Friday, March 25, 2016
Ian M. Banks Culture, and the Avoidance of Uselessness
I had forgotten just how sad the first book in the Culture series was. What seems to start as an adventure of a nominal enemy of the Culture; a changer come to be assigned to recover a General Service Vessel ship mind for the Idirans (a huge, three legged warrior race), turns into a heart rendering waste of lives. The Culture agent involved to foil the theft prevails but only barely on the tragic stupidity of the changer, the pirate crew he latches on to by chance, and the extreme zealotry of the Idirans. A prelude, in fact, to the inevitability of warriors losing to what seem like hedonistic dilettantes as far as war fighting goes.
The result was inevitable because, even though the Culture was not directly threatened by the Idiran march of religious conquest, it could not stand by and do nothing. And the reason for that was because "doing good works" was all the society had left to give it purpose, with everything else being provided in abundance by super automation. As the Culture half of the ending "appendices" in the book explains:
"...For all the Culture’s profoundly materialist and utilitarian outlook, the fact that Idir had no designs on any physical part of the Culture itself was irrelevant. Indirectly, but definitely and mortally, the Culture was threatened… not with conquest, or loss of life, craft, resource or territory, but with something more important: the loss of its purpose and that clarity of conscience; the destruction of its spirit; the surrender of its soul.
Despite all appearances to the contrary, the Culture, not the Idirans, had to fight, and in that necessity of desperation eventually gathered a strength which—even if any real doubt had been entertained
as to the eventual result—could brook no compromise..."
So a part of what we may have here is s cautionary tale about what the limits of automation ought to be. It is, I think, part and parcel of an axiom of mine: "Woe be to those who become too separated from that which sustains them." Which is both to say that A: lose connection to truly understanding, and participating, in what keeps you going places you at risk of either catastrophic failure, or equally bad manipulation by agencies that have no concern at all about what is in your best interest; and B: If you are not fully connected any longer in any aspect of what has always been our main challenge to growth, what are you really for at all; aside, of course, from merely taking up space and consuming various things and distractions"
There is something else, however, in this book that needs observation and consideration. You see the first outlines of it when Mr. Banks gives us a description of the processing power of a ship mind:
"...The Mind had an image to illustrate its information capacity. It liked to imagine the contents of its memory store written out on cards; little slips of paper with tiny writing on them, big enough for a human to read. If the characters were a couple of millimeters tall and the paper about ten centimeters square and written on both sides, then ten thousand characters could be squeezed onto each card. In a meter long drawer of such cards maybe one thousand of them—ten million pieces of information—could be stored. In a small room a few meters square, with a corridor in the middle just wide enough to pull a tray out into, you could keep perhaps a thousand trays arranged in close-packed cabinets: ten billion characters in all.
A square kilometer of these cramped cells might contain as many as one hundred thousand rooms; a thousand such floors would produce a building two thousand meters tall with a hundred million rooms. If you kept building those squat towers, squeezed hard up against each other until they entirely covered the surface of a largish standard-G world—maybe a billion square kilometers—you would have a planet with one trillion square kilometers of floor space, one hundred quadrillion paper-stuffed rooms, thirty light-years of corridors and a number of potential stored characters sufficiently large to boggle just about anybody’s mind.
In base 10 that number would be a 1 followed by twenty-seven zeros, and even that vast figure was only a fraction of the capacity of the Mind. To match it you would need a thousand such worlds; systems of them, a clusterful of information-packed globes… and that vast capacity was physically contained within a space smaller than a single one of those tiny rooms, inside the Mind…"
This is interesting to me because it illustrates a particular bias towards what is involved with intelligence. In this bias it is always the greater capacity of not only items that can be stored, but the sheer speed with which the items can be compared, collated and given relational significance; all aspects of intelligence just as logic, and the reasoning of cause and effect are, but are they all that's involved? In this one also needs to consider the contemplation of meaning. Vast amounts of reasoning power, with equally vast arrays of facts, are not necessarily superior to the creative use of meaning, and the ideas that stem from it; especially when starts adding layer upon layer of abstraction to come up with great systems of interactive process. When you then add the aspect of choice, understanding metaphor and meaning become very important indeed.
I make this observation because it never ceases to amaze me how otherwise very smart people get so obsessed with the idea that machines will inevitably transcend human intelligence. How can this be when humans have yet to transcend the fearful, territorial, hording mentality of the savage? What will we create if but nothing more than faster, and more capable of coldly calculated survival, and the ever expanding material requirements to sustain that.
Perhaps, if we make the first transcendence of our own baser instincts, we can grow our own thinking capabilities far beyond what they our now; and do it in a way that still keeps us connected to life in general, as well as all of the positive aspects of what it is to be human. Remember, Phlebas was the Phoenician who drowned in T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," section IV: "Death by Water." If we give ourselves up to whatever all encompassing environment, is there really nothing more to say about it? Are we nothing more than the mere facts of our physical being? If you believe that then life must really be a cold, meaningless slog through pointless fear and deprivation. Even then, however, I still don't see how the machines would make it any better.
Just a thought.