Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Why We Need YOUR Help to #SaveTheInternet

Did the image above give you a little bit of a dystopic shiver? It should. This Thursday, December 14, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai plans to roll back the Obama-era Title II regulations governing net neutrality.

We can't let that happen.

You've no doubt heard the words "net neutrality" a lot in recent months (including on this blog), but maybe you still feel like you don't quite get it. That's okay. Here's what you need to know:

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Chatbots and the Re-Ordering of the Polis

This past weekend, at the Society for Existentialism and Phenomenology conference, I heard a really fascinating panel dedicated to "The Promises of Polytheism" and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. Now, as a rule, I'm not all that interested in theism(s) of the sort that most people would recognize, but I am very interested in the contemporary order of thinking, evaluating, and making where most of today's quasi-gods are manufactured and where those contested deities reside-- namely, technology.  So, fair warning, what follows is at best only tangentially related to the actual substance of the panelists' papers.

The three panelists-- Ammon Allred (University of Toledo), Michael Norton (University of Arkansas-Little Rock), and Adriel Trott (Wabash College)--  had each taken Jan Asman's 2003 text The Price of Monotheism as a common point of departure for thinking about aesthetics (Allred), the intellectual and discursive "ecology" of religions and the sciences (Norton), and politics (Trott). They were all fantastic papers-- I recommend you contact the authors and ask for copies!-- but Trott's, in particular, really generated a lot of interesting questions for me relative to my own current research (in future technologies, artificial intelligence, big data, social media, and their sociopolitical effects on "human" life and thinking).

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Why I Invited Students To Give Me The Finger This Semester

Full disclosure: The title of this post is clickbait. I haven't actually invited students to flip me the bird this semester.

What I have done, however, is invite students to give me some kind of silent and subtle indication-- we agreed on a flick of their pen or a slighttly-raised finger-- whenever I use a word that they don't know or when I use a word they do know in an unfamiliar way.

Now, when I see one of these signals, I stop and explain the term. I do not call the questioner out. I do not explain the term to him or her directly. I do not resume the lecture or discussion until everyone in the room is crystal clear. This experiment has been unbelievably useful and, only a month into the semester, really surprising in several ways.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

SPEP Guide to Memphis

Pictured: Chic Jones, legendary Beale Street singer
The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) will be holding its annual meeting in Memphis this year on October 19-21. As a native Memphian, I'm excited to share my city (the 901) with all of you who will be attending. There are so many hidden gems in this city, and so many false gems, so I thought I'd offer up a little expert advice. What follows is your go-to guide for where to stay, what to eat, where to hear great music, what to see, how to take care of your kids/pets, and a miscellaneous list of pro-tips from yours truly.

Feel free to use the comments section to ask any specific questions you may have. There's a 99% chance I can answer them.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Net Neutrality: America's "Other" Health Crisis

It seems like everyone who is talking about net neutrality today worries that we're not talking enough about net neutrality. They're right. So, allow me to add mine to the choir of voices warning about Federal Communications Commission Chairman (and former Verizon lawyer) Ajit Pai's plan to dismantle the free and open flow of digital information by, in his own words, "taking a weed whacker to current net neutrality rules."

Back in 2015, which seems eons ago now, proponents of equal access to an Open Internet won a historic victory when the FCC reclassified the Internet as a public utility. What that means for you and I is that big phone and cable companies (and their lobbyists) were subject to federal oversight and regulation with regard to how they did business. If anyone reading this now is a member of the Greatest Generation, first, bravo! and, second, this should sound familiar, as the FCC's net neutrality rules are more or less a reapplication of the depression-era Title II rule intended to regulate the AT&T/Ma Bell monopoly. Title II prevents Internet Service Providers (ISP's) from stratifying our access to information by creating "fast" and "slow" lanes through paid prioritization.

If you still don't quite get all the ins and outs of how net neutrality works, I recommend taking a look at John Oliver's excellent summary. (It's about 20 minutes.) In what follows, I won't explain it in any more detail. I'm more interested in convincing you that denial of free and equal access to the internet is as much of a "health" crisis for our nation as the denial of free and equal access to medical care is.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

ISO Philosophical Moonshiners

What if academic Philosophy really invested in making itself understood to the general public?

Over the last few years, I've seen the emergence of a number of initiatives aimed at cultivating what is now called "public philosophy." The discipline of Philosophy's largest professional organization constituted a committee dedicated to it (the APA Committee on Public Philosophy). There's also now the Public Philosophy Network, which organizes conferences showcasing and discussing it. An award has been established for those who excel at it (The Marc Sanders Award for Public Philosophy). There's even a (sort-of) journal for it, the Public Philosophy Journal. All of these seem to be loosely committed to some broad idea of "public philosophy"-- its practice, its cultivation, its uptake, its development and legitimization-- but there doesn't appear to be a common sense of what each of them takes to be "public philosophy," what problem "public philosophy" is meant to address or ameliorate, how "public philosophy" is done, or done well.

If we tried to identify some common argument for public philosophy running through the several public-philosophy-related initiatives floating around these days-- and that's harder than you think-- it might go something like this:
  1. The professional, academic work of researchers in Philosophy can (ought to?) make real contributions to so-called "real world" problems, conversations, ideas, etc.. 
  2. Because of the abstract, sometimes esoteric,sometimes technical nature of professional, academic research in Philosophy-- or, less generously, because of the poor writing style and/or intentionally inside-baseball disposition of its authors--much of the work produced by professional philosophers is inaccessible/unintelligible to the general public. 
  3. ERGO, there is a mutually-beneficial value to be found in diminishing the gap between professional philosophical research and the public's understanding of it.
Here's the problem: I suspect Philosophy got its cart before its horse a bit with this recent commitment to "public philosophy." There's a sort of presumption that "we all know what we mean by public philosophy," but when you get down to parsing the various mission statements of projects and initiatives like the ones I linked above, it is somewhat difficult to see exactly how they are related to one another. In fact, it becomes very quickly apparent that their efforts, separately, more or less undermine what could be accomplished by the combination of their efforts.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Six Powerful Men and One Busy Child: A Thought Experiment

In the first chapter of James Barrat's forebodingly entitled Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, he imagines what might happen once we cross the threshold from garden-variety artificial intelligences like we have today (i.e., self-driving cars, speech-recognition software, chess- and Go-playing machines) to artificial general intelligence (AGI), where machines could successfully perform any intellectual task that a human being can. Barrat calls his developing intelligence "the Busy Child." It's operating on a supercomputer at a speed of 38.6 petaflops, about twice the speed of a human brain. The Busy Child isn't connected to the Internet at first but, once it achieves AGI, Barrat speculates that it will begin to express a drive to not only preserve itself, complete its tasks, and maximize its capabilities, but also to free itself from its "captors." In a super-effective anthropomorphic analogy, Barrat asks his readers to imagine waking up in a prison guarded by mice-- "not just any mice, but mice you can communicate with"-- and he speculates that it isn't difficult to imagine the sorts of strategies an intelligent being might employ to emancipate itself. Barrat's "The Busy Child" is one of the most frightening 12 pages you'll ever read. You can read that chapter here, if you dare.

Spoiler alert: Barrat's Busy Child gets free. It does so by managing to garner the trust of its guards who, alas, eventually "plug it in" to the Internet, thus giving the Busy Child immediate and unrestricted access to the whole of human knowledge. (Yes, including Roko's  Basilisk.) Within minutes, the Busy Child has evolved from AGI to ASI (artificial superintelligence). Things do not end well for "us" in Barrat's thought experiment. Recall that the subtitle to his book is, after all, "the end of the human era."

I'd like to float another thought-experiment, something like a spin-off of The Busy Child. I'll also say here at the beginning that my riff could very easily be mistaken for a conspiracy theory. It isn't a conspiracy theory. I don't intend it to be read as a conspiracy theory. I know it's not real. I mean, I sort of "know" that. Maybe. Or.... nevermind.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Ten Things I Learned In My First Decade of Teaching

I only just recently realized that I'll be completing my 10th year teaching in higher education at the end of this semester (not counting my time teaching or TA'ing in grad school).


In many ways, it feels like the last decade has flown by. There are days when I look out upon students' faces and wonder who died and put me in a charge of the future? I still haven't quite figured out how to get the me-who-writes-the-syllabus to act with more generosity toward the me-who-executes-the-syllabus. I still have imposter syndrome. And grading a stack of papers hasn't gotten one whit easier (or faster).

On other other hand, there are many days that I'm aware of how much more comfortable I am in the classroom than when I began. I'm more confident about my expertise now. I can anticipate students' questions and problems more readily. I've can give my lectures on all the major figures of Philosophy more or less from memory, without notes. I doubt myself less, question myself less. I've seen former students graduate, go on to grad school, defend their dissertations, and get jobs. (That's really the weirdest thing, I think, watching the transition from "student" to "colleague.") And, most importantly, I've built up a pretty impressive stockpile of my own anecdotes and examples that I know are golden.

It seems like this is as good a time as any for a retrospective look at what I've learned in my first ten years at the helm of this last remaining sacred space in our so-called democracy. So here are my takeaways, in no particular order.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Uncanny Vulnerability: On the Creepiness of "Hi, Stranger"

In the last couple of weeks, Kirsten Lepore's brilliant claymation short "Hi, Stranger" has taken the internet by storm.  It features a nameless, gelatinous, nude, humanoid protagonist (pictured left) with a soothing, gender-ambiguous voice who engages in a spontaneous, quasi-therapeutic, and strangely intimate conversation directly with you, the viewer. Reactions to Lepore's short have been mixed-- some find it comforting, some find it repulsive, many find it both of those-- but almost everyone seems to find "Hi, Stranger" a little creepy.

It's almost maddeningly difficult to describe to someone who hasn't seen it yet what makes "Hi, Stranger" so compelling. (H. Perry Horton captured that difficulty best in the title to his piece: "I Don't Know WTF This Is But I Love and Fear It.") There isn't a plot or even a narrative arc to speak of and, since viewers' reactions to Lepore's short are neither uniform nor universal, it isn't even possible to manufacture a spoiler alert for it. Watching "Hi, Stranger" is an experience, a curious and unsettling and comforting and very, very strange experience. Once you see it, you want others to see it as well, in part because you want to them to have that experience, but also (let's admit it) because you're looking for some confirmation that your experience wasn't that strange.

Friday, March 31, 2017

RMWMTMBM Re-Launch (and an Encouraging Anecdote for Frustrated Scholars)

Oh, hey there, strangers!

It's been a minute-- and by "a minute" I mean more than three months-- since I showed my (digital) self 'round these parts, so I figured an explanation for my ghosting is long past overdue.

The nunya story is that I've spent the last several weeks/months being more or less held hostage by doctors and nurses trying to figure out why I was feeling awful despite being, in almost every other respect, quite fine. We finally figured it out and have a plan to reduce (tho, alas, not eliminate) the number of awful days, so that's some good news. But the really good news is that (a) I'M NOT DEAD YET, (b) I've actually been hard at work on new and interesting projects in the interim, and (c) I missed this old space of mine a terrible lot, So, I'm back.

You may have noticed some dramatic changes to the design of this site. That's on purpose. Hope you like it. No need to tell me if you don't.

One enormous error I made in 2016 on this blog was using it as a site to announce what were, in retrospect and in truth, "aspirational" projects. (See: my as-yet-unrealized podcast, my as-yet-uncompleted Black Mirror series, my prematurely-aborted 30 Days of Music posts, et allllllll.) No more of that. I've had this blog since 2006 and I don't need to promise anything anymore. If you're still here, thank you. If you just happened by here, welcome to the fold.  It's always been a modest enterprise.

I'm going to try to post something at least once a week going forward, most likely on Tuesdays. It may be brief (very brief) and it may also be long (very long). For the next few months, I'll be making an effort to relax my arbitrary and self-imposed restrictions on what counts as a "worthy" blogpost and just give this space some room to breathe.

Like, really breeeeeaaaatttthhhe.

Here's the deal, over the past six months or so, I've found myself deeply and maddeningly occupied with (and deeply and maddeningly resentful about) a number of personal, familial, and medical issues in my life... but, at the same time, somewhat serendipitously invested in a "new" research project. I put "new" in scare-quotes because I think this project has been a long time coming. Maybe it got my concentrated attention of late only as a way of avoiding other things, but it's more or less been manifest in the things I've been reading/writing/thinking/teaching for the last several years. I just hadn't quite found a comfortable seat in that intellectual space until very recently.

Almost exactly six weeks ago now, I found myself overwhelmed/frustrated with trying and trying and failing to finish an journal article on the uncanny valley (something I've written about several times on this blog). I had roughly 9K words of the article I was working on, and the more I tried to edit it down to a reasonable "journal" length, the more I kept adding words, paragraphs, pages to the raw file. 9k words became 15k words, then 28K words, and it just kept growing from there. At some point-- somewhere around 40K in my case-- I came to the realization that any reasonable person has got to stop and reevaluate what the hell she's doing at some point.

I was neck-deep in literature on not only the uncanny valley, but also social media, information ethics, artificial intelligence, metadata, machine learning, robotics, the "singularity," the "post/transhuman," and a whole host of natural- and social-scientific literature accompanying those topics. And then, again serendipitously, I read James Barrat's Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era.

I share the following story only to encourage any of you out there who are frustrated with working on a project that seems to be going nowhere,

Barrat's book is a very good one and I recommend it to those unfamiliar with what's going on in the fields of future technologies and, in particular, artificial intelligence.  Nevertheless, I found myself about halfway through the text saying to myself "yeah, but..." over and over and over again. I was familiar with all of Barrat's references and the arguments that he was forwarding or undermining. Unlike my experience 5 or 6 years ago, when I first began seriously researching and thinking about future technologies, I wasn't thinking "oh, wow, that's cool" or "who'da ever imagined that was a real thing?" as I read Barrat's book. Slowly but surely, I realized, much to my surprise and delight, that I was no longer a member of the "public audience" to which this text was pitched. Rather, I was an expert on these matters now.

I've done the research, the hours upon hours of library time, the humbling and difficult work of learning terminologies and methodologies outside of my discipline, the countless mornings and afternoons and evenings dedicated to just thinking long and hard and seriously about these things. Soooooo much teaching on these topics. Teaching is the best avenue to really learning something, as any teacher will tell you.

And now I have some things of my own to say.  So, for the time being, I've put aside trying to edit the work I have down to"journal article" length, and I'm just writing, and writing, and writing, and accumulating words like manna from heaven.

It's a good place to be.