Localroger Appears on SpaceTimeMind…

Oh wow. A couple of philosophers, Pete Mandik and Richard Brown have formed a great website called SpaceTimeMind to discuss some of the big ideas of our time — or any time, really. They have devoted a page to Localroger.
Last week, the three of them sat down for a Google-plus hangout where Roger talked about a wide-ranging number of topics, including the writing of The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect
The ultimate plan from SpaceTimeMind is to create an edited podcast that people can listen to. I also plan to pull out a few key quotes when I have the opportunity. However, for the time being, feel free to take a look at the raw video currently posted at The SpaceTimeMind blog. I think a lot of you will get a kick out of it.

They also have their own YouTube channel. Check it out.

Roger Answers Some Fan Questions

Peachfront’s Note: Today, Roger is answering some questions sent in by a fan. If you want your question answered in the next round, let us know.

Question: What are your favorite movies and novels?

Roger: I have to admit liking a nice action or SF movie with impressive FX as much as the next guy, but in both movies and books I am most impressed by stories that ask hard questions and then don’t bother supplying a neat answer for you.

This applies to just about everything ever written by Philip K. Dick and most of the movies made from his books, but also to the stories of Alfred Bester and Fred Pohl. More recently there is just about everything by Iain M. Banks. I also like David Lynch’s “hard” movies like Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire because even though they seem to make no sense, they all turn out to contain a hidden narrative that does make sense, like the easter egg hidden in a video game. The hilariously low-budget movie Primer is a favorite for the way time travel folds its plot up into an impenetrable ball. Vanilla Sky asks hard questions about what simulation immortality might be like. The original Robocop and first two Terminator movies have surprisingly deep moments about the relationship between men and machines.

Do you think a machine like Prime Intellect will be able to come into existence one day?

This is a question with two very different answers depending on what you mean by “like.”

If you mean a machine that comfortably passes the Turing test and interacts naturally with us, perhaps with superhuman intelligence or other advantages, then I think it’s almost inevitable. It probably won’t be the work of a single brilliant programmer as portrayed in MOPI, because the problem is very large, but we do have prototype physical objects that exhibit these qualities — our own brains — and eventually, probably not too many decades in the future, we will have both sufficient computing power and improved understanding of the biological processes to simply do electronically what nature does with chemicals. And it might turn out to be a lot easier than that if our understanding of the algorithms underlying consciousness should make a leap.

If you mean a machine that can make itself into God as Prime Intellect does, that depends on things I simply don’t know about the actual Universe in which we live. I am more inclined to think of the Universe as a machine which could be taking shortcuts and allowing possible back doors than most scientists are, but in no sense would I for example claim to have faith that such things are possible. I am very unimpressed with the story that physicists seem to be settling on full of singularities, compactified extra dimensions, and still unresolvable discrepancies between the math that works at macro scale and the math that works at subatomic scale. But then, I am just a guy who likes computers and good stories, and the Universe could turn out to be neither.

What do you think death holds for us? Just like an unconscious state or another life?

The short answer is that being dead will be just like not having been born yet. That wasn’t so bad, was it?

Long answer #1 involves the possibility of being uploaded — of having your brain function emulated in a sufficiently perfect simulation that your memories, habits, and preferences are obvious and intact. There is a long standing debate (to long before such a thing was considered even remotely practical, in fact) as to whether such a thing is “you.” My personal take is that such a thing would, in fact, be “me,” and I”m confident enough about that that if I was dying and my only chance at survival was to be uploaded by microtoming my brain to provide the data for the simulator, I’d go for it. There is the difficult question of what would happen if such a thing could be made without destroying your original brain. I think in such a case both the copy and original would be “you,” in a very precise sense, but that the two “you” would quickly diverge into different new selves. We are really so invested in the idea of consciousness being singular and
un-copyable that we really don’t have good language to even deal with that situation.

Getting back to books and movies, two very impressive treatments of this idea are John Varley’s novel The Ophiuchi Hotline, which involves serial immortality through cloning and brain state recording/restoration, and the season 3 arc of the TV series Farscape, in which protagonist Crichton is “twinned” into two identical and completely human copies neither of which is the “original.”

Long answer #2 is that if the Universe is really inclined to allow back doors and exceptions, those could go much deeper than even portrayed in MOPI. I can envision a scheme by which the Universe continually seeks efficiency and compression, leading after millions of years to a state where consciousness itself is just something like an object in a C++ program. In such a case such objects might have only a loose association with the actual physical universe, and all sorts of situations normally associated with religion or fantasy might be justified. But again, I would not assert that the world works like that, because if it does it is also working very hard to pretend not to and proving it would be somewhere between difficult and impossible. I would only assert that it is not as impossible as some skeptical sorts tend to think.

The Road to Schenectady — Part 3

Peachfront’s Note: This is part of a series Roger is writing on how writers get their ideas, based on his own experiences. Here’s Part 1, and here’s Part 2. Today he’s going to talk about the role of community, especially the kuro5hin.org community, and how it encouraged him to create.

* * * * *

So far I’ve written mostly about the things I wrote for myself which happened to find a public audience because the site kuro5hin.org existed where they could be published, if not for money, then with an expectation of a wide audience if they survived the very democratic upvoting process.

Rusty Foster also published The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect on his servers outside of the usual kuro5hin voting process in response to strong community support for the idea. There was a period of time around 2002 when Rusty openly mused about having a “stable of writers” he would support outside of traditional publishing venues. There were at the time dozens of frequent kuro5hin contributors who might have been candidates for such a venture.

Of course, it was not to be.

What I have not written about much are the things I wrote only because kuro5hin existed as a likely outlet. All of the Passages stories except the first, The Happiness Broker and its sequel, the popular Plant essays and even the series that forged my reputation on kuro5hin, A Casino Odyssey were all written because kuro5hin existed.

I suppose it’s easy to say that makes me an egomaniac who only cares about being fluffed but from my end of the telescope it seems a lot more complicated.

Some of my stuff got a pretty hostile reception, like my libertarian-bashing sendup of Yet Another Effort and my musings on astrology and mysticism, but still I wrote up the next idea that seemed worthy.

I only stopped when one of the trolls created a votebot to make it impossible for even a popular and anticipated story to be legitimately voted up, denying me access to the front page.

I find writing easy but it’s still an extra effort to take a cool internal vision and turn it into something that holds up for another person who might not share my background or interests. So if it wasn’t to fluff my ego, why did I write for K5?

As with the very different compulsion to write MOPI I’m honestly not sure. It’s as if some ideas have a life of their own and aren’t content with living inside of my head. But like people they differ in their level of drive; MOPI wanted out no matter what but The Fifth Gift would have been content to stay a personal fantasy if I hadn’t been asked to write something “positive about transhumanism.”

I suspect I’m not the only one like this. Kuro5hin and its Scoop-based progeny seem to have brought a lot of people like me out of the woodwork.

Rusty Foster created kuro5hin.org and its software engine Scoop as a reaction to the unpleasantness of what was then the most popular tech blog on the Internet, Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda’s slashdot.org. The slashdot story submission process was believed to favor clique members and the not very well community-moderated comments were a cesspool of trolling and linkbait.

Scoop was Rusty’s answer to this situation; kuro5hin went live in late December 1999 and managed to draw off a healthy following of Slashdot refugees, eventually including myself. I made my grand entrance with A Casino Odyssey in July 2001.

In June 2002 Rusty launched a fundraiser which brought in over $37,000, and for awhile there was talk of expanding kuro5hin’s scope to create a nonprofit foundation to explore the possibilities of community edited media. It was in the wake of this that I published Passages and then MOPI there. But the foundation was never quite able to get its footing, kuro5hin stayed pretty much the same, and there was a sharp dropoff in story queue submissions after 2003.

Of course, kuro5hin was not the biggest success of Rusty Foster’s Scoop software, and his other successes probably helped doom kuro5hin by drawing his attention away from it. In October 2003 Markos Moulitsas decided to move his DailyKos blog from Movable Type to Scoop.

“Kos” didn’t enable the story voting feature that had attracted me to kuro5hin, but he did leave in place — while openly wondering if it would serve any useful purpose — the Scoop “diary” feature that allowed users to post unmoderated stories that appeared on a sidebar.

The diary feature turned out to be wildly popular, with many vibrant sub-communities forming around popular writers and meeting in the comment sections of their diaries. DailyKos went from being the most popular Democratic political blog to being the “largest progressive community blog in the United States” with an estimated 2.5 million unique viewers a month.

Other Democratic politicians took note, and when I made my way to Maine and met Rusty in person in 2008 his main source of income turned out to be consulting on Scoop blogs for Democratic political candidates. This involved a lot of travel and apparently not much time for administering kuro5hin.

Some writers whose stars like mine had flared on kuro5hin now migrated to a scoop site set up by k5 member “Hulver.” But HUSI never attracted the wide readership or incredibly high Google pagerank that kuro5hin had enjoyed.

(Amazingly, kuro5hin has incredibly high pagerank even today despite being little more than a hollow shell of its former self for more than half a decade, a phenomenon nobody seems to be able to explain.)

Others migrated to sites like Everything2 or Wikipedia, or just dropped off the face of the Internet as far as anyone could tell.

Sam “zenofchai” Montgomery-Blinn started a science fiction magazine, Bull Spec, which bought the reprint rights to publish my story Mortal Passage in print form.

In my own Internet travels I have never found a home comparable to kuro5hin that inspired that urge to write down and refine what might otherwise have been idle fantasies. I have noticed that being a popular writer on a big site like DailyKos is pretty much a full-time job, one I don’t have time for since I have a real full-time job.

Places with low barriers to entry also tend to have low readership and participation. The new trend toward “social media” like Facebook has filled the Inter-ether with hucksters intent on gaming the search engines and ranking algorithms, a game that interests me not at all.

While I wrote a lot of stuff because kuro5hin existed as a place to put it, in a sense I still wrote it all for myself.

If I wanted to game a system, I would have made a very different decision in 1994 when I cranked up Bank Street Writer and asked myself how I wanted to record the vision with which I’d awakened of a depraved future where immortality was creating a new and profound type of insanity. Should I write it for the editors, I wondered, bowdlerizing and over-explaining it to make it publishable, or write it as my heart wanted to in all its terrible splendor?

I wrote that first chapter of MOPI, and everything since, the way I would have wanted to read it myself. The fact that others have liked any of it has been nice. In some cases some of the criticism has given me pause to think and humbled me a bit. But it would not be a localroger joint if I dolled it up to make it look profitable for the suits or jacked it with buzzwords and shout-outs to enhance its SEO.

* * * * *

The Road to Schenectady – Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of Roger’s extended meditation on where his ideas for The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect and the “Passages” stories came from. Read Part 1 right here.

* * * * *
Once Kuro5hin had truly crashed and burned, I took the opportunity to do a little audit of what I’d written. One thing that stuck out was that all of my fiction, and even a pretty good part of my nonfiction, was about the relationship between humans and godlike beings.

In fiction, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect of course remains the ultimate Rapture of the Nerds representation of the Hard Takeoff Technological Singularity, where humans create God not just metaphorically, but for real. In Passages and The Happiness Broker I wrote about humans who become gods. In The Fifth Gift I wrote about humans meeting actual benevolent gods.

In nonfiction, I gave the Roman Catholic Church the benefit of certain doubts while examining its motivations. I did a couple of pieces on New Agey topics about reality and even astrology.

As Peachfront noted in her introduction to this blog, I tend toward “big ideas,” partly because I don’t have much time to write so I only work myself up when I have a good reason. But I hadn’t realized until this little post-K5 review that this particular big idea was such a hobby horse of mine. There it was, again and again, mortals and gods circling warily.

This wasn’t any kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy either. Most of my godlike characters find the experience of being a god to be at best a pain in the ass. Yet my hobby horse doesn’t seem to be any kind of self-consoling ode to the wonderfulness of mortality either; Bringer Tom has a huge future full of accomplishment and well-earned pride. It is neither the gods nor the mortals but the dynamic between them that seems to fire my imagination.

I was raised by devout Southern Baptist Christians and taught early that there was a stark binary afterlife for which I must prepare, a fate whose duration would dwarf the eyeblink of my mortal life but whose character would be irreparably set by what I do in these few mortal decades. I was promised an eternity, but whether torture or delight would depend on how I comport myself here in the World of Form. Like most children I was credulous enough to sincerely believe in this well into my teens.

But when I was twelve my parents enrolled me in a Catholic secondary school. This isn’t all that unusual in New Orleans, a city founded by Catholics, because the Catholic schools have a well-earned reputation for giving the best secular education. The school promised my parents that I wouldn’t be required to participate in any Catholic rituals, and they kept that promise. But they did require me to learn the basic tenets of Catholic faith, as part of a non-ritual religion class, as well as the basic tenets of other religions like Buddhism and Islam. I was unable to resist the conclusion that the God I had been taught to venerate was not in fact some ultimate god-creator with no rival, but just one god in an ocean of godlike beliefs and human experiences, and in many ways one of the less interesting ones.

I finally admitted to myself that my protestant Christian faith, that thing which I’d been promised would guarantee me an eternity of bliss, was toast when I was 15.

And like most converts I bounced hard in the opposite direction. You don’t say it too loudly in the deep South or to parents who still tithe to their Church but I quickly came to believe that religion was nothing at all but a set of con jobs and exploits directed against universal human weakness and directed toward concentrating power in the hands of men no more godly  than Al Capone.

sirius, the brightest star

Sirius and friends. © by Elaine Radford

This is pretty much where I was in 1982 when I had the seminal idea for The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect And that’s one reason I couldn’t write a story about the idea.

In the 1980s, Peachfront and I developed an interest in gemstones, which in that day for good commercial reasons meant developing an interest in what was then called the “New Age” too. One of the books we browsed made a curious challenge; it said that whether you believed in the technique or not, you had no cause to critique it unless you gave it an honest try. It’s an interesting thing about New Age magic systems that they do not require faith or belief; they just require that you do the ritual. So we took a couple of these dares.

The results were extraordinary.

Now, this does not mean that either of us gave in to the idea that the universe is made of woo instead of atoms; indeed, the very same text that made the dare warned that skepticism was necessary and that the forces one might contact and use could also use you if you were too credulous. Where in Christianity do you see anything like THAT? So experiments were done, with a lot more care than most people bother with (hey my Dad was a physics professor) but OK I’m also not a lab capable of doing a proper double-blind study. Still, I came away with the understanding that I might not know everything after all. By 1990 I’d formulated a statement I still make when the topic comes up:

“I believe in all this shit on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I know it’s all crap, and on the weekends I’m agnostic.”

Pagan gods are very unlike the Christian God though; they are multifarious and limited and often challenged. The existence of such gods would suggest that the Universe is a very different thing than it appears to be, not a billiard table full of tiny inflexible actors but something more like a computer with rules that could be very firm, but also bypassed or hacked under the right circumstances. I do not find this possibility very pleasant, but my own experience requires that I at least give it serious consideration and in that regard I do find it fascinating.

Tim Leary hugged this 80 lb quartz crystal.  © by Elaine Radford

Tim Leary hugged this 80 lb quartz crystal. © by Elaine Radford

As unpleasant as the idea is that the Universe is a malware-ridden computer populated by beings that aren’t part of the design, the alternative seems even worse — that humans have a universal and pervasive perceptual defect that makes us think these fairy tales are real. Honestly, the latter possibility is very likely; my casino experiences showed me how poorly humans manage things like randomness and the mirage of “luck.” But I like to think I am smart enough to have corrected for that, and I’m still left with anomalies.

So this possible universe that has gods working behind its apparently clockwork scenes is a thing I have to treat seriously, even if I don’t “believe” in it. And that situation is … interesting. Maybe the Christian God isn’t so interesting but gods who have to exercise their power while sneaking around, careful not to alert the gods+1 of their activities — that is the stuff stories can be made of.

Similarly, the pure Rapture of the Nerds isn’t much of a story, as I realized during the 1980’s. But understand that the ending is madness and suddenly there is a story.

Meanwhile there are little stories about romance and action and stuff which seem very small compared to the other ideas I like to entertain. I did once write a romance story, though; but being me, the romance was instigated by a god, who being a god watched the rest of the action play out without much worry about the mortality of the actor he’d drafted into the story. That’s kind of the way gods seem to roll.

And while part of me wants the power of godhood, I’m not sure I’m enough of an asshole to assume the responsibility.

* * * * *

The Road to Schenectady: Part 1

My darling wife has done a nice job of kicking off this blog with a spoiler-free overview of how I got and developed the idea for The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect After reading that I thought it might be fun to take a longer-range view of my own motivations.

Most of the stories and essays I’ve written were produced between 2001 and 2007 because the site kuro5hin.org existed. K5 offered a low barrier to entry because anyone with a free account could submit an article to the “queue,” where the other free account holders would vote on it; stories that passed this test were published, either on the front page or to a less prominent section category. At its peak K5 had dozens of truly talented contributors and thousands of regular readers, and it was quite an honor to regularly make the front page.

Before K5, I wrote exactly two stories for my own pleasure, expecting neither to ever find publication. One of those, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, had its genesis in 1982 when a fellow student lectured me on the necessity of constant exponential growth for life to exist at all, a statement so stupid in its ignorant short-sightedness that it demanded a reduction to absurdity. At the age of 18 I could see how, if everything went just right, technology might ride an exponential curve to such an extent that any of us might be able to touch any part of the entire universe instantaneously.

the metamorphosis of prime intellect -- where the idea came from

star sketch by elaine radford

But I couldn’t see what happened next; I couldn’t see how to illustrate the hazard that must somehow interrupt this glorious flowering. It wasn’t until 1994, at the age of 30, that I was able to see the hazard that made it possible to tell a story, a danger not technological but human. Because in that interval I’d seen enough examples to realize that, as Colin Wilson once wrote, the surest way to drive a human being mad is to put him in a situation where he can have anything he wants without effort or cost. The Roman emperors taught us that the Singularity would end in madness if it did not end in extinction.

That morning in 1994 I sat down at the computer and faced the question of whether to report my awkward and twisted vision in its entire glory or bowdlerize it to try to make it publishable. Realizing that I might never have such a vision again I decided to report it in all its ghastly splendor. While no publisher has been willing to touch it the reception it has received in the last ten years has told me that I made the correct choice.

The other thing I wrote without consideration of an audience was Passages in the Void. I’d just read the fascinating and persuasive book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe which argued that an extraordinary series of coincidences had been necessary for the Earth to be stable enough to support the evolution of complex life forms like reptiles and mammals. Shortly after I read a review which claimed that, if this was true, it was “the end of science fiction.” Passages was a demonstration project of SF set in such a universe.

This natural contrarianism doesn’t just affect my writing. Years ago I did one of those exercises to determine what “trigger word” motivates me, and I realized that in my case the irresistible motivator was “impossible.” The surest way to get me to throw all my effort behind a problem is to tell me it can’t be solved. You say I can’t make this microcontroller run that machine? Just watch me. Of course some things really are impossible, and it’s important to be aware of that, but it’s amazing how many things are universally thought to be impossible until someone like me refuses to get the memo.

During the kuro5hin era I had a strong motivation to turn ideas into essays. One of the early ones was the story of our casino adventure, A Casino Odyssey, which turned out to be one of kuro5hin’s most popular articles. After I published first Passages, then by request MOPI, the taunt that I couldn’t possibly surpass Passages turned one story into four. Along the way I related observations from work, from philosophy, from our youthful experiments with what was then called the “New Age,” and various random ideas. Not everything I wrote was for the ages; I was sometimes a bit too quick to hit the Submit button. But much of that work was praised, and I’m very proud of it.

Alas, the K5 era came to an abrupt halt in 2007; the site had been in decline as the social experiment it represented began to fail. The best writers and most enthusiastic readers, commenters, and voters drifted off under an onslaught of harassment which the auto-moderation system could not hold back.

Revelation Passage was an attempt to get myself back in the habit of writing, but after the first of five parts posted one of the trolls created a robot to vote down anything else I submitted faster than the real members could possibly vote it up. Nobody could find a moderator and I ended up putting the story online myself. Without an obvious outlet, I lost the habit of turning my ideas into essays and stories.

I did always intend to finish the sequel to MOPI which I promised in 2002; that effort was stalled by the Tropical Storm Bill Tree Fall of 2003, then by Katrina, then by the demise of kuro5hin, and since then by sheer distance and inertia. It’s always easier to do something else with more promise of immediate results.

My wife created this blog for me as a present for my 49th birthday, a total surprise which I know involved a lot of effort and learning on her part. Her plan for this place is to do some actual promotion, something I never had much heart for myself, to bring my best writing to new readers. But I also know she knows me, and she knows the lure that a comfortable place with a blank form and a Submit button holds for me.

I’m years out of the game. Revelation Passage was supposed to be the warmup to finishing the novel sequel. I’ve totally lost the spark. Couldn’t possibly do a project like that now.

It’s obviously impossible.

* * * * *

Where ideas come from — a look at the origins of MOPI

Where do ideas come from? Harlan Ellison used to be famous for the unhelpful answer, “Schenectady,” but Roger has often gone out of the way to give credit to his mysterious muse. The trouble is that most of these essays and brief comments include a “spoiler warning.”

On this site, we’ll give you a little taste of what sparked the stories. However, we strongly urge you not to hit any links that lead to a deeper discussion until after you’ve already read the story in question. Today, we’re going to look at the granddaddy of them all…

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect was, Roger writes, “inspired by an annoying exchange I had with a classmate [in 1982] who insisted that civilization, technology, and even life itself could not exist without constant exponential growth.” Roger chose to point out how ridiculous the idea was by making some back of the envelope calculations which suggested that, “in a couple of thousand years we would have virtually instant access to every bit of information in the observable Universe.” The more he looked at the graph, the more science fictional our future looked.

Still, where is the potential for plot and conflict if, as David Byrne and Jerry Harrison said, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens?”

“I lost the outline but I thought of Prime Intellect every once in awhile, and the exponential curve that led to personal godhood….”

Meanwhile, while we were waiting for the Rapture of the Nerds (a phrase that didn’t exist at the time), we got involved in more traditional methods of chasing personal godhood. Why not? Do you refuse to drive a car because one day they’ll have jetpacks on Mars? In the late 80s and early 90s, we explored some really out-there woo, including crystal power, shamanism, and the language of dreams.

Hell, Timothy Leary even hugged our 80 pound Arkansas quartz crystal that we’d trucked down from the Hot Springs area.

Although Roger rarely remembers dreams, he must have tapped into a magic pipeline, because one day he woke up with “a vision of such depravity and corruption that I had been unable to imagine it into existence in my idealistic youth…” That was the notorious Chapter One.

Roger has written much more about the origin of The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect in the long essay hosted on his web page called How It Came To Be Written, but don’t forget that spoiler warning. If you haven’t yet read MOPI and you want to, read the novel first.

Then feel free to come back and delve deeper into the inspiration behind the story.