Iarpa and the Metaphor Machine

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2011

File in duplicate under both “awesome idea” and “kinda scary”; the US intelligence blue-sky department Iarpa is toying with the idea of building a giant database of cross-referenced metaphors from all sorts of languages… which I guess would lead to the identification of metametaphors, if that’s not some sort of semantic impossibility.

The first step is to identify and collect all those metaphors — from English, Farsi, Spanish and Russian — into a huge database. That means analyzing loads of textual data, identifying all the metaphors (“his life took a left turn”; “you must find your own way”), mapping them onto a conceptual metaphor (“life is a journey”) and then … well, after that, it’s not completely clear.

Social science may offer a clue into what we could possibly do with this gigantic metaphor repository, however. Besides improving communication and interactions in a globalized world, metaphors might help us bridge cross-cultural gaps.

For example, the topic of morality. Americans are likely to think of morality in terms of rights, or things we “possess” or can be “deprived of” — “rights as IOUs.” In China, on the other hand, morality is usually conceived of as bounded space or concentric circles, so you can “overstep boundaries” or “hit the mark.” These two metaphors aren’t really compatible, but if we started talking about a moral right as a “right-of-way” (a path to move along without interference), we might have found a metaphor that carries weight in both cultures.

I wonder how far you could go with this? Maybe we could boil down all human concepts into pure universal metaphors… I’m not sure what use that would be to anyone, but the writer in me thinks it’s a great idea nonetheless.

The Singularity is the deus ex machina of the transhumanist narrative

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2011

The presumably pseudonymous Extropia DaSilva neatly sums up my problems with Kurzweil-branch Singularitarianism (and one of the major reasons I repeatedly identify as a fellow traveller of the transhuman project rather than a card-carrier) over at H+ Magazine; in a nutshell, the Singularity is the ultimate authorial handwave:

The ancient Greeks also gave us the phrase “deus ex machina,” which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.” A deus ex machina makes audiences and readers roll their eyes when they encounter it in a play or a story, and we should likewise roll our eyes when we encounter a deus ex machina being used to resolve all questions regarding the feasibility of achieving transhuman goals within our lifetime. “The Singularity will fix it” is a deus ex machina.

It also turns transhumanism into an infinitely variable explanation. Just like the myth of Demeter, you can continue to believe in the swift and inevitable success of transhuman dreams if you can invoke a godlike power that can fix anything. Hell, you can even posit a total rewrite of the laws of physics, thanks to the Singularity hacking the program that runs the universe. So even if some of our dreams turn out to violate physical laws, there is no reason to abandon faith.

To me, there is something deeply troubling about using the Singularity as a kind of protective barrier against all skepticism regarding the likelihood of achieving transhuman goals within a generation. It is difficult to reason with people who use the Singularity concept in this way, and even harder to have a logical debate with them. They have a deus ex machina to hand that can demolish any argument designed to show that transhuman dreams will not inevitably come true within our lifetime. This kind of reaction takes reasonable, scientific expectations of a brighter future and pushes them dangerously close to being an irrational pseudo-religion. And I find pseudo-religions boring.

I actually find pseudo-religions fascinating, but as subjects rather than objects; indeed, it’s the current schismatic/metastasising phase of transhumanism-as-pop-culture-meme that attracts my interest, far more than the promises of the technology on which it builds. The latter is pure speculation, which has its own intellectual rewards, but the former feels more like a chance for me to observe the way ideas spread and mutate in the antfarm of a networked global society.

(Now that I’ve typed that out, I realise it makes me sound like some sort of cultural peeping-tom. Ah, well. 🙂 )

However, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater here, I think the Singularity has a certain value in its ability to attract attention. From a personal perspective, I would probably never have discovered transhumanism if it weren’t for the rash of science fictional Singularities I encountered over the last decade or so. Compressing the transformative power of technological change (and our convergence with such) into a momentary timeframe makes the underlying point – that we change as our technologies change, and that the relationship is a positive feedback loop – much clearer to the uninitiated.

However, that same temporal compression chimes with the transcendent Final Trumps of apocalyptic religions, and there’s a very frustrating human tendency to read metaphorical truths as literal ones (which I claim no immunity from myself, I might add); explicitly reframing the Singularity as a rhetorical narrative device might make it a slightly more useful thing, but I suspect the real root of the problem is that we all secretly long for something to swoop in and fix everything for us (hence the 90s popularity of the alien intervention narrative – surely an extant intelligence greater than [or perhaps merely different to] our own offers hope of us surviving our imminent civilisational bottlenecks?).The Singularity’s seductiveness lies in its tendency to brush aside unanswerable questions.

I imagine anyone who’s written fiction knows the temptation of the deus ex machina; the only alternative to its deployment is to think hard and rationally about ways to overcome an obstacle. Religions – and their rationality-tinged descendents, like Singularitarianism – are an inevitable by-product of human intellectual laziness.

Transhumanism is a philosophy, but Singularitarianism is a cult.

When Manaugh met Miéville

Paul Raven @ 02-03-2011

With no qualification whatsoever, I commend unto you the BLDGBLOG interview with China Miéville, which is just about as full of good stuff as I could have hoped. If someone wanted to put on a symposium where Manaugh and Mieville could just talk about stuff that interested them for an afternoon – perhaps with guest stints from a few other smart people – I’d be there with figurative bells on. (Though I’d be careful not to jingle them while the clever people were talking, natch.)

The most interesting part for me (on my first read through, at any rate) was where Miéville explains why allegorical readings of his work are a little repellent to him:

… I dislike thinking in terms of allegory—quite a lot. I’ve disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.

The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading—a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.

It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about “what does the text mean?”—and I don’t think text means like that. Texts do things.

I’m always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won’t be deliberate.

There’s much more, so go read the whole thing. Miéville’s attitude toward allegory throws some interesting and hard-to-avoid caltrops into the road of criticism, because he’s simultaneously declaring himself to be a dead author while admitting (or so it seems to me) that the intentional fallacy is an attempt to graft nonexistent conscious impulses onto extant subconscious authorial concerns.

Of course, I could just be reading him wrong. 😉

The (international) politics of zombies

Paul Raven @ 11-02-2011

We’ve looked at possible explanations for the seemingly inexorable rise of the zombie as a pop culture signifier before: are they the American Godzilla, standing in for technology run amok which can only be defeated by frontiersman-like skills with machete and shotgun, or are they – as suggested by Futurismic‘s very own Jonathan McCalmont – a shambling metaphor for a transhuman future?

Well, here’s another take for you: via Crooked Timber, Scott McLemee reviews Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel W. Drezner, which seems to suggest the fear of the zombie apocalypse is, quite simply, the fear of the geopolitical status quo:

[…] if I read him correctly, the author does seem to think that the realist paradigm in international relations theory has a special relationship with the zombie-apocalypse scenario. It rests on the intertwined principles that “anarchy is the overarching constraint of world politics” (that is, there is no “centralized, legitimate authority” able to enforce a particular order among nation-states) and that “the actors that count are those with the greatest ability to use force,” namely “states with sizable armed forces.” While nation-states possessing an advanced military-industrial complex would have a definite advantage in human-zombie combat, the balance of terror is not one-sided. The tendency of zombies to swarm is a staple of movies and fiction; it turns them into something like an army. The logic of the realist paradigm is to treat states as driven by “an innate lust for power.” Likewise, the undead “have an innate lust for human flesh.” Power and flesh alike count as scarce resources. One has an interest in preserving them both.

The realist assumes that powerful nations have — and may expect to continue to enjoy — the advantage over weaker ones in defining the world order. But the tendency of might to create its own right also benefits the zombies. They are single-minded (if that’s how to put it, since they are dead) and can create more zombies just by biting. This gives them enormous power, and that power is highly renewable. Not all realists are zombies, of course; but all zombies, by default, practice realpolitik.


“Powerful states would be more likely to withstand an army of flesh-eating ghouls,” Drezner writes. “Weaker and developing countries would be more vulnerable to zombie infestation. Whether due to realist disinterest, waning public support, bureaucratic wrangling, or the fallibility of individual decision-makers, international interventions would likely be ephemeral or imperfect. Complete eradication of the zombie menace would be extremely unlikely. The plague of the undead would join the roster of threats that disproportionately affect the poorest and weakest countries.”

A sobering conclusion. In other words, a zombie apocalypse would be terrible — but it would not really change things very much.

That book’s going straight on my wishlist… 🙂

The Butterfly Effect

Sarah Ennals @ 29-11-2009

The Butterfly Effect - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

[ Be sure to check out the Does Not Equal Cafepress store for webcomic merchandise featuring Canadians with geometrically-shaped heads! ]

Next Page »