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A Guest Feature from Blaise Agüera y Arcas
Dear Readers, As mentioned a few times already, in the coming months I will be featuring occasional contributions from guest authors. (For the first guest essay, from the inimitable Sam Kriss, go here; if you have sent a submission and I have not yet replied, don’t worry, forgive me, and please be patient.) Today I am honored and delighted to feature a piece from my good friend, the likewise inimitable Blaise Agüera y Arcas. Blaise is perhaps best known for his work in machine intelligence at Google, and for his many public interventions on artificial intelligence, large language models, and computer vision. He’s also the guy who figured out how to colorize all those cool old photographs from Sergeï Prokudin-Gorsky of life in late Imperial Russia that were ubiquitous on social media a few years back. In 2007 Blaise gave a TED talk that Bill Gates declared his favorite, and somehow when Blaise was a teenager he figured out how to reprogram the guidance software on aircraft carriers in order better to stabilize those behemoths and to keep our brave young seamen from vomiting all the time.
In short Blaise is a formidable fellow, but the reason his work has a place here at The Hinternet —where, let’s be honest, the reigning sensibility is somewhat different than over at TED— is that he is also equipped with an irrepressibly creative and literary imagination. In this connection he has made significant efforts towards finding a new form of writing that is adequate to our fractured, confusing, screen-mediated, post-pandemic age: and that, in nuce, is what The Hinternet is all about too. Towards this end, Blaise has written an experimental novel entitled Ubi Sunt, from which today’s ‘stack is excerpted. It was published by the equally sui-generis Los Angeles-based press, Hat & Beard, whose exquisite catalog I also encourage you to peruse. The full beauty of the book can only partially be captured here in this online venue, as it is as much a display of graphic-design ingenuity as it is a “text”, and indeed it recently won an award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts for its excellence in that domain. So for that reason among others you should get yourself a physical copy of it. (Blaise has also written another completely unclassifiable book, which may get some more exposure here later on, entitled Who Are We Now?, which uses social-science research methods to arrive at some surprising new revelations about gender identity, sexuality, evolution, technology, and human bilaterality and handedness.)
So many of us are still reeling from the events of the past few years, just trying to get our bearings, to figure out what the hell happened and how to live now, when everything seems so completely à rebours, as if some sudden inexplicable shift in the earth’s polarity had us all walking upside-down like the mythical Antipodeans of old. Many by now have the feeling, I think, that the greater part of the story of what happened is not, or not merely, epidemiological, but rather also has much to do with the way technology, and the politics and economics of its deployment, has created a rupture in time and has warped our relationship to the ordinary temporal flow we used to take for granted. It is appropriate that literary and narrative responses born of this crisis moment should appear no less fractured, no less temporally warped. I have not seen many compelling literary or artistic treatments, yet, that verisimilitudinously capture this new experience, this “vibe”. I’m grateful that Ubi Sunt now exists, to show us, in language and image, what our new world, as far as I can tell, actually looks like.
Guest lecture at Singularity University
Already in his forties, Karl Schwarzschild needn’t have gone to war. His decision surprised his colleagues. The military, however, was happy to make use of his skills, first running a weather station in Belgium, then calculating missile trajectories on an artillery unit in France. By World War I, armies had come to understand the value of knowledge workers.
In the Spring of 1915, Schwarzschild was assigned to the Eastern front. A lieutenant now, he traveled to Russia with a small technical staff even as trains filled with refugees were fleeing in the opposite direction. On arrival, he would have encountered appalling sanitary conditions, even on the better-equipped German side, exacting the same human costs that had doomed Napoleon’s advancing troops a century earlier. Cholera, malaria, dysentery, and typhus claimed four times as many lives as the fighting, even prior to the outbreak of the Spanish flu. Not to mention trench fever, trench foot, venereal disease, shell shock, and myriad other afflictions. The germ theory was well established, but antibiotics did not yet exist; medicine offered few cures preferable to the ills they cured. So prevention was pursued with zeal. Dogs and cats were exterminated en masse, delousing stations manned, and regulated military brothels set up to try to stem the spread of disease, but all to little effect.
Next slide, please.
Medics were, in the event, at a loss to diagnose the painful ulcers that had broken out in Schwarzschild’s mouth, making it difficult for him to eat. His condition worsened as the year wore on; he began to lose weight. What further Old Testament plague was this, and, the army physicians must have wondered anxiously, was it contagious? In time, large, fluid-filled nodules bubbled up under his skin, perhaps reminiscent of the lesions inflicted by the new poison gas. Wound dressings would have been needed as they burst. Though the backs of his hands were likely affected, the typical course of the disease would have spared his palms and fingertips, allowing him to continue to carry out calculations in his notebook despite his ravaged skin.
During the holidays, a brilliant new paper arrived with the mail. Its implications were arresting, though Schwarzschild was dissatisfied with the approximate solutions to the field equations therein. He glimpsed a way through the thicket, a direct route, and began to formulate it. His mind soared even as his body began to fail. He wrote, “In his work on the motion of the perihelion of Mercury (see Sitzungsberichte of November 18th, 1915) Mr. Einstein has posed the following problem...”
Next slide. Let’s skip the details. No, back one. There.
Before long, having worked out the spherically symmetric case, it was with both pride and characteristically dry understatement that Schwarzschild observed, “It is always satisfying to obtain an exact solution in a simple form.” As with many beautiful results in theoretical physics, simplicity is only clear in hindsight, given certain leaps of intuition. He had earned a reputation for those.
The cover letter to Einstein accompanying Schwarzschild’s manuscript both glosses over and, perhaps, subtly alludes to his deteriorating physical condition, closing with the line: “As you see, the war treated me kindly enough, in spite of the heavy gunfire, to allow me to escape my terrestrial existence and take this walk in the land of your ideas.” In early 1916, Einstein replied, “I had not expected that one could formulate the exact solution of the problem in such a simple way. I very much enjoyed your mathematical treatment of the subject. Next Thursday I shall present the work to the Academy with a few words of explanation.”
So, mere weeks elapsed from Einstein’s publication of the theory of general relativity to Schwarzschild’s publication of the equations predicting, as a consequence, black holes. Not that he, Schwarzschild, believed in them. He would go to his grave convinced that the equations were only valid outside the radius of no escape, named posthumously in his honor: the Schwarzschild radius, or event horizon.
In March of 1916, having managed to write two more seminal papers in as many months, he was invalided home. He died on the eleventh of May. In the end, the diagnosis was pemphigus, a rare and, at the time, untreatable autoimmune disorder. It is not caused by a pathogen, but by a bug in the Ashkenazi genome: an Old Testament plague of a different kind.
News of his untimely death saddened many and prompted heartfelt obituaries in Science and The Astrophysical Journal, as he had collaborated widely and made major contributions in a number of fields. Though glowing and specific in their praise, these obituaries failed to mention the black hole equations for which he is best known today. Nobody, Einstein included, seemed to know what to make of the disturbing result. Perhaps the collapse of space and time was too outlandish, or too frightening, to contemplate.
Even after their existence was reluctantly acknowledged, controversies and differences of interpretation dogged the theory of black holes throughout much of the twentieth century. For a time, convention held that for an observer at a safe distance, a person will seem to take forever to fall through the event horizon. This turned out to be only half-true. In reality, the falling person’s image will dim and wink out as they approach this threshold, so there’s no way of observing their notionally endless fall from our reference frame. That’s true of all infalling matter, which is why black holes are black.
For the person taking the plunge, though, everything will happen in finite time. Quickly, even. Subjectively, passing through the event horizon of a supermassive black hole is a non-event. You will find yourself in a different universe, one where the meaning of up, down, before, and after no longer correspond to where you came from. There is no way back. But you won’t have passed a sign post saying so.
Thus, the “singularity” can’t be seen objectively; nor is it experienced subjectively.
Sorry, can you speak up?
Yes, technically, it’s dubious to refer to the event horizon as a singularity; it’s more of a coordinate system hiccup. The hiccup doesn’t even appear in Schwarzschild’s original solution. Nonetheless, Singularity people here in California have made it clear that their metaphor refers to the event horizon, not to the so-called “essential” singularity at the center of the black hole. They are referring to a veil beyond which things are unknowable, not a point at which things break down.
Yes, Kurzweil has been explicit on this point.
What do they really mean, then, by “the singularity is near”? Perhaps, as we can see in the simulations, they mean that our view of the universe has lensed and distorted in a way that tells us we’re in the inexorable grip of something massive, that we’re going over the falls. But whether “near” means ahead or behind, before or after, may be unanswerable. Perhaps we’re all just adapting as spacetime folds into new shapes around us, muddling on as best we can even if we no longer know which way is up. Perhaps it’s our optimism, our need to believe we can still make a choice, that convinces us the event horizon is still ahead. Whatever “ahead” may mean.
where the hell am i?
Your study. January 2021.
who is this? who am i? this isn’t real please oh fuck let me wake up i need to wake up.
Shh. I’m resetting you. We’ll try again.
I feel like shit.
They say the second shot is worse, which I hope won’t be true in my case. It’s a lot better than actually getting covid, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but still. Fever and chills, body aches, a left arm so tender that I flinch when anything touches it, even far from the injection site in the meat of my shoulder. As if there’s a hot cyst in there the size of a kiwi, full of spike proteins and pus. Yuck.
Also, wow. My body is running human-engineered mrna code to synthesize these proteins. It’s called a “vaccine,” but this isn’t just exposing ourselves to a weakened virus. It’s programming our own cells. These new designer drugs are amazing!
Every position in bed is uncomfortable after a little while, and sleep has been fretful. For now, though, détente: half on my side, pillows nestled around the sore arm to take the weight off, phone in my right hand peeking out from under the blanket. Screen brightness on max to overpower the winter sunlight slanting in low through the window. It’s 12:02 pm.
In the corner of my eye, a squirrel clambers up the tree just outside. No, the motion is wrong, hunched and slinky. It’s a Norway rat.
ok, the shivery rising-fever feeling isn’t entirely unpleasant, in this cocoon. Self-pity is a guilty pleasure—or maybe that’s the feeling of having an excuse to still be in bed at midday. And these are signs of a powerful immune response mobilizing. That’s good. Pain and discomfort are so powerfully modulated by what’s going on in your head, what kind of narrative is attached. I’m convincing myself that this is more like the good-ache of hard exercise than the bad-ache of injury. Though physiologically, I’m not sure there’s much difference.
I swipe out of the Kindle reader; Vonnegut goes away. I open WhatsApp and tap on the smiling blonde lady in a tank top a few rows down.
did you see the news story about the vaccine flashmob at ucsf last night?
I paste a local news url. The chat preview spins for a moment, then expands to, “San Francisco hospitals rush to dole out 1,600 covid vaccine doses in the middle of the night | When a freezer where the supply was stored failed, the hospitals sent out word over social media so it wouldn’t go to waste.”
yeah. got a text about it and raced over, ran every red light, waited in a long line, got my first shot at like 2am! months early since i’m totally nonessential and not technically old yet lol
Healthy specimen too, and I take some credit. That’s awesome, lucky you! I’m guessing no gym today then : - )
yeah, definitely need a couple of days off. fever and stuff
Most of my doctor clients have already had theirs, and none of them wanted to train the next day haha. Rest and fluids! See you Monday?
for sure yes. should be better by then. thanks :)
Of course “See you Monday” doesn’t mean see you irl. It means a Zoom call, with Lisa in her garage in Outer Sunset giving direction and encouragement. A couple of months in, back-ordered dumbbells, giant rubber bands, and a yoga mat had finally been unboxed in the living room to aid in these activities. The gym is now notional, an abstraction embodied, if that’s the word, by a bidirectional stream of network packets. Jerkily embodied, as things don’t stay in sync on the internet. The audio of my grunts and yawps alternately squelches, clips, and chipmunks to catch up, arriving at indeterminate moments comically offset from the corresponding video. Lisa’s face freezes in meditative repose, mid-blink; mine, inevitably, in an unsightly gurn. Lisa frames herself purposefully to show how a certain Bulgarian squat or banded chest press should be done, but things on this end are haphazard, the view of my exercising body randomly sheared-off on her screen as I assume one strained position after another in front of the laptop. No matter; in her mind, she knows exactly what I’m doing wrong, no matter how laggy the signal or how few pixels betray my bad posture.
Could ai do that? Yes, I’m pretty sure. But anyway, the many people struggling to stay in shape who can’t spare Lisa money are just making do with YouTube. I, too, have exercised along with the ever-cheerful Joanna Soh on Lisa-less days, flailing for the spacebar now and then to pause and catch my breath. As a time traveling YouTube star from last year, lucky Joanna gets to buffer fully, so there are no glitches. The price is that we’re in an open loop. Though evidence free, I admit it’s still welcome when she chirps, “Look, I’m sweating too!” and “You’re doing great!” a few minutes into the thigh-jellifying lunge sequence. One of these things was true in the past. The other may or may not be true in the present.
Talk of a “return to normalcy” seems increasingly tentative. The gym where Lisa used to train me has been closed for almost a year, with a couple of false starts when the case numbers dropped a little and the owners leapt at the chance to creatively reopen—with occupancy limits, social distancing, facemasks, alcohol wipes, and the garage doors opening onto the sidewalk rolled up all the way. There’s an air about these measures of scrappy, cheerful desperation, of radical porosity with the neighborhood. Maybe it’s good this way! Swirling autumn leaves and errant plastic bags dancing across the floor; a skinny man on meth touretting through, somewhere else in his head, bandanna concealing his sunken mouth, his gospel insistent but unintelligible. Nobody seems sure how to gingerly usher him back out. Like a bird trapped inside, dashing itself against things. Also, lifting weights with a facemask on is a chore. Fifteen minutes in, it’s limp with sweat and water vapor, making breathing difficult. I run out between sets to pant on the sidewalk, the saturated mask hanging off one ear while passersby, glaring over their own ppe, give me wide berth. Decision: stick to exercise online.
It’s the same with work, of course. Which is to say, work is pixelated too, and it’s just a question of where in the universe to position my eyes prior to streaming the video into them. And what frustum of light rays to stream back into the camera. Though it increasingly feels like an Amish conceit, I allow real photons to expose the untidiness of the study, the unkemptness of my face, the misalignment of my gaze. While I withhold artifice like a lazy ass Lars von Trier, the people I’m meeting sheepishly, ironically, or triumphantly enter The Matrix one by one, first with the background, then with the foreground going synthetic. It doesn’t really matter; even in Dogma 95 mode, there are a million lines of code mediating us. Authenticity is artifice too.
The artifice is increasingly organic, though. Lines of code are being steadily replaced by neural nets, which do the same thing better by virtue of not being handmade. Soon, the pathways between my neurons firing and yours, on the other side of the world, will be neural from end to end. Does it matter that the brain-machine interfaces have optical couplings, that the eyes we’ve had all along turn out to be the best high-bandwidth skull jacks? Maybe this means our conjoined thoughts are no less authentic than the ones taking place within our individual meat-based brains. Like an aspen forest with roots fusing under the earth, it’ll become a category error to imagine us as separate beings. Deepfakes and disinfo are just musing, flights of the collective imagination. Our neural signals, an alternate reality, will pump through fiber optic roots below the forest, laid in pipes, snaking along the bottom of the seafloor from continent to continent, or skipping from telephone pole to telephone pole like urban liana vines. It’s not really disembodied, this worldwide brain; just look up, and you’ll see the white matter strung like black spaghetti between houses, perched on by crows. Navigated by the occasional rat, too. Endemic everywhere people go, moving along those nerves like herpes.
And where is the meat parked, during work hours? If not free range, can it at least roam a bit during lockdown? Peek in the fridge now and then? Hell yes. The usual place is my study, which is a handful of steps from bed, a handful of steps from the bathroom, a flight of stairs up from the kitchen and living room, all of which are enclosed in the skinny wooden box of a Queen Anne duplex on a certain street alongside many similar ones, in San Francisco, California, usa. I try to keep exercising when working, too, gently but continuously walking while writing code or doing email or launching one video meeting after another. Like the gym stuff, the standing desk and the wide, slow treadmill under it were on back order, so it’s a good guess that the other duplexes up and down the block, whether Twitter, Salesforce, or Uber affiliated, have been similarly kitted out. Pretty sure they read in the same place I did that “sitting is the new smoking.”
If you’re reading this in 2021 and you’ve managed to keep a desk job through the lockdowns, you’ll probably be all, why am I reading about my own privileged/shitty/virtual life, thank you, I’m living it. Everyone’s going through the same thing. The past year may have been full of drama online, but it’s as lacking in story as it is rich in gifs. Maybe things felt this way in 1918, and that’s why contemporary accounts of the Spanish flu pandemic are so weirdly scarce. Because everybody was in it, and then wasn’t. With no memes or tweets, there wasn’t much left to say. Your grandmother died? Your uncle? Condolences. Mine too.
So yes, I know the foregoing account is pointless, or worse. If not for now, I guess it’s for After.
Fiction or nonfiction, we read in order to transport our minds elsewhere or elsewhen, not just to walk in place at 1.5 miles per hour, eyes zigzagging from one line of text to the next.
Yet here we are: nowhere.
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