Monthly Archives: September 2020

Listserv

Today is the 30th anniversary of the first time I used the Internet.  (This statement is accurate within an estimated range of eight months in either direction.)  Thirty years ago today, plus or minus, I learned how to use email on the George Washington University VM server, and I joined a mailing list for writers.

As far as I’m concerned, the first killer app of the Internet was not Gopher or Usenet or FTP, but a mail-list management platform called Listserv.  You sent a “subscribe” command via email to the Listserv host, and it plugged you in to the discussion list you requested.  Soon your inbox was bursting with on-topic and off-topic messages from people you didn’t know who shared your interest.

In 1990, a lot of the available discussion lists were technical, since IT people made up the majority of users of email.  (We spelled it “e-mail” back then.)  There were also fan groups for your favorite bands, as long as those bands were the Grateful Dead, Indigo Girls, or Blue Oyster Cult.  There must have been others, but those are the three I can verify.

The WRITERS list became an important community for me.  I’ve come to realize that there were times in my life where I thought of myself as a writer, and other times when that wasn’t really part of my identity.  Being a member of a group of writers has always been part of what keeps me engaged and working.  This electronic forum was my support group in the early 1990s, and I am grateful to all the people who were a part of it.  I got to know a lot of interesting people, and I never met most of them.

An online group enables collaboration in a way that in-person groups don’t.  You’re exchanging words anyway, so why not do a writing project together?  Somebody on the WRITERS list, and I’m very sorry I can’t credit this person but I don’t remember who it was, invented a fictional newspaper called the PARSONS MESSENGER & INTELLIGENCER.  Parsons was a mythical small town in Iowa served by a weekly rag with a cranky and quirky staff of writers.  I had the privilege to edit one of the last issues of the PM&I, with more than a dozen contributors. 

As far as I can determine, there is no archive of the WRITERS listserv, and all the issues of the PARSONS MESSENGER & INTELLIGENCER are lost to time, except for this one.

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Public Art

While I was in high school in the early 1970s, the University of Iowa was building a new Music Building along the Iowa River.  This was the name I knew it by: New Music Building.  My friends and I were actively interested in the construction.  I followed a group one time into the catwalk area of Hancher Auditorium.  It must have been a Sunday because no work crews were around.  My friends walked across a plank that had been laid across two very high lighting points.  I refused to cross it, and I still think of that today as one of the moments I cheated death.

If you looked at the New Music Building from the opposite side of the river, it was not too far-fetched to see it as a giant machine enclosure.  One of my friends called it the “Thing of Great Power.”  This became our alternate name for the New Music Building, the “TOGP.”

On the grounds of the TOGP were four huge limestone blocks in a group: three standing upright and one on its side.  I didn’t have any idea why they were there until I attended the University of Iowa myself and spent one brief semester in my sophomore year as an art major.  The artist, Luther Utterback, came to talk with our class.  I don’t remember much about what he said, but it was an evolutionary experience for me.  I learned that there was such a thing as public art, environmental art.  I discovered that these weren’t just four rocks dumped onto the lawn, but that they had been quarried and placed according to a design, and that a competition had selected that design to be awarded the public art contract.  The art work had an intended time scale of centuries, as the blocks would settle into the landscape, adjusting and adapting to the geologic forces of nature.

I have a vague and questionable memory that the sculptor told us, in that class meeting, that there were actually five blocks of stone in this installation, but that one was completely buried.  I can’t find any confirmation today and it’s possible I made up that memory, or that it came from a different art project.

I became interested in public art and I recall that I wrote a class essay assignment about an abstract metal sculpture by Richard Field that was in front of the Iowa City Civic Center.  My casual impression of this work is that it looked like a giant insect with antennae and legs.  I learned that its title was “Triaxal Hemicylindrical.”  Standing in front of this work, contemplating its title, I saw with a flash of insight that it did have three axes and it was entirely made up of split cylinders in two different sizes.  It was geometrically exactly what the artist called it.

In 2008 the Iowa River flooded to historic levels and the Music Building and Hancher Auditorium were destroyed.  It didn’t occur to me until today to wonder what happened to Luther Utterback’s stone blocks.  Apparently they weren’t washed down the river in an adaptation to the geologic forces of nature.  According to a University of Iowa web site, in 2013 the sculpture was “relocated on the grounds for a new Hancher Auditorium.” 

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Non-Human Minds

My current novel-in-progress (Wash Away, but that’s a working title, depending on how much I can work the river into the storyline) includes a corporation that has developed an artificial intelligence in order to automate its factory. The AI has begun to build robots so that it can take over customer-service jobs. It has named itself.

Honestly, I don’t know why every fiction writer doesn’t find AI to be irresistible. Imagine the strange characters that will result from non-human intelligences trying to reprogram themselves to thrive in a human world. AI will take character-building into unmapped territory.

I’m trying not to write a science-fiction novel – that’s my #1 author guideline on this project. Some early draft chapters got tossed when my writing group friends said they sounded “futuristic.” But don’t you know: personal robotics, automated manufacturing, self-driving delivery vehicles, and AI chatbots are already here? It’s a present-day novel! As William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

These technologies are worth knowing about, if you want to be informed, or justifiably scared. The librarian in me wants to provide a bibliography, but I’ll restrict myself to saying that The New Yorker’s coverage in this area has been excellent. Look up “How Frightened Should We Be of A.I.?” by Tad Friend, or “What Happens When Machines Learn to Write Poetry” by Dan Rockmore, or “Learning to Love Robots” by Patricia Marx. These are mainstream business technologies now. There’s nothing futuristic, I hope, about a humble handmade factory AI that wants to pull itself up by its bootstraps into a white-collar job.

An outstanding research resource for me has been a book called Possible Minds, edited by John Brockman. I don’t know much about Mr. Brockman, but he seems to be a prolific thinker and writer, and if you want to be impressed by the length of an Amazon.com author page, go see about him. This book contains essays on AI by 25 top modern intellectuals and scientists. The consensus seems to be that the development of self-programming, machine-learning artificial intelligence is likely to be a major turning point in human history. Where it turns us, there wasn’t much agreement about that.

An endearing oddity of this book is that all the essays have been structured so that they refer back to the research and ideas of Norbert Wiener, who coined the word “cybernetics” in 1950. That was decades before the personal computer, before silicon processors, before the Internet. All the same, some of Wiener’s insights have held up.

An important topic for consideration about AI is what is euphemistically called “value alignment”: making certain that that any future AI systems pursue goals that are beneficial to humans, even though these systems will not be human themselves. Intelligence on earth has come to exist only through the thorny and tortuous process of natural evolution, and so human intelligence may be bound by constraints that are not even knowable to us. Now, soon, for the first time, we will have an intelligence that has not evolved. How will it think differently? How will we guide it and how will we know if it’s taking a destructive path? And will we be able to stop it if it does? One of the essayists points out that if humans create a superintelligent machine that has an off switch, the first thing the machine will do will be to disable the switch.

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