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that the number of transistors that could be cheaply placed on an integrated circuit tended to double every two years, a prediction that has held true since and has been called Moore’s law. Roughly speaking, computational processing power has grown at the same rate. While people have repeatedly predicted its end, the exponential growth has remained stunning: computers are literally a million times more powerful than they were forty years ago.
THIS WOULDN'T BE COMPLETE WITHOUT THEM.
Now, the OkTrends blog is written by Christian Rudder, a professional prankster and humorist and former math major who is no doubt aware that the sheer number of uncontrolled variables at work makes it dangerous to take any of these conclusions at face value. But the thing to remember is that these sorts of analyses are being taken at face value within social networks, national security agencies, insurance companies, and any other organization with access to a large amount of quantitative social data. Add to that the inevitable biases built into the ontologies—recall the Amazon mixup above—and the result is a labyrinth of approximate classifications that are being overlaid onto us.
There is good news and bad news. The good news is that, because computers cannot and will not “understand” us the way we understand each other, they will not be able to take over the world and enslave us (at least not for a while). The bad news is that, because computers cannot come to us and meet us in our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them. We will define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of our selves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can “understand.” Their dumbness will become ours.
What is the pyramid supported by?
Second, we will bring computers to us, not semantically but physically. Computers will be able to interface more and more directly with the real world. As people have repeatedly learned, with great frustration, the task of manually ordering the world into a semantically meaningful format is too huge and imprecise a task—too imprecise for computers and too huge for humans. But as processing power increases and the size and cost of computers shrink to the point of microscopic disposability, they can be embedded into everything: roads, paper, clothing, skin, organs, medicines, food. From that will come a way forward.
How many blocks are not in the box?
This will not mean a killing of creativity or of ineffable spirit, but it will change the nature of our creativity. The increasingly self-referential and allusive nature of art has already made “derivative” less of a pejorative, and the ability to mechanically process huge amounts of data with computer assistance will play a larger role in the construction of art of all kinds. David Shields in his book Reality Hunger was wrong to say that fiction as an art form is dying out; it just awaits new creators to reinvent the form for a more quantitative age.
Can a pyramid be supported by a block?
We will increasingly see ourselves in terms of these ontologies and willingly try to conform to them. This will bring about a flattening of the self—a reversal of the expansion of the self that occurred over the last several hundred years. While in the 20th century people came to see themselves as empty existential vessels, without a commitment to any particular internal essence, they will now see themselves as contingently but definitively embodying types derived from the overriding ontologies. This is as close to a solution to the modernist problem of the self as we will get.
A “steeple” is a stack which contains two green cubes and a pyramid.
First, we will bring ourselves to computers. The small- and large-scale convenience and efficiency of storing more and more parts of our lives online will increase the hold that formal ontologies have on us. They will be constructed by governments, by corporations, and by us in unequal measure, and there will be both implicit and explicit battles over how these ontologies are managed. The fight over how test scores should be used to measure student and teacher performance is nothing compared to what we will see once every aspect of our lives from health to artistic effort to personal relationships is formalized and quantified.