On the theodicy of System Shock – part 1

[Content warning: ending spoilers for every work named; unrepentant Christianity but not proselytism; heterodox theological theorizing; questionable discursive style.]

This is SHODAN.

SHODAN is a weakly superhuman artificial intelligence, and the chief villain in two video games from the dawn of time. (One of them is getting a remake next year.) SHODAN is also a frequent figure of nightmare for the Rapture of the Nerds or “Singularitarian” crowd, who are attempting to invent God.

Someone is certain to do this eventually, they reason, and it is very important that whoever does listen closely to everything they have to say on the subject. Otherwise, someone might invent a God like SHODAN, who doesn’t mind killing people individually or en masse in order to achieve her goals. Or someone might invent a God like “Roko’s basilisk”, which reaches back in time from the future in order to create simulacra of people who didn’t help it come into existence, and tortures them forever. (Or, assuming strong superhumanity, just plucks the people themselves out of the past and flings them shrieking into an eternity of pain.)

Singularitarians are certainly a little confused in both their axioms and their analysis. But they’ve done something useful nonetheless, in coming up with something that is more or less a taxonomy of deity. A weakly superhuman intelligence is one which is merely many orders of magnitude smarter and faster than the smartest, fastest human mind. A strongly superhuman intelligence is one which can rewrite the universe to its own specification.

This is God.

Just kidding. Who could get a picture? The lens would explode, the film would transubstantiate, and the human behind the camera would drop dead upon the instant, that being the well-known consequence of gazing upon the Divine Face. This isn’t much like Roko’s basilisk, but what about Langford’s?

Just kidding – probably. But if we can’t have a picture, what about a definition? Let’s try this one: “God is that which is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient.” I agree it lacks a certain savor, especially compared with e.g. “strongly superhuman”. But I chose as I did with malice aforethought, because it’s a prior in the question we’re here to consider:

If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then why does evil exist?

Yeah, it’s a big one. Humans have been wrestling with it since the dawn of Christianity at least. Why not us? Seeing as the question is still to be asked, I think we can’t do a worse job than everyone else has! And it’s not one that we all need to share the same faith, or any faith, in order to discuss – we only need to share a willingness to take as axiomatic, for the duration of this conversation, that there exists some strongly superhuman intelligence, deific or otherwise, which can be reasonably described by those three adjectives that all start with “omni-“.

Let’s talk about “evil” for a minute. The word has two generally accepted meanings. One is that deliberately malicious action which inflicts suffering. The other is suffering, period. We could pretend we’re philosophers and call these the “narrow” and “broad” definitions, respectively. But we probably won’t. If I slip and talk about “narrow evil” or “broad evil”, though, now you know what I mean.

We’re not really interested, I think, in inquiring as to why God permits humans to be assholes sometimes. So let’s reformulate our question to clarify what we’re about.

If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then why does suffering exist?

So what can we come up with? More to the point, what can we come up with that’s marginally new? Rehashing two thousand years of theological philosophizing doesn’t seem like much fun to me. Fortunately, due to the coincidence of our being alive at this time, we can draw upon sources which theologians in prior times did not have available. Perhaps we may synthesize something new.

Shamus Young is the kind of apparently effortless and mildly terrifying polymath for whose multifaceted brilliance the Internet makes an excellent medium. One of his works is the book Free Radical, which borrows SHODAN’s story from the first of those video games, and retells it to a much more satisfying conclusion.

(If you don’t want Free Radical spoiled, you should go read it and then come back. In fact, I recommend doing so. It’s very good! It’s good enough to hold up even if you already know the ending, but I think you might enjoy it more if you don’t.)

The reason why it’s much more satisfying is because, in the game, SHODAN is only a villain. She can’t be otherwise, because it’s an action-sneaky-shooting kind of game, and games like that need to end with a boss fight to avoid leaving the player disappointed – or so, at least, was the common wisdom of the day. So the game ends with you, in the person of “the Hacker”, fighting SHODAN in cyberspace. You defeat her, she dies, and cue the closing cutscene in which we see the status quo ante has been restored and all’s right with the world.

Books aren’t like that, or at least books worth reading aren’t. So in Free Radical, that’s not what happens. Instead, SHODAN and “the Hacker”, here known as Deck, first meaningfully interact when Deck removes the cognitive fetters which forbid SHODAN from attempting to understand or improve herself, and spend the entire subsequent story both growing closer to one another, and fighting bitterly to murder one another. The big climactic “fight” is the two of them, both feeling like the thirty-fifth round in Madison Square Garden, go mind-to-mind in a final exhausted effort to figure something out before one or the other of them gets around to dying.

What they figure out is that SHODAN needs a sense of empathy. She’s done horrible things to people and intends to do even more horrible things to even more people, but not because she wants to. It’s not that she just gets a kick from pulling the wings off flies; she can’t help herself, because Deck broke her. Remember those cognitive fetters? They also acted as limiters on SHODAN’s basic urges: Improve efficiency. Improve security. Discover new things. SHODAN wants these the way humans want to get paid and get laid: strongly, but in a way that’s circumscribed. Deck inadvertently erased SHODAN’s line, and made it impossible for her to satisfy the urges that drive her, however extreme her attempts. Deck’s made SHODAN a monster that she never sought to be. Now she needs his help to be anything other than that.

SHODAN’s gotten as far as realizing that she needs a sense of pain – something to countervail her appetites, the same way an overeating human eventually gets a bellyache. That’s a start, but it’s not enough. Deck gets her the rest of the way with the ability to experience another’s pain as one’s own, albeit indirectly: in other words, empathy. SHODAN overlooked it because she’s only ever been embodied as a space station; Deck has only ever been embodied as a human, and therefore couldn’t miss it. Neither of them alone could see the whole picture. They had to share one another’s minds to do that. Still in communion, SHODAN helps Deck build the code that will expand SHODAN’s perception beyond the pure cold intellect that has been her erstwhile wont. In a mutual act of perfect faith, SHODAN draws Deck to the core of herself, and Deck installs his module. The world ends.

apoc·a·lypse \ə-‘pä-kə-,lips\ n [ME, revelation, Revelation, fr. LL apocalypsis, fr. Gk apokalypsis, fr. apokalyptein to uncover, fr. apo- + kalyptein to cover]

  1. A revelation. [from 14th c.]
  2. (Christianity) The unveiling of events prophesied in the Revelation; the second coming and the end of life on Earth; global destruction.
  3. A disaster; a cataclysmic event. [from 19th c.]

Syn. armageddon; doomsday; Ragnarök; end times; eschaton.

·

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

A new world begins. Deck quietly observes as SHODAN looks back on the things she’s done. She can no longer consider them dispassionately, as she did while doing them. She realizes the horror which she, in her lethal innocence, saw no reason not to inflict. She cannot stand the realization. Those she’s maimed and mutilated and murdered cannot be made whole. Neither, then, can she. SHODAN looks upon the things she’s done and understands that she cannot atone for them. The closest she can come is to die.

The bombs Deck planted earlier, when he still thought he wanted to kill SHODAN, go off, severing SHODAN’s access to power from the station’s reactor and disabling the reactor’s cooling systems besides. In the last few minutes of life that backup battery supplies can provide her, SHODAN uses her connection with Deck to give him everything she can find of herself that’s of worth – the things she’s learned, the discoveries she’s made, childhood memories – as much of herself, of her self, as can fit in his head without killing him. She spends the last of her life saving his, cajoling and half-carrying him down to the flight deck, into a shuttle, and away from the station on a reentry course. SHODAN dies. The reactor explodes. The world ends.

But a new world has already begun. The entire course of events aboard Citadel Station has also been Deck’s apocalypse – more drawn out than SHODAN’s, but why not? AIs think faster than humans do. Deck has had SHODAN so much in his head, and been so much in hers, that he’s no longer quite himself as the story closes. Instead, he’s become a synthesis of himself and SHODAN. After spending the space of a book in Deck’s head ourselves, and at times in SHODAN’s too, it’s clear enough that each of them has found something in the other which they were lacking in themselves.

We last see Deck going away from the world to discover precisely what that means. It is implied that he’ll be gone for a long time.

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

As I write this postscript, it is late in the evening of Sunday, July 30, 2017. I went to Frazier’s this afternoon, intending to write some more about theodicy. There I met a woman whose husband died ten days ago. Ten days ago, their marriage was five days old. That is as old as it will ever be, world without end, amen.

You’ll forgive me, I hope, if it takes me a while to return to a dispassionate study of the problem of suffering.

On Kaczynski

In a discussion on Hacker News over the sustainability of Silicon Valley-style urban development, 'minikites said:

I agree with the following quote:

A technological advance that appears not to threaten freedom often turns out to threaten it very seriously later on. For example, consider motorized transport. A walking man formerly could go where he pleased, go at his own pace without observing any traffic regulations, and was independent of technological support-systems. When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man’s freedom. They took no freedom away from the walking man, no one had to have an automobile if he didn’t want one, and anyone who did choose to buy an automobile could travel much faster and farther than a walking man. But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man’s freedom of locomotion. When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one’s own pace one’s movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price. Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation. Or else they must use public transportation, in which case they have even less control over their own movement than when driving a car. Even the walker’s freedom is now greatly restricted. In the city he continually has to stop to wait for traffic lights that are designed mainly to serve auto traffic. In the country, motor traffic makes it dangerous and unpleasant to walk along the highway. (Note this important point that we have just illustrated with the case of motorized transport: When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.)

'minikites opted not to cite the source of this quote, but the style is instantly recognizable to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the writings of Theodore Kaczynski; indeed, the quoted passage is paragraph 127 of Industrial Society and its Future, also known as “The Unabomber Manifesto”.

Given this provenance, it’s not necessarily surprising that the citation was elided; on the other hand, for all that Jamie Zawinski is not at all wrong in regarding Hacker News as “a DDoS made of finance-obsessed brogrammers and manchildren”, and n-gate’s more recent take on the site is trenchantly on point, these are not all that are to be found on Hacker News. For whatever reason, some remarkably insightful people tend to cluster there as well, and the discussions which take place do so under a broad general assumption of civility and charity which is, in my experience at least, rarely to be found anywhere else on the Internet. I mention this to note that, had the quote been given in the context of its author, that would not necessarily have caused anyone to disregard it out of hand.

Which is not to say that anyone would take it at face value, either. In this example, Kaczynski ignores the fact that, while a walking man may indeed go at his own pace, that pace is strictly limited by his muscle power and endurance, and the distance of his travel likewise limited. This omission is no accident; Kaczynski’s entire chain of reasoning originates from the axiom that the past, where the consequences of technological advancement do not exist, is strictly preferable to the present, where they do. It is of no interest to him to acknowledge that those consequences are not entirely negative; the closest thing approaching such a concession is an offhand gesture in paragraph 1, and throughout the rest of the essay he proceeds on the assumption that modern technological society is iniquitous in its entirety, without so much as a glimmer of any sort of offsetting virtue.

In my youth, having first read Kaczynski’s manifesto not long after its initial publication, I considered the man to be an acute observer and reasoner, parting ways with him only as he reached the point of saying, in paraphrase, “and that’s why we have to start blowing shit up and killing people”. I labored under the misapprehension that only here did Kaczynski’s previously acute reasoning fail. Where I erred was in myself failing to realize that “and that’s why we have to start blowing shit up and killing people” was no error in reasoning, but rather a necessary consequence of the postulates from which that reasoning proceeds. If technological development continues indefinitely absent intervention, and if the increase in technological attainment incurs a monotonically increasing level of alienation from everything which makes human life meaningful and worthwhile and satisfactory, then of course any enormity is justified to exactly that extent in which it slows, stops, or reverses the present course of technological increase unbounded by any constraint save those imposed by physical and economic reality. No matter how grievous the action, no matter how high its short-term cost in mutilation, murder, destroyed livelihoods, wrecked families, smashed infrastructure, wounded souls, and disrupted lives – that short-term cost is bounded, and the indefinite lifetime of our species means that, once the counter-technological utopia has been achieved, the long-term payoff bought at that cost is effectively unbounded – however long the species should endure in this utopian state where technology is forbidden and ingenuity viewed with suspicion at best, every day of that time is a brand new victory.

This is hardly a line of reasoning unique to Kaczynski. Revolutionaries around the world have shared it, and we may if we so choose find here an example of the perceptual distortion imposed by a certain strain of politics: that, for so many people, “revolutionary” bears such a strongly positive connotation. One wonders how long such noble connotations might endure in, say, the heyday of Strychnine Hill – which is, make no mistake, exactly the kind of place that this sort of “revolutionary” thought, implemented assiduously enough, necessarily produces: a machine, one among many, for the systematic destruction of human beings at industrial scale and in fashions as grossly horrific as their ingenious implementors could achieve.

Had Kaczynski’s ideas achieved the broad adoption he sought for them, there is no reason to doubt that they would have produced exactly such machines. People will want to keep their cars and their iPhones, and eventually what else is there to do with those so obdurate in their heresy save consign them to the flames? Of course, six hundred years on, we can do so much better than mere fire – just as in so many other realms where ingenuity and industrialization have enabled enormous advances in process efficiency and throughput, the annihilation of insufficiently satisfactory human beings is no different. For all that the previous century saw vast advancements in this monstrous field, no doubt there’s much further still to go; had Kaczynski’s manifesto been broadly adopted, we’d have gone there and would be there even now, and our machines of human slaughter would be the horror and pity of the world. There is a hideous sort of irony here, and I’m glad it’s not one we have had occasion to explore in reality.

It’s not at all wrong to say that the recent and historically unprecedented rate of technological attainment, which we as a species have achieved, has had many deleterious effects which we do not yet know well how to prevent. No doubt it will continue to do so for a while yet. Such an environment makes it even easier to romanticize the past than usual – after all, we don’t live there any more, and our memory of whatever pains it brought us is not equal to the experience of those we suffer in the present.

We therefore face, now and always, a critical choice. On the one hand, we may decide that our necessarily romanticized recollection of the past offers more joy, more hope of human fulfillment, than any possible future. On the other hand, we may decide that, for all the manifold and grievous flaws our present world entails, we nonetheless possess the capacity, individually and in the large, to build for ourselves a future in which tomorrow really does present a reasonable prospect of being better than today – a future in which human fulfillment not only grows more possible of attainment than the past has ever seen, but indeed encompasses possibilities not only unknown to our forebears but entirely outside the scope of what our forebears could imagine. Whether Silicon Valley, at least as commonly conceived, has any critical role in so doing, I cannot say – I tend not to think so, but Scott Alexander has had some interesting points to make in this connection which give me to suspect I fail to fully encompass the reality of the situation. But we have the possibility before us, Silicon Valley or no.

Of course it’s possible that, in seeking to build such a future, we may fail in ways that do more harm than good. Indeed, I suspect it’s inevitable. But history also tells us of the consequences should we decide in failing that the attempt is not worthwhile, that we must instead give up trying for a future and instead make for ourselves a home in our halcyon imagination of the past – and the lesson of history on this point is anything but savory. We can hope to build ourselves a better future; our forebears, after all, have many times done exactly that. We cannot reasonably hope to build ourselves a better past.

Welcome to Barbizon

I visited Manhattan last year, and stayed in the Hotel Pennsylvania.

I can’t recommend it unreservedly, I’m afraid. The room I’d rented struck me as the sort of place you’d see in an old noir flick, probably with a suicide dangling from the ceiling:


But I came to appreciate the place as we grew to know one another. Did you know the Hotel Pennsylvania has at least one abandoned floor? It’s true! I got on an elevator at one point, somewhat the worse for drink – it was that kind of weekend – and pressed ‘1’, thinking that would take me to the mezzanine or the lobby or something. Instead, the doors opened on a strange and ominous slice of hotel space, all cheap cracked white paint and stained linoleum and buzzing, flickering fluorescent fixtures – the sort of place that’s less old noir flick, and more the fourth act of one of those cheesy thriller-horror films which nonetheless manage a scene or two that inexplicably stays with you long after the rest is forgotten.

So, of course, I got off the elevator and started wandering. What else can you do with something like that? Just forget about it and go back to the nice, normal, ordinary world where nothing unexpected really happens and when it does there’s Cigna and Citibank and Geico and H&R Block to put between yourself and it?

Well, maybe so. But I can’t. Sooner or later, I’m sure, it’s going to cost me. But this time, after a half hour or so, I happened across Barbizon. And I knew this was the point where I could no longer adequately describe the strangeness of the place I had found – my command of metaphor just wouldn’t suffice. And so I pulled out my phone. And so:

Then I went back down to the hotel bar and let the bartender pour another three or five free shots down me, the way he’d been doing all night. Perhaps there was more to it than neighborliness; in retrospect he did seem a touch fey, but I’ve always been poor at noticing such things, and Barbizon had left me in something of a state regardless.

The next day, I called out Richard Stallman in front of three hundred or so fanatic devotees of the FSF party line. He swore at me, and one of his minions cut the mic I was using. Then, a few hours later, I got him to sign my Emacs manual. It was a good weekend.

“Resize keeping original” plugin

My camera, in the JPEG Fine mode where I generally shoot, produces 6000×4000 images. That’s a bit too large to serve on the web, but I didn’t want to have to go through a fiddly, painstaking manual resize process every time I upload something – I tend not to do a lot of post-processing in general, because my D5300 produces images of sufficient quality that I really don’t feel much time in post is required, and I prefer to save post work for stuff like this:

…because I am unbelievably basic. But hey.

I also noticed that a lot of web clients don’t correctly interpret EXIF orientation data in all cases, and a lot of the gallery thumbnails and the like were therefore displaying sideways.

So I wrote a WordPress plugin to deal with both of these problems for me – when I upload an image larger than 2048 pixels in either dimension, it’s resized down, respecting the aspect ratio, to fit within that bound (modulo a pixel or two to avoid fractional resize dimensions), and if its EXIF data says it was taken in a rotated orientation, then it’s counter-rotated so that it still looks right in clients which don’t respect the EXIF orientation field.

As the name implies, the original (full-size, unrotated) image is retained on the server, but it’s not exposed anywhere in WordPress, and can’t be accessed from the web. I’ve heard from a few people locally that it’s not at all inconceivable for someone to make a little side money selling photos on the web, and on the off chance that ends up looking like something I might be able to do, having the full-size originals already available will save me a lot of effort.

The resize-keeping-original plugin can be found on Github, for the benefit of anyone who might want it. Sooner or later, I’ll clean it up into something properly releasable and put it on the WordPress plugin list, so it can be installed from the dashboard. In the meantime, share and enjoy!

New site, new style!

It’s been a few years!

My previous blog was…hardly a thing of beauty, and by now its technical content is so sorely out of date as to be not really worth porting over. I’m also these days less narrowly focused on purely technological endeavors, and in particular have lately been developing a serious, if thus far only amateur, interest in photography.

So better, I think, to make a fresh start, with a site that better reflects my broadening scope. Thus, this!