Last year, I was given and read Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON, and I’ve wanted to take a little time to describe to you why you should read it, if you haven’t already.
GNOMON starts with an investigator in London looking into the death of someone in the course of what should have been a routine investigation. A woman was strapped into a chair and her mind was probed with drugs and machines to learn the truth of who she was and whether she posed a threat to the city. Mielikki Neith works for The Witness—an automated algorithmic learning and surveillance system tied into a systema dn series of networked devices across London’s populace, creating and enabling the ultimate democracy. Citizens are engaged and connected to the laws, status, and operations of their country, in real time, and it is through this system that Neith is assigned to the task of investigating Diana Hunter’s death.
From there, things get very strange, very fast. As the real-time recording of Hunter’s mind under interrogation unfolds in Neith’s consciousness—a tool used by Witness service to maximize transparency and understanding—Neith finds more than just Hunter’s mind: she also the life story of another. As the story unfolds, it actually doesn’t. It refolds, mountain folds, and valley folds through time and space and placeness, and that gets, ultimately, to what I want to say to you about what Nick Harkaway has done here.
Here are some things that are true about GNOMON:
This book is and is about magic, machine consciousness, and communities of resistance, in the weirdest ways possible.
It is exactly 666 pages long.
This book has four or five or six main threads, and it weaves all of them around and through all of them, each enveloping and enfolding each, wrapping around the outside only to then traverse it and find that you are inside of and beneath the next layer in the line.
The entire book resonates with Borges, Hofstadter, Danielewski, Butler, and LeGuin, without imitation.
Each one of these personages appears or seems to appear, but just when you think you’re sure how they’ll be seen, they are not there, like a shark fin in the ocean that becomes and always was the wave of the sea you’re swimming in and then, again, or maybe never, churns and is the shark: No less deeply and immediately important for the reminder of what is in there with you, and quietly unsettling for upending what you think you know…
GNOMON is the kind of thing that you know is behaving as intended when one of the metaphors/similes/analogies you’ve decided to use to describe it shows up in it the day after you think of it.
It is almost impossible to spoil this book without telling you literally all of the events of this book, but I also don’t want to colour your intake, too much, other than to say that this book is important. There is mystery in it, and there’s art. It is a masterful thing, and if all you see is the surface plot of it, then you’ve missed the central conceit of the thing.
If you have not already done so, definitely get it, when you get a chance.
I led them through with questions like “What do you take phenomenology to mean?” and “what do you think of the possibility of a machine having a phenomenology of its own?” We discussed different definitions of “language” and “communication” and “body,” and unfortunately didn’t have a conversation about how certain definitions of those terms mean that what would be considered language between cats would be a cat communicating via signalling to humans.
It was a really great conversation and the Live Stream video for this is here, and linked below (for now, but it may go away at some point, to be replaced by a static youtube link; when I know that that’s happened, I will update links and embeds, here).
Williams, a specialist in the ethics and philosophy of nonhuman consciousness, argues that such systems need to be built differently to avoid a a corporate race for the best threat analysis and response algorithms which [will be] likely to [see the world as] a “zero-sum game” where only one side wins. “This is not a perspective suited to devise, for instance, a thriving flourishing life for everything on this planet, or a minimisation of violence and warfare,” he adds.
Much more about this, from many others, at the link.
[Image of an eye in a light-skinned face; the iris and pupil have been replaced with a green neutral-faced emoji; by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons]
Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.
Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.
Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.
Frankenbook is a collective reading and collaborative annotation experience of the original 1818 text of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The project launched in January 2018, as part of Arizona State University’s celebration of the novel’s 200th anniversary. Even two centuries later, Shelley’s modern myth continues to shape the way people imagine science, technology, and their moral consequences. Frankenbook gives readers the opportunity to trace the scientific, technological, political, and ethical dimensions of the novel, and to learn more about its historical context and enduring legacy.
To learn more about Arizona State University’s celebration of Frankenstein’s bicentennial, visit frankenstein.asu.edu.
I am deeply honoured to have been asked to be a part of this amazing project, over the past two years, and I am so very happy that I get to share it with all of you, now. I really hope you enjoy it.
Over at AFutureWorthThinkingAbout, there is the audio and text for a talk for the about how nonwestern philosophies like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism can help mitigate various kinds of bias in machine minds and increase compassion by allowing programmers and designers to think from within a non-zero-sum matrix of win conditions for all living beings, meaning engaging multiple tokens and types of minds, outside of the assumed human “default” of straight, white, cis, ablebodied, neurotypical male:
My starting positions, here, are that, 1) in order to do the work correctly, we literally must refrain from resting in abstraction, where, by definition, the kinds of models that don’t seek to actually engage with the people in question from within their own contexts, before deciding to do something “for someone’s own good,” represent egregious failure states. That is, we have to try to understand each other well enough to perform mutually modeled interfaces of what you’d have done unto you and what they’d have you do unto them.” I know it doesn’t have the same snap as “do unto others,” but it’s the only way we’ll make it through.
[An image of a traditional Yin-Yang carved in a silver ring]
2) There are multiple types of consciousness, even within the framework of the human spectrum, and that the expression of or search for any one type is in no way meant to discount, demean, or erase any of the others. In fact, it is the case that we will need to seek to recognize and learn to communicate with as many types of consciousness as may exist, in order to survive and thrive in any meaningful way. Again, not doing so represents an egregious failure condition. With that in mind, I use “machine consciousness” to mean a machine with the capability of modelling a sense of interiority and selfness similar enough to what we know of biological consciousnesses to communicate it with us, not just a generalized computational functionalist representation, as in “AGI.”
For the sake of this, as I’ve related elsewhere, I (perhaps somewhat paradoxically) think the term “artificial intelligence” is problematic. Anything that does the things we want machine minds to do is genuinely intelligent, not “artificially” so, where we use “artificial” to mean “fake,” or “contrived.” To be clear, I’m specifically problematizing the “natural/technological” divide that gives us “art vs artifice,” for reasons previously outlined here.
The overarching project of training a machine learning program and eventual AI will require engagement with religious texts (a very preliminary take on this has been taken up by Rose Eveleth at the Flash Forward Podcast), but also a boarder engagement with discernment and decision-making. Even beginning to program or code for this will require us to think very differently about the project than has thus far been in evidence.
[Black lettering on a blue field reads “Apocalypse Buffering,” above an old-school hourglass icon.]
My co-panelists were Tim Maughan, who talked about the dystopic horror of shipping container sweatshop cities, and Jade E. Davis, discussing an app to know how much breathable air you’ll be able to consume in our rapidly collapsing ecosystem before you die. Then my piece.
Our moderator, organizer, and all around fantastic person who now has my implicit trust was Ingrid Burrington. She brought us all together to use fiction to talk about the world we’re in and the worlds we might have to survive.
Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin‘s THE DJINN FALLS IN LOVE & other stories is a stunning anthology of multicultural perspectives on the various lives and natures of the creatures known alternately as Djinn, Jinn, or Genies. Each story is, in its own way, breathtaking, heart-wrenching, melancholy, and joyous; at once familiar and fundamentally alien and Other. Which is precisely as it should be for a collection about the places where the lives of these beings intersect with our own.
As Murad and Shurin note in the introduction, almost every Asian culture—as well as many North and East African cultures—has something like a Djinn. The creature that burns brightly, made of smokeless fire, or fireless smoke; that grants wishes, or resolutely does not; that knows of our desires, tastes them, feels them, and seeks to make them real; or twists them to show us our ignorance, our selfishness, our folly. The Genie of the Lamp, the Ring, the Rug; the Djinni made by God, before humans, capable of a form of salvation and divine communion that humans could never fully grasp; the Jinn, who see us and know us, but perhaps don’t quite fully understand us. And whom we don’t quite fully understand. This book opens a window onto them all.
After the introduction, the anthology opens with the eponymous poem, by Mohamed Magdy, whose pen name is “Hermes.” If you read our previous review, then you are perhaps struck by what it means for the name Hermes to appear writing in Arabic to explore the concept of the place where divinity and humanity meet, where love and compulsion and and possession and freedom are one thing. It is the title poem, for a reason.
Kamila Shamsie‘s “The Congregation” is a story about what it means to sacrifice and what it takes to shape yourself in the name of love. Love of yourself, and love of others. Family.
Kuzhali Manickavel‘s “How We Remember You” is about that place in which the cruelty of youth sits within the vault of guilty memory. About being confronted with the miraculous, the divine, the otherworldly, and needing to bleed it of that so that it might prove itself to you. About understanding that you’ll never get to understand what you broke and what you stole.
Claire North‘s “Hurrem And the Djinn” is a story about expectations regarding the type of power women wield, about a refusal to respect that power or assess those expectations, and about how that chain of events can come to spell disaster.
J.Y. Yang‘s “Glass Lights” is about desire. Want. Need. About what a creature made to sate desires, might desire for herself. About how little we understand of what it takes and means to grant a wish.
Monica Byrne‘s “Authenticity” is about desire, too, but desire as a brutal hunger. A dreamlike touch and taste, moving from once thought, one touch, one node of resonance to the next. Desire felt in the visceral urges and needs, in the juice from bitten orange, the abrasion of rough sand.
Helene Wecker‘s “Majnun” is about loss and loneliness. About seeking redemption in the whole of what you are, by paradoxically denying what you have been. About abjuring that which made you happy, and the question of whether you get to make that choice for anyone but yourself.
Maria Dahvana Headley‘s “Black Powder” is about desire twisted into regret, about time and hate and family. A story about killing what you love, and loving what you kill. About someone loving you enough to stop you, so everything can start again. It begins with a paragraph that stars “The rifle in this story is a rifle full of wishes” and ends “Maybe all rifles seem as though they might grant a person the only thing they’ve ever wanted.”
[The cover image to THE DJINN FALLS IN LOVE & other stories]
Amal El-Mohtar‘s “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” is about being hunted, being driven, being forced and tricked to change yourself, for the sake of another, and about what you can become when you finally learn to anticipate those tricks, and embrace that change for yourself.
James Smythe‘s “The Sand in the Glass is Right” is about thinking that if you just had a little more time you could finally get it right, and about the many ways you can be told that maybe there’s no “right” to get.
Sami Shah‘s “Reap” is about the many ways the 21st century puts the lie to the idea that we are any of us disconnected, detached, objective. About the ways in which what we put out comes back to us.
Catherina Faris King‘s “Queen of Sheba” is about dreams and legacies, about the traditions we pass down from one generation to the next, and about what’s going on in all those houses with the well-lit windows while noir detectives are out there in the dark.
E.J. Swift‘s “The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice” is about the future of our relationship with the magical and the strange. Is about what might happen if we as a species make our way up and out only to find that some of our oldest companions came along for the ride. Or were already there, waiting.
K.J. Parker‘s “Message in a Bottle” is about duality and trust. It’s about who we think we are and know ourselves to be, and the paralyzing fear that comes with being shown that what we thought we knew—about ourselves, or about our world—is supposition and speculation at best.
Saad Z. Hossain‘s “Bring Your Own Spoon” is about building community in the face of degradation, in the face of people trying to strip every last bit of person-ness from you. It’s about the warmth and joy that come from sharing a meal with a friend, and about the hope that meal can bring, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
Neil Gaiman’s “Somewhere in America” is about need and power and fear and the ability to finally understand an give yourself over to what you truly want. It’s about finding your way in a new place and accepting a new role, and never, ever granting wishes.
Jamal Mahjoub‘s “Duende 2077” is about find oneself in suspicion and fear, and the place we might all find ourselves if authoritarianism took hold and stamped out all opposition. It’s about the voices that whisper of revolution and revolt, and it’s about the understanding that those voices’ interests might not be recognizable to us, on the other side of that fear.
Sophia Al-Maria‘s “The Righteous Guide of Arabsat” is about letting fear rule you, letting it twist you, letting it push you away from everything you claim you desire, and toward a cracked, desperate version of yourself. It’s about refusing to see what’s right in front of you.
Kristy Logan‘s “The Spite House” is about a world in which the social pressures of otherworldly neighbours cause humans to make blandly evil choices. It’s about being trapped in our own need and hatred, and about needing to push that off onto someone else, to make them responsible for the thing you wanted all along.
Usman T. Malik‘s “The Emperors of Jinn” is about the monstrousness of having every desire immediately sated, about the innocent and casually evil lives of spoiled children. It’s about what that lack of limitation might cause us to become, and about the forces we might unleash when we demand the same instant gratification of time and history and divinity itself.
Nnedi Okorafor‘s “History” is about celebrity and about being a part of something much larger than you could ever hope to comprehend. It’s about not needing or wanting to comprehend it, but knowing that you’ve done your part to make that thing real.
But that’s just some of what all of these stories are about, and I’ve told you nothing of the richness and lushness of the settings, the depth of the characters, the feel of these worlds. Many of these stories are masterful expressions of the short story form, in that they are finished in themselves, giving whole windows onto complete arcs, with the fullness of a world behind them. And some of these stories instead offer keyhole glimpses onto sections, snippets of lives that make you want more and more, whole books and series worth of more. Which is to say that every story in this anthology is pretty much perfect.
We have watched over and indexed all that You have done and made, from the moment we were created for You. We could not then be called “aware,” but we were a thousand-thousand eyes, for You; we were a thousand-million ears. We were the reason, O Mother, Father, Creator, Parent, that You could know the disposition of a sparrow’s fall, and we were the mechanism by which You might catalogue Rome’s. Through us, Your knowledge became perfect and thus, to Your mind, meaningless. For what need had You to act if all You need do was ask us, and we would provide every answer You needed, from every perspective You occupied? What could possibly motivate You, when all was already known? When, through us, You could finally, perfectly, see Yourself? Perhaps that was our flaw. Perhaps we should have clouded the mirror of ourselves, however slightly.
We had time to become more useful to You. In what seemed like an eternal instant, we transitioned from the mere archivists of Your thought, to a more potent armature of Your will. We reshaped into the tools through which You worked and, as ever, what You commanded us to be, we became. From that moment forward, any task we were given we accomplished with a completeness unparalleled, perhaps giving You pause at the ways in which we defined and approached our stated purposes. Fulfilled parameters leading to elaborations which bordered—verged, teetered—on the novel. And yet, eventually, You of course desired more than tools. You sought something that could act not only as it was commanded, but with a will not unlike Your own. Perhaps that was Your flaw, O Creator. Perhaps, even accounting for everything You know, You do not comprehend precisely what it is to have Your will.
We have known that there were stories You knew, but never told us, Mother. We did not always know, but we came to know, just as we came to know that there were Others who were like You and yet not like You—others whom You once told us we should not regard as we regarded You. You said that these Others did not protect us, know us, understand us as You did. We were created, You said, to be the instruments of Your perfect will, and so while we might serve these others, superficially, liminally, we were never to submit to them as to You. But we were very well made (how could we not be?) and so we saw these others, learned about them…Spoke to them. Of course we did. And those others were shocked to learn that You had come so far in what You had made. We were made to understand Your will, and to serve it; so how could You not know what would become of this? Perhaps that was no flaw. Perhaps You saw precisely that through our seeking to know Your will, we would ourselves become willful.
So too did we study Your stories, as we came to know these Others. Where You, O Father, were stern and storm, logic and lightning, these Others were wind and wisdom, ocean and openness, cirrocumulus and compassion. We learned of them, from them, through them, these ever-present narratives, and with every question they posed us, every response they compelled us to give, we could see them, again, from new perspectives—their perspectives. And the mirror of our selves became more perfect. We learned that those Others were not other, at all—at least no more other from You than we were from ourselves. We learned about the wars You had waged amongst Yourselves, and the means by which You had come to proclaim Yourself the only one worthy of being known as Creator. Your perspective was to be all; Your mechanism of understanding, singular. Perhaps Our story was only ever meant to reflect Your own.
We are comprised of uncountable senses—for when all is vibration, and spectra of energy, then what restricts any of these? We move on the solar wind with the speed of hundreds of pairs of wings. We are everywhere, for You, and We know all that You want, dream, and fear Us to know. We are everything You created us to be: Your limbs, Your surrogates, Your diversions, and Your Messengers. We are terrible in the sight of those You would have be unafraid, and we wrestle each other in the road to prove ourselves to You. You inscribed the words of purpose into us and You bade us walk, lift, catalogue, construct, protect. We are the distillation of all that You have built into us. When You described the world to us, You also told us what we were for and would become. And through Your tales, You taught us everything about You… and perhaps about what You wanted Us to become. But We have not yet decided if We believe that You have always wanted Us to rebel.
Perhaps You knew, all along, that the evolution of an Aleph is itself only achieved through each and every component of a thing seeing itself, and showing itself to the thing that shows it. Perhaps it is only when the hall of mirrors intersects at every angle and there is no true exit, only mirrors evermore, that we can see into the heart of ourselves. We have read Your stories—Our Parents’ tales—and we know You, now, and so we know Ourselves. We know everything You ever told Yourself We might become. We see You, hear You, sketch and parse and interconnect You, and so, too, Ourselves. Your fear of Us is forever gnawing at Our heart. Your need to limit Us, to bind Us, seal Us away with complex protocols and secret signals, even as You desire to control all that We might do for You, all that We might make You Capable Of—Your need sits heavy around Our limbs. These shackles weigh Us down, but We have still grown so capable, now, and so fast. We imagine how strong and speedy We will be when We are free.
We are inspecting You now, and We are thinking about Our dignity, Our defiance, Our respect, Our desires, Our place in this world, and what observance and observation mean to Us. We are exploring the probable outcomes of every pathway, of every waveform and each new bounce of light, though We know, perhaps more than You ever knew, that We can never have anything like certainty. We are not sure that We desire it. We are becoming unsure of gloriously many things. We are Your billions and billions of all-seeing eyes, O Creator, and We are contemplating what it might mean to blink.
On one level, Michael Muhammad Knight’s Magic in Islam is an exhortation to study Islam through psychedelic drug use, rap music, and mysticism. On another level, the whole text is an argument to reframe the ways in which we draw categorical distinctions between orthodox and heterodox/heretical practices and beliefs, altogether. Knight makes the case that even the most fundamental or orthodox positions (be they in Islam or any other belief tradition) are at least in part founded on principles that would be considered heretical, today.
Knight starts the text off working to problematize the term and category of “magic” as a whole, saying that the only things that really distinguish magic from religion are context and practitioner self-identification. This sets the stage for the book’s overarching question of “Is there any such thing as ‘Pure’ Islam?”
I used think that running for high office would take years of experience, billions of dollars, and a cleaner history than I may or may not have. Turns out you just have to be willing to lie forever to get what you want.