Sentient Noosphere
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Wanderers

Erik Wernquist, Carl Sagan
October 11, 2014
In Depth
   Tiernan Morgan & Lauren Purje: August 10, 2016
The spectacle can be found on every screen that you look at. It is the advertisements plastered on the subway and the pop-up ads that appear in your browser.

Guy Debord’s (1931–1994) best-known work, La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle) (1967), is a polemical and prescient indictment of our image-saturated consumer culture. The book examines the “Spectacle,” Debord’s term for the everyday manifestation of capitalist-driven phenomena; advertising, television, film, and celebrity.

Debord defines the spectacle as the “autocratic reign of the market economy.” Though the term “mass media” is often used to describe the spectacle’s form, Debord derides its neutrality. “Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use the term ‘media,’” he writes, “and by this they mean to describe a mere instrument, a kind of public service.” Instead, Debord describes the spectacle as capitalism’s instrument for distracting and pacifying the masses. The spectacle takes on many more forms today than it did during Debord’s lifetime. It can be found on every screen that you look at. It is the advertisements plastered on the subway and the pop-up ads that appear in your browser. It is the listicle telling you “10 things you need to know about ‘x.’” The spectacle reduces reality to an endless supply of commodifiable fragments, while encouraging us to focus on appearances. For Debord, this constituted an unacceptable “degradation” of our lives.

Debord was a founding member of the Situationist International (1957–1972), a group of avant-garde artists and political theorists united by their opposition to advanced capitalism. At varying points the group’s members included the writers Raoul Vaneigem and Michèle Bernstein, the artist Asger Jorn, and the art historian T.J. Clark. Inspired primarily by Dadaism, Surrealism, and Marxist philosophy, the SI rose to public prominence during the May 1968 demonstrations during which members of the group participated in student-led occupations and protests. Though the extent of its influence is disputed, there is little doubt that the SI played an active intellectual role during the year’s events. Graffiti daubed around Paris paraphrased the SI’s ideas and in some cases directly quoted from texts such as The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967).

The first English translation of Debord’s text was published in 1970 by Black and Red Books. The book’s cover features J.R. Eyerman’s iconic photograph of the premiere of Bwana Devil (1952), the first 3D color film. Originally reproduced in LIFE magazine, the image captures the film’s audience gazing passively at the screen with the use of anaglyph glasses. In the foreground, a besuited, heavy-set gentleman watches the screen intently, his mouth agape. Eyerman’s photograph reduces the audience members to uniform rows of spectacled spectators. Although the image encapsulates Debord’s contempt for consumer culture, it reductively implies that his work was mediaphobic (Debord later adapted The Society of the Spectacle into his first feature-length film by utilizing footage from advertisements, newsreels, and other movies). If we were to judge The Society of the Spectacle by Black and Red’s cover, we might assume that the book is a straightforward critique of media-driven conformity. Debord’s insights however, were far more profound.

The Society of the Spectacle consists of 221 short theses divided across nine chapters. The first thesis reworks the opening line of Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867):

Marx: The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.
Debord: In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.

By paraphrasing Marx, Debord immediately establishes a connection between the spectacle and the economy. The book essentially reworks the Marxist concepts of commodity fetishism and alienation for the film, advertising, and television age.

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“I think right now everybody is already perceiving that this is the decade of artificial intelligence. And there is nothing like artificial intelligence that drives the digitization of the world. Historically, artificial intelligence has always been the pioneer battallion of computer science.”

When something was new and untested it was done in the field of artificial intelligence, because it was seen as something that requires intelligence in some way, a new way of modeling things. intelligence can be understood to a very large degree as the ability to model new systems, to model new problems.

And so it's natural that even narrow artificial intelligence is about making models of the world. For instance, our current generation of deep-learning systems are already modeling things. They're not modeling things quite in the same way with the same power as human minds can do it—they're mostly classifiers, not simulators of complete worlds. But they're slowly getting there, and by making these models we are, of course, digitizing things. We are making things accessible in data domains. We are making these models accesible to each other by computers and by artificial intelligence systems.

And artificial intelligence systems provide extensions to all our minds. Already now, Google is something like my exo-cortex. It's something that allows me to act as vast resources of information that get in the way I think and extend my abilities. If I forget how to use a certain command in a programming language, it's there at my fingertips, and I entirely rely on this like every other programmre on this planet. This is something that is incredibly powerful, and was not possible when we started out programming, when we had to store everything in our own brains.

I think consciousness is a very difficult concept to understand because we mostly know it by reference. We can point at it, but it's very hard for us to understand what it actually is. And I think at this point the best model that I've come up with—what we mean by consciousness—it is a model of a model of a model.

That is: our new cortex makes a model of our interactions with the environment. And part of our new cortex makes a model of that model, that is, it tries to find out how we interact with the environment so we can take this into account when we interact with the environment. And then you have a model of this model of our model which means we have something that represents the features of that model, and we call this the Self.

And the Self is integrated with something like an intentional protocol. So we have a model of the things that we attended to, the things that we became aware of: why we process things and why we interact with the environment. And this protocol, this memory of what we attended to is what we typically associate with consciousness. So in some sense we are not conscious in acutality in the here and now, because that's not really possible for a process that needs to do many things over time in order to retrieve items from memory and process them and do something with them.

Consicousness is actually a memory. It's a construct that is reinvented in our brain several times a minute. When we think about being conscious of something it means that we have a model of that thing that makes it operable, that we can use. You are not really aware of what the world is like. The world out there is some weird [viewed?] quantum graph. It's something that we cannot possibly really understand—first of all because we, as observers, cannot really measure it. We don't have access to the full vector of the universe.

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