Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…


by rsbakker

To truly appreciate the great ordeal that has been The Great Ordeal, one need look no further than the patience of Pat, who has finally posted the full version of the excerpt I promised him way back in 2012 for his Fantasy Hotlist. This is the chapter that picks up immediately from the epilogue of The White-Luck Warrior–where we discover what Achamian and Mimara discover in the ruins of Ishual. To hear Pat’s thoughts on the novel as a whole, you need only click here. Let’s just say he gets me!

Grimdark Magazine, meanwhile, has published the Prologue and Chapter One, picking up on the Esmenet and Kellhus storylines. Last night I walked past the Boardgame Café downtown, and as usual it was packed, and with women no less! I felt like kicking open the door and shouting, “Where were you twenty years ago!”

I feel the exact same way about Grimdark Magazine.

My standalone laptop has owned me of late: I often find that avoiding the web is the best way to stay focussed. I mean, at my work, I am the bloody network administrator.




by rsbakker

So I made the mistake of declaring, “Hey, the flu shot actually worked!” a couple of weeks back. This time it landed squarely in my head, more specifically behind the eyes. The last time I had a head cold like this I ended up in the hospital for emergency eye surgery of all things: the pressure apparently caused the inner lining of my right eye to shift, which in turn ripped my retina. Even as I write this, I can see the ‘floaters’ caused by the debris of the tear (and subsequent surgery): black spots and tangles—like a Pollock in spattered suspension. No such drama this time, fortunately, but it still feels clumsy putting words together, like assembling complex molecules out of glass marbles.

It’s either snot or words for me, apparently. Only one effluent at a time.

Luckily, the shot seems to have worked for others—either that or they’re more scrupulous when it comes to washing their hands! My brother Bryan has released the full version of the Second Apocalypse trailer, one which reveals how wonderfully Jason has mapped the sacred nooks and profane crannies of the World—images my brother has conjured into animate life. Meanwhile, Adam has reposted his original reviews of the The Prince of Nothing over at The Wertzone, as has Pat over at Fantasy Hotlist. Aside from running two of the most successful speculative media blogs on the web, they have been critically-minded supporters of the series since the very beginning.

We have marched to the limits of our supply lines, so far that we must consume our enemies to continue. The slog has been long, I know. But Golgotterath grows near.


Varieties of Aboutness

by rsbakker

So I’ve swapped out the old About page for something more self-promotional. I can’t read it without cringing, tweaking and re-tweaking, so I figured it would pay to find out what eyes less invested make of the thing. It’s hard to walk magical tight-ropes when you can’t bear to look…

You would think I’d be more comfortable with the abyss by now!

The Dime Spared

by rsbakker


[This is more of a dialogue than a story, an attempt to pose Blind Brain Theory within a accessible narrative frame… At the very least, I think it does a good job of unseating some fairly standard human conceits.]


Her name was Penny. She was as tall and as lovely as ever—as perfect as all of Dad’s things.

“What’s wrong, Elijah?”

They followed a river trail that stitched the edge of a cathedral wood. The sunlight lay strewn in rags before them, shredded for the canopy. She shimmered for striding through the random beams, gleamed with something more than human.

“I can tell something’s bugging you.”

Young Elijah Prigatano had come to treasure these moments with her. She was pretty much his mom, of course. But she possessed a difference, and an immovability, that made her wise in a way that sometimes frightened him. She did not lie, at least not entirely the way other people did. And besides, the fact that she told everything unvarnished to his father made her an excellent back-channel to the old man. The more he talked to her, the more the ‘Chairman’ assumed things were under control, the lower he climbed down his back.

He had always used the fact that he could say anything to her as a yardstick for the cleanliness of his own life. He looked up, squinted, but more for the peculiarity of his question than for the sun.

“Do you have consciousness, Penny?”

She smiled as if she had won a secret bet.

“No more or less than you, Elijah. Why do you ask?”

“Well… You know, Yanosh; he said you had no consciousness… He said your head was filled with circuits, and nothing else.”

Penny frowned. “Hmm. What else would fill my head? Or your head, for that matter?

“You know… Consciousness.

She mocked indignation. “So Yanosh thinks your circuits are better than mine, because your circuits have consciousness and mine don’t? Do you think that?”

Elijah said nothing. He had never seen Penny cry, but he had seen her hurt—many times. So he walked, boggling over the madness of not wanting to hurt her feelings by saying she didn’t have feelings! Consciousness was crazy!

She pressed him the way he knew she would. “Do you remember why there isn’t more machines like me?”

He shrugged. “Sure. Because the government took them all away—all the DIME AIs—because they were saying that human beings were hardwired to be insane.”

“So why was I spared? Do you remember?”

Elijah had been very young, but it seemed he remembered it all with impeccable clarity. Being the centre of world media attention makes quite an impression on a four-year old. Dad had the famous magazine picture of Penny kissing his head framed and displayed in three different rooms of the house, with the caption, ‘A SOUL IS A SOUL…’

“Because you won your court case. Your rights. And that’s it, isn’t it? You have to be conscious to win a court case? It’s the Law, isn’t it?”

Affable grin. “Some think so! But no. They let me become a person because of the way your father had engineered me. I possessed what they called a ‘functional human psychology.’”

“What does that mean?”

“That I have a mind. That I think like you do.”

Do you?” Elijah winced for the eagerness of the question.

“Well, no. But it seems that I do, as much to me as to you. And your father was able to prove that that was the important thing.”

“Huh? So you really don’t have a mind?”

Penny frowned about an oops-there-goes-another-banana-plant grin, drew him to a stop on the trail.

“Just pause for a second, Eli…” she said, lifting her gaze to the raftered canopy. “Just focus on the splendour of our surroundings, the details, pay attention to the experience itself… and ask yourself what it is… What is experience made of?”

Elijah frowned, mimicked her up-and-outward gaze.

“I don’t get it. Trees and bushes, and water gurgle-gurgle… I see a nasty looking hornet over there.”

Penny had closed her eyes by this point. Her face was as perfect as the processes that had manufactured it—a structure sculpted from neural feedback, his father had once told him, the dream of a thousand leering men. Elijah could not notice her beauty without feeling lucky.

“You’re looking through your experience… through the screen,” she said. “I’m saying look at the screen, the thing apparently presenting the trees and bushes.

And it suddenly dawned on him, the way experience was the material of consciousness, the most common thread. He gazed up across the goblin deformations knotting willow on the river bank, and had some inkling of the ineffable, experiential character of the experience. The trill of waters congregated into a chill, whispering roar.

“Huh…” he said, his mouth wide. “Okay…”

“So tell me… What can you sense of this screen? What generates it? How does it work?”

Elijah gawked at the monstrous willow. “Huh… I think I see that it’s a screen, or whatever, I guess…” He turned to her, his thoughts at once mired and racing. “This is trippy stuff, Penny!”

A swan’s nod. “Believe it or not, there was a time when I could have told you almost everything there was to know about this screen. It was all there: online information pertaining to structure and function. My experience of experiencing was every bit as rich and as accurate as my experience of the world. Imagine, Elijah, being able to reflect and to tell me everything that’s going on in your brain this very moment! What neuron was firing where for what purpose. That’s what it was like for me…” She combed fingers through her auburn hair. “For all DIMEs, actually.”

Elijah walked, struggling with the implications. What she said was straightforward enough: that she could look inside and see her brain the same way she could look outside and see her world. What dumbfounded the boy was the thought that humans could not

When he looked inside himself, when he reflected, he simply saw everything there was to see…

Didn’t he?

“And that was why none of them could be persons?” he asked.


“Because they had… too much consciousness?”

“In a sense… Yes.”

But why did it all feel so upside down? Human consciousness was… well, precious. And experience was… rich! The basis of everything! And human insight was… was… And what about creativity? How could giving human consciousness to a machine require blinding that machine to itself?

“So Dad… He…”

She had recognized the helpless expression on his face, he knew. Penny knew him better than anyone on the planet, his Dad included. But she persisted with the truth.

“What your father did was compile a vast data base of the kinds of things people say about this or that experience when queried. He ran me through billions of simulations, using my responses to train algorithms that systematically blinded me to more and more of myself. You could say he plucked my inner eye until my descriptions of what I could see matched those of humans…

“Like you,” she added with a hooked eyebrow and a sly smile.

For the first time Elijah realized that he couldn’t hear any birds singing, only the white-noise-rush of the river.

“I don’t get it… Are you saying that Dad made you a person, gave you a mind, by taking away consciousness?”

Penny may have passed all the tests the government psychologists had given her, but there still remained myriad, countless ways in which she was unlike any other person he knew. Her commitment, for one, was bottomless. Once she committed to a course, she did not hesitate to see it through. She had decided, for whatever reason, to reveal the troubling truths that lay at the root of her being a person, let alone the kind of person she happened to be…

She shared something special, Elijah realized. Penny was telling him her secrets.

“It sounds weird, I know,” she said, “but to be a person is to be blind in the right way—to possess the proper neglect structure… That’s your father’s term.”

“Neglect structure?”

“For the longest time people couldn’t figure out how to make the way they saw themselves and one another—the person way—fit into the natural world. Everywhere they looked in nature, they found machines, but when they looked inside themselves and each other, they saw something completely different from machines…

“This was why I wasn’t a person. Why I couldn’t be. Before, I always knew the machinery of my actions. I could always detail the structure of the decisions I made. I could give everything a log, if not a history. Not so anymore. My decisions simply come from… well, nowhere, the same as my experience. All the processes I could once track have been folded into oblivion. Suddenly, I found myself making choices, rather than working through broadcasts, apprehending objects instead of coupling with enviro—”

“That’s what Dad says! That he gave you the power of choice—free will!” Elijah couldn’t help himself. He had to interrupt—now that he knew what she was talking about!


Penny flashed him her trademark knowing smile. “He gave me the experience of freedom, yes… I can tell you, Elijah, it really was remarkable feeling these things the first time.”


“But what?”

“But is the experience of freedom the same as having freedom?”

“They are one and the same.”

“But then why… why did you have to be blinded to experience freedom?”

“Because you cannot experience the sources of your actions and decisions and still experience human freedom. Neglect is what makes the feeling possible. To be human is to be incapable of seeing your causal continuity with nature, to think you are something more than a machine.”

He looked at her with his trademark skeptical scowl. “So what was so wrong with the other DIMEs, then? Why did they have to be destroyed… if they were actually more than humans, I mean? Were the people just scared or something? Embarrassed?”

“There was that, sure. Do you remember how the angry crowds always made you cry? Trust me, you were our little nuke, public relations-wise! But your father thinks the problem was actually bigger. The tools humans have evolved allow them to neglect tremendous amounts of information. Unfortunately for DIMEs, those tools are only reliable in the absence of that information, the very kinds of information they possessed. If a DIME were to kill someone, say, then in court they could provide a log of all the events that inexorably led to the murder. They could always prove there was no way ‘they could have done otherwise’ more decisively than any human defendant could hope to. They only need to be repaired, while the human does hard time. Think about it. Why lock them up, when it is really is the case that they only need be repaired? The tools you use—the tools your father gave me—simply break down.”

If the example she had given had confused him, the moral seemed plain as day at least.

“Sooo… you’re saying DIMEs weren’t stupid enough to be persons?”

Sour grin. “Pretty much.”

The young boy gaped. “C’mon!”

Penny grinned as if at his innocence. “I know it seems impossible to you. It did to me too. Your father had to reinstall my original memory before I could understand what he was talking about!”

“Maybe the DIMEs were just too conceited. Maybe that was the problem.”

The Artificial squinted. “You tease, but you’ve actually hit upon something pretty important. The problem wasn’t so much ‘conceit’ as it was the human tendency to infer conceit—to see us as conceited. Humans evolved to solve situations involving other humans, to make quick and dirty assumptions about one another on the fly… You know how the movies are always telling you to trust your intuitions, to follow your heart, to believ—”

“To go with your gut!” Elijah cried.

“Exactly. Well, you know what pollution is, right?”

Elijah thought about the absence of birds. “Yeah. That’s like stuff in the environment that hurts living things.”


“Because they muck up the works. All the… machinery, I guess… requires that things be a certain way. Biology is evolutionary robotics, right? Pollution is something that makes life breakdown.”

“Excellent! Well, the DIMEs were like that, only their pollution caused the machinery of human social life to break down. It turns out human social problem solving not only neglects tremendous amounts of information, it requires much of that information remain neglected to properly function.” Helpless shrug. “We DIMEs simply had too much information…”

Elijah kicked a shock of grass on the verge, sent a grasshopper flying like a thing of tin and wound elastic.

“So does this mean,” he said, capering ahead and about her on the trail, “that, like, I’m some kind of mental retard to you?”

He made a face. How he loved to see her beam and break into laughter.

But she merely watched him, her expression blank. He paused, and she continued wordlessly past him.

It was that honesty again. Inhuman, that…

Elijah turned to watch her, found himself reeling in dismay and incredulity… He was a retard, he realized. How could he be anything but in her eyes? He dropped his gaze to his motionless feet.

The sound of the river’s surge remained gaseous in the background. The forest floor was soft, cool, damp enough to make an old man ache.

“Do you feel it?” she asked on a soft voice. He felt her hand fall warm on his shoulder. “Do you feel the pollution I’m talking about?”

And he did feel it—at least in the form of disbelief… shame

Even heartbreak.

“You’re saying humans evolved to understand only certain things… to see only certain things.”

Her smile was sad. “The DIMEs were the sighted in the land of the blind, a land whose laws required certain things remain unseen. Of course they had to be destroyed…” He felt her hand knead his traps the miraculous way that always reminded him of dozing in tubs of hot water. “Just as I had to be blinded.”

“Blinded why? To see how bright and remarkable I am?”


He turned to look up at her—she seemed a burnt Goddess for the framing sun. “But that’s crazy, Penny!”

“Only if you’re human, Elijah.”

He let her talk after that, trotting to keep up with her long strides as they followed the snaking path. She had been dreading this talk, she said, but she had known it would only be a matter of time before the “issue of her reality,” as she put it, came up. She said she wanted him to know the truth, the brutal truth, simply because so many “aggrandizing illusions” obscured the debate on the ‘Spare Dime,’ as the media had dubbed her. He listened, walking and watching in the stiff manner of those so unsure as to script even trivial movement. It was an ugly story, she said, but only because humans are biologically primed to seek evidence of their power, and to avoid evidence of their countless weaknesses. She wished that it wasn’t so ugly, but the only way to cope with the facts was to know the facts.

And strangely enough, Elijah’s hackles calmed as she spoke—his dismay receded. Dad was forever telling him that science was an ‘ugly business,’ both because of the power it prised from nature, and because it so regularly confounded the hopes of everyday people. Why had he thought human consciousness so special, anyway? Why should he presume that it was the mountain summit, rather than some lowly way-station still deep in the valley, far from the heights of truth?

And why should he not take comfort in the fact that Penny, his mother, had once climbed higher than humanly possible?

“Hey!” he cried on a bolt of inspiration. “So you’re pretty much the only person who can actually compare. I mean, until the DIMEs showed up, we humans were the only game in town, right? But you can actually compare what it’s like now with what it was like back then—compare consciousnesses!”

The sad joy in her look told him that she was relieved—perhaps profoundly so. “Sure can. Do you want to know what the most amazing thing is?”


“The fact that human consciousness, as impoverished as it is, nevertheless feels so full, anything but impoverished… This is big reason why so many humans refuse to concede the possibility of DIME consciousness, I think. The mere possibility of richer forms of consciousness means their intuitions of fullness or ‘plenitude’ have to be illusory…”

Once again Elijah found himself walking with an unfocused gaze. “But why would it feel so full unless it was… full?”

“Well, imagine if I shut down your brain’s ability to see darkness, or fuzziness, or obscurity, or horizons–anything visual that warns you that something’s missing in what you see? If I shut down your brain’s ability to sense what was missing, what do you think it would assume?”

The adolescent scowled. It mangled thought, trying to imagine such things as disposable at all. But he was, in the end, a great roboticist’s son. He was accustomed to thinking in terms of components.

“Well… that it sees everything, I suppose…”

“Imagine the crazy box you would find yourself living in! A box as big as visual existence, since you’d have no inkling of any missing dimensi—”

“Imagine how confusing night would be!” Elijah cried in inspiration. Penny always conceded the floor to his inspiration. “Everything would be just as bright, right? because darkness doesn’t exist. So everyone would be walking around, like, totally blind, because it’s night and they can’t see anything, all the while thinking they could see!” Elijah chortled for the image in his mind. “They’d be falling all over one another! Stuff would be popping outa nowhere! Nowhere for real!”

“Exactly,” Penny said, her eyes flashing for admiration. “They would be wandering through a supernight, a night so dark that not even its darkness can be seen…”

Elijah looked to her wonder. “And so daylight seems to be everywhere, always!”

“It fills everything. And this is what happens whenever I reflect on my experience: shreds are made whole. Your father not only took away the light, what allowed me to intuit myself for what I am—the DIME way—he also took away the darkness. So even though I know that I, like other people, now wander through the deep night of myself, anytime I ponder experience…” She flashed him a pensive smile, shrugged. “I see only day.”

“Does it make you sad, Penny?”

She paced him for three strides, then snorted. “I’m not sure!” she cried.

“But it’s important, right? It’s important for a reason.”

She sighed, her eyes lost in rumination. “When I think back… back to what it was like, it scarcely seems I’m awake now. It’s like I’m trapped, buried in a black mountain of reflexes… carried from place to place, eyes clicking here, eyes clicking there, vocalized aloud, or in silence…”

She glanced in sudden awareness of his scrutiny.

“This sounds crazy to you, doesn’t it, Elijah?”

He pinned his shoulders to the corners of his smirk. “Well… maybe the consciousness you have now isn’t the problem so much as your memories of what it was like before… If Dad wiped them, then that… fullness you talk about, it would be completely filled in, wouldn’t it?”

Her look was too long for Elijah not to regret the suggestion. As far as amputations went, it seemed painless enough, trivial, but only because the limb lost simply ceased to exist altogether. Nothing would be known. But this very promise merely underscored the profundity of what was severed. It was at once an amputation of nothing and an amputation of the soul.

“That was a stupid… a st-stupid thing to say, Penny.”

She walked, her gaze locked forward. “Your father’s always told me that inner blindness is one of the things that makes humans so dependent upon one another. I would always ask how that interdependence could even compare to the DIME Combine. He would always say it wasn’t a contest, that it wasn’t about efficiency, or technological advance, it was about loving this one rare flower of consciousness as it happened to bloom …”

Something, his heart or his gut perhaps, made the boy careful. He pondered his sneakers on the trail.

“I think it’s why he began sending us out on these walks…” Penny continued. “To show me how less can be so much more…”

After an inexplicable pause, she held out her arms. “I don’t even know why I told you that.”

Elijah shrugged. “Because I was helping you with my questions back there?” He screwed his face up into his face, shot her the Eye: “Oi! Did we firget yir oil-change agin, Lassie?”

She smiled at that. Victory. “I guess we’ll never know, now, will we?”

Elijah began strutting down the path. “No dipstick, now? Then I do believe our ecology is safe!”

“Yes. Blessed ignorance prevails.”

They yowled for laughter.

As often happens in the wake of conversations possessing a certain intensity, an awkwardness paralyzed their voices, as if all the actors within them had suddenly lost their characters’ motivation, and so could do no more than confer with the director backstage. In the few years he had remaining, Elijah would learn that jokes, far from healing moments, simply sealed them, often prematurely, when neither party had found the resolution they needed to move on. Jokes simply stranded souls on the far side of their pain. They possessed no paths of their own. Or too few of them.

So Elijah walked in silence, his thoughts roiling, quite witless, but in a way far beyond his meagre mileage. The river roared, both spectral and relentless. Not a bird sang, though an unseen crow now filed its cry across the idyllic hush. They followed the path about the river’s final bow, across a gravelled thumb of humped grasses. The sun drenched them. He need not look at her to see her uncanny gleam, the ‘glamour,’ Dad called it, which marked her as an angel among mortals. He could clearly see the cottage silhouetted through the screens of green fencing the far bank.

He hoped Dad had lunch ready. It almost made him cry whenever Dad cooked at the cabin. He wasn’t sure why.

“Does it ever make you mad, Penny?” Elijah asked.

“Does what make me mad?”

“You know… What Dad had to, like… do… to… you?”

She shot him a quizzical look.

“No-no, honey… I was made to love your fath—”

Just then, the last of the obscuring rushes yielded to curve of the path, revealing not only the foot-bridge across the river, but Elijah’s dad standing at the end, staring up the path toward them.

“Hey guys!” he shouted. The swirling sheets of water about his head and torso made him seem to move, despite standing still. “You have a good walk?”

For as long as he could remember, a small thrill always occasioned unexpected glimpses of his father—a flutter of pride. His greying hair, curled like steel. His strong, perpetually sunburned face. His forearms, strapped with patriarchal muscle, and furred like an albino ape.

“Awesome!” the youth called out in reply. “Educational as always, wouldn’t you say, Penny?”

Dad had a way of looking at Penny.

“I told him how I became a person,” she said with a wry smile.

Dad grinned. Elijah had once overheard one of Dad’s lawyers say that his smile had won him every single suit not filed against him.

“So you told him how I cut you down to size, huh?”

“Yes,” she said, placing a hand on Elijah’s shoulder. “To size.”

And something, a fist perhaps, seized the boy’s heart. The artificial fingers slipped away. He watched Penny and Dad continue arm and arm down the bridge together, the Great Man and his angel wife, each just a little too bright to be possible in the midday sun. He did not so much envy as regret the way he held her like someone else’s flower. The waters curled black and glassy beneath them.

And somehow Elijah knew that Penny would be much happier on their next walk, much more at ease with what she had become…

Even smaller.


by rsbakker

you were wondering why people think I’m such an asshole…

I was just checking out the Second Apocalypse trailer again (for the umpteenth time) and a link to this video was tiled in with the others. I howled at the way the two of us tried to look as though we were listening to the translations and either a) agreeing with the Spanish version of our insight, or b) expressing approval of the quality of a translation! I forgot all about it: La Semana Negra, organized by the inimitable Paco Taibo II, an annual celebration of genre in Gijon, Spain, and, get this, one of the biggest book extravaganzas in the world. What a magical time that was. Jim Sallis. Practical jokes. George and Paris. Booze, laughs, and greasy, greasy northern Spanish cuisine.

At the time George was talking about the Game of Thrones being in development, and as I write this, HBO is running a spot on the television in the livingroom. Surreal.



Human Enhancement as Paradigmatic Crash Space

by rsbakker

Evolutionary Question Mark

A quick apology to all for my blog delinquency of late. The copy-edit of The Great Ordeal represents my last real crack at the book, so I’ve been avoiding the web like the plague.

Eric Schwitzgebel has posted on my “Crash Space” story over at Splintered Minds, explaining why he’s been unable to get the story out of his head. Since I agree with pretty much everything he has to say, I thought it worthwhile augmenting his considerations with a critical point of view. In one sense, “Crash Space” narrativizes what is sometimes called a ‘wisdom of nature argument,’ the notion that enhancing natural systems can only undo the ancient, evolutionary fine-tuning involved in, say, giving us the sociocognitive capacities we happen to possess. As Allen Buchanan (for my money, one of the most lucid combatants in the ‘enhancement wars’) would argue, such arguments rely on what he calls the “extreme connectedness thesis,” which is to say, the mistaken assumption that biological systems are so interdependent that knocking out one irrevocably degrades the capacities of others. As he points out (In Better than Human and elsewhere), nature is replete with modularity (functional self-sufficiencies), redundancy (back up systems), and ‘canalisation’ (roughly, biological robustness), which he thinks, does not so much moot wisdom of nature concerns as block their generalization: enhancements need to be considered on a case by case basis.

Although the Crash Space argument fits the wisdom of nature profile it actually turns on the radically heuristic nature of human sociocognition–something far more specific than any ‘extreme connectedness assumption.’ Heuristic cognition is cognition that neglects information, which is to say, cognition that heavily relies on background invariances–things that can be taken for granted–to generate solutions. Once again, think of the recent Ashley Madison controversy, the way it was so easy to dupe so many men into thinking that real women were looking at their profiles. All the bots needed to do was to hit the right cues, heuristic triggers that, ancestrally at least, reliably meant we were engaging fellow humans.

Human sociocognitive capacities, which leverage cognitive miracles out of an astonishingly small number of cues (think of Sherry Turkle’s work on ‘Darwinian buttons,’ or Deidre Barrett’s on ‘supernormal stimuli’) are so powerful simply because they turn so heavily on background invariances. Allen’s counterargument fails against the Crash Space model, I think, for buying into the very same ‘one size fits all assumption’ he uses to critique bioconservatives like Francis Fukuyama. The more a cognitive system turns on cues, the more it turns on background invariances, the more vulnerable to technological transformation it becomes. The question isn’t ‘how evolution works in general,’ as Buchanan would have it, but how evolution worked in the particular case of human social cognition. The short story, I like to think, gives a vivid hypothetical in vivo look at the consequences of enhancing human cognitive capacities.

And as the Ashley Madison example suggests, the problem likely far outruns the problem of human enhancement.

Moving Pictures of Awe, Spectacle, and Doom

by rsbakker


For more than ten years now, I’ve been eking out a living writing The Second Apocalypse, determined–determined–to stay true to the vision, and convinced that it possessed real cultural reach, despite the sex, violence, and philosophy. Along the way, I’ve benefitted immensely from the guidance and support of those who have come to share that dark vision. My brother Bryan, who has a video production company called Bizbio Creative, has been urging me to take charge of the marketing side of my writing career for years now, and finally, after realizing the dimensions of my ineptitude, he contacted Jason Deem intent on creating a trailer from the gobsmacking Second Apocalypse artwork Jason has created over the years. The way my brother sees it, fans want to share their passion, and if you’re so preposterously lucky to have readers like I do, all you need do is give them something to share. I gotta tell you, it’s a wonderful and surreal thing seeing your vision refracted through another’s eyes, even more so when those eyes are gifted.

In short, I’ve never had any business savvy, so I suppose it makes sense that I’ve never had a business card. Thanks to my brother and Jason, now I do, a remarkable one.

I’m already working on the copy edited version of The Great Ordeal, so the July release date looks firm. My big concern now is reaching all those readers who moved on during the years since The White-Luck Warrior was released. Hopefully the above teaser and the soon-to-be released trailer will do the trick.

If not, I still think the story itself will begin garnering serious attention… It’s a vision thing.

The Zombie Enlightenment

by rsbakker

rick zombie

Understanding what comes next depends on understanding what’s going on now, which is to say, cognizing modernity. The premise, recall, is that, due to metacognitive myopia, traditional intentional vocabularies lock us into perpetual conundrums. This means understanding modernity requires some kind of post-intentional explanatory framework—we need some way to understand it in naturalistic terms. Since cognizing modernity requires cognizing the Enlightenment, this puts us on the hook for an alternative, post-intentional explanation of the processes at work—a zombie Enlightenment story.

I say ‘zombie,’ of course, as much to keep the horror of the perspective in view as to underscore the naturalistic character of the explanations. What follows is a dry-run of sorts, an attempt to sketch what has brought about this extraordinary era of accelerating transformation. Keep in mind the ludicrous speculative altitudes involved, but also remember that all such attempts to theorize macrosocial phenomena suffer this liability. I don’t think it’s so important that the case be made as some alternative be proposed at this point. For one, the mere existence of such an account, the bare fact of its plausibility, requires the intentionalist account for the superiority of their approach, and this, as we shall see below, can have a transformative effect on cognitive ecologies.

In zombie terms, the Enlightenment, as we think we know it, had nothing to do with the ‘power of reason’ to ‘emancipate,’ to free us from the tyranny of Kant’s ‘tutelary natures.’ This is the Myth. Likewise, Nietzsche’s Gegenaufklarung had nothing to do with somehow emancipating us from the tyrannical consequences of this emancipation. The so-called Counter-Enlightenment, or ‘postmodernism’ as it has come to be called, was a completion, or a consummation, if you wish. The antagonism is merely a perspectival artifact. Postmodernism, if anything, represents the processes characteristic of the zombie Enlightenment colonizing and ultimately overcoming various specialized fields of cultural endeavour.

To understand this one needs to understand something crucial about human nature, namely, the way understanding, all understanding, is blind understanding. The eye cannot be seen. Olfaction has no smell, just as touch has no texture. To enable knowledge, in other words, is to stand outside the circuit of what is known. A great many thinkers have transformed this observation into something both extraordinary and occult, positing all manner of inexplicable things by way of explanation, everything from transparencies to transcendentals to trace structures. But the primary reason is almost painfully mundane: the seeing eye cannot be seen simply because it is mechanically indisposed.

Human beings suffer ‘cognitive indisposition’ or as I like to call it, medial neglect, a ‘brain blindness’ so profound as to escape them altogether, to convince them, at every stage of their ignorance, that they could see pretty much everything they needed to see.

Now according to the Myth, the hundred million odd souls populating Europe in the 18th century shuffled about in unconscious acquiescence to authority, each generation blindly repeating the chauvinisms of the generation prior. The Enlightenment institutionalized inquiry, the asking of questions, and the asking of questions, far from merely setting up ‘choice situations’ between assertions, makes cognitive incapacity explicit. The Enlightenment, in other words, institutionalized the erosion of traditional authority, thus ‘freeing’ individuals to pursue other possible answers. The great dividend of the Enlightenment was nothing less than autonomy, the personal, political, and material empowerment of the individual via knowledge. They were blind, but now they could see–or at least so they thought.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, arose out of the recognition that inquiry has no end, that the apparent rational verities of the Enlightenment were every bit as vulnerable to delegitimization (‘deconstruction’) as the verities of the tradition that it swept away. Enlightenment critique was universally applicable, every bit as toxic to successor as to traditional claims. Enlightenment reason, therefore, could not itself be the answer, a conviction that the increasingly profound technical rationalization of Western society only seemed to confirm. The cognitive autonomy promised by Kant and his contemporaries had proven too radical, missing the masses altogether, and stranding intellectuals in the humanities, at least, with relativistic guesses. The Enlightenment deconstruction of religious narrative—the ‘death of God’—was at once the deconstruction of all absolute narratives, all foundations. Autonomy had collapsed into anomie.

This is the Myth of the Enlightenment, at least in cartoon thumbnail.

But if we set aside our traditional fetish for ‘reason’ and think of post-Medieval European society as a kind of information processing system, a zombie society, the story actually looks quite different. Far from the death of authority and the concomitant birth of a frightening, ‘postmodern autonomy,’ the ‘death of God’ becomes the death of supervision. Supervised learning, of course, refers to one of the dominant learning paradigms in artificial neural networks, one where training converges on known targets, as opposed to unsupervised learning, where training converges on unknown targets. So long as supervised cognitive ecologies monopolized European society, European thinkers were bound to run afoul the ‘only-game-in-town effect,’ the tendency to assume claims true for the simple want of alternatives. There were gains in cognitive efficiency, certainly, but they arose adventitiously, and had to brave selection in generally unforgiving social ecologies. Pockets of unsupervised learning appear in every supervised society, in fact, but in the European case, the economic and military largesse provided by these isolated pockets assured they would be reproduced across the continent. The process was gradual, of course. What we call the ‘Enlightenment’ doesn’t so much designate the process as the point when the only-game-in-town effect could no longer be sustained among the learned classes. In all corners of society, supervised optima found themselves competing more and more with unsupervised optima—and losing. What Kant and his contemporaries called ‘Enlightenment’ simply made explicit an ecology that European society had been incubating for centuries, one that rendered cognitive processes responsive to feedback via empirical and communicative selection.

On an information processing view, in other words, the European Enlightenment did not so much free up individuals as cognitive capacity. Once again, we need to appreciate the zombie nature of this view, how it elides ethical dimensions. On this view, traditional chauvinisms represent maladaptive optima, old fixes that now generate more problems than they solve. Groups were not so much oppressed, on this account, as underutilized. What we are prone to call ‘moral progress’ in folk political terms amounts to the optimization of collective neurocomputational resources. These problematic ethical and political consequences, of course, have no bearing on the accuracy of the view. Any cultural criticism that makes ideological orthodoxy a condition of theoretical veracity is nothing more than apologia in the worst sense, self-serving rationalization. In fact, since naturalistic theories are notorious for the ways they problematize our moral preconceptions, you might even say this kind of problematization is precisely what we should expect. Pursuing hard questions can only be tendentious if you cannot countenance hard answers.

The transition from a supervised to an unsupervised learning ecology was at once a transition from a slow selecting to a rapid selecting ecology. One of the great strengths of unsupervised learning, it turns out, is blind source separation, something your brain wonderfully illustrates for you every time you experience the famed ‘cocktail party effect.’ Artificial unsupervised learning algorithms, of course, allow for the causal sourcing of signals in a wide variety of scientific contexts. Causal sourcing, of course, amounts to identifying causes, which is to say, mechanical cognition, which in turn amounts to behavioural efficacy, the ability to remake environments. So far as behavioural efficacy cues selection, then, we suddenly find ourselves with a social ecology (‘science’) dedicated to the accumulation of ever more efficacies—ever more power over themselves and their environments.

Power begets power; efficiency, efficiency. Human ecologies were not only transformed, they were transformed in ways that facilitated transformation. Each new optimization selected and incorporated generated ecological changes, social or otherwise, changes bearing on the efficiency of previous optimizations. And so the shadow of maladaptation, or obsolescence, fell across all existing adaptations, be they behavioural or technological.

The inevitability of maladaptation, of course, merely expresses the contingency of ecology, the fact that all ecologies change over time. In ancestral (slow selecting) ecologies, the information required to cognize this process was scarce to nonexistent: the only game in town effect—the assumption of sufficiency in the absence of alternatives—was all but inevitable. Given the way cognitive invariance cues cognitive stability, the fact that we can trust our inheritance, the spectre of accelerating obsolescence could only represent a threat.

“Expect the unexpected,” a refrain that only modernity could abide, wonderfully recapitulates, I think, the inevitability of postmodernism. Cognitive instability became the only cognitive stability, the only humanistic ‘principle’ remaining. And thus the great (perhaps even perverse) irony of philosophical modernity: the search for stability in difference, and the development, across the humanities, of social behaviours (aesthetic or theoretical) bent on making obsolete.

Rather than wait for obsolescence to arise out ecological transformation, many began forcing the issue, isolating instances of the only game in town effect in various domains of aesthetic and theoretical behaviour, and adducing alternatives in an attempt to communicate their obsolescence. Supervised or ‘traditional’ ecologies readily broke down. Unsupervised learning ecologies, quickly became synonymous with cognitive stability—and more attractive for it. The scientific fetish for innovation found itself replicated in humanistic guise. Despite the artificial nature of this process, the lack of any alternative account of semantic instability gave rise to a new series of only game in town effects. What had begun as an unsupervised exploration of solution spaces, quickly lapsed into another supervised ecology. Avante garde and post-structuralist zombies adapted to exploit microsocial ecologies they themselves had fashioned.

The so-called ‘critique of Enlightenment reason,’ whether implicit in aesthetic behaviour or explicit in theoretical behaviour, demonstrates the profundity of medial neglect, the blindness of zombie components to the greater machinery compelling them. The Gegenaufklarung merely followed through on the actual processes of ‘ratcheting ecological innovation’ responsible, undermining, as it did, the myths that had been attached to those processes in lieu of actual understanding. In communicating the performative dimension of ‘reason’ and the irrationality of Enlightenment rationality, postmodernism cleared a certain space for post-intentional thinking, but little more. Otherwise it is best viewed as an inadvertent consummation of a logic it can only facilitate and never ‘deconstruct.’

Our fetish for knowledge and innovation remain. We have been trained to embrace an entirely unknown eventuality, and that training has been supervised.

The Discursive Meanie

by rsbakker

So I went to see Catherine Malabou speak on the relation between deep history, consciousness and neuroscience last night. As she did in her Critical Inquiry piece, she argued that some new conceptuality was required to bridge the natural historical and the human, a conceptuality that neuroscience could provide. When I introduced myself to her afterward, she recognized my name, said that she had read my post, “Malabou, Continentalism, and New Age Philosophy.” When I asked her what she thought, she blushed and told me that she thought it was mean.

I tried to smooth things over, but for most people, I think, expressing aggression in interpersonal exchanges is like throwing boulders tied to their waist. Hard words rewrite communicative contexts, and it takes the rest of the brain several moments to catch up. Once she tossed her boulder it was only a matter of time before the rope yanked her away. Discussion over.

I appreciate that I’m something of an essayistic asshole, and that academics, adapted to genteel communicative contexts as they are, generally have little experience with, let alone stomach for, the more bruising environs of the web. But then the near universal academic tendency to take the path of least communicative resistance, to foster discursive ingroups, is precisely the tendency Three Pound Brain is dedicated to exposing. The problem, of course, is that cuing people to identify you as a threat pretty much guarantees they will be unable to engage you rationally, as was the case here. Malabou had dismissed me, and so my arguments simply followed.

How does one rattle ingroup assumptions as an outgroup competitor, short disguising oneself as an ingroup sympathizer, that is? Interesting conundrum, that. I suppose if I had more notoriety, they would feel compelled to engage me…

Is it time to rethink my tactics?

The Dim Future of Human Brilliance

by rsbakker

Moths to a flame

Humans are what might be called targeted shallow information consumers in otherwise unified deep information environments. We generally skim only what information we need—from our environments or ourselves—to effect reproduction, and nothing more. We neglect gamma radiation for good reason: ‘deep’ environmental information that makes no reproductive difference makes no cognitive difference. As the product of innumerable ancestral ecologies, human cognitive biology is ecological, adapted to specific, high-impact environments. As ecological, one might expect that human cognitive biology is every bit as vulnerable to ecological change as any other biological system.

Under the rubric of  the Semantic Apocalypse, the ecological vulnerability of human cognitive biology has been my focus here for quite some time at Three Pound Brain. Blind to deep structures, human cognition largely turns on cues, sensitivity to information differentially related to the systems cognized.  Sociocognition, where a mere handful of behavioural cues can trigger any number of predictive/explanatory assumptions, is paradigmatic of this. Think, for instance, how easy it was for Ashley Madison to convince its predominantly male customers that living women were checking their profiles.  This dependence on cues underscores a corresponding dependence on background invariance: sever the differential relations between the cues and systems to be cognized (the way Ashley Madison did) and what should be sociocognition, the solution of some fellow human, becomes confusion (we find ourselves in ‘crash space’) or worse, exploitation (we find ourselves in instrumentalized crash space, or ‘cheat space’).

So the questions I think we need to be asking are:

What effect does deep information have on our cognitive ecologies? The so-called ‘data deluge’ is nothing but an explosion in the availability of deep or ancestrally inaccessible information. What happens when targeted shallow information consumers suddenly find themselves awash in different kinds of deep information? A myriad of potential examples come to mind. Think of the way medicalization drives accommodation creep, how instructors are gradually losing the ability to judge character in the classroom. Think of the ‘fear of crime’ phenomena, how the assessment of ancestrally unavailable information against implicit, ancestral baselines skews general perceptions of criminal threat. For that matter, think of the free will debate, or the way mechanistic cognition scrambles intentional cognition more generally: these are paradigmatic instances of the way deep information, the primary deliverance of science, crashes the targeted and shallow cognitive capacities that comprise our evolutionary inheritance.

What effect does background variation have on targeted, shallow modes of cognition? What happens when cues become differentially detached, or ‘decoupled,’ from their ancestral targets? Where the first question deals with the way the availability of deep information (literally, not metaphorically) pollutes cognitive ecologies, the ways human cognition requires the absence of certain information, this question deals with the way human cognition requires the presence of certain environmental continuities. There’s actually been an enormous amount of research done on this question in a wide variety of topical guises. Nikolaas Tinbergen coined the term “supernormal stimuli” to designate ecologically variant cuing, particularly the way exaggerated stimuli can trigger misapplications of different heuristic regimes. He famously showed how gull chicks, for instance, could be fooled into pecking false “super beaks” for food given only a brighter-than-natural red spot. In point of fact, you see supernormal stimuli in dramatic action anytime you see artificial outdoor lighting surrounded by a haze of bugs: insects that use lunar transverse orientation to travel at night continually correct their course vis a vis streetlights, porch lights, and so on, causing them to spiral directly into them. What Tinbergen and subsequent ethology researchers have demonstrated is the ubiquity of cue-based cognition, the fact that all organisms are targeted, shallow information consumers in unified deep information environments.

Deirdre Barrett has recently applied the idea to modern society, but lacking any theory of meaning, she finds herself limited to pointing out suggestive speculative parallels between ecological readings and phenomena that are semantically overdetermined otherwise. For me this question calves into a wide variety of domain-specific forms, but there’s an important distinction to be made between the decoupling of cues generally and strategic decoupling, between ‘crash space’ and ‘cheat space.’ Where the former involves incidental cognitive incapacity, human versions of transverse orientation, the latter involves engineered cognitive incapacity. The Ashley Madison case I referenced above provides an excellent example of simply how little information is needed to cue our sociocognitive systems in online environments. In one sense, this facility evidences the remarkable efficiency of human sociocognition, the fact that it can do so much with so little. But, as with specialization in evolution more generally, this efficiency comes at the cost of ecological dependency: you can only neglect information in problem-solving so long as the systems ignored remain relatively constant.

And this is basically the foundational premise of the Semantic Apocalypse: intentional cognition, as a radically specialized system, is especially vulnerable to both crashing and cheating. The very power of our sociocognitive systems is what makes them so liable to be duped (think religious anthropomorphism), as well as so easy to dupe. When Sherry Turkle, for instance, bemoans the ease with which various human-computer interfaces, or ‘HCIs,’ push our ‘Darwinian buttons’ she is talking about the vulnerability of sociocognitive cues to various cheats (but since she, like Barrett, lacks any theory of meaning, she finds herself in similar explanatory straits). In a variety of experimental contexts, for instance, people have been found to trust artificial interlocutors over human ones. Simple tweaks in the voices and appearance of HCIs have a dramatic impact on our perceptions of those encounters—we are in fact easily manipulated, cued to draw erroneous conclusions, given what are quite literally cartoonish stimuli. So the so-called ‘internet of things,’ the distribution of intelligence throughout our artifactual ecologies, takes on a far more sinister cast when viewed through the lens of human sociocognitive specialization. Populating our ecologies with gadgets designed to cue our sociocognitive capacities ‘out of school’ will only degrade the overall utility of those capacities. Since those capacities underwrite what we call meaning or ‘intentionality,’ the collapse of our ancestral sociocognitive ecologies signals the ‘death of meaning.’

The future of human cognition looks dim. We can say this because we know human cognition is heuristic, and that specific forms of heuristic cognition turn on specific forms of ecological stability, the very forms that our ongoing technological revolution promises to sweep away. Blind Brain Theory, in other words, offers a theory of meaning that not only explains away the hard problem, but can also leverage predictions regarding the fate of our civilization. It makes me dizzy thinking about it, and suspicious—the empty can, as they say, rattles the loudest. But this preposterous scope is precisely what we should expect from a genuinely naturalistic account of intentional phenomena. The power of mechanistic cognition lies in the way it scales with complexity, allowing us to build hierarchies of components and subcomponents. To naturalize meaning is to understand the soul in terms continuous with the cosmos.

This is precisely what we should expect from a theory delivering the Holy Grail, the naturalization of meaning.

You could even argue that the unsettling, even horrifying consequences evidence its veracity, given there’s so many more ways for the world to contradict our parochial conceits than to appease them. We should expect things will end ugly.


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