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Blog Archive July 2016

Who is the author?

If I were a time traveller from the future who came to 27th July 2016, I’d let you in on a secret from the future. Who is the author?—that’s a question that flags someone who lived in an archaic era—it is the kind of question that in the future will make people smile. I’d like to explain why it makes us smile, and why, once you understand what is going on around you, it may bring a smile to your face as well.

The burden is on me to make the case. On thousands of items flashing through my Twitter timeline a couple of days ago there was a reference to a scientific paper on the Higgs that listed five thousand one hundred and fifty-four authors. That’s not a mistake. That is a number 5 followed by a three-digit number, or to be precise: 5,154. There are, according to Peter Murray-Rust at the University of Cambridge, 10,000 new scientific papers every day.

Do the math. Think of the implications for the future as we have no choice but to improve machine capacity to process the deluge of information looking for patterns. Whether the pattern has utility is another issue. But machines will, over time, increase their cognitive range and long term it would be foolish to believe they can’t rise to the level of making predictions and theories about the patterns.


Where does that leave the ‘author’ as we have used that term for thousands of years?

I was a university professor. I had colleagues across my own country and others in other parts of the world. But the number was a rounding off error compared with the number listed on the Higgs paper. So what you say, another boring scientific paper that probably only five thousand people in the world understand, and if they are all authors isn’t that a kind of wefie (group selfie for those who don’t know what it is) or self-published venture?

It’s amusing until you reflect on what it means to organize, monitor, supervise five thousand people who have some role to play in the design, research, modeling, testing, reporting and examining the results. Without computers, the Internet and advanced technology, including artificial information agents, none of this would be possible. What this means is, scientists have discovered something even more important than the Higgs—they found a way to scale scientific research and experimentation beyond anything imaginable in the past.

We have embarked on a huge scaling co-operation and collaborative venture. The volume of papers and the numbers of people working on them will touch every theoretical complex domain of science.  All the balls have been tossed in the air: psychology, medicine, health care, economics, biology, quantum physics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. We exceeded what we can do and have brought in machines to juggle millions of balls. It’s a different circus. Experts are no longer constrained by physical boundaries or to the corridors of their own university, think-tank, government unit, university or industry.

We’ve been freed of the necessity of hiring a small stadium to contain five thousand colleagues working on a joint research project. Everyone is connected in the network without a physical presence being required. The disruptions are great for science but they don’t stop in the lab—they continue to undermine and destroy the fabric of the existing political and economic system, the way they are staffed, selected, organized and how they input and output information.

As AI systems are advancing in capacity and utility, the process of collecting, processing, storing, and analyzing information will create a substantial competitive advantage over the smaller, less funded competition. In Darwin terms the most intelligent, capable and alert animal survives to reproduce. We are in the midst of witnessing an extinction event for our political institution. We are in the long term process of weaning ourselves from the old myths of individual genius, from a system that recognized at most three people in any one category could share the Nobel Prize. A Nobel split five thousand ways is about $200 each, a nice meal.

The Higgs paper is a milestone. The number of authors alerts us that we are out of synch with the numbers, ways, and means to create large networks to solve highly complex problems. The old rules of thumb are left to the era of the stone wheel. This kind of problem solving doesn’t emerge from emotions. That makes it interesting as a future model.

We are just at the start of an era of mind scaling—thousands, then millions of minds in an open, wiki-like space, where experts cooperate in finding and applying the best models and designs, ones that describe processes for climate, health, schools, distribution system, military and defense development.

The notion that one president or prime minister will play the same role in this mind scaled world is to miss the point of the political dimensions of the new mind scaling environment. Meta hives housing communities of the most knowledgeable and advanced minds in a domain begin to produce results that no one of them fully understands. No political leader will understand the patterns, the concepts emerging from them, either. The chances are the mind scaling reaches a point beyond our current capacity to process through political systems and institutions that remain rooted in the past where boardroom held a couple of dozen people.

We may not know how these new technologies align with our overall interest.  Even worse, we won’t have the tools to know. Like a chimp staring at a high-rise building and thinking it comes from nature. Advance simulators will give us a dummy-for-humans, bullet-point explanation. It will tell us that talking about alignments assumes a level of stability and predictability that doesn’t exist. The complex system evolves much faster than we can process the results.

Information quantity and quality has increased to the point that it can be contained with the old riverbanks that carried the flow of information. Like any river, the channel is defined, and over time the channel shifts, twists and bends, changing its boundaries. But that is gradual change, one that we can prepare for. Bankers, politicians, the rich and connected have worked that river for their own benefit for years, crowding out the other boats. There’s nothing like a flood to get people’s attention. The horizon indicates a major flood is in progress. It has already hit. People like Donald Trump emerge when the water jumps the banks and all the anchors are dragging on the river bottom. Countries like China have tried to censor the information. Call it flood control. It won’t work. You can’t stop the kind of flow that headed straight for us.

As I said, if I were from the future delivering a message, it is the monsoon season and the rains are hard and come suddenly. My weather report is from the tweet about the 5,000 authors of the Higgs paper. Authorship has a new meaning. The list of names is longer than the paper. We still are at the juncture where we can’t give up the status that comes with authorship. But that will come in time. But before there can be a future, the political class and their wealthy backers who are doing everything to save themselves, need to address mind scaling at the policy level. It’s not like there is much choice. Sure they can survive a few more decades with eccentric performers promising a return to an earlier era where everything was great.


Credit: Hubble Heritage Team

Those 5,154 Higgs paper authors will be remembered as the vanguard who showed thinking, collaborating, sharing, storing and monitoring reach increasing optimal levels of knowledge and understanding. Also remember there are 10,000 new scientific papers every day. The individual genius who is not a team member is finished as a driving force. A politician that packs an emotional punch is also under the water line. He or she becomes largely irrelevant and remains, if at all, as a kind of entertainer to distract from the reality that there was no arc that came to the rescue when the information tide swept a thousand miles above their heads. Who is an author? No one, and everyone.

Posted: 7/28/2016 9:35:09 AM 


Of Shackles

Have a look at this Youtube video and witness the raw beauty of the mustang—wild horses that symbolize freedom. We domesticated horses, used them for transportation, sport, combat, and hard, manual labor. We tamed the mustang with a combination of ropes, saddles and stirrups. The history of the mustang parallels the history of our own species from the feral hominids of the African savannah to the factory workers in Cambodia or Bangladesh.

The taming of our species, like that of the mustang, has required technology, training and techniques to produce a useful, domesticated animal.

Law enforcement authorities since the dawn of mankind have used two basic tools handy in their quest to restrain suspects, prisoners, activists, and other assorted troublemakers. Either limit the mobility of their arms and hands with handcuffs or use shackles to restrict movement of their legs.

Shackles play a role in our domestication. The image of shackles on a human being is a display of authority and power, one that denies freedom of movement. The shackles were used like a rope, saddle and stirrups to bring us into line.

The idea is fight or flight is much harder with handcuffs and shackles. The secondary purpose is the visual impact on others who watch guards parade a prisoner dragging his chains and trying to maintain a small measure of dignity as he walks. No one looks innocent in chains. No one misses the message: Mess with the big boys’ laws and rules and this is what happens.

Shackles are costume art used in the ancient theatre of ‘justice’. They are part of the humiliation wardrobe that fashion statement that proclaims the wearer’s guilt. Bad people, so the theory goes, are put in chains. Let’s have a look back time and trace the origins of the chains that bind our species to its very beginnings.


Using leg irons to restrain movement has a long association with slavery. The history recedes into the midst of prehistoric times as archeologists have unearthed fetters that served the same purpose—restraining or limiting the range of movement of a person’s walking gait. The history of Roman and medieval times indicates the widespread use of shackles. In the late eighteenth century plantation owners in the French West Indies colony of Saint-Dominque shackled their slaves to prevent their escape. Shackles were widely used on slaves living on American Southern cotton plantations; the emotional backlash in the North against shackling was a factor in turning sentiment against the plantation system, a factor in the run up to the Civil War.

You might think that in the age of data mining, AI, Mace, Tasers, digital surveillance technology, and sensor tracking, shackles could only be found in museum or the antique collection of a bondage entrepreneur, but you’d be wrong. Shackles must be the last vestige of criminal justice system that predates talking pictures, high schools, cars, TVs, electricity, the steam engine, pizza, the printing press, the musket, and indoor plumbing. Basically shackles come for the dark, distant noir past slippery with the blood and tears of slaves and subjugated enemies.

We are the only primate on record with an evolutionary history of tying up another’s legs to hobble him or her. The history of shackles goes back to the dawn of our species. I am not saying we evolved to shackle our own kind but our social development is a fancy phrase for species domestication. A feral beast is tamed with shackles. The question is who has legitimacy to be the trainer and rider over the domesticated herd. No one has fully answered that question. It may be one reason that the ancient practice of shackling is widespread throughout the world and is not a violation of human rights per se.

How could such this humiliating, cruel, and brutal form of restraint continue from generation to generation? Being tainted by slavery wasn’t enough to cut the restraints. Digging up the remains of Roman women and children in shackles doesn’t shock us.

We are better than that, right?

If you are a pregnant prisoner in Ohio, convicted on a dope charge, a Federal Marshall shackles you from the cell to the hospital infirmary where they remain fixed to your legs while delivering your child. The child enters a world that, in one way, hasn’t changed at all. This isn’t a report from Roman times. The shackling of the pregnant woman occurred in the year 2000. I am not picking on Ohio, apparently this is common practice in other states and the US federal prison system: pregnant women are treated in the same was as a twenty-year sprinter champion who was convicted of selling pot. Savor that image: Mother in labour vs. track star. Both get shackled to go to hospital.

There is an online human rights push to bar shackling of pregnant women. When you read something like this, you seriously question why you gave up drinking. If there is an excuse for drugs and booze, thinking about a nine-month pregnant woman walking in shackles is one of the better ones to get you through one more day of the nightmare of this life.

Indonesia has a history of shackling people with mental health problems. While it is illegal, the practice is widespread. Up to eighteen thousand people with mental health conditions are shackled in Indonesia.

Political activists are also candidates for shackles. These young, wild mustangs demonstrate and protest and claim the right to do so as part of a right to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

A recent example happened in Thailand. Seven university students protesting against the military junta and arrested for their efforts were photographed in prison garb and shackles as they were led to a court appearance. After having been jailed for 12 days, they were not charged and released without bail. Now you may say, that shackles prevent prisoners from escaping. The shackles would definitely slow them down.

In this case, the students had refused to request release bail (six other students arrested at the same time were released after requesting bail). Their failure to request bail indicates a willingness to suffer jail in the name of civil rights and liberties. That principled position, one might assumed, would minimize their flight risks. The military government said the use of shackles was in the discretion of the prison administrators. Further shackles were not, in the view of the government, a violation of human rights.

Shackles provide a powerful metaphor for official control over those minorities—blacks, women, mental patients, political activists who are making too much noise. Like the mustang all people have a yearning for freedom. That, of course, is a pipe dream. We aren’t free. We’ve internalized our shackles by turning them into sexual fetishes such as bondage. Our sexual shackles arouse us. Our political shackles are being tested around the world as people are not starting to break free of control imposed by cowboys who have rounded us up one too many times and sent us off to the slaughterhouse.


The days of the mustang are largely gone. The days of mustang-like human beings vanished long ago. Shackles remind us of a time lost in the midst of history when we were once free of control. Leg irons remind us of what awaits the wild horses among us who wish to break free of control. Meanwhile, people continue to secretly act their shackling fears through sexual bondage rituals. No other domesticated animal (including horses) has discovered sensual pleasure in tying each other up. Our species is exceptional in the animal kingdom—tin pot dictators engaged in ropy bedroom power games to excite pleasure.

Let’s look down the road and imagine shackles in the future.

My prediction is that within fifty years, we will have invented chemical and electrical stimulations of the brain that will replace the need for shackles and drugs. There will be no more need for corporations to used state powers to physically tie up or restrain people. We will largely live inside virtual worlds without the boot to our throats. The bucking of the system will be in the distant past. The freedom of the old physical world will seem cruel, grim and unfair to those in the virtual reality. Those who would have been shackled in the past will no longer try to buck the rider off their back. They are free by default.

They won’t feel the pressure to work to produce products for consumption. The idea of productivity and contribution will no longer have the same meaning. Once jacked into mixed virtual reality, the old physical space becomes a cartoon. The next step will be full-time in a virtual space of unlimited reality. Better than drugs. Better than work. Everyone can realize that inner Mustang self.

The future promises freedom unimaginable in our shackled world of work, wine, sex, Internet and rock ‘n roll. We will have gone from a society that imprisoned drug user because widespread drug use threatened to erode the workforce to a society mandating drug use (or the new technological equivalent—the virtual fix) because there are no jobs. In virtual world no one cares about jobs.

Their identity will come from other virtual experiences. In the future if you test negative for matching a certain range of brain phase transition, you must show either a special permit or be deemed a dangerous subversive, a danger to society—someone who wants to return to the unfree era of shackles. That’s not the end of the story of shackles, though. I suspect a technological shackle will be discovered and applied to an ‘anti-drug outlaw’. We are inventive in shackling each other and so far no new technology since the beginning of our era has managed to exclude shackling as an effective way to control the unruly, restless horse stamping the ground, one who wants to run wild and away from the crowd.

Posted: 7/10/2016 4:19:15 AM 



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