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.