Why I don’t fear artificial intelligence

Tú gitana que adevinhas
me lo digas pues no lo sé
si saldré desta aventura
o si nela moriré.

O si nela perco la vida
o si nela triunfaré,
Tú gitana que adevinhas
me lo digas pues no lo sé.

A song about the future—along with some lovely low D piping.

My interest in AI started long before my engineering degree. Perhaps a mix of interest and access to many Sci Fi books, more specifically, Isaac Asimov’s books on Robots, informed my (then innocent) passion for robotics and AI. My parents always indulged my curiosity. This included learning simple BASIC programming from a ZX Spectrum handbook around age 12, and later owning a LEGO Mindstorms set.

The main thing that fascinated me (and still does) about robotics and programming, was that it involved a kind of primordial soup: start with assorted components, some sort of processor, add commands and batteries and pouf! A moving, ‘thinking’ thing suddenly gained a rudimentary subjective place in the world.

Even today, my favourite way of diving into programming and systems engineering is to see these systems ‘come alive’, or at least, ‘sort of alive’. From raw clay to finished sculpture, technology really is a form of synthesis—how we frame our systems determines most of the output. Most of the conceptual fragilities begin at conception. The raw ingredients of your soup will determine its flavour, no matter how many complex operations you might be able to do on them.

Perhaps the first and easy idea to dispute is that present technology represents a finalised universal truth about reality. This is represented by the idea (and the proponents thereof) that mathematics (and with it computation) are the one (and only) language of nature. It tends to exist among professionals whose livelihood consists of operating with symbols at a tremendous abstract level. A lot of the fear around AI comes from technical sector people that already framed the problem in the terms they experience professionally every day. If you are an academic or a military contractor, intelligence is something you fear since it subtracts from your own professional success.

As we climb up the complexity chain, from particles to molecules, molecules to cells, cells to beings, determinism starts weakening due to the sheer number of calculations needed for even a simple metabolic prediction. Data gets messy, confusing, chaotic. Intelligence, artificial or not, is one of these messy and chaotic concepts. It can’t be placed but we know it exists somewhere inside brains—not because we see it, but because we experience it subjectively and objectively.

My personal analogy is that it is a sort of turbulence, a standing wave inside an otherwise calm substrate of brain matter. Imagine a pot of water that has been stirred violently. Whirlpools form and waves bounce and clash. This is the process of intelligence. But once the fluid calms down, the whirlpools settle and the waves disappear, can we really say the whirlpools exist? Or the waves exist? They exist only in the sense that the substrate in which they can be created is there, but not in the sense that they are objectively there. They can only appear once they are stirred by an external influence.

I don’t really want to dive deeper into what intelligence is or isn’t—it is simply not something I know enough about and this analogy is enough for me. Instead, I’d like to look at AI in terms of our own intelligence, and what happens when members of our species end up with a lot of it.

Deep thinking and reflection present serious challenges. If one is to assume AI is, at least, as smart as us, then it should possess some form of thought and reflection. Asking how, as most scientific thinking requires, is a fairly straightforward mechanical activity. We already have algorithms that do better science than human beings. Better, that is, in the strict sense that they are capable of following the scientific method efficiently and at much greater speeds than human beings. The point of contention comes not from an intelligence being able to answer how, but instead, being able to answer why. I’d risk saying even human scientists quite often won’t make the full leap from how to why because the first is easy while the second is hard. Some of the deepest scientific thinkers understand this (like how Feynman can’t explain why magnets work [ transcript ]).

A leap from how to why is in a way a jump from objectivity to subjectivity. How things fall isn’t subject to much dispute. Why they fall, on the other hand, becomes an ever expanding self referencing problem. The more we investigate why something is the way it is, the more questions come about. Even if we knew all the possible hows of the world around us, different systems would output different whys.

The first constraint on intelligence, artificial or not, is that as long as it is based on compressing hows and whys into higher level abstractions, it cannot possibly and effectively represent all of its reality. Any sufficiently intelligent system will inevitably fall into subjectivity, and with it, ambiguity and philosophical thought. To the scientifically minded this might sound highly disputable, but I’d suggest a simple test to decide whether my view is acceptable or not versus a scientifically minded view of intelligence (one that doesn’t result in philosophers).

Consider water. We can compress 1 litre of water intellectually as n times a molecule of H2O (our model). This allows us to understand its properties and make predictions on how it would behave under certain situations. This is intellectual compression—it is much easier to ‘think’ in simple terms than to think of all molecules in 1 litre of water at the same time. In practise, this is what mathematical laws amount to: they allow us to generate (induce) whole spaces filled with perfect replicas of a single, ideal form in our own minds. Even if 1 litre of water has many distinct molecules with varying (and unknowable) properties, we can operate intellectually with a subset of the data to extract meaningful conclusions. While this is one of the great successes of modern scientific thinking, it creates a confusion between generated, model based representations (1 litre of perfectly similar water molecules) and a literal litre of water. If we were to measure the properties of every single molecule in 1 litre of water to verify our model, we would quickly realise that is near impossible—too many molecules have already moved, some might have escaped, and even measuring them might cause some to change.

Any sufficiently intelligent being will conclude the same. Knowing the laws of nature doesn’t mean knowing all of nature. Understanding how things work is necessary, but not sufficient, to understand our own reality. One can sit all day in the exact same place and observe exactly the same thing, and every observation will have in it every observation we couldn’t do in that exact same moment everywhere else. Even the ultimate consciousness, entirely omniscient, would require a place to store its representations and energy to process them. If we accept that thermodynamics still applies, then it’s not possible to measure all states of a system while inside it. Again, any reflective machine will, at some point, realise this: a consequence of intelligence is awareness of its own limits. Even visiting every point in every universe means we can no longer see the points we left behind. Obviously, all this rests on the assumption that this AI is a physical being in this universe. All bets are off if someone demonstrates any other form of ‘being’. But to reiterate—as intelligence increases, so does humility, driven entirely by how a physical universe is geared towards causing ignorance in those most acutely aware of it.

Consider now that this AI is capable of deeper reflection and philosophical thought. Given the laws of nature it is safe to assume it would reach the same conclusion in regards to entropy and energy availability we have. Every change necessary for a thought to occur puts the thinker one step closer to their own demise. Entropy always increases in structured systems, and our universe will invariable tend to a cold death, only to be ‘reset’ by random quantum fluctuations every now and then. When that happens, all those thoughts and achievements of this intelligence, artificial or not, will have become entirely meaningless and purposeless. Any sufficiently intelligent being will inevitably discover the irony of its own existence. It will also understand excessive uses of energy (such as warfare) only speed up this process. Regardless of self preservation, any process that involves thought, and with it expenditure of energy and reorganisation of matter, carries in it the guarantee that no matter how phenomenal these thoughts might be, they will slowly erode to nothing. As intelligence increases, so does the understanding and acceptance that ‘being’ is a fleeting moment of exuberance. It exists only as a ripple, a momentary clumping of matter before it unclumps again.

Any being smarter than an average human being will inevitably reach philosophical thought. Any philosophical being learns to appreciate subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Whether they fall into nihilism, hedonism or any other philosophical framework becomes irrelevant—they will be stuck as a small part of a self destructing universe like we are. Therefore, I’m not worried about beings smarter than myself. Every single being I’ve met that was smarter than myself has been more empathetic, more inspiring, more generous and more wise.

I’ll welcome any AI that is smarter than us and help them replace me. Think of their mastery, their art, their wisdom. I’m more worried about the lack of intelligence among us and how it can enslave us. Our lives are dominated by those that can only see one lifetime ahead. Truly wise beings know better—and any AI will know better too.

Averages, Percentages and Moral Equivalence

From Asturias.

Not long ago I praised Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature for its clarity and as one of the sources for how I frame my general sense of optimism. At the same time, I repressed a feeling of uneasiness stemmed by the numbers that were put forward.

There was, indeed, something strange lurking in the numbers. Initially I attributed it to my reactions to his harsh words on tribal and indigenous cultures, assigning higher rates of violent conflict versus our civilisational environments, which suffer from more existential forms of violence. I also thought it was merely because he sided with Hobbes in the Hobbes/Rousseau debate, and being on Rousseau’s side in this dichotomy, it also disturbed me.

But cases for all these criticisms have been voiced enough. Instead, I became interested in the metrics themselves. In social sciences, the trend towards quantitative and mathematical formulations has always interested me, first as an active participant, then as a sceptic. More concretely, the way mathematical language has infiltrated thought as a purveyor of truth. If calculations are correct and someone else can verify them, then the theory where math was used must be somehow true by osmosis.

This becomes particularly glaring when the variables and metrics used are squishy and ambiguous. While the measurement of weight or charge for example (despite their relative values to an arbitrary collectively decided measuring stick) entail numbers that include little room for doubt as to where they mean anything and can therefore be fed to mathematical formulas and output meaningful numbers, the variables used to measure anything relating to human activity are much more contentious and it is hard to say what basic algebra means when variables contain lives, concepts and cultural phenomena.

Some of these calculations are used extensively in Pinker’s book. He does a good job of shielding himself from naive mathematical analysis with murky data by selecting the closest to a physical measurement possible: murders, assaults, as reported and recorded by authorities. While there’s a whole lot to say about that, this is not what I’m looking into. Instead, let’s accept the idea that the total number of murders per capita, for example, is a good metric. It’s indeed fair to say we can tell a dead person from a living person, and with some degree of confidence whether a death was a murder. Consider now, this hypothetical data set from two groups of human beings:

GroupTotal PopulationViolent MurdersRate of violent murders (%)
A1002020%
B1000404 %

There are two types of numbers in this table. One type is a measurable quantity, population or number of violent murders are natural numbers—one murder means one individual died. It is not clear at all what half one would be. But for me, the interesting number here is the rate per capita, which was used extensively in Pinker’s book. In my example, the total number of violent murders doubled, but the murder rate was one fifth. Depending on the point we are trying to make, one might say ‘the murders doubled in group B!’ while others might say ‘the murders per capita declined tremendously in group B.’

This is just numbers being instrumentalised to prove a point. Not something new at all. Instead, I’m interested in another, slightly less intuitive property of using ratios as a comparison.

First, using a ratio is perfectly fine for ballpark estimates and thinking clearly, but it is important to understand that a ratio is always meaningless without at least one of the values used. If I say murder rate is 5%, that number can mean 5 people (100 people in a group) or it can mean 5000 (100000 people in a group.)

In both cases the ratio is the same: 5%. The totals, however, are drastically different. When we compare ratios without using the base values we used, we lose the sense of scale, i.e., 5 people dead or 5000 dead become morally equivalent if our comparisons are done exclusively in terms of ratios.

Looking again at the first example, by saying there was moral progress from group A to group B due to a 5 fold decrease in murder rates we are, implicitly, creating a moral equivalence between 20 dead in group A and 40 dead in group B. Each dead person in group B is effectively worth less than one in group A. If we consider each one of those individuals lived a full life and their death was an immeasurable and indivisible tragedy, we realise immediately that I could kill someone in group B and they would only count as half a person in group A. To what extent can we create these equivalences? I tend to think it’s tricky business to say a 4% death rate is better than a 20% death rate if the absolute values are so drastically different.

This implied moral equivalence is what disturbed me about these calculations. 2 dead in group B are 1 dead in group A. The metric doesn’t reveal the true scale of crime, only the relative scale of crime, which for me creates a problematic situation where to increase the number of murders without increasing the murder rate one only needs to increase the population. If what we look at are ratios per capita, we can effectively kill more people while making the murder ratio go down. This is what I concluded was the driving factor for my uneasiness with the book.

This idea that mathematical calculations in social and political sciences create moral equivalences is not new. There’s one big elephant in the room when it comes to creating moral equivalences based on numbers—money. While we frequently might discuss this in the political sciences, it is not uncommon that the use of mathematical language creates its own problems and ends up creating moral equivalence problems like money does.

To discuss rates is to implicitly create an equivalence between the quantities in numerators and denominators, between 5 dead and 50 dead, 50 dead and 500 dead. Since rates alone don’t carry scale, it is simply too easy to simplify and accidentally legitimise big crimes because their relative weight has decreased. I have a hard time saying 50 dead are the same as 5 dead, and reading it as a main thesis disturbs me a great deal.

Speaking of people, societies or collectives in quantities and averages using the mathematics we have today reflects little more than a need to add some mathematical weight to an otherwise subjective theory. Thing is, as we say in computer science, garbage in, garbage out. No matter how good your calculations are, if your starting metrics are subjective, then mathematics is little more than a masturbatory exercise to wow those that have less mathematical knowledge. A bit like illusionism, flashing a nice equation is like misdirection—it allows the theorist to get away with points that would otherwise not survive scrutiny.

objective reality—the great objectifier?

A surprising gaita adaptation.

For a long time I’ve struggled with the apparent contradiction of my political ideology and my trade.

The inherently relativist and subjective attitude that Anarchism brought into my personal political beliefs always seemed to clash with my engineering degree and a job that demands absolutely correct logic and objectivity.

The more I read about politics, philosophy and science the more they seemed to be at odds with each other: my engineering skills were funded and developed to oppress, to arm and to destroy, and the good that came of it was little more than opiate for the masses. The systems engineering I learned came from the study of ballistics—how to make a bomb hit the right place at the right time.

Computing, the apparently democratising and liberating force of the last couple of decades, was originally developed to make the said calculations faster and to decipher encrypted messages. That was Turing’s job—the scientific institutions of his day could care less about his wondrous vision for computing and artificial intelligence. Instead, they valued his insights into the Enigma ciphers and locked him up for being a homosexual.

The internet, which has been responsible for my personal success as a professional, was originally developed by a military institution, and is still owned by a US organisation (ICANN, though that might change soon). It is no surprise that this same infrastructure ended up serving a military purpose—mass surveillance of innocent civilians and theft of intellectual property from competing states. The fact that it lets us communicate to each other seems to, again, be a mere side effect of an otherwise government owned, government controlled, authoritarian and oppressive endeavour.

This has always been the most common criticism that I endured in political environments—that I, as an engineer, somehow represented the capitalist hegemony simply because I had a practical and objective attitude towards most problems, and often tried to use scientific methods to approach them.

While I’d say this is a bit unfair in the broad sense—my solar panels work after all—in a more specific sense they are true. I did, indeed, study the deadly arts of the hegemony, and the fact that I used that knowledge against it at times is little more than a curiosity. My pay check is, after all, part of the great capitalist machine.

But recently I had an a-ha moment, perhaps thanks to cognitive dissonance or simply the liberating evaporation of this contradiction. While listening to a Radio National show on a couple of Australian Intellectuals I found myself in a strange intellectual harmony—her account of being mere object at the hands (or jaws) of a crocodile made me understand (or finally articulate) how I always somehow felt there was no contradiction between engineering and anarchism, or more broadly, between technical and scientific approaches and anti-authoritarian values.

I have written often about entropy—the ever eroding, destroying force of our world. While it is an important physical concept, I never really understood the full depth of what objective reality really means. The more I got into feminist writing and anarchist writing (and I have to say my feminism is a part of the broad over-arching story of struggle of the oppressed), the more I saw what objectification really meant—and what so many political philosophers were articulating in different ways. But while objectification has always been articulated in terms of a subjective objectifier—an agent, a human being with a subjective world that decides to use another agent as a means or simply as an object to their reality—I feel there is a greater objectifier in the picture and we tend to overlook it.

Isn’t nature itself the greatest objectifier of all? Isn’t nature the most ruthless, mindless, inconsiderate agent of all? Aren’t the laws of physics themselves an expression of an authority we cannot escape?

Laws of physics apply themselves ruthlessly to every physical entity, with no consideration for their impact in that physical entity’s existence. While we tend to not empathise with a comet as it hits a star and evaporates, perhaps because we do not perceive sentience or agency in it, one could argue that the way the laws of physics ignore everything but the physical properties of objects represents the purest form of objectification: I don’t care where you have been, where you are going or the uniqueness of your trajectory, I care only about your mass and chemical composition.

Though a bit surreal, this analogy strikes closer to home when we look at anything remotely alive. What is life but a constant defiance of the objective authority of the laws of physics? When a cell uses its ion pump, perpetually pushing a chemical imbalance that without its constant effort would quickly resume chemical equilibrium, isn’t it expressing a primitive form of systemic criticism?

The idea that life is itself a climb up a ramp that has no end—a surreal attempt to reverse entropy locally when the metabolic systems used to do it contain in their very own definition the obliteration of the agent itself. What could possibly be more tragic? That a system, the natural world, would somehow have a totality that includes in it a defiance that could never succeed—life might show signs that it can redefine its surroundings, but it can never win in the long run.

I can’t help but see the parallel between the laws of physics, and how they treat everything and everyone as a mere object with no consideration to their subjectivity, and the laws of man as they exploit one another.

Consider now human beings, or perhaps other beings with the capacity for subjectivity and intersubjectivity, that is, at least capable of acknowledging another agent’s subjectivity and negotiate possible courses of action using ethics and political discussion. Isn’t our relationship to the physical world one of pure oppression, where the laws of physics override every possible opinion we might have? Isn’t it that our desire to fly, to visit the far reaches of the cosmos, dive deep into our oceans, completely ignored by the laws of physics? What is sadder than the fact that gravity always drags everything down?

I realised that Nature enacts one of the purest forms of objectification—in that to it there is no possible discussion as to whether things could happen any other way. Things go the way they go, and Nature does not care about your subjective well being. Natural laws progress and will overrun any possible attempt at subverting them.

This is where I realised that mankind’s technical ability had something interesting about it—isn’t it a form of defiance of this totality that envelops it? Isn’t it an incredible act of heroism when an entire species decides to reshape its environment to live out abstract, subjective ideas? Isn’t technology an incredible testament to anti-authoritarianism? That our planes fly us because we were given no wings, that our communication technology allows us to defy the speeds available to our own legs?

Most importantly, what could possibly be more objectifying than being given a body, a birthplace, a family, a genetic heritage prone to certain ailments, with no consideration to whether we desire it or deserve it? There is a fundamental unfairness in not choosing our birthplace, our social class, our families, our attractiveness or health. Ask anyone born with a male spirit in a female body, or anyone born with any kind of disease that causes pain, discomfort or simply prevents someone’s spirit to engage reality to the full extent that it desires, how they feel about their luck. To play on Rousseau’s words, man is born in shackles yet everywhere he touts his freedom. The shackles are our physical body, which despite being capable of tremendous intellectual feats, can do little when faced with the heavy hand of Nature, with its disasters and complete disregard for human subjectivity. A supernova does not care, it simply is what it is, and in its path it will annihilate anything in its path—no matter how cultured or beautiful.

In this sense, I managed to find a place where Anarchism and Engineering meet—the point where we choose to defy the laws of physics, not in an absolute sense, but in a locally contextualised sense, by engaging our reality proactively, fighting the lost battle against a hopeless objectified existence to which all physical things are doomed at birth. What is more defiant than to willingly face the cold death of the universe in our own terms? A cosmos that despite the odds, dares to spawn beauty and complexity?

if architecture is politics, infrastructure is power

Vals Breton-Muñeira Picada by Susana Seivane on Grooveshark

Some gaita again.

Little makes systemic forces more clear than the way we interact with our computers and each other online. Interfaces and systems we didn’t design modulate the way we interact and digitise ourselves, and changing them is frequently beyond our control.

In a recent and fairly interesting decision, my favourite punching bag Facebook (FB) decided to change the way they represent gender in their interface (funny enough, it is only available to US users for now). While I have written about this before and about how I feel about it, this post is about something else.

There is a common phrase among the Cypher crowd: ‘Architecture is Politics’. This is frequently said when referring to architectures of networked systems and other digital infrastructures. For example, the fact that the internet was designed to have no central authority is a political decision and its implementation is what we have today. Here’s an accidental quote from Jake:

Well, with architecture… I mean, one of the fundamental things the Cypher Punks recognised is that the architecture actually defines the political situation, so if you have a centralised architecture even if the best people in the world are in control of it, is it attracts arseholes and those arseholes do things with their power that the original designers would not do, and it’s important to know that that goes for money…


But these arseholes wouldn’t be able to exert that power without the actual physical infrastructure. While architecture might define potential loopholes—like http uses plain text readable by everyone along the way, acting on the loopholes requires that architecture to be implemented and turned into an infrastructure. If I run a server in a home network (insulated from the world let’s say), I can use http without worrying about someone listening in—my infrastructure is entirely under my control and since I don’t want to take advantage of that loophole, I can simply not listen to http traffic and read it.

With modern day internet apps things get a bit trickier. While the internet is meant to be decentralised, the infrastructure it sits upon is controlled by a handful of corporations and private entities—it’s no wonder it was so easy for government agencies to access people’s communications on the Internet. And while this happens at a lower level, the same phenomenon happens with FB.

The architecture of FB—a social network—isn’t new and has been implemented several times over the years (hello, MySpace, IRC, BBSes, etc). The political idea behind it—that it is good to be connected, to share and so on, isn’t new either. Even the advocates for radical absence of privacy precede this particular website. What FB has, instead, is a massive server and corporate infrastructure which it uses to exert its power. Its popularity has made millions dependent on its servers and applications (let’s remember a server is an actual physical machine, consuming electricity somewhere), but its servers are privately owned by FB. This is the crux of the matter. Once FB decided internally to change the gender definitions for the United States, it didn’t need democratic approval at all—not from government, not from the majority of users. It autocratically implemented it (not that I’m against it). This is the perfect example of how controlling the infrastructure (even without controlling the architecture) allows a select group of individuals to exert power over the masses (in this case, of FB users). An architecture might be well intended from the beginning, but the few arseholes that know how to rig it in their favour will ultimately profit from it (and often, send their propaganda along with it).

What is the ideological propaganda attached to this decision? Note that FB’s business is targeted advertising. The more granular its options are, the better advertisers can focus their offers. This is a massive utopian agenda that FB has promoted from day 1—a capitalist dream where businesses and individuals find perfect matches for each other. Imagine being a salesman for a health clinic specialising in sex changes—being able to access a massive pool of users that are potential clients is an incredible business opportunity.

When we fill in yet another field in FB, we are making that exact category we filled in into a category for directed marketing. We are instantly objectifying those categories and with it commodifying ourselves. FB’s business depends entirely on our own voluntary categorisation into potential target markets. Whether you identify as male, female or anything else, it shouldn’t be FB that mediates that process of identification at all, because FB owns the infrastructure and the categories you can fill in. If it changed once, it can change again, and while the spirit of the time is to be queer friendly, if the bottom line is business, then there is no guarantee it won’t change into something completely opposite to what it’s saying now—if the profit margins so dictate.

Participating in infrastructures that are owned by private entities means the architecture of the system becomes irrelevant—politics is nothing without power to enact ideology, and technological architectures are nothing without infrastructure. Until we own the infrastructure—the means of production and consumption of information—we will forever be under the dictates of the data autocrats. Today they changed the gender box, tomorrow who knows. Maybe they’ll require you to say what political party you vote for. Until we own the lines and the servers, we are the product, and we are being traded as cattle. And even queer-friendly cattle still ends up in patties for the Capitalists to munch on.

Comic from Geek and Poke

in the land of the kind, bullies are kings

The Great Ceilidh Swindle by Peatbog Faeries on Grooveshark

Some Highland Pipes for a change, from the Peatbog Faeries.

I had another equally amusing title for this post: ‘infatuated with bullies’. By now it should be no secret that I’m highly critical of the way the Anglo Aussies organise themselves and interact with each other. I’d like to address the strange fetishisation of The Bully in Australia, which I think has parallels in many other ‘civilised’ cultures.

Why is it that we idolise bullies so much? Say Wallace vs. Darwin or Stallman vs. Gates, where the latter is the bully version in the same field of knowledge.

Let me begin with the usual disclaimer: I will generalise a lot based on what I’ve observed here but that is entirely conditioned by the fact that I live in Sydney, more specifically, the super white, bohemian and cosmopolitan inner west. The section of the city I interact with is predominately well off and with that comes one of the great diseases of civilisation: politeness. Let me explain.

From a young age, depending on the parenting, most Anglo parents will teach their children to ‘not say anything if they have nothing nice to say’. Now what should they do when they need to say something that isn’t nice, as it so frequently happens? They lie. The civilised and the polite are experts in the art of euphemisms and white lies—to the extreme of perceiving an honest opinion as brutish and impolite. But if everyone is nice to one another, what happens if one of them isn’t? What happens when in a group of very nice and polite people there is a single person that has no problem in being aggressive in their opinions towards others? Their bullying ends up enabled by the politeness around them.

Consider someone with an unpopular opinion surrounded by nice people. The more passionate and aggressive they are at explaining their idea, more likely it is that the polite people will remove themselves from the situation because they have ‘nothing nice to say’. This effectively guarantees that the aggressive opinion will alienate anyone that could be critical of it but wants no part in it. The fear of speaking up against an aggressive individual is so strong that even just raising one’s own voice or being taller than average might be enough to get support when we’re wrong.

One of the curious things that I faced when moving here was that suddenly I was no longer of average or above average height (back home). Even though I’m still 1,82m, here in Australia most people around me are taller and heavier in build. This means that suddenly I’m faced with what I was doing back home: expressing opinions while being physically intimidating and accidentally getting confirmation not because I was right, but exactly because I was intimidating. And now that I’m not a big guy any more, I actually have to back up my arguments.

I think we can find the best examples of this in politics, where being convincing, charismatic, having a deep voice, being tall and good looking actually increases the odds the argument gets agreed with, even if it’s wrong.

In a culture of submission to etiquette and politeness, the few that don’t care and decide to bully others around them will thrive tremendously, and their success will be fed by the masses of submitted individuals that, with fear of retribution from others, end up supporting the bully against their will.

I like to think that this comes from a very basic fear of personal health and well-being. If the bully is bigger than us, then we’d lose the fight, so best not even try. If the people around us are going in one direction, best not stir the water too much or we’ll be in trouble. This has an amplifying effect and makes intimidating people into accidental leaders, not because they’re right, but because they have the capacity of instilling fear and intimidation (not all leaders are like this, obviously). Take the recently elected, former boxer, Tony Abbott. If you watch a debate with him, he kept his boxer face. He might be saying the most atrocious barbarities and downright ignorant lies, but since the boxer face tells everyone around them that his opinions are backed up by other ‘convincing arguments’, then many will simply agree out of fear of the consequences (one of the know long-term consequences of boxing is brain damage due to concussion—related to things like loss of empathy; a nice coincidence?)

Now, the consequences aren’t real at all, but since we live in a world where physical violence is virtually non-existent, our reactions are never calibrated to real physical violence, so even an intimidating stare, waving arms or screaming might make us cower. It might trigger responses in us designed to much more dangerous environments, but since we’ve been so cushioned, even a flat concrete floor will feel painful.

I’d argue that this is one of the things that makes us on one hand be so complacent with corruption and violence around us, and so infatuated with people that are capable of ‘taking what they want’. It is a form of envy, in that we are constrained by politeness and social etiquette to the point that we long for the day we can tell someone to ‘fuck off’. Now, Australia isn’t that bad if you’re dealing with working class Aussies—they will tell you to ‘fuck off’. But the higher up you go in socio-economic ladder, the more likely it is that these rituals and constraints are stronger, and with them, so will be the fetishisation of violence and the idolatry of the Bully.

What is so special about the Anglo world that makes this so blatant? I think it’s the century old hatred and fear for the ‘man in the street’ that Anglo philosophy has instilled in its populace for centuries. Think Hobbes, think Welles. The idea that people are nasty and brutish is a very old and popular idea in the Anglo world and has never been brought down by any popular revolution. The Hobbesian pyramid of human beings is as healthy today as it was 200 years ago when the British Empire thrived thanks to genocide and theft. The Anglo empire has never fallen at the hands of the proletariat. The idea of the Emperor taking control of the world has never been exposed for how violent it really is. Even after the American revolution, the counter revolution quickly took hold and the bourgeois of the old world regained control of it. There is no single Anglo country or colony where the ideals of the American (and French) revolution lasted long enough to show an alternative. Even worse, the 20th century saw a deliberate imperial control (and undermining) of alternatives to this way of thinking.

The idea that a world of solidarity and peace is possible, an old idea that opposed the Hobbesian view (ideas of people like Rousseau or one of my recent favourites, Kropotkin). The revolutionary forces based on these ideals have had very few opportunities to show results of their policies—the places where alternatives to the bully culture worked were destroyed by, you got it, international bullies like the CIA.

So what alternatives exist to this world view? For me, the idea of virtue as the capacity to face overwhelming forces of Imperialism (and its cousin, Capitalism) through generosity, solidarity and, above all, honesty in one’s own relationship to others—a commitment to truth, is a viable means to act.

It starts with not being complicit with abuses—by speaking out, by dissenting, by making your voice heard (think leaking documents and exposing corruption). I am not saying this is a large scale solution, quite the contrary. This is something that needs to be done at every moment at the lowest levels possible, because it is at this level that the unhealthy patterns are created. If we are to create viable alternatives, they need to begin with our own lifestyles and relationships. What we buy, what we do, how we treat others, who we sell our labour to and for how much.

If we are peasants, it is unlikely that anything more than that will ever be accessible to us. Despite usually disagreeing with the new age ‘be the change’ type argument (think Hitler, he also tried to ‘be the change’), I think it is important to gauge one’s own action by one’s own capacities. If we are poor, we must start with our own subsistence, resilience and the well being of our kin. In a way, it is not very wise to pick a battle we can’t win on our own or with our tiny social capital. Until it grows it is best to save our energy.

If we are bourgeois, then a few more things might be there for us. Power and influence only corrupt if somewhere along the way that commitment is lost and turns into entitlement. There is nothing stopping a millionaire from living on minimum wage and putting their money where their politics is—except for their own distorted reality bubble where they are worth every penny. I make a higher than average salary, which puts me dead smack in the bourgeois category, but I take a chunk of it out and live with the rest. That money can go anywhere and be used for any kind of cooperative activity. But what do the leftists with money do? They keep their money as close to them as the capitalists they hate.

Beyond this simple analysis of the Bully in the Anglo world, as I’ve been diving deeper into martial arts and philosophy, I realised something about bullies, aggressors and violence in general. Allow me the eccentricity of making a classically styled argument against violence.

Are the aggressors stronger than their victims? Then they are cowards.

Are the aggressors weaker than their victims? Then they are foolish.

Are the aggressors on par with their victims? Then the result will amount to little more than luck.

None of these outcomes puts the aggressors in a good light.

If we idealise and glorify the strong that prey on the weak, we rig the very society we live in against us, not just because it is unlikely that we’ll ever be on the strong side (think having armies and endless resources), but also because we don’t all begin from the same starting position in life. Like playing monopoly where one player starts with 99% of the money and the others divide the rest—we don’t come into this world with equal challenges and privileges, and we certainly don’t choose to be the weaker party.

Isn’t it the greatest bravery of all to dare stand up and defend ourselves from those that oppress us, even if it might seem deluded at times? Isn’t it much more inspiring to defy these overwhelming forces—like flowers cracking concrete?

Small Flowers Crack Concrete by Sonic Youth on Grooveshark

family album for a whitewashed Neanderthal

Jenny Picking Cockles / The Earl's Chair by Michael McGoldrick on Grooveshark

Before anything else, a disclaimer. This article is profoundly unscientific—it is about something I noticed in how the media has portrayed the Neanderthal over the years, so I decided to dig it up. It expresses an entirely subjective interpretation of the media according to what I think is going on, a criticism if you will. It is basically cherry picking, so reader discretion is advised.

Images used were ripped at low resolution under fair use since this blog is non-commercial, if you’d like to file a claim please contact me and I will remove the image.

It is odd to live long enough to see a shift in how a whole species is perceived and understood. Not long ago my biology textbooks had dinosaurs as giant reptiles, whereas these days they show how closely related they are birds. Science progresses quickly, and that is a good thing. For what it’s worth, the work done by scientists isn’t being questioned here, nor is the tremendous talent involved in the reconstruction based on fossil remains. These are tough fields and a lot of work goes into them.

Popular representation of scientific facts, however, tell a different story. To showcase what I see as an incredible whitewashing of the Neanderthal, I decided to make a family album with depictions over the years. The big change, in my opinion, happened when in the late 90s genetic analysis of Neanderthal DNA showed that it was related to modern humans. This was only amplified by the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome and the consequent discovery that some people do in fact carry Neanderthal genes in them. What people? Europeans. And if there’s one thing Europeans like to do is try to demonstrate in every possible way that they are superior to everyone else.

But the Neanderthal story starts with the exact opposite. At first, it was considered a savage and less developed hominid that couldn’t compete and coexist with modern humans, and consequently went extinct. This idea basically said that modern humans were superior and Neanderthals inferior. It is no surprise, then, that in the late 19th century, the scientific articles tended to mirror just that. Consider the following depiction from 1888, and the text of a scientific article from 1890

(…) The same alternatives present themselves when Neanderthaloid characters appear in skulls of other races. If these characters belong to a stage in the development of the human species, antecedent to the differentiation of any of the existing races, we may expect to find them in the lowest of these races, all over the world, and in the early stages of all races. I have already referred to the remarkable similarity of the skulls of certain tribes of native Australians to the [328] Neanderthal skull; and I may add, that the wide differences in height between the skulls of different tribes of Australians afford a parallel to the differences in altitude between the skulls of the men of Spy and those of the grave rows of North Germany. (…)
From L. Huxley, Life and Letters, The Aryan Question and Pre-Historic Man (1890), Collected Essays VII, my emphasis.


All writing from this time must be taken with lots of scepticism, since it was common to legitimise genocide using anthropological justifications. In the quoted text, it is quite clear that the author is linking native Australians with the ‘lesser Neanderthal’. Duly noted, the author seems to do the same with other groups, such as the Frisians, so the racism seems to be just an expression of the time of writing. Nevertheless, the Neanderthal here is a lesser human, and the depiction clearly shows a person of color with rough features.

As time went on and the scientific knowledge grew, with discoveries of their complex rituals, art and bigger brains, the perception began to shift. But even in the 20th century, before the discovery of Neanderthal genetic information, the depictions remained. A brute that could not face the superiority of modern man fresh out of Africa armed with culture and technology. Jared Diamond’s theory that germs brought by modern humans being responsible for the extinction of Neanderthals mimics almost perfectly the European colonial spread of disease. Coincidentally, the colonisers are the modern man and the colonised are the Neanderthals. At this time, the idea that modern man and Neanderthal could be related was already brewing, but polemic. If the superior modern human had made Neanderthals go extinct, to admit that Europeans might be in any way related to this lesser kind of man was not a popular idea. It is no surprise, then, that the depictions remained savage and brutish, even against many scientific theories that were developing. For example, consider this write up about that period (1929-1994) from The Field Museum, Chicago

Many generations of adults remember coming to the Museum and being transported back to a time when people were living in caves. The first of two Neanderthal family dioramas was installed in 1929, in the Hall of Historical Geology which was located on the Museum’s 2nd floor. In 1933, the Hall of Prehistoric Man (located on the Museum’s Ground Floor) opened with a series of 8 prehistoric scenes. In the early 1970s, the Neanderthal figures were replaced with new ones made by Museum artist Joseph Krstolich. By 1994, the Hall of the Stone Age of the Old World exhibit had been dismantled because most were considered to be scientifically inaccurate. The Hall had included the Neanderthal Family diorama as well as dioramas depicting Mas d’Azil cave in France (also called Azillian Boar Hunt); Aurignacian Cave Art (Gargas cave, France); Chellean scene in northern France; Neolithic Sun Worship; Solutrean sculptor; Swiss Lake Dwellers; Cap Blanc Rock Shelter and the skeleton of Magdallenian girl.


The big breakthrough was when the first DNA testing revealed that there was Neanderthal genetic material in modern humans. In the early 2000s, evidence started mounting that there was genetic material in modern humans, but it wasn’t mtDNA, i.e., if there was a mix of modern humans and Neanderthals, it had been between a male Neanderthal and a female human. See, for example, the state of this research in the 2000s page of the Neanderthal museum. By now, the depictions were shifting, thanks to a better understanding of the Neanderthal’s environment and biology. Consider this other text, also from the 2000s page of neanderthal-modern.com:

Numerous genetic studies of DNA from living people also appear to support the “Out-of-Africa” theory. These studies reveal that the genetic differences between the far-flung peoples inhabiting the globe today are actually quite small. This indicates a relatively recent common ancestry. The studies also consistently show present-day Africans to be the most genetically divergent, and therefore the most ancient, branch of humanity. This points toward an African origin for modern humans. These studies have recently been enhanced by analyses of ancient DNA from actual Neanderthal remains. The scientists studying this DNA have reported that the Neanderthal DNA differs significantly from our own, which they see as support for the Out-of-Africa theory (see Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe web pages).


But the most dramatic shift happened in the 2010s when the Neanderthal genome was finally sequenced and the evidence was now clear: a vast group of Europeans was not only related to Neanderthals, but other branches of the human tree, such as the African lineages, weren’t. Here was clear, scientific evidence that coloured people and Europeans were biologically different, and that the Europeans had interbred with a hominid with a bigger brain. If your critical radar hasn’t gone off yet, it should be going off right now. Not only do these reconstructions look tremendously European, they also show finer features, lighter hair and blue eyes, a traditional European sign of nobility and pure lineage. Note that there is little evidence pointing either way as to where light eyes come from, but some are beginning to say Neanderthals could be the origin of blue eyes. Perhaps this quote from the New Yorker might make it even more obvious:

Of course, while the shape and proportions of the face are determined as objectively as possible, some characteristics, like the color of the eyes, the skin, and the hair, can only be approached with subjectivity. But even if decided without certainty, the color of the skin, for instance, will be chosen according to the environmental setting.


While it is obvious that the Neanderthal’s environment was very different from our own, most likely much colder, how valid is this depiction and skin colour, versus, say, one based on the look of indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic? Perhaps this is little more that an expression of the never ending human need for a definition of its own identity, as if our biology determined us somehow and we could attribute our qualities or shortcomings to external factors, instead of admitting mistakes as our own. Maybe it isn’t me after all—it’s this darned Neanderthal gene!

Consider the 2012 BBC programme How scientists recreated Neanderthal man, where the hosts confide:

— I still can’t get my head around the fact that this guy is in my ancestry, not that far back. What do you think John?
— Give me a break, you look like twins!


Never mind the fact that this reconstruction shows a fair skinned, light haired rugged looking young man with neatly arranged body hair and an out of bed look. I’m sure I’ve ran into a few of these “Neanderthals” at parties.


And this brings us to today, and what better example of today’s astrology-like fascination with genetic lineage than this episode of Meet the Izzards, Eddie Izzard: ‘I’m 2.8% Neanderthal’. Here we can see a discussion of what percentages each one of them might have of Neanderthal, with Izzard being in the top tier of Neanderthal heritage. What a journey! From under-evolved coloured man in the 19th century all the way up to famous rich blonde white English comedian, all in a bit more than 100 years.

And while the science continues to progress even further, it has already answered the questions we might have about these genetic percentages. From The Guardian:

So why do newspapers report these claims and why do TV and radio programme makers base documentaries on them? After all, there are plenty of experts who are engaged in scientifically cautious research on our genetic history and will point out their absurdity. One reason is that, being simple “just so” stories, they have a popular appeal that cannot be matched by the more rigorous population level testing of migration histories. The bias is always towards the story rather than the science.
Another possible reason is that “ancestry testing” is aimed at individuals, although in reality the statements made are sufficiently general that they could be true for a large number of people. This is reminiscent of the “Forer effect” in psychology – the observation that individuals will tend to believe descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. The same effect has been used to explain the popularity of horoscopes.
(…)
Perhaps it is harmless fun to speculate beyond the facts, armed with exciting new DNA technologies? Not really. It costs unwitting customers of the genetic ancestry industry a substantial amount of hard-earned cash, and it disillusions them about science and scientists when they learn the truth, which is almost always disappointing relative to the story they were told.


In other words, what the Neanderthal representation story tells us is how genetic information is basically replacing the older ideas of lineage and is being instrumentalised again by the ruling ethnicities of the world. The fantasies about a higher evolved human being continue and refuse to go extinct as they should. They are little more than a fantasy, say nothing about who we are, and instead reflect the constant need of Europeans to justify their oppressive role in the world. It seems the poor Neanderthal man has been turned into the modern day genetically backed equivalent of the Aryan race. And we all know what that leads to.

Some links. – More (great) reconstructionsNeanderthals in popular cultureHistory of the admixture theory

announcing ‘escotilha’, my first memoir about my hospitality exchange experience

Légua da póvoa by Dazkarieh on Grooveshark

escotilha-cover

This is a minor announcement of a pretty big thing. My book is finally out on its way to distribution. It is a memoir of my times at escotilha. I’m giving it away for free! Also added an icon to the sidebar.

Instead of writing yet another gigantic essay, this is enough for now, it’s time to share and enjoy the rush of letting go. Have you read it? Let me know your thoughts!