[joho] JOHO May 17 2003

  • From: "David Weinberger" <self@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <joho@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 19 May 2003 16:48:29 -0400

Journal of the
Hyperlinked Organization 
May 17, 2003
Editor: David Weinberger (self@xxxxxxxxxxx)
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  | CONTENTS                                    |
  |                                             |
  | WEB BODIES?: What does it mean that we have |
  | no body on the Web? It means something, ulp,|
  | metaphysical.                               |
  |                                             |
  | ARE WE SIMULATIONS?: A philosopher argues   |
  | that if our woebegone species somehow       |
  | manages to survive long enough, then we're  |
  | likely to be sims. Sounds like stunt        |
  | philosophy to me.                           |
  |          SPECIAL MATRIX ISSUE               |
  |                                             |
  | I am soooo far behind. I've been trying to  |
  | get an issue of JOHO out for five weeks,    |
  | but every time I put aside time to pull     |
  | the pieces together, something comes        |
  | up...something urgent but unremunerated.    |
  | It's been a productive, stimulating couple  |
  | of months for sure, but also hostile to     |
  | JOHO, a newsletter that likes it better     |
  | when I'm in my PJs looking for something    |
  | to do.                                      |
  |                                             |
  | And, of course, the longer I wait, the      |
  | worse the problem becomes because I have    |
  | more material to be wrangled into shape.    |
  |                                             |
  | So, I'm cutting the Gordian knot. Here's a  |
  | short issue. We all like the shorter issues |
  | better anyway, don't we? Please?            | 
  |                                             |
  |                 NOTE                        |
  |                                             |
  | The fact that theme of this issue is The    |
  | Matrix: Reloaded is not meant to imply      |
  | that I have seen The Matrix: Reloaded.      |
  |         ...NOW EXTRA TURGID!                |
  |                                             |
  | In the spirit of at least the first         |
  | Matrix, this issue sort of makes sense      |
  | until you think about it. Unlike the first  |
  | Matrix, I have removed all the              |
  | entertaining action sequences.              |
  | IT'S A JOHO WORLD AFTER ALL                 |
  |                                             |
  | Now that the war is over and a new era of   |
  | peace has descended, the NPR show "Here     |
  | and Now" [1] is again running interviews    |
  | with me on every other Tuesday. Also, the   |
  | current issue of Wired [2] has an essay     |
  | of mine about why leeway is more important  |
  | than rules. And did I ever mention the      |
  | Salon article I wrote about David Reed's    |
  | critique of the concept of radio            |
  | interference [3]?                           |
  | [1] http://www.here-now.org                 |
  | [2] http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.06/view.html?pg=1
  | [3] http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2003/03/12/spectrum/
  | THREADSML LIVES!                            |
  |                                             |
  | ThreadsML is a proposed standard for        |
  | interchanging threaded messages across      |
  | application types (a standard JOHO raised   |
  | a while ago. If you're interested, go       |
  | to the homepage, www.threadsml.org.         |


The argument over whether real-world or online
friendships are better ought to be declared a draw.
And pointless. Sure, real world friendships are
richer experiences than ones squeezed through a
keyboard. On the other hand, on the Web we see sides
of our friends and relatives that we don't see in
the real world. So, which is true-er or real-er is
probably not a question that can be resolved, nor
does it need to be: if the Supreme Court rules that
my online friendships aren't as meaningful as my
real world ones, I'm not going to send my online
friends curt notes denouncing our relationship.

But there is one part of this discussion that
bothers me a lot. In a real-world friendship two
bodies are in each other's presence occasionally.
Not on the Web. That's a big deal. Bodies are

You might not think so if you look at how we often
think about them. Today's artificial intelligence
mavens -- the ones who believe that "mental states"
are "substrate independent," like our friend Dr.
Nick (see below) -- echo the traditional body-soul
split that puts the "real self" on the side of the
soul. The AI dichotomy is even more severe than the
body-soul split since the soul was presumed to be
the animating principle of the body -- what makes
the difference between living flesh and dead flesh
-- whereas for substrate independence, "mental
states" are an epiphenomenon of animate flesh, not
the reason why the flesh is animate; when Ray
Kurzweil's brain state is finally poured into a
computer and the computer is Kurzweil's
consciousness, Kurzweil's body won't fall over dead,
unless God has a wicked sense of humor.

Talk about a digital divide! This is the physical
divide, and it's getting worse.[1] 

Of course, some would say it's getting better. But
they're wrong. Consciousness isn't just information.
We are aware of the world -- we are in the world --
not as knowers but as want-ers and feel-ers. As
Heidegger said, awareness is rooted in the fact that
we care about what happens to us. He traced this
back to our desire not to die, but somehow forgot to
notice the fact that we're embodied: no one can die
our death for us because no one can first take our
shower for us. Our caring isn't intellectual, at
least not first and foremost. It is shaped by the
fact that we are our bodies. So, views that think it
makes even conceptual sense to talk about
disembodied human minds strike me as self-refutingly

That's why the Web's body-lessness bothers me. I
don't like the alienation that thinks humans are
essentially minds and only accidentally bodies, but
that's precisely what the Web implies. And yet, the
Web is great at undoing a related bit of alienation.
The odd thing is that this related bit is in fact
the same bit. Enigmatic enough for you? Here goes:
The biggest nut our culture hasn't cracked is the
fact that we live in a world full of meaning that 
is essentially meaningless.

Let's divide the teams into shirts and skins.

SHIRTS: Our experience makes sense: when we see a
tree, we recognize it as a tree and understand it
within a complex web of relationships; e.g., as
lumber the tree makes sense in a context that has
saws, nails, houses, and the need for shelter.
Further, we all recognize that these meanings are
dependent on us, have a history, vary from culture
to culture, etc.

SKINS: We know that the universe is independent of
our awareness of it. It doesn't care whether we see
the tree as a tree or as a thick earth-hair, and it
doesn't care if we use it as lumber or drive our
car into it. The round rock we've been born onto is
essentially unmeaning. In fact, since it has the
last laugh, it's the death of meaning.

Over and over, we've failed to hold these two basic
facts of existence together. We've tried lots of
different ways. But the two sides just keep pulling
apart whenever we think about it. Yet they are
remarkably unified in our everyday experience.

And where does this mystery get instantiated closest
to us? In our own bodies. Our bodies are both meant
and brute. We are our body, we're not our body. Our
body is conscious, our body is just sagging carbon-
based matter. We understand our bodies so little
that we think we could exist apart from them simply
by instantiating their form -- the constellation
of neurons, for example -- in silicon. We don't
understand the first thing about flesh -- how
close are we to making artificial life? -- but
we're willing to assume, blithely, that despite
every moment of our experience, flesh is just an
accident. No, flesh is a miracle. But we're so
alienated that we're ready to write it off as just
the clothing our "real" self wears.

So, now we have a new world -- the Web -- that's
nothing but meanings. From this we learn to
recognize that what's most real about our world
isn't the round rock our experience can never
apprehend apart from our experience. That's good
because it's true: meaning comes first and matter is
only an abstraction from meaning. But the Web also
seems to teach us that bodies don't matter, for the
Web's a world in which bodies would only be an
impediment. That's bad because it's alienating.

Which leads me to one clear and important
conclusion: I don't know. "Small Pieces" tries to
make the case (p. 138-9) that some of the most
important ways that being embodied conditions our
experience are distinctively present in our
experience of the Web. But the mystery of flesh
deserves more than that, and it certainly means more
than the fact that on the Web no one knows I'm a
fat, 52-year-old white guy. Because flesh is where
the mystery of meaning and reality occurs, the
effect of our finding a home in a world without
flesh is ultimately a metaphysical question...the
same old metaphysical question that's plagued us for

(Ten demerits to the first person who suggests the
answer is "42.")

                     * * *

[1] For a good example, see John Perry Barlow's "A
Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace": "Our
identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot
obtain order by physical coercion...We will create 
a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace." 

I wrote up an overview of what I learned from
Heidegger, with special attention to the nature of
language, here: 


With The Matrix Reloaded just out (and yet so In),
it's time to revisit "The Simulation Argument" by
transhumanist [1] Nick Bostrom [2], a paper he wrote
while a philosophy professor at Yale. (He's now an
Oxford philosophy professor). The paper concludes
that it's likely that we are all living in a
computer simulation. I think it's more likely that
what this Matrix-y premise really has in common with
the movie is that both rely on complex stunts...not
that that's a bad thing.

Bostrom begins by stipulating that mental states are
"substrate independent": they could be implemented
in material other than living flesh. Thus, a
computer could be conscious enough to believe that
it's in fact a person living in a universe as rich
in detail as our own.

Next, he assumes that at some point we'll be able to
build computers big and powerful enough to simulate
the universe as experienced by a human so well that
simulated humans won't "experience any
irregularities." (Remember the cat in the first
Matrix?) To do this, Bostrom postulates that post-
humans (his name for our descendents who have become
maximum masters of technology) will use planets as
computers able to perform 10^42 operations per
second. He writes: "Such a computer could simulate
the entire mental history of humankind (call this an
ancestor-simulation) in less than 10^-7 seconds."

From these assumptions Bostrom is led to the

  The core of the argument that this paper presents
  can be expressed roughly as follows: If there were
  a substantial chance that our civilization will
  ever get to the posthuman stage and run many
  ancestor-simulations, then how come you are not
  living in such a simulation?

This colloquialism is followed by the formalism of a
function that leads to three possible outcomes for

  1. We become extinct before achieving the post-
  human technology overlordism that would permit
  ancestor simulation.

  2. We make it to post-humanity but don't run
  ancestor simulations, an outcome that Bostrom says
  would require changes in the basic beliefs and
  interests of humans since clearly at least some of
  us would like to run such simulations.

  3. The probability that we are living in a
  simulation approaches certainty.

The third alternative comes about as follows. If we
make it to post-humanity and do run simulations, the
likelihood that our reality is the real one goes
down as the number of "people" living in simulations
goes up. If there are a billion simulated people,
all of whom, like you, think they're real, then the
chances are a billion to one against you're being
the one who's not simulated.

Bostrom says that at least one of these three
alternatives must be true. And we immediately search
for ways out of this logical vice grip.

But we have to be careful because Bostrom doesn't
have us in quite the grip we may think. It sounds as
if he's saying that if we don't go extinct, then you
and I are highly likely to be sims. Some choice! But
the first possibility doesn't say that being able to
run sims is inevitable if humanity survives. We
could fold the first possibility into the second to

  We don't run sims, either because we can but
  choose not to or because it turns out that we
  can't (because we're extinct, planetary computing
  doesn't work out, "substrate independence" turns
  out to be false, etc.).

Putting it this way robs the article of some of its
rhetorical punch: running sims isn't inevitable if
we don't go extinct. In fact, it seems quite
reasonable that humans could survive for billions of
years and never build sims.

But the real way out of Bostrom's logical conundrum
isn't through non-empirical logic. It's by examining
the actual probability that each of the premises is
true. Bostrom gets cagey here. In his conclusion he

  In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it
  seems sensible to apportion one's credence roughly

But his article doesn't treat all three as equal. He
gives reasons to think that his #2 isn't true --
it'd require changes in human nature -- and spends
most of his time on the third because it is,
admittedly, "the conceptually most intriguing one."
But the fact that it's intriguing doesn't make it
any more likely. For example...

It's logically true that we'll either go extinct
before we all rename ourselves "Amanda Fishfry" or
we won't. Since we don't know, we should apportion
our credence equally. Nah. Those just aren't equal 
possibilites. The argument over the likelihood of 
either of Bostrom's alternatives happening is out 
of the realm of logic and into the realm of technology, 
politics, anthropology and morality. Otherwise, 
we are left with mere logical possibilities - 
possibilities that are not logically contradictory. 
"We'll either fly like birdies at noon today or we 
won't" are equally logically possible, but we know 
that the righthand possibility is far more likely 
because of actual stuff we know about the world.

Further, multiplying logical possibilities doesn't
increase their probability. For example, it's
logically possible that I am in fact Amanda Fishfry
who has been hypnotized by an evil Belgian into
thinking that I'm David Weinberger. The probability
of that being the case doesn't go up as the
population of Belgium goes up. And even though the
population of China is over a 1,000 times that of
Belgium, it is only barely meaningful to say that
it's 1,000 times more likely that I'm Amanda
Fishfry. No matter how big the population, the
possibility that I'm Amanda Fishfry remains as close
to zero as any sane person could want. Bostrom's
argument only matters to the extent to which we
think the events he describes are not merely
possible but are probable, no matter how big the
exponent is on the stats he uses.

Because this is sort of fun - well, I think so,
anyway - let me give you another example. Here's my
argument: We humans will either go extinct before we
discover time travel or after we do. If we make it
to the age when time travel is possible, we'll
either refrain (which is unlikely) or at least some
of us will do it. If some of us do it, it's quite
possible that -- given population growth
projections -- substantial numbers of us will do
it over the billions of years in the post-time-
travel future. Thus, it is highly likely that most
of the people around you right now are in fact time

Possible? Sure. But first you have to accept that
time travel is possible, just as first you have to
accept that your life could be a simulation without
your knowing it.

Why bother even thinking about it? Writes Bostrom:

  Properly understood, the truth of (3), although
  intellectually intriguing, should have no tendency
  to make us "go crazy" or to prevent us from going
  about our business

Thanks, Dr. Nick! But it's not my mental health that
I'm worried about. Bostrom believes the odds are
quite good that his life is a mere simulation being
controlled by creatures from the future. Now that's
crazy. It's what Kierkegaard calls "objective
madness." But no less mad.

I'm not just name-calling. There is the logical
possibility that I'm Amanda Fishfry, but that's not
a probability. There's a logical possibility that
I'm a simulation, but there isn't a reasonable
probability. Not being able to tell the difference
is the modern insanity.

Of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?

[1] http://www.transhumanism.org/
[2] http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html

For a commentary friendly to Bostrom's article see


For a mail list discussion with Bostrom about the
article before he published it, see here:


If you accept that you're likely a sim, this will
tell you what ethical rules now apply:


The Wikipedia has a good summary of the article:


Ok, I feel better now. JOHO will be back soon (in
relative terms) with a typical unreadably large


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