Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ted Chiang speech on lifelogging

Lifelogging is an emerging trend of recording every, or nearly every moment of your life. A simple example of lifelogging would be wearing a video recorder that records continuous video and audio of everything you see and do. Ted Chiang used this example to speculate about how lifelogging would change our society. He made carefully balanced points both for external-recording-as-memory, and against. In the end, I think, he is for it. Here are the highlights of his speech.

Even as we might think that a video of our life would never be used as a memory substitute but only as aid, it won't be so. We have been outsourcing our memory for millennia in every way we could. Ancient Greek philosophers complained that writing has corrupted people by weakening their memories; no one could recite thousands and thousands of lines of Iliad or Odyssey anymore. Since then, outsourcing of memory has only picked up pace. We don't remember phone numbers, because we rely on having them stored in our phones; we are less inclined to commit facts to memory, because we can always Google them. So if we have a continuous video of our life, we will come to rely on it instead of our internal memory; it will become, in fact, our memory.

But our memory is not a documentary; it is a web of narratives that get edited every time we remember something. Recalling past events adds layer after layer to our memories, and also distorts them. Most of our memories contain a version of events that pleases us, or lets us see our lives as having a narrative arch. Maybe it lets us to hold on to a thought that our life is getting better in one way or another -- for example, that our love for our spouse grows deeper over time; and that can be useful, because without this illusion we might not have the strength to go on. For example, in a certain study the female participants said they shared as many interests and spent as much time with their husbands as 10 years ago; but the researchers, who had asked the same question of these same women 10 years ago, noted that it wasn't true: the number of shared interests and the amount of closeness had declined.

Ted Chiang gives a speech on lifelogging

Ted Chiang gives a speech on lifelogging. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2014 are in my photo gallery.

As we edit our memories, we are also eliminating those memories that are inconsistent with the way we see ourselves. Ted Chiang gave two examples of famous science fiction writers who had been on the giving or receiving end of it. One of them had misremembered the year of his father's death by 2 years, until fact checkers found an old obituary for his father in the newspapers, and pointed out the inconsistency. The writer provided a hypothesis for that: since his father died just a few months before he started college, and the freshman year of college was a very exciting time for him, his memory simply refused to put those two events in one year. The emotional "tone" of those events was much too dissimilar for them to have happened just months apart.

The other writer in Ted Chiang's example found out, as an adult, that his mother didn't remember beating him with a rope as a child. She denied ever doing that. Again, the way this could be explained is that back in the early 20th century (the time of this writer's childhood) it was acceptable to beat children, but a few decades later it was far less so. So his mother, thinking of herself as a good mother, unconsciously edited out of her memory the episodes of beating her child.

But if we edit out our memories in which we have hurt others, then we are not doing justice to those people; we are denying them their experiences. Similarly, the ruling elite of a nation might be denying the acknowledgement of suffering to the groups in the nation that they had oppressed. The notion of justice -- both interpersonal and on world scale -- requires that we remember our wrongdoings. This was Ted Chiang's conclusion, and this is why he thinks, after all, that lifelogging would be a step in the right direction.

Questions and discussion with the audience

Audience member 1. Forgetting can be very helpful in getting over a trauma; especially forgetting violent events. If we can't forget anything, if our video is there, we might be tempted to go back to those traumatic moments and never make progress in healing.

Ted Chiang responded that these days researchers are working on medicines that help us selectively forget, allowing one to heal from PTSD. (This doesn't quite address the question that selective forgetting won't do you much good if you'll be tempted to go back and revisit the record of violent events. -- E.)

Audience member 2. A certain amount of forgetting goes a very long way in maintaining good relationships with your relatives. When you meet and talk with them only a few times a year, it helps if you had forgotten things they did that made you very angry, or hurt you.

Ted Chiang responded that it would be even better if that person remembered how they wronged you, and be motivated not to do it again.

Audience member 3. What if having a video of all moments of our life would prompt us to live our life as if we are creating a story? When I was in college I deliberately went and did things, had experiences, to have something to write home about. Friday afternoon would come and I would think, oh, I haven't done "anything" this week yet (out of the ordinary) -- I should go be interesting for a couple of hours now!

Ted Chiang responded that this wouldn't be the same as how people these curate their Facebook profiles, posting only those activities that form an image they like. If we don't have to worry about anyone seeing our video, we won't be motivated to appear a good person on the tape.

That last statement hinged on a pretty big assumption, which Ted Chiang stated upfront at the beginning of his talk: that privacy and security issues had been solved, and we don't have to worry about our life record being viewed by the eyes it wasn't intended for. I think Ted Chiang made this assumption only to keep the scope of discussion manageable, not because he thought it would be easy. Still, it was near impossible to discuss lifelogging-as-memory without getting tangled in the issues of privacy, as is evident from the audience's questions.

Audience member 4. What happens when a hacker hacks into the record of your memories? Surely it will happen, because any and every technology that has ever existed has been hacked into.

Ted Chiang. Even if hackers modify your own memories, that wouldn't be the end of the world for you, because any kind of public event would be recorded by at least some other people. So you could compare your memories with theirs, and restore the truth. (This doesn't address the cases when the event is private and nobody else has a record of it; or what if a hacker makes your most private moments public? Or what if you don't even know your memories were tampered with, and thus have no reason to compare them with others' memories? -- E.)

Audience member 5. If everything you do is recorded in the continuous video of your life, then any movie you've seen will also be in it. So who will own that part of the video -- you or the movie studio? If you want to rewatch a movie, would you need to pay to get access to your own memories? If you don't pay, is it piracy?

Ted Chiang pointed out that movie studios are already dealing with similar issues even today, because you can download a movie from the torrents as soon as it comes out on the screen. This won't be that different.

Other audience members asked more questions without good answers. For example, 5th amendment. Police can confiscate your computer records, video records, or any kind of records if they are needed in an investigation of a crime; but if the recording is literally considered to be your memory, they might not have a right to confiscate it, as that would be the same as forcing you to speak. How would the laws, or constitution need to be rewritten in such a case?

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Book Review: James Cambias "A Darkling Sea"

This book was praised by more than one of my acquaintances who are not writers. It is an important distinction. I have been increasingly disappointed by new books recommended by science fiction or fantasy writers, and have come to suspect that those books are hyped because of something other than good storytelling. But I know that if my nonwriter friends enjoy a book, it must have an engaging plot and characters; and if they are techies, it probably has well thought-out, science-based (or at least systematic, even if magic-based) worldbuilding.

"A Darkling Sea" has a lot of that. The worldbuilding is superb, and it has plenty of intrigue, as its human protagonists deal with not just one, but two very different alien races. Yet I was ambivalent about this book. It left me with a strange feeling that the majority of the plot was just the setup for something that didn't quite happen. But it is not true, of course: the plot arch arched satisfactorily, and was properly resolved in the last couple of chapters. So it must be that my expectations were different.

While this book shows a clash between two technologically advanced races, it is positively NOT a space opera. The action is carried out guerilla-style at the bottom of the sea on a distant planet. There, a group of human researchers observe Ilmatarans -- underwater, bottom-dwelling intelligent beings -- until another alien race, Sholen, tells them to quit or else. It is really about a conflict between human and alien psychology. But it rather lacks intensity and sharpness of psychological conflicts that such a claustrophobic setting could -- or should -- provide. Then again, my measuring stick for similar themes -- humans living in close quarters, isolated from civilization, facing the unknown -- is Peter Watts' "Blindsight". Few novels live up to the intensity of "Blindsight", so perhaps it's not fair to measure "A Darkling Sea" against it.

Still, when the driving force of the plot is a conflict between human and alien mentality, the book needs better characterization. As it is, the characters in it (the humans at least) are likeable, but bland. There aren't any strong, quirky characters through which such a conflict could manifest.

The worldbuilding in this novel, however, is excellent. It's not an easy feat to create two credible, different, nonhumanoid races, but this novel did just that. Between the Ilmatarans and the Sholen, Ilmatarans are definitely a more completely fleshed-out civilization. The name Ilmatarans is the only thing incongruous about it, because this name brings to mind J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. That's unfortunate, because the lobster-like, underwater-dwelling Ilmatarans couldn't be more unlike Tolkien's elves. Other than that, their culture, mentality, customs, even speech idioms follow from the physical conditions of their world. Living at the bottom of the ocean, they don't have eyes (which would be of no use in the perpetual darkness), and instead perceive the world and communicate via echolocation and taste. As with every alien species, a writer has to straddle a careful line between making them boringly human-like, and making them too alien for us to understand. With Ilmatarans, the author fell back on a tried-and-true method of making them a pre-industrial race, akin to a medieval, feudal society on Earth; they were starting to engage with the world scientifically, but their societal structures were quite primitive. That way, as alien as they are, they are still simple enough for us to understand.

What especially intrigued me about Ilmatarans was their number-speech. They assigned non-obvious semantics to numbers, and considered not just factorization of a number, but also its decomposition into a sum of integers; from that they inferred something about a person's character. Too bad it didn't play a big part in the book; I would have liked to know more about that. Even though there is no scientific basis for such a cabbalistic approach, it could tell us a lot about a culture.

But an even more interesting race was Sholen, the spacefaring civilization that clashed with humans over the sphere of influence. They were a spaghetti ball of intriguing contradictions. They had a self-proclaimed "hands-off-the-universe" attitude, which meant they wanted uncontacted alien races to remain so, and especially to stay free of influence of humans -- yet they enforced their peace philosophy rather aggressively. Their social structures and modes of interaction were a bit like bonobos', but they were nothing like the friendly, frolicky apes. My impression of them was more like hulking, menacing, six-limbed monsters. Despite all that, Sholen did not seem to be a poorly thought-out heap of inconsistencies, but a complex race with its own internal logic.

While the novel was enjoyable, it wasn't exactly groundbreaking, and that's why I will only give it 4 stars. I like to reserve 5 stars for books that do something innovative, such as develop an original scientific or philosophical idea. (Yes, like Peter Watts "Blindsight"). The setup, storytelling, mood, and characters of "A Darkling Sea" strongly resemble classical science fiction. An comparison that comes to mind is "Dragon's Egg", which also has primitive but smart creatures living in an extreme environment (super-high gravity of a neutron star). It is classical in the sense that science and technological resourcefulness takes precedence over character depth; the human characters in the book are not especially interesting. But the book is at least modern in the sense that female and male characters are equal in skill and courage.

I also have one minor beef with this book. The ending reveals a surprise whose impact can only be fully understood if you kept track of tiny, insignificant pieces of information scattered throughout the book. At least that's my guess. When I read the last sentence, I thought "huh"? What's that have to do with anything? Is the object mentioned in there referenced anywhere earlier in the book? If it was, I quickly forgot it (it was no more than a minor detail), and I don't even know how far back I would have to go in the book to find earlier references. Or is there an implication that this object could only have been left behind by yet another, ancient, long-lost civilization? If so, it must be a setup for a sequel, because this object played no role in the book that I could tell. Luckily, the plot had already been wrapped up at that point, so the ending was just a bonus "huh".