation have had the reverse effect.  This one can be termed Total Backfire.  The Streisand Effect is an example of how this works in practice.

Mindfully Inconsequential

  • Good Intention, Neutral Outcome (GI/NO): Willingness to do something good exceeds understanding of the situation, or the effort simply fails with no other consequence.  Also known as Despite My Best Effort.
  • Bad Intention, Neutral Outcome (BI/NO): Willingness to do something bad exceeds understanding of the situation, or the effort simply fails with no other consequence.  Also known as No Harm No Foul.


  • Neutral Intention, Better Outcome (NI/BO): Action not deliberately targeted at the situation manages to improve it, usually due to ignorance of the situation or as an incomplete understanding of unintended consequences.  Also termed Happy Accident.
  • Neutral Intention, Worse Outcome (NI/WO): Action not deliberately targeted at the situation manages to make it worse, usually due to ignorance of the situation or as an incomplete understanding of unintended consequences.  Also termed Squished Bug.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Perhaps You'll Walk

Perhaps you'll walk today. God knows it's a good day for it, one of the nicest in months, and you've always liked getting the exercise anyway. The sun is out and everything. Perhaps the sidewalk will have filled with the people whom you suspect of springing forth merely to be observed by you (rest assured, they suspect the same of you). If you are pensive or brooding today, you might like some earbuds. When you're young enough, they'll do to drown out the existential questions for a while. That trick gets harder as you age, though. It might even be the case that the truly young need never hear the thrum-thrumming of the existential just beneath the surface of the conscious, but to those who have been forced to confront it, or those with the ears to hear it, it pounds like a war drum in a primeval forest. Or perhaps today is the day you'd like to take on those questions, mull them over a bit, chew on them like gristle, hoping something worthwhile emerges. Your choices are the direct approach and the oblique one. So far you've not made much progress with the direct approach.

Perhaps as you walk by, you'll glance up at the Castrofilippo Society and wonder, not for the first time, what it actually is, and knowing that you won't bother to look it up later. Perhaps you'll overhear a bit of conversation from a passing couple. "Thank you for saving me," says the woman to the man. It's a curious enough line that you might wonder what it means. And later on, perhaps you'll hear your children talking to their friends on the way to school, and you will suddenly realize your sons are rising while your own ball of fire hurtles through space to its horizon. As you walk, it will have occurred to you multiple times to adjust this or that piece of clothing, even though you're convinced that appearances mean nothing to you.

On this same walk, you have nodded your greeting to the crossing guard each time. Today maybe she'll say she's retiring soon. This year or maybe next. Or perhaps you and all the other pedestrians will be standing on the corner while drivers with varying understandings of the laws of physics plow through intersections. You've witnessed accidents here in the past, but fortunately never those involving pedestrians.

Down the road, perhaps you'll walk through or near the picket line outside a grocery store, where some of the workers have blown the whistle on one or another practice they've observed within the walls of the store. You'll maybe read the signs that admonish the workers for lying, or the ones that prohibit photography in the store, and they'll remind you of some documentaries you've seen in the past.

Because the wheels are already turning in your head, and because you've maybe chosen to walk, today will be the day that all the disconnected thoughts intruding on every contemplation will resolve themselves with a crystal clarity, and you'll scribble some notes on paper to get them out of your head. Perhaps you'll write something useful down before the clarity fades, and the things you want to say complete their metamorphosis to ephemera, blown like ash on the wind. Perhaps today you'll get to say just what you've always wanted to say, instead of forgetting the moment your fingers touch the keyboard and a single speck of dust, undisturbed since its settling there the night before, falls between the keys.

As you walk, you'll wonder again whether it's delivery day at the butcher shop. Despite your origins in places known for processing meat, you hadn't actually seen a butcher shop before moving here, and the sight is always a curiosity to you, especially on delivery day. On delivery day, men in white aprons smudged with blood cart the stiff-legged, frozen carcasses of goats from within their freezer trucks. The goats are skinless, of course, their lidless eyes condemning you for their fate. You'll smugly remind yourself that you aren't complicit in their murder, because you are a vegetarian and only murder plants. If the frozen goats don't provide enough reminder, the sight of them hanging in the window, plastic bags wrapped around their downturned heads to catch the blood that drips past their bared teeth, usually does the trick.

By this point you will have nearly reached the train station, and your only hope is that the trains are running on time, and that you won't be late to work. You could have taken the bus. It was an option. But it's a nice day, and perhaps you thought a walk would be better.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Exercises in Loosely Connected Observation #1

It’s hard to imagine that some or all of this could be under water one day. The models show the possibility, though. They also show that this neighborhood could withstand a bigger force than Sandy. That’s only reassuring until you remember that by the time it hit, Sandy was a ghost of its former self, registering at the lowest setting for the definition of hurricane.

Perhaps I’ll walk down Ditmars today. Anyway there’s something to drop in the mail, and why cross the street in the wrong direction even if the walk to the train is longer than the walk to the bus? With my luck I’d miss the bus anyway. You can hardly plan for buses.

Spring in New York City divides the people into distinct thirds. The first third, hesitant to admit it’s actually Spring, insist on wearing heavy coats or at least jackets no matter the temperature outside. The second third grasp Spring with their entire being and eschew the jackets, though they still dress sensibly enough according to temperature. And the final third, well, they’ve skipped the season entirely and seem to believe it is in fact Summer.

Of all the streets I’ve seen in the city, and I have seen many now, I think my favorite is Steinway. I live near, but not on it. One would think my favorite should be Ditmars. But no, it is Steinway. I’ve been up and down it now more times than I can count, on foot at multiple paces, by bus and by taxi. Only the hard-working delivery people are crazy or desperate enough to do it by bike, I think. Steinway is not a pretty street, and indeed there are stretches of it that are decidedly ugly. But it is beautiful in other aspects. On a given evening, especially in the hot summers, you can find the smoke from the kebab trucks mingling with the shisha smoke issuing forth from the bustling hookah bars. The young arrive here from elsewhere on their dates, dropped off by black cabs. Over there a backgammon game, and over here a chess game. A football match is on, maybe the same on all televisions, or maybe different ones. Some of the signs I can read, but many I can’t. It doesn’t matter. Get Lebanese food here, Egyptian fare there, or stop by for some empanadas a bit further down the road. Halal, says the sign on the butcher shop.

The city presents a curious juxtaposition of nationalities even as it forces them to intermingle to a large degree. In the North of Queens live the Greeks, and in the South of Brooklyn live the Russians. If history should replay itself in this new geography, Cyril would have to walk a mere ten or fifteen miles toting his letters to the Russian people. South instead of North. In the intervening spaces live a hundred other nationalities. Though the borders of the neighborhoods are porous, one can begin to sense them through careful observation of the train passages. Perhaps it’s just the 7 train that’s like this, but I’ve been on others and seem to have noticed the same phenomenon. Each new stop changes the balance of nationalities ever so slightly until once suddenly realizes that it has finally tipped decisively, only to have the process repeated at each new stop.