Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Octopus and the bicycle

In the "Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy", there is a spaceship known as the "Heart of Gold", which is run by a hypothetical physical law known as the "infinite improbability drive". It keeps appearing randomly at the most improbable place in the universe, to pick up some negative entropy in order to drive through the vast reaches of space. This spaceship is probably the best analogy for describing the early days of the internet. It has been just a few years ago, but many people have forgotten the exhilarating thrill of those early days.  Within a few keystrokes and mouse-clicks, you could go to strange places into the far reaches of the human imagination, meet with strangers and learn dramatically new things. Most websites in those days had awful designs, but there was a human being behind each one of them, putting personal time and effort into presenting new and original ideas to the world.

In the years that followed, the internet has increasingly become alienated from this human experience. In the beginning, people used many alternative protocols to navigate the internet. But very quickly, the internet has reduced to mean only one thing - the "HTTP" protocol used to navigate the world wide web (WWW). Within a few years, this reduced even further to just a handful of websites - Google, Facebook, Twitter etc.,  that most people spend their online time on. Each person lives now in a manicured data bubble that is managed by large companies and governments. This shrinking of the scope of what the internet means has happened simultaneously with the increasing realization of the loss of privacy and human agency in using the internet. Instead of enabling us to meet new people and ideas, the internet has become a prison where we can only hope to meet computer programs that either want to sell things to us or to spy on us.  The human has been banished from the internet, and wherever present, he is reduced to a byte-sized computerized doppelgänger of himself. Human communication degenerated into trivial status updates and tweets, as the audience for a long and deep conversation has disappeared on the internet.

I belong to the last generation of people who experienced computers before they experienced the internet. In this sense, I belong to a minority of people who have a living memory from before the technology was locked in. Just like human beings, large computer systems also have a childhood. Preserving those early memories of childhood is essential to remind ourselves of the dreams and alternate possibilities that existed. Much too often as we age, we get stuck in a rigid habit and lose track of our deeper desires. Douglas Adams, the writer who dreamed of the spaceship with infinite improbability drive, also made a documentary called "Hyperland" about the upcoming future of the internet. When seen today, this documentary shows some fascinating glimpses into those lost possibilities.

We lack the right metaphors and symbols to express what we have lost over these years. I would like to present two metaphors in this blog - the octopus and the bicycle, that express two sides of any large computer system, including the internet. I hope these metaphors will give a deeper and more personal understanding, such that we may build a better future for the internet.

The legend of the bicycle

"What a computer is to me, it is the most remarkable tool we have come up with. It is the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds." - Steve Jobs

It may seem shocking to us now, but computers were never supposed to be personal tools of human beings. Ever since their very conception by Alan Turing (even earlier by Charles Babbage), they were supposed to be centralized systems to organize mathematical thought. Nobody understood why you needed to have a "personal computer", as opposed to simply sharing computational resources for whatever you needed to do. In fact, this is exactly what our society is evolving into now, through the paradigm of cloud computing. When we trust large organizations and their computers to take care of our personal information and needs, whether they be Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook or Google, we are acquiescing to the paradigm that we humans do not need personal computers. This was exactly what the pioneers of computer science believed. So what happened in the 1970s and 80s requires some explanation. This personal computing revolution, as visible to the public through Apple and Microsoft computers and software, was a strange anomaly that needs to be explained. This is where we need the metaphor of the bicycle.

In the Swiss town of Basel in April 19, 1943, a chemist named Albert Hoffman had experimented on himself with a small dose of a synthesized chemical that had profound effects on his mental state. He experienced intense hallucinations and requested to be escorted back home. Since there were no motor vehicles available, he rode his own bicycle, taking a trip that was simultaneously physical and metaphysical. That chemical was LSD. In the later years, it profoundly impacted research into psychology, apart from influencing pop culture at large. Hoffman's bicycle trip is commemorated to this day as "bicycle day" by psychedelic enthusiasts.

But before LSD was discovered by the counter-culture, it was being used in scientific laboratory experiments on volunteers. One of the first set of experiments were done in the San Francisco bay area, on a set of physicists and computer engineers. The altered mental states offered by psychedelics were considered an indication of the vast potential for the augmentation of mind, as being investigated by computer engineers. This specific mind augmentation project was the brain child of Doug Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), who had a singular vision of humans working in tandem with computers.  His contemporaries were thinking of computers merely as tools for automating the thinking process, thereby solving mathematical problems in symbolic logic. The common metaphor used was the mechanical clock. But Engelbart had a different vision, he saw the computer as a vehicle that could be used to transport the human mind and to connect with other humans. His vision was so extraordinary that he had a tough time explaining this to his peers and very few people got it. The psychedelic experience had been crucial for many of those people to grasp this vision. The intense personal nature of this experience also proved that any computer-based augmentation needed to be also personal. One of the engineers who grasped this first was Alan Kay. He used the metaphor of the bicycle to refer to a personal computer,  a personal vehicle for the augmentation of mind.

By the early 1970s, an environmental movement has also germinated in the bay area. An influential event was the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog, showing the picture of the earth as taken from space. Riding a bicycle was also a matter of showing environmental commitment. Alan Kay never drove a car and became part of this bicycling community in Palo Alto. He persisted in his vision that computers need to be direct personal extensions of human intellect, as easy to learn as it is for a kid to ride a bicycle, thereby becoming a new medium of expression as Marshall McLuhan formulated. It was extremely hard to communicate this vision in an era of massive mainframe computers. What both Engelbart and Kay had on their side was a remarkable revolution of miniaturization of electronic integrated circuits, known as Moore's Law. Gordon Moore of Intel popularized the notion that electronic chips were shrinking rapidly and at an exponential rate, meaning that computation would be far cheaper in the future. Engelbart realized this trend far earlier and shaped his entire research agenda keeping faith in this future. The quintessential turning point came when he presented the technologies being developed by himself and colleagues in December 9, 1968. Recognized later as the "mother  of all demos", this presentation showed all the main applications of personal computers and the internet - text editing, video conference, graphical user interfaces, windows etc. But this system also had a lot more possibilities which were later lost in the future due to technology lock-in. Alan Kay was in the audience during this demo and this profoundly impacted him.

Kay later joined the Xerox Parc research center and founded the Learning Research Group, where he hired some of the best engineers from Engelbart's team. He had a unique vision in personalized computing through a very high level language, resembling human communication of ideas. He wanted this programming to be so simple that little kids can do this without much training. This vision gave birth to object oriented programming and personalized windows on a computer screen. Due to strict business practices and lack of imagination, Xerox had been unable to profit from this work.

However, the cascade of social revolutions in 1970s that were unleashed by psychedelic drugs, anti-war movement and environmental concern (all merging into the hippy youth movement) has also produced a popular computing enthusiast movement. This was centralized around the Homebrew Computer Club, which explicitly distanced itself from large power structures like universities and big companies. This club was founded by an idealist named Fred Moore, who wanted a people's computer that could be used by individuals to organize themselves and to plan against powerful adversaries. Many hobbyists have learnt their basic tricks from this club and they all wanted to build personal computers, that they personally and exclusively controlled. Many companies have sprung from this vortex of popular enthusiasm, but the most successful of them was Apple. Ultimately, Apple would grow up to be the heir of the innovations from Xerox Parc and SRI, hiring most of those engineers, including Kay. This was where Steve Jobs got his bicycle metaphor from. This story of the high dreams from the 1960s and 70s, that so influenced our society later, is brilliantly recounted in John Markoff's book "What the dormouse said".

In retrospect, a bicycle is a very unusual analogy for a computer. Unlike cars and trains, it is used mostly by one person exclusively. It is also friendly to the environment, leaving no toxic residues. It is a tool that encourages social mobility. Historically, many men and women gained social and financial independence in the early 1900s, when bicycles were introduced. Many people, especially women, had to fight and overcome social barriers for using bicycles. By using bicycle as a metaphor, a computer was symbolizing all these positives as a human tool for individual empowerment. This vision was a gift from the social and political consciousness of the 1960s and 70s.  But this was a very unusual perspective of looking at computers. It would not be valid for very long, especially after the rise of the internet.

The legend of the octopus

“The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” - Matt Taibbi 

An octopus is probably the closest thing to an alien being that a human can imagine. Many seafaring cultures have imagined a giant squid or octopus as a vicious monster lurking beneath the seas and attacking sailors. In Norse legend, Kraken is a gigantic sea monster that overturns ships. The French science fiction pioneer Jules Verne used an army of giant squids as a plot device in his novel "Twenty thousand leagues under the sea". where they attack the submarine of Nemo.  H. G. Wells imagined an invasion of earth by octopus-like Martian beings.  This subsequently inspired the popular arcade game "Space Invaders". In an episode of the cartoon "Futurama", a giant space squid called Yivo docks it horny tentacles onto every inhabitant on earth, in a thinly veiled criticism of organized religion. Perhaps most memorably, H.P. Lovecraft referred to an octopus-faced alien monster in his story "Call of the Cthulhu". This giant monster lies dreaming underneath the ocean, reaching into the subconscious of the humans who fall prey to its evil thoughts in the dark recesses of their minds. While waiting for the return of Cthulhu, these humans do its bidding by spreading a cult-like religion with murderous practices. 

What is it that gives us major creeps about the octopus ? Is it its suction cups and sensory organs all over its  body ? Is it its  uncanny craggy camouflage ? Is it its slimy soft body that wiggles through nooks and crannies ? Or is it its tentacles ? I think it is the tentacles. 

Political cartoons have long used the octopus and its tentacles to refer to a huge organization with unwieldy power on many areas - railroad companies, oil corporations, British empire, Soviet Union, and more recently, the secret service and financial conglomerates like the Goldman Sachs. The NSA has preemptively cast itself as an octopus wrapping its tentacles over the globe, in a promotional logo for a spy satellite. This is  a classic tactic for preventing an opponent from shaming oneself, by declaring the shameful act as downright obvious and natural. This is a tactic for desensitizing our vocabulary, but can it unsettle a visceral metaphor rooted deep in our fears ? May be not. The giant octopus and its tentacles will remain a symbol for power that greedily wishes to penetrate every activity, that threatens  the very earth and all humanity.  The story of today is that large computer systems are resurrecting this octopus of our fears. I think the analogy with the cult of the Cthulhu is not too far off. 

In earlier days, the computation required to resurrect this octopus was performed on accounting notebooks and ledgers. Vast monopolies like railroads or empires were built on the basis of precisely modeling the needs of a society and staving off all competition to cater to these needs. One of the earliest examples of using electronic computers to do the same business is Walmart, which successfully outcompeted all retailers out of the US consumer market by precisely modeling the needs of the consumers. But the person to completely realize the power of algorithms in modeling and thus commanding the market is a Hungarian programmer known as Thomas Peterffy.  He founded the field of algorithmic trading on the New York stock market. When it was once temporarily outlawed for computers to bid on the stock market, he created a robotic contraption of a mechanical hand that looked at numbers on the display screen and punched in the right keystrokes to make the bids. He is now a multi-billionaire. 

The vast majority of economic transactions today are conducted through such  algorithmic trading. Behind the interface of economic transactions, there are vast models of computation that predict how people are making economic decisions.  If we consider the computational models to be a giant octopus, its tentacles are probing into every single human being. Just as in a living octopus, these tentacles are hungry for sensory input, spreading their suction cups on every sphere of economic activity. Spying organizations like the NSA similarly nurture another and even larger computational octopus, building a global infrastructure to feed its hunger for data. In the civilian sphere, computer companies like Google and Facebook create their own computational octopuses, which dock their trillion hungry tentacles on every human being and suck up every bit of data that floats by in their vicinity.  The rules of the game for economic success of software companies have changed dramatically. The bigger the computational octopus, the greater the economic reward. It has become immaterial and irrelevant to care for the human experience and added value brought in by software, beyond merely using these as baits to hook up human users to the tentacles.  

The futurist and writer Jaron Lanier calls these computers as "Siren Servers", which he warns will destroy, over the course of time, the very market they model to the minutest detail. Lanier doesn't believe that this will be in the interest of the Siren Servers or the organizations they serve. I think he is wrong in making this conclusion. His error is that he believes that there can be multiple Siren Servers, each modeling activity in its own domain. But I believe there is only one single octopus -  one single Cthulhu that whispers into the greedy subconscious of multiple organizations. In the end, they all want to resurrect this octopus and usher its rule on the planet. Each one of them believes that they are the sole master of this octopus, but they are utterly and hopelessly wrong. 

Lanier acknowledges that there is a race between the octopuses (my term, he calls them Siren Servers) to out-meta each other. Each of these octopuses wants to have the most over-reaching definition of action on this planet and suck up as much data as possible to model everything. Essentially, the octopus that can subsume a smaller octopus will eat it and confiscate its tentacles. This is literally how mergers between software companies happen nowadays. The entire software architecture is discarded and the list of users is confiscated. In other words, the tentacles are immortal and they keep coalescing together. The cult of Cthulhu is now the predominant religion in Silicon valley, where venture capitalists incite young entrepreneurs to hoard users and hook them up with tentacles, with no end game in sight except to sell all this data and users to a gogoolpus like Google or Facebook. 

Can you out-compute the octopus ? 

If we had a time-machine and went back to the Silicon valley of the 1970s, engulfed in all the political tumult and socio-environmental consciousness, it would indeed look like a very strange place. The computer engineers of that day would be outraged to learn where we have ended up. Instead of computers helping individual users to outwit the larger power structures, they have unleashed a consummate spying nightmare. Most of those engineers had participated in the Vietnam war protests, and they would have been shocked to learn that our society has accepted this state of affairs as normal, with almost zero political activism. But after the initial shock of anger and despair, they would also realize how hopeless our situation today is as compared to them. 

In our day, it is futile to even hope to out-compute the octopus. In every quantifiable aspect, the octopus will win. The question for an idealistic start up today would be "What can you do that Google cannot do more efficiently ?". The answer is nothing, or close to nothing. Resistance is futile, join the Borg. 

But there is a catch. The octopus needs to have access to data. If you are able to withhold this data and run the computation yourself, your bicycle will outrun the octopus. It is very tempting to believe that you can build an octopus and ride it yourself. But most certainly, it will be the octopus that rides you and not the other way round. This brings us to a catch. Is there any way to slay the octopus at all, if we cannot grow a powerful adversary to counter it ? 

Ride your bicycle to meet your friends

The greatest gift of human life is the ability to make friendships. It is essential that we do not lose this human essence as we migrate to the cyberspace. It is inevitable that more and more of our daily lives will be conducted online. More sensors will be capturing data about ourselves, from our own homes and within our own bodies, often without our knowledge. It is tempting to believe that this sensory data captured from us is the sum-total of our human existence. It is even more tempting to believe that this is the sum-total of other people. But this is wrong. 

It is an illusion to believe we shall have a complete model of our personalities. Acknowledging this honestly will naturally cultivate humility in us. That is the first step towards meeting other human beings on their own terms, and thus building true friendships. 

We should not force people to do this offline. It had been true in the past that we could log off  from the internet and meet friends in the physical world. But this will be increasingly difficult to do in the future. Most people are unaware that they are perpetually logged onto their social networks, personal messengers and email clients. Thus, it is essential that we develop a culture where we meet people in the cyberspace and cultivate deep friendships in this process. 

How do we do this ? I think we should go back to the dreams of the pioneers and bring back the metaphor of the bicycle. We should be unafraid of riding our rickety bicycles into the cyberspace and meeting friends. We meet other people on their own terms and on their own bicycles. We need to build a culture of sharing bicycles and helping each other with them, without imposing a common design and a common aggregation of data. Otherwise, the bicycle will be just a tentacle of the Octopus. It is possible  that large software companies like Google, Facebook, Apple or Microsoft will also realize this before it is too late.  At their very core, the engineers who work for these large corporations are also human beings, and they cannot deny their fundamental humanity. Most of these engineers, knowingly or otherwise, are inspired by the metaphor of the bicycle, to build a better human experience for everyone. If we build a culture of individual expression of human experience, where the software serves as an individualized tool, we may defeat the octopus using an army of bicycles. 

PS: This post is dedicated to the memory of Doug Engelbart. The image is an art work of Alan Maia. You can buy a T-shirt of this art here


vishu said...

Dear Ray lightning! I don't know your real name, but your articles are like rays and they are litting my conscious. I love the way you write, the metaphora you use, and the depth of your reasoning is simply awesome. Thankyou!

Ray Lightning said...

Thanks Vishu. I am glad you liked my blog. But not all of it is good, you know :)

vishu said...

I just finished reading the 9th one in your blog. So far, I found all 9 very beautifully written and backed by very good reasoning! Enjoying it! Thanks again! To be frank reading your blog everyday is one of the beautiful things am doing these days... Keep writing.