Very impressive. Surely Ted Chiang is a genius. I especially liked The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
What is the notion of the exosuit of brains? The writing was once the most bleeding edge exosuit for brains. What is the meaning of the transition to a more digital auto-organized brain? Would the human brain be able to function properly, when replaced by faultless digital archives? Ted answers:
Just as there's a feedback loop in softening harsh memories, there's also one at work in the romanticization of childhood memories, and disrupting that process will have consequences.
Part of me wanted to stop this, to protect children's ability to see the beginning of their lives filtered through gauze, to keep those origin stories from being replaced by cold, desaturated video. But maybe they will feel just as warmly about their lossless digital memories as I do about my imperfect, organic memories.
Forgiveness involves Forgetting
"Forgive and forget" goes the expression, and for our idealized magnanimous selves, that is all you needed. But for our actual selves, the relationship between those two actions isn't so straightforward. In most cases we have to forget a little bit before we can forgive; when we no longer experience the pain as fresh, the insult is easier to forgive, which in turn makes it less memorable, and so on. It's this psychological feedback loop that makes initially infuriating offenses seem pardonable in the mirror of hindsight.
Episodic Memories and Identity
Psychologists make a distinction between semantic memory— knowledge of general facts—and episodic memory, or recollection of personal experiences. We've been using technological supplements for semantic memory ever since the invention of writing: first books, then search engines. By contrast, we've historically resisted such aids when it comes to episodic memory; few people have ever kept as many diaries or photo albums as they did ordinary books. The obvious reason is convenience; if we wanted a book on the birds of North America, we could consult one that an ornithologist has written, but if we wanted a daily diary, we had to write it for ourselves. But I also wonder if another reason is that, subconsciously, we regarded our episodic memories as such an integral part of our identities that we were reluctant to externalize them, to relegate them to books on a shelf or files on a computer.
Right now each of us is a private oral culture. We rewrite our pasts to suit our needs and support the story we tell about ourselves. With our memories we are all guilty of a Whig interpretation of our personal histories, seeing our former selves as steps toward our glorious present selves.
Oral, Written, and Recorded Cultures
We don't normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.
Before a culture adopts the use of writing, when its knowledge is transmitted exclusively through oral means, it can very easily revise its history. It's not intentional, but it is inevitable; throughout the world, bards and griots have adapted their material to their audiences and thus gradually adjusted the past to suit the needs of the present. The idea that accounts of the past shouldn't change is a product of literate cultures' reverence for the written word. Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them, their histories don't need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community's understanding of itself. So it wouldn't be correct to say that their histories are unreliable; their histories do what they need to do.
It would be easy for me to assert that literate cultures are better off than oral ones, but my bias should be obvious, since I'm writing these words rather than speaking them to you. Instead I will say that it's easier for me to appreciate the benefits of literacy and harder to recognize everything it has cost us. Literacy encourages a culture to place more value on documentation and less on subjective experience, and overall I think the positives outweigh the negatives. Written records are vulnerable to every kind of error, and their interpretation is subject to change, but at least the words on the page remain fixed, and there is real merit in that.
When it comes to our individual memories, I live on the opposite side of the divide. As someone whose identity was built on organic memory, I'm threatened by the prospect of removing subjectivity from our recall of events. I used to think it could be valuable for individuals to tell stories about themselves, valuable in a way that it couldn't be for cultures, but I'm a product of my time, and times change. We can't prevent the adoption of digital memory any more than oral cultures could stop the arrival of literacy, so the best I can do is look for something positive in it.
And I think I've found the real benefit of digital memory. The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.
Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulations that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that—I hope—acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others.
The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
The Author's note at the end makes this more attractive. Kip Thorne explained the Time Machine in the real world will resemble a door instead of a vehicle.
Hassan realized that there was merit in withholding information as well as in disclosing it. "No," he said, "it was good that you did not warn me."
"Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity,"
Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.
Thorne described was more like a pair of doors, where anything that goes in or comes out of one door will come out or go into the other door a fixed period of time later... Even more interesting was the fact that Thorne had performed some mathematical analysis indicating that you couldn't change the past with this time machine, and that only a single, self-consistent timeline was possible.
But I have an even fainter hope: not only that those inhabitants use our universe as a reservoir, but that once they have emptied it of its air, they might one day be able to open a passage and actually enter our universe as explorers. They might wander our streets, see our frozen bodies, look through our possessions, and wonder about the lives we led. Which is why I have written this account. You, I hope, are one of those explorers. You, I hope, found these sheets of copper and deciphered the words engraved on their surfaces. And whether or not your brain is impelled by the air that once impelled mine, through the act of reading my words, the patterns that form your thoughts become an imitation of the patterns that once formed mine. And in that way I live again, through you.
I hope you are not saddened by that awareness. I hope that your expedition was more than a search for other universes to use as reservoirs. I hope that you were motivated by a desire for knowledge, a yearning to see what can arise from a universe's exhalation. Because even if a universe's life span is calculable, the variety of life that is generated within it is not. The buildings we have erected, the art and music and verse we have composed, the very lives we've led: none of them could have been predicted, because none of them was inevitable. Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.
We are simply engines that opens a pathway for increasing the total entropy of this universe.
The Lifecycles of Software Objects
How meaningful communication can we make with an intelligent creature we fully control? We seldom discuss the legal rights of an AI that supersede human capacity, but we never discuss slow-developing AIs.
He's thought about the argument Ana articulated, about the digients not being competent to accept Binary Desire's offer because of their lack of experience with romantic relationships and jobs. The argument makes sense if you think of the digients as being like human children. It also means that as long as they're confined to Data Earth, as long as their lives are so radically sheltered, they'll never become mature enough to make a decision of this magnitude.
But perhaps the standards for maturity for a digient shouldn't be as high as they are for a human; maybe Marco is as mature as he needs to be to make this decision. Marco seems entirely comfortable thinking of himself as a digient rather than a human. It's possible he doesn't fully appreciate the consequences of what he's suggesting, but Derek can't shake the feeling that Marco in fact understands his own nature better than Derek does. Marco and Polo aren't human, and maybe thinking of them as if they were is a mistake, forcing them to conform to his expectations instead of letting them be themselves. Is it more respectful to treat him like a human being, or to accept that he isn't one?
If we could identify trends in stone-knapping technique, we hoped to learn if knappers' expertise grew or waned in the first generations after creation, and from there draw deductions about what your intentions were regarding human knowledge, Lord. But that was based on the assumption that the primordial humans were the most direct expression of your will. If humanity's creation wasn't deliberate on your part, then whatever skills primordial humans possessed tell us nothing about your intentions. Their endowments would have been purely accidental.
That primordial clamshell that Wilhelmina keeps with her is indeed proof of something: not of God's plans for humanity, but of the existence of miracles. That border where the growth rings end marks the limit of physical law's explanatory power. And that is something we can take inspiration from.
I believe the primordial humans made a choice. They found themselves in a world full of possibilities but with no guidance as to what to do. They didn't do what we would have expected, which is to merely survive; instead, they sought to improve themselves so that they might become masters of their world.
But if it's in fact true that you have no purpose in mind for me, then that sense of fulfillment has arisen solely from within myself. What that demonstrates to me is that we as humans are capable of creating meaning for our own lives.
But our lives have often been difficult even when we believed there was a divine plan, and we've persevered. If we have only ever been on our own, then our successes in spite of that are proof of our capabilities.
This search is my purpose; not because you chose it for me, Lord, but because I chose it for myself.
Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
Silitonga had shown that the smallest change imaginable would eventually have global repercussions. For a hypothetical time traveler who wanted to prevent Hitler's rise to power, the minimal intervention wasn't smothering the baby Adolf in his crib; all that was needed was to travel back to a month before his conception and disturb an oxygen molecule. Not only would this replace Adolf with a sibling, it would replace everyone his age or younger. By 1920 that would have composed half of the world's population.
"We like the idea that there's always someone responsible for any given event, because that helps us make sense of the world. We like that so much that sometimes we blame ourselves, just so that there's someone to blame. But not everything is under our control, or even anyone's control."