Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cannibalism

I've always said that one of the great and terrifying things about the internet is that it allows all of the niche people to find each other. This means chat rooms and message boards that 99% of the population can't relate to, and online stores where you can buy pretty much anything.

Cannibalism, for one reason or another, has never been outlawed in 49 of the 50 states (Idaho being the exception). It's also something that crops up quite a bit in pop culture, usually when there needs to be some way for the antagonist to stand out - see Silence of the Lambs or The Hills Have Eyes. Alternately, there are stories - both fiction and non-fiction - about people who have had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. Part of the reason I see a business opportunity in cannibalism is that it's one of the few taboos that we have left. If our society has proven anything, it's that we love to break our taboos.

So if you want to sell human flesh for consumption, I see two basic ways to go about it: either you open up a restaurant, or you sell the meat online. But before I go over the benefits and drawbacks to that, let's talk law.

While cannibalism itself might not be illegal, there are a huge host of laws concerning what's to be done with human remains, not to mention food safety laws. What this basically means is that you will need someone legally allowed to handle human remains (a list which includes morticians, policemen, medical examiners, forensic specialists, and other people in the medical field). The other problem is that it's illegal to sell or buy human remains. So a business that is established with just that purpose runs into a little bit of trouble. One of the standard tricks of prostitution is to redefine the service being performed into something else that's of no legal consequence. A masseuse who gives happy endings is being paid for her time, not for the sexual act. This isn't a very convincing argument, but it has kept prostitutes and other sex workers from jail time if the judge is lenient enough. Translating that to the sale of flesh, you would have to advertise it as complimentary to something else - like, say, a free gift that comes with a t-shirt.

So let's say that you want to start a restaurant. Your biggest hurdle is probably finding a location, and once you have one, keeping that location. I imagine that especially at the beginning, public pressure would be on you to move out once people realized what was going on. There would be news stories, protests, etc. In addition to that, you would need more staff - a chef, waiters, that kind of thing - and all of them would have to be okay with the idea of cannibalism and the reality of working with human remains every day. A restaurant also has a physical location, which means that you're cutting yourself off from a large amount of the population. However, there is some precedent in New York, where a chef made cheese out of his wife's breast milk. The New York Department of Health shut that down fairly quickly (and he was just giving it away, not selling it), but you can see the strategy that would have to be taken; the restaurant would sell other dishes as its main product, with the long pig being a specialty to draw in other business.

The other option is the internet. The great thing about the internet is that it's reasonably anonymous, which is why pretty much every dark thought that's ever passed through someone's head has its own private place online. This includes all manner of niche things - this is why Rule 34 exists. Because of the anonymity, people would be able to buy the meat without feeling social stigma for breaking the cannibalism taboo. Because the internet has no physical location, the business would be able to extend across the country, assuming that relevant laws about transporting human remains across state lines could be properly observed. And since it wouldn't have to be in a place with a large population, the business could be incorporated in whichever state has the most lenient laws on human remains.

So here comes the next inevitable question, which you might have been wondering since the beginning of this post: where is this flesh coming from? There are a few options that don't actually involve having someone die. Tumors get removed all the time, and limbs are occasionally unable to be reattached. The problem here is in finding someone who would be willing to sell those things to the company for someone else to eat. I have no doubt that those people exist, but probably not in enough quantity or regularity to base a business off of them. I feel it wouldn't hurt to pursue people with body identity integrity disorder, but again, there's the issue of quantity and regularity. This option is good, because no one can claim that the business is built on death.

A second option is to use flesh grown in labs. Since I'm not a biologist, I can't really speak to how difficult it would be to actually grow muscle (assuming that's what people want to eat). Tengion is already growing artificial organs for transplant. At any rate, it's something that will become easier with time, given that there are a huge number of medical technologies that result from the basic ability to grow parts of people. There would be less of a question about the safety and health issues of eating the meat. It would also remove some of the stigma of cannibalism, because it was never part of a person. However, this is a question of feasibility, because even if it's remotely possible now, it's sure to be damn expensive. In another thirty years, it might be possible to do from a garage.

And finally, we come to dead people. Dead people are a good source of flesh mostly because there are so many of them. Besides, through organ donor programs there are a huge number of people who are willing to promise away parts of their body for no monetary compensation. It's not too ridiculous to believe that people would promise away their flesh in return for a few hundred dollars, especially young people who are strapped for cash. Bringing contracts into the mix also allows for the use of more elaborate legal constructions which help to ensure that no lawsuits are filed against the business. Seeing as organ donation doesn't normally take the edible parts, there could be quite a bit of overlap between the two practices; both of them use parts of the body that would otherwise go to waste, and having them side by side allows for beneficial comparisons.

I think the bigger question here is whether the demand actually exists to support the costs that a business of this nature would entail, but I suppose that's a question that will only be answered when someone makes the effort.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Are people digital or analog?

So I was watching the latest episode of Caprica, which features a digitized person trapped inside of a computer chip. The computer scientists were talking about why they were unable to make a copy of the chip, and the reason that they come up with is that the chip encodes something analog instead of digital.

But this makes no sense. The whole reason that computer chips work at all is that they're digital in nature; it all comes down to 1s and 0s. Though there were electronic analog computers, they were used mostly for solving problems that were also analog; circuits would be set up to represent hydraulic pressure. There are a huge number of problems with analog computing, which is why we don't use analog computers anymore. A possible fan wank explanation for the show would be that the chips they're using are actually some kind of hypereffective analog device, or that their computer chips run in a way that's completely different from how ours run, or that this computer chip was corrupted in such a way that it behaves in an analog fashion (though this is also stupid). But it brought up an interesting question for me, mostly because the underlying assumption is that people are analog. And I really like interesting questions.

So obviously the question will eventually come down to how the brain works. You might think people are analog simply because they're complex; people certainly seem to be partly irrational*. I know I'm making a large leap here by arguing that people are nothing more than their brains, and that this precludes the possibility of the soul or some kind of other outside force, but that's for another time. As for what neuroscience says about the nature of the brain, my quick Googling of the subject reveals quite a bit of disagreement on that subject. Since I'm not a neuroscientist, obviously my opinion on the subject holds little weight.

However, having a blog is all about making observations that hold no weight, so I'll go ahead with it. The brain is a feedback control mechanism; it has inputs, outputs, does something with them, and "controls" the body. For the purposes of digitization, it almost doesn't matter whether the brain is analog or not. Digitizing something that's analog means a loss of fidelity, but at a certain point that loss is so negligible that it's not worth worrying about. While that point might well hold true for something like music, it's another thing entirely to talk about the very essence of your being rather than something like music (which, because of the way our eardrums communicate with our brain, ends up being digital anyway).

*This is a pun; π is analog, 3.14 is digital. Digital computers, for example, are forced to use approximations, while analog computers could theoretically use the actual irrational numbers (but they can't, because of noise).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Will Google Fiber really help?

If you're the sort of person who reads this blog, you probably know that Duluth is in the running to become a test city for Google's proposed ultrahighspeed bandwidth test. At first, I really liked the idea of living in a city with 1 gigabit connection speed, aside from the fact that Google has no real experience running a local ISP (they already control huge amounts of fiber across the country, but it's backbone stuff) and a history of privacy violations (though as I've stated before, privacy is overrated).

But my fair city, in one of their many attempts to show their worth, decided to organize an idea contest with $500 dollar prize. Since I'm poor, and I consider myself to be smart, I decided that I would give it a shot. Here's the big problem that I hadn't really considered though; the 1 gigabit speeds would only be local. So if I were communicating with a server here in town, I would get that full experience, but anywhere else in the country would still be roughly the same speed because of the bottlenecks on their end.

The possibilities for ultrahighspeed are immense. High-definition video is what most people think of right off the bat; the high-def you see on YouTube comes in at about 5 Mbps, meaning that it's not even close to the real thing (Blu-ray has a bitrate of 40 Mbps). At 1 Gbps, a whole movie can be downloaded in about four minutes. I'll confess that I've done a little movie pirating, and waiting a couple of hours for DVD quality video is one of the reasons that owning a copy of movies isn't something that's done a lot (either legally or illegally). Fiber would allow a business model where people actually download movies for keeps - though it would probably be hamstrung by DRM. If your speeds are fast enough, there's no real need to ever download the movies in the first place; some large company would have a database table showing which movies you own, and you would be able to watch your movies from any browser with a fast enough connection. But there's not even any reason for notional ownership once you have that technology, because "rental" is instant, especially if the payment scheme is seamless. The paradigm will shift from "ownership" to "access". Movie rental places are already trying to do this, Netflix cheif among them with their on demand service.

Aside from raw content, of which video is definitely the most broadband intensive, the other lure of fiber is that it would allow the use of applications which are currently confined to your operating system. This isn't such a big shift, because most of the time when you "buy software" what you're really buying is a liscence to use the software (depending on your EULA, natch). So when speeds get high enough, you'll buy the lisence without any CDs, DVDs, or downloads, and whenever you want to use the program it's as fast as logging in to check your e-mail. But as stated above, once you're at that point "ownership" is entirely notional, and so you might as well just rent out Final Cut Pro from Apple instead of paying for it normally. This is more or less the de juris reality, which goes counter to how we actually think about application ownership (a traditional EULA specifies no termination date).

Here's the problem with Google Fiber: no matter what town Google chooses, the population won't be large enough for the application and media giants to build the necessary infrastructure. If Duluth receives the contract, will Apple build a new data center here specifically so that Duluthians will be able to download a four-minute high-def movie? Will they modify their existing data centers to push us high-def movies down whatever fiber their own or lease? Apple is perhaps a bad example, because they're in contention with Google, but the point stands; there's too little to gain by catering to a city the size of Duluth. Maybe I'm wrong, and the "last mile" problem is really all there is to it; maybe the huge rights holders will hop on the bandwagon right away. But I'm really curious as to whether this would actually change how we browse.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Free Will

So free will doesn't exist; it's just a convincing illusion. Here's why.

Scientists have been writing down sets of rules to describe the workings of the universe for as long as there have been scientists. These rules help us extrapolate what will happen next in a given situation, and if those extrapolations turn out to be wrong, the scientists will run to their chalkboards and write down new rules until the whole system of rules conforms to what we know about reality.

So the universe would appear to be rule based; most people will agree to this (in its general form). But if it's true that everything in the universe is rule based, then it also means that people must be based on rules. This goes against what we feel to be true about ourselves. This gut feeling exists, I think, because it's too difficult to extrapolate both our thoughts and our actions. In part this is because the brain's "processing power" is taken up by thinking about the brain when we try to do this, and in part it's because our information about the brain is incomplete in even the best of circumstances (i.e. under an fMRI). Even the best techniques of today can't predict a person's actions at even the most rudimentary level.

If the universe is rule based, then the people that inhabit it must also be rule based, and strict adherence to the rules means that any choice is essentially fated to happen - or, if you buy into some interpretations of quantum mechanics, the "choice" is not under your control but instead the result of electron spin etc. Consciousness itself is an illusion.

Even if things like consciousness and free will are illusory, it doesn't mean that they aren't useful. Obviously the justice system would have to work very differently if people thought that things were not your fault because there is no real "you" to speak of. Our society is founded on the belief that some things matter and others don't, and without these constructs society requires remodeling (especially if morality is itself a construct).

One of the reasons that I don't like writing about philosophical issues is that I'm very aware that they've been rehashed a thousand times before, and that I'm unable to actually add anything to the global, scholarly conversation. I actually feel this way about a lot of things; there are a large number of people who are much smarter than I, and typing away at my computer serves only selfish purposes. But to examine our beliefs requires conversation, and since I have no one to really talk about these things with, it needs to go out to the internet instead.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Political Ideology and Free Will

So the more I think about it, the more I think that one of the basic differences between liberals and conservatives is a belief in free will. (Disclaimer: liberal and conservative are two labels which don't really map properly as a spectrum of belief, but I'll be talking about two general viewpoints on a number of issues)

I mostly came about this view by thinking about the approach those two camps take to the justice system. The conservative viewpoint on criminal punishment is that it should be punitive; if we make a punishment strong enough and we're "tough on crime", people will stop committing crimes. Criminals lack the willpower to make the right choices. The liberal viewpoint, on the other hand, stresses reformation and changing the person to be different. This is why they tend to be softer; it's not about second chances so much as it is about changing the person into someone who doesn't engage in criminal acts. People can be changed, not through acts of will but by conscious shaping by outside forces.

Another point of contention between liberals and conservatives is what some people would derisively call the "nanny state". This applies to things like gun control, drug enforcement, health insurance, safety protocols, and so on. Free will also explains this difference; liberals believe that people are literally not in control of themselves. Taxes on alcohol and cigarettes and bans on most other addictive drugs result from the belief that addicts are not capable of controlling their actions; the brain is a feedback control mechanism, and restricting the inputs results in different outputs. But for the conservatives, this is more a matter of will - if you don't want to die from lung cancer, you should stop smoking. If you don't want to get fat, stop eating so much. If free will exists, and humans are under their own agency, then these are personal failings rather than the result of outside conditions.

And finally, there comes the issue of gay rights. Liberals would have you believe (in the strong form) that homosexuality is something that you're born with or (in the weak form) something that occurs because of uncontrollable environmental factors. Conservatives will say that it's a choice. What more needs to be said on that issue?

It has long confused me why the conservative cause marries two seemingly different ideologies. Christian conservativism stresses a restriction on immoral things, while the free-market ideologues espouse the theory that people must be free to choose. Why should I be free to pay my workers a fair but unjust amount of money for their work, but not free to buy a magazine with lewd images in it? For me, this seems an inherent contradiction within the party. It seemed at first that there were just two groups that bound themselves together so as not to split the vote, another unsatisfactory result of the two-party system. Then I thought that perhaps this was too cynical, and there had to be some thing which bound them together. I now think that this binding trait might be philosophical.

If free will does not exist, then the market is going to behave in certain ways depending on what all the variables within the market are, and what restrictions are placed on the market by both technologies and governmental interference. In this way, the market is no different than anything else in the universe. It is therefor in the best interests of the people (embodied in the government) to restrict the market in such a way that it does good things for the people (in the form of new technologies, a good distribution of resources, health and safety for workers, etc.) instead of bad things (pollution, child labor, defective products).

However, if free will does exist, then the market is instead determined by how the actors in the market choose to behave. Companies will stop polluting because they are good and honest instead of because they have incentives to stop. If you believe in free will, then I think you almost have to believe that people are by their nature good, or if not that, then at least you must believe that good will prevail in the end. So perhaps the lack of restrictions on the market show that while individuals are not to be trusted in the area of personal choices, large companies are to be trusted on large issues.

Perhaps I'm simplifying the issues too much.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Digital Natives

So there's this theory that people of my generation have some huge advantage with technology because we were born into it; the buzzword is "digital native". The idea is that because we were exposed to digital technology while growing up, our brains have been wired differently, our neural networks better able to respond to fast visual stimuli.

This isn't bunk - there's some good science behind it - but where this theory fails is in assuming that there's some sort of concrete divide between those who grew up on technology and those who didn't. Technology doesn't work like that. Every single year, advancements are being made in computers. If we work from the assumption that technology actually does alter the mind, and that the brain becomes less plastic as we age, then we also have to pay attention to the fact that the current generation of "young people" have been exposed to vastly different levels of technology throughout their lives.

I was born in 1986, which means that the internet really started to move into full swing when I was 10: 1995 was the year of HTML and the expansion of the true World Wide Web. When I was 15, Google finally came to town, and became the powerhouse of search, starting the slow transformation of the web into a pile of information to be sifted through rather than a series of interlinked pages. During my first year of college, Facebook came out, and social media started to hit it big.

So that's roughly how milestones in technology map to someone my age. But for someone just a few years younger or a few years older, those milestones would look very different by virtue of having different developmental contexts. For someone who's 15 right now, like my cousins, Google has been around for as long as they can read, and social media will be around for their entire high school experience. If we're going so far as to say that technologies cause changes in the brain, are we just going to discount the different contexts of a change in time?

Yet when people, especially those over 30, talk about "digital natives" what they're really referring to is a group of people with different habits from them; habits that they don't really understand, and which they see as less valuable than the status quo. For kids born today, it's very likely that their entire life will be online, pictures of them posted to Flickr, Picasa, Facebook, etc. at every step of their life. We're entering into the era of full recording, where everything you do is accompanied by a stream of data.

I'm not going to mount a defense of the digital lifestyle, mostly because that's a little useless; technology keeps going, and any such defense would have to be constantly updated to explain why new thing X is not so bad. But I can at least look at the recommendations that are being made by those people who would have you believe that the Internet, and everything that comes with it, is a bad thing. This camp puts out fear-based books like iBrain, The Dumbest Generation, and The Cult of the Amateur. These books are written not to help understand young people, but to comfort the old.

The most common thing they suggest is a move away from the internet. If people just spent more time face-to-face, and sat down with each other to have actual conversations, we wouldn't have this problem of narcissism, echo-chambers, amateurism, piracy, or immaturity. The argument, in essence, is this: the old ways worked, why would we change them?

This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of both history and human nature. On the history front: those Baby Boomers who are making these claims grew up in an era of ubiquitous television. There were reactionaries then (and even now) who claimed that television would rot the mind and create a nation of illiterates. When recorded music made its debut, there were people who wondered why anyone would want to listen to something that wasn't live; and when recordings started to become popular, those same people lamented that live music was becoming harder to find. Every time any job is automated, there are those people who seem to think that the amount of work in the world is finite, and that this is a permanent net loss for employment rates.

And yet the world continues on. Any worthwhile technology is unstoppable, because it appeals to people in some way; it increases value, provides entertainment, or makes someone money. Turning back the clock to a "simpler time" is simply impossible, and nearly every reactionary claim about some new technology has proven to be unfounded.

Besides this argument from history, there is this argument from human nature; simply telling people that they shouldn't do something is never enough if that thing has some sort of reward for them. Websites and social media provide a psychological reward, as well as offering utility. Telling people "you would be happier if you stopped" is not good enough; to change people, you need to offer them a stiff punishment or a greater reward. This is why we have taxes, and why we punish people for their crimes.

Here's one of the difficult issues then: there is not some grand committee somewhere deciding how the world will be structured. There is no Council on Technology that decides what will or will not be made, and what will or will not be popular. Instead, the path of technology is built mostly by human nature. Social media are evolving along the dual lines customer satisfaction and profitability. Profitability, in almost all cases, comes from advertising, which is itself built around human nature; getting people to do things they wouldn't otherwise do.

And if advertising has taught us anything, it's that getting people to change their habits is usually something that needs to be accomplished by offering them rewards or punishments. So if you feel that people are going down the wrong path, the best way to convince them of the error of their ways is to set up a different system of thought that's more rewarding.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Future of Narcissism

Alright, so my old friend Travis necroed a note I had posted on Facebook some four years ago about the disposability of content in the modern age. Because it was short, here's the entire thing note reposted:
Most people don't realize this, but we live in what used to be called the future.

Don't believe me? It's true. Historians are already prematurely calling this the Digital Age, because it can at times seem like the whole world is online and connected to your fingertips. Since we've officially entered into the Web 2.0 (that's a buzzword that you can show off to your boss with) era, there's been a massive outpouring of words, pictures, and videos of all shapes and sizes.

The problem I have with this is two-fold.

First, the signal to noise ratio has risen to stratospheric levels. For every piece of useful information, there are a hundred pictures of someone's cat. For every scrap of genuine human insight, there are a hundred teenage girls bitching about a hundred other teenage girls. It's sometimes possible to tell at first glance what is and what isn't time-wasting garbage, but the general clues of misspelled words and poor web-formatting aren't always enough.

Second, our digital medium has a very poor staying power, if any. There was a time in human history when everything that was written down was important, because writing itself was expensive. Papyrus kept well, and can still be read today, whereas our computers don't come with floppy drives anymore, and the term paper you wrote last semester can't be opened on your new computer. If your parents made a Betamax home movie, chances are it would be incredibly difficult for you to find a way to play it.

It may not matter to you now, but this era in human history, this Digital Age, is leaving nothing of cultural value behind. There will be too much sewage for the historians to wade through, and the cost of reviving old technology from the dead will be too much work. This is, perhaps, the cost of cultural technology; because everyone can be heard, no one can be heard; because it is easy to create, it is easy to lose.
(Everything from this blog is auto-imported into Facebook, and Google Buzz. If you're reading this post at one of those places, this is your warning: I like to talk about things that aren't really all that interesting.)

Anyway, in some hypothetical future where human society has collapsed and been rebuilt, and future historians/anthropologists/archeologists are looking through the remains of our society, they're going to run into a few problems, as stated above. Hardware and software keep shifting through phases of adoption and obsolescence, which means that the effective lifespan of any digital work isn't really all that long - even if it's still on a disk, the odds of the software and hardware supporting that file on that medium get lower and lower with every year.

But the other problem with time as it relates to digital media is that there are some hard limits on how long that stuff can even last. Here are some figures pulled from around the net:
  • Magnetic tape (VHS): 25 years
  • Optical media (CD/DVD): 100-200 years
  • Solid state (flash drives): 10 years
  • Paper: 100s of years
  • Plastic: indefinite
(Sources here, here, here, and here.)

Now obviously there are a huge number of considerations involved in "how long something lasts". When I say that paper lasts for hundreds of years, that assumes ideal conditions: dry, cool, microbe-free environments, with acid-free paper. And for many of the things on that list, the time for decomposition is longer than the actual product in question has existed (I'm older than the DVD). In a way, that list is pretty pointless.

So what the future historians find will depend on how far into the future they are, and the extent of the destruction caused by whatever it was that wiped out all of the people. If they're a hundred years in the future, our history will be a strange sort of patchwork to them, the surviving evidence being a patchwork of discs and plastics. They'll be able to see all our movies and music, but none of our blogs and websites but whatever's been printed out. Of course, I have been known to underestimate the tenacity of those in the "soft sciences". It's also possible that someone will finally invent fast than light travel, move ahead of the outgoing radio signals, and learn about the past by intercepting those transmissions (or without FTL, waiting for lucky signals to bounce off comets/asteroids/etc.).

Regardless of all that, my original point was about what they would find if they got access to a random sampling of all this information being produced by us. The answer, of course, is that they would get a giant load of irrelevant crap; part of the reason there's so much data floating around is that we, as a society, are falling further and further into the well of personalized content. This is standard long-tail distribution stuff; because it's free to read and write online, there's been a huge explosion of stuff. If you like model trains, you can find a whole host of websites, blogs, and forums dedicated to that one thing. The same goes for pretty much any subject on the face of the planet.

All of this is only really feasible because of search. Without search, the huge amount of data would be a confusing mess of hyperlinks. With it, the mess gets organized around whatever it is you were looking for.

That's all well and good, and there are many who would argue that this mess is the path to enlightenment. But the other side of this glut of information is that people isolate themselves into their particular interests, creating echo chambers that lock them out from the rest of the world. This has always happened, but online (where the vast majority of discourse takes place) the long tail (mostly) eliminates the need for conversational compromise.

That's where narcissism comes into play. On the web, you don't have to change anything about yourself, because you will always be able to find people who like you just the way you are. You can spew out whatever is on your mind, and odds are that at least a few people will find it interesting enough to read. In this way, people get turned in on themselves.

But this isn't anywhere near the endgame for narcissism. As I've theorized in my post The Future Will Be Customized, there will come a time in the future when pretty much bit of media that you consume will be generated by artificial intelligence, synthesized to your preferences. This is a natural extension of long-tail dynamics; instead of stopping at a certain level of "nicheness", the tail continues on forever, until works are being produced that appeal to only a single person. It will happen because it's possible, and because there are economic/social/cultural benefits at every step of the process towards getting there.

So historians who will be looking at the future that hasn't happened yet will see a widening of media until it comes to the point of oblivion. Eventually, reading a novel will tell you far more about the person it was crafted for than it will about the society that person inhabits. This also extends beyond the realm of fiction; Google News already gives me a customized feed of information that's tailored to what stories I've read in the past, gradually building up a news narrative specifically tailored to me.

This is the end game. People surround themselves with the world they think they want, cut off from everything that doesn't give a positive feedback. The machines don't take over through strength of arms or by holding our technology hostage, but instead by giving us exactly what we want.