Friday, 6 September 2013

Leslie Stephen

"I was more like him than her, I think, and therefore more critical, but he was an adorable man, and, somehow, tremendous." Virginia Woolf, his daughter

Thursday, 5 September 2013

first light, dawn, sunrise, daybreak

"The flotsam of the nation is washed together into an unrecognised, nameless, formless secret society. There isn't much that the bits of scum can do to help one another, but at least they can cling and keep silence. And dawn, I think, is the hour when the pariah goes out. Not for him is the scornful morning with its crowds pointing the fingers of their minds at him, nor the evening when all but he may rest and be merry; but the peace before sunrise cannot be taken from him. It is the hour of the outlawed, the persecuted, the damned, for no man was ever born who could not feel some shade of hope if he were in open country with the sun about to rise."

Geoffrey Household, Rogue Male (1939)

How has it been so far?

"What do you reckon to the digital age so far?" baldly asks one of the more widely thinking contributors to the furniture makers' forum to which I subscribe. Perhaps predictably the responses as yet have all been in the form of jokes. So let me introduce a note of solemnity.

If one thinks about it very generally it seems surprising that we have been so ready to forsake the analogue for the digital. It is a massive change in the way in which we look at and mediate the world, quite unprecedented. The analogue might be thought to embody many of our highest values and processes: sophistication, quality, metaphor and judgement. There is no satisfying activity in human life that does not involve the exercise of personal judgement, whether it be the highly paid corporate executive venturing billions or the man in the betting shop putting on a fiver each way.

Why exchange judgement for computation? There is no analogue computer, which is perhaps our problem. Yet I also remember how, in the early days of digitally recorded music, it was almost universally admired for the clarity and brightness of its sound, whereas now people will spend vast amounts of money on vinyl and valves. Nowadays the capability digitally to manipulate almost anything, sound, vision, objects, to create, recreate or destroy has become a source of wonder, delight and dismay. As the contributor to my forum puts it, "It has become a great liberator for the untalented." The target now is not so much "virtual" as "enhanced" reality.

Yet even more importantly, in the wider world, we have been seduced, or over-whelmed, by the power, capacity and rapidity of the computation. The power is so great that, in important respects, it is beyond our ability to control it with the exercise of full judgement, or the avoidance of unwanted consequences, as we see in fields as various as financial trading and government surveillance of communications. And so we enter a spiral of ever increasing computation with the chimera of "artificial intelligence" at its black-holed centre.

Such developments can seldom be turned back but in this case also something has been created that empowers both the included and the excluded, the talented and the talentless, the powerful and the powerless, thus ensuring a perpetual conflict.