Excerpt from The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul

September 9, 2014 in Related, Responses

(Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005)

Pages 333-335

Language begins when social creatures actively communicate information to their fellows. A bee returning to the hive from a flower field does a waggle dance to tell the others what direction to fly in. An ant secretes pheromones to tell other ants that she’s recently encountered an intruder. We humans share information by grimacing, gesturing and making noises with our mouths.

Our languages have evolved both to describe the world around us, and to represent the thought patterns in our minds. “What are you thinking?” “Well, let me tell you.” In an essay on language, Jorge-Luis Borges quotes a relevant passage from G. K. Chesterton’s admiring biography of a Victorian painter, G. F. Watts, (Duckworth, London 1904), p. 88. I originally found the quote in Jorge Luis Borges, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” in: E. Monegal and A. Reid, eds., Borges, A Reader (Dutton, New York 1981).

Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colors of an autumn forest; … Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semi-tones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire. (143)

My optimistic opinion is that, given time, willingness and a sympathetic listener, Chesterton’s stockbroker really can communicate the tints and semitones of his (or her) soul. It’s a matter of piling on detail, using analogies, and enhancing the words with the play of the voice. To ensure the transmission, the listener reflects back summaries of the message, so that the speaker can emend or amplify the explication as required. By the way, computer networks do something similar, with receiving nodes sending back requests for retransmission of packets of information lost on their way from the sending nodes.

Speaking of computers, it will be useful to describe a brief example that brings into relief a point about how language works. Suppose that a machine called, say, Eggpop has carried out a time-consuming computation to produce a high-resolution graphical image of the Mandelbrot set fractal. We can think of this image as being akin to an idea in Eggpop’s mind. Now if Eggpop wants to communicate this image to another machine, there are three possible messages Eggpop might send.

Language. A description of the algorithm and the parameters used to create the image.

Art. A file containing a pixel by pixel representation of the image.

Telepathy. A link pointing to the combined algorithm and quote in Eggpop’s own memory.

Language is an all-purpose construction kit that a speaker uses to model mental states. In interpreting these language constructs, a listener builds a brain state similar to the speaker’s.

Art represents a very different approach: an idea is rendered by images, sounds, sculpture, or the like. In many cases a picture is worth a thousand words ¾ and then some. But certainly there times where a few well-chosen words have deeper impact than a detailed image. In these cases, the words manage to trigger powerful, pre-existing thought modes.

And how about a human analogy to machines communicating by giving each other hyperlinks (and access permissions) to locations in their own minds? Conceivably we might someday come up with something like a brain-wave-based cell phone, which I like to call an uvyy. Perhaps with an uvvy you could reach out and sensually touch another person’s thought patterns rather than having to build your own copies of their thoughts based upon verbal descriptions.

In this vein, I can imagine a future in which people converse solely by direct links into each others’ minds. Language might become an outmoded social art — like handwriting or ballroom dancing! But I doubt it. I think language is so deeply congenial to us that we’d no sooner abandon it than we’d give up sex.

Although I just used “telepathy” for the notion of having direct links to another person’s thoughts, if telepathy is just a matter of having someone at a distance know what you’re thinking, then language already is a form of telepathy and a person walking down the street with a cell phone is essentially in telepathic contact with a friend.

I compare language to telepathy to point out how powerful language is. In the intimate conversations that you have with a lover, spouse or close friend, language feels as effortless as singing or dancing. The ideas flow and the minds merge. In this empathetic exchange, each of you develops a clear sense of your partner’s proto-self and core consciousness.

One imperfect feature of human language is that our rate of information exchange is limited to very low rates. Yes, you can send a multi megabyte-book manuscript by email in a matter of seconds, but the human listener at the other end will take hours or even days to read it. We’re stuck with low bounds on both the speed at which we can listen to someone talk and on the speed at which we can read with full comprehension. Telepathy might speed things up.

Rudy Rucker is a science fiction author, philosopher, mathematician, and one of the founders of the cyberpunk movement. He worked for twenty years as a computer science professor at San Jose State University and has published a number of software packages. His novels include Turing & Burroughs (2012), Jim and the Flims (2011), and Hylozoic (2009), as well as the Ware Tetralogy (1982–2000), a four-book cyberpunk series that won two Philip K. Dick awards.

Work-In-Progress Update: April 2013

September 9, 2014 in Related, Responses

Last week I had a really great phone call with Darren Petrucci, Suncor Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Arizona State University, and we talked about previous work that each of us had done on border design. Previously, when I worked on the Border Town project, my goal was to create design interventions for people in border communities. It seems like this project will be an extension of that mission, while also combining what I learned from my thesis on the future of border security.

One thing Darren and I discussed was the fact that while governments are extremely good at inventing new initiatives for dealing with illegal activity at borders (Operation Gatekeeper in 1995, for example, or the “smart border agreements” devised under the Container Security Initiative, itself an offshoot of the then-new DHS), they have a terrible track record of dealing with legal travelers or legal trade. In general, most of these initiatives have to deal with things like hiring quotas and documentation, as well as the placement of specific border crossings to push undocumented migrants further into the desert so that the crossing itself becomes a deterrent. (The only thing this has done is increase the dependence of migrants on polleros, most of whom are in the employ of cartels, thereby opening an unintentional revenue stream for the very drug trade that the Customs and Border Patrol Agency is committed to stopping.)

It’s trite to suggest that the solution to all this is privatization, but it definitely came up. After all, the government has had its shot, and its greatest accomplishment seems to be the fact that border arrests have gone down 58%, while deaths at the border have continued to rise. And in fact, the diminishing arrests may have nothing to do with border security at all: a declining economy has proved the best deterrent. And legal migrants being educated in the US are choosing to leave, because the H1B visa and Green Card system takes so long. This was the thrust of the letter that Mark Zuckerberg and others wrote to Congress regarding immigration, and the pressure that the private sector is putting on government makes me wonder if they’re ready to take a more active role — beyond lobbying — in coming up with a solution.

One of the solutions Darren and I discussed was the creation of actual border towns populated by recruiters, put in strategic locations along the border and intended to act as training centers and prototyping facilities — for new products, new services, and new hires. In this regard they wouldn’t be too far off from the Center for Innovation, Testing, and Evaluation (CITE) city, in Lea County, New Mexico. CITE is an empty city that corporations can rent for the purposes of prototyping and research. If you want to test out your new driverless car system with real roads and real signals, it’s a good place to do it. What I’m wondering is if it’s time for something similar along the border, but populated by businesses, universities, organizations, and agencies who have a specific quota of H1B and other visas to hand out. I know, it’s weird, but we’re here to do weird.

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and strategic foresight consultant based in Toronto. She is the author of vN (2012) and iD (2013), the first two novels in her Machine Dynasty series. Her fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her essays and criticism have appeared at Boing Boing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and