Saturday, November 26, 2016

those rifles buried in memory lane

It's been exactly twenty years to the day since my mother died. A life of inextricably high complexity, out of which it is difficult to extract a coherent memory portrait. In light of the current events, I am naturally driven to recall those aspects of my mother's life that were more public and political, and more closely connected to the experience of the antifascist resistance. Among those historical pictures of the armed women partisans, you will not see one of my mother: she was considered too young for those combat roles, but old enough to perform for the resistance the dangerous work of carrier (of food, letters, clandestine press, and sometimes ammunition) from the villages to the partisans mountain camps during the last year of the nazi occupation.


The chronologically closest picture I have of her was taken a few years later, in that same place in the mountains where all the action took place. I was born twenty years later. That may seem like a long time, but I still grew up under the long shadow of the war and of the immediately lived experience that had inexorably divided the country into fascism and antifascism: a divide that became a defining texture underlying the entire country's existence, and that never subsided. The rifles of the Resistance are still buried in the yards.


Antifascism in her country meant largely Communism: even though socialists, anarchists, progressive catholics, and liberals had all participated in the Resistance movement, certainly the communist contingent was by far the largest. Like most Italian intellectuals, my mother was a communist through most of her life, with an earlier period of socialist militance, and a brief allegiance to the PSIUP formation (socialist party of proletarian unity) at a later time.

In the postwar years, my mother studied first as a chemistry student and then as an architect. In later years she also worked in graphic design, textile design, and art history. One of the first things that my mother and father designed together, as young graduates of the polytechnic school of architecture, was this monument to the antifascist resistance.

I grew up in different times. There was a revolution going on while I was living through my childhood years, a revolution that failed. A different one, and yet eerily still that same one, once again involving a fight between fascists and a communist/anarchist revolutionary front. The people who had been personally involved with the wartime Resistance fight reacted to the unfolding situation of the 1970s with a range of very different attitudes. As for myself, I was just growing up, too young to be involved in anything. Yet it was all there, that strange chaotic revolution, it was the world as my generation knew it. My mother, in trying to make sure that the "true lesson" of the antifascist resistance would not be lost, educated me from a very early age with an endless series of drills, lessons, and continuous rehearsals, about what is to be done, practically, immediately, should the fascists gain access to the government again. I must admit that, even though I became politically active at a very early age, I always doubted the need for all those continuous drills and rehearsals. What help is it to know where the rifles are buried? After rusting for so many years, they would blow up in the face of anyone using them. Why training to fight? In my then untroubled optimism, I thought that fascism would never make a comeback: yes, in both Italy and Germany it was voted to power through democratic elections and, once in power, it quickly moved to abolish democracy entirely. Yes, but it would never happen again, because the lesson of history is clearly in front of everybody's eyes, because after all nobody, no rational human being, could ever possibly desire to be a fascist. In the old days people were swayed by the fascist propaganda and did not see the truth, but now... I was sufficiently young and optimistic back then, that I did not even see the circularity of my argument: yes, certainly there were many victims of fascist propaganda, but someone somewhere must have set the wheel in motion, somebody must have indeed desired to be a fascist. The concept still bothers me, but I now understand much better the effects on the human mind of the poison of power (which is why I am an anarchist), and I know how narcissism, lack of empathy, manipulation, and domination can all contribute to create a mental state capable of seeing fascism as attractive: fear of an imagined enemy, an attachment to a fictitious image of "the past" as a nostalgic reference point, the scourge of the nation states and of all forms of nationalism, all of these things can simultaneously fuel the growth of fascism. Yes, my mother was right, one needs to stay vigilant, always, continuously.

In these last weeks, all those years of endless training suddenly kicked in and turned my mind into an unstoppable wailing siren engaged in a continuous screaming of alarm signals. Here it is, get ready, act now! I am endlessly going through that old list of "do/don't do" things, trying to mentally update them to the needs of 21st century technology and society. Is your passport up to date? Check. Can you do something to improve your mobility across borders? Think about it and act now. Renew the contract for your second job in Canada. Check. What next? Communications, yes, secure your communication channels. In those days that meant postal communication, a friend's address to whom mail for you can be delivered without raising suspicion. Now it's Signal on your cellphone and PGP on your email. Next, find the people most at risk in your immediate surroundings, at work, among your friends. That used to mean jews, now it's muslims, people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, and yes once again jews since nazis don't lose their old habits. Think about how you can help them: contacts, safe space, protection from violence. OK, mom, what was next on your list? Why did I stop rehearsing so many years ago, did I really think it would never happen again?

Antifascism is complex and subtle: in Italy the fascists were elected to power in 1922. Up until the days of the Spanish Civil War, the Resistance consisted of a completely non-violent organization whose main purpose was to distribute banned information (clandestine press, dissenting opinions), largely produced by those who escaped in exile in various other countries, distributed though a networks of people willing to face the risk of violence and imprisonment. The Spanish Civil War for the first time gave rise to an armed resistance to fascism, and it was finally only in the 1940s, in light of the ongoing horrors of the war and the holocaust, that the Resistance as we usually understand it really took form. It is dangerous to get romanticized ideas about the struggle against fascism by watching war movies: that's not how it works! You cannot just dig up the rusty old rifles, that would not do: it would be tactically, ethically, and ideologically wrong. You cannot jump start a resistance movement in such a naive way. Opposition is multiform, organization is crucial, refusal to cooperate is essential, and most of all there is a lot of intellectual work involved that is long and demanding. The crucial practical steps, as my mother's drill list taught me, are how to stay safe, how to help others stay safe, and how to organize and maintain a robust and reliable network of communication. Focus on these goals.



My mother taught me the love of science. Her life was an incredible amalgam of optimism and despair, inspiring and frightening. There are many possible different ways in which I can choose to remember her. Today, on the twentieth anniversary of her death, I prefer to remember that she also taught me basic antifascism skills. I do still hope, somehow, that they will not be needed, that we can build a world in which they won't be needed.



Monday, November 21, 2016

Mathematicians and the Moral Responsibilities of Science



Three years ago I was giving my plenary address at a posh conference in Shanghai, all luxury and splendor in one of the most beautifully futuristic cities in the world. I was content enough to entertain my audience with the innocent and amusing mysteries of the "field with one element". My talk was followed by another plenary speaker, a famous applied mathematician, who suddenly shocked me into awareness of the murky ethical waters mathematicians are threading in our society. The work presented by my colleague, who like myself lives and works in the Los Angeles area, was nothing short of a Minority Report quality dystopian-futurism. It claimed to have developed an algorithm that would allow the Los Angeles police to estimate the most likely places and times where crime (from gang crime to burglaries) was about to occur and intervene promptly by allocating their forces to the predicted hot-spots. Now if you live in LA (and even if you don't, I would imagine) it shouldn't be lost on you that the LAPD is one of the police departments in the country with the bleakest record of brutality and human rights violations. It does not take much thinking to realize what the immediate consequence of applying this algorithm will be: the LAPD will show up where the algorithm indicates and will find criminals there, regardless of whether they exist or not. In other words, the alleged sense of "objectivity" provided by the presence of a "mathematical formula" will provide a police force of dubious ethical reputation with a very convenient excuse to brutalize low income communities.

In a similar vein, many appeals have already been launched by influential voices within the mathematical community, raising serious ethical questions about mathematicians working for the NSA, in light of the Snowden revelations about mass surveillance. The NSA, it is worth remembering, is the world largest single employer of mathematicians. In the very near future, we are going to be faced by an even more pressing ethical issue: the US just elected a fascist government. This is probably the single scariest event that happened in the world since the end of World War 2. The question now is not going to be just whether it is ethical for a mathematician to work for an agency that engages in mass surveillance, but whether one is willing to be a collaborationist of a fascist government. The lesson of the historical European anti-fascist Resistance tells us the answer to that question, but who is listening? We seem to be really coming to the point where, as a very famous mathematician friend of mine once said: "applied mathematics is the art of doing with great skills and proficiency what shouldn't be done at all".

It needn't be this way, though. There is a struggle and we need to take sides. Scientific and technological expertise are going to be crucial now more than ever. The new government may be the most bigoted anti-science team ever assembled, but at the same time these fascists of our time can count on hordes of technically savvy alt-right trolls in their service. It is crucial to maintain the upper hand in science and technology. I am especially speaking to all those who will be organizing the actual Resistance on the ground. Don't shy away from science, just because you are wary of its unethical involvement with power. Don't leave the fascists with the exclusive access to it, or all will be lost. Applied mathematics can also do what should be done, not only what shouldn't. In the example of the model predicting crime hotspots mentioned above, a discrete sample of event locations is used to generate a probability density that produces an estimate with priors on certain spatial data. All their papers are available. They can equally well be used to predict occurrences of neo-nazi attacks on various communities and concentrate antifa resources where most effective. Better still, we are soon going to witness waves of deportation raids on a scale unprecedented in history. As a scale for comparison, remember that, in order to carry out its genocidal plans, the German Third Reich had to organize the arrest and deportation of six million people, which they then proceeded to murder. This was an operation on an impossibly gigantic scale, carried out across the entire European territory. Now the incoming fascist American government has promised the deportation of eleven million people, almost doubling that scale. (Yes, I know, they are not claiming any genocidal intent, for the moment, but the Nazi Germans also continued to talk only about deportations until the "final solution" was adopted in 1941 - remember Eichmann's Madagascar? As history teaches us, the step from mass deportation to genocide is brief.) Deportation raids can only work if they involve a surprise element: raids on farms, on housing complexes in the middle of the night... if anything can be done to reduce the surprise element, to have a better than chance predictor of where the next raid is likely to occur, it can save lives. In a similar vein, French mathematicians who joined the anti-fascist Resistance during the war, and who were acquainted with the early famous mathematical game theory paper of Emil Borel, tried to apply mathematical methods to improve the efficiency of the distribution of initiatives, strikes, and resources in the Resistance. Scientific researchers tied to the US military later widely developed these ideas into what came to be known as 4th generation warfare. Again, the mathematics can be applied to what should or to what shouldn't be done: the choice is ours to make. We need to take sides, we cannot be impartial spectators because lives are at stake and the very texture of our civilization lies in the balance.

Pack all the tools you need in your bag: network theory, bayesian analysis, probability, differential equations, cryptography, computing, game theory, neural networks. We need them all and we need them now. Get down to work for the sake of our future.

Se non ora, quando?

  

Monday, August 29, 2016

The trouble with Oomza



I just read Okorafor's remarkable novella "Binti" that recently won the 2016 Hugo award (scruffy and rabid puppies of all kinds notwithstanding). The main character is a young student, on her way to the Famous University, half a galaxy across, where she's just been admitted to pursue her graduate studies in Mathematics, the first of her people ever being offered a graduate fellowship at this international (interplanetary, intergalactic) center of learning, the famous Oomza University. Her people, the Himba, are a discriminated minority treated with contempt and belittled by the dominant ethnicity of her home planet, the Khoush. The setting of Binti's home planet, sketched in colorful brush strokes, hints at both ethnic tensions between different ethnic groups in sub saharan Africa, with the never explicitly mentioned but always looming threat of genocidal war, and also, on another level, it seems to refer to the tensions between the privileged white American community and the African American, so dramatically underrepresented in the high echelon of academic prestige. The story begins with Binti leaving in the middle of the night to the spaceport where she will be boarding the starship to Oomza. She is leaving in secret, without the consent of her family, violating the expectations of her society. She is afraid and alone. She is closing a door behind her back, burning her bridges, leaving her whole world behind. She knows it is quite possible, maybe even very probable, that she will never go back. Never come home again. Home, even that may soon cease to make sense as a concept. This opening scene is dramatic and so well crafted: anyone who has been that student, leaving everything to move half the world across to some Famous University, perhaps not in secret in the dead of night, but certainly not without tension with family and environment, immediately relates fully and completely with every nuance of her many fluctuations between hesitation and boldness. Okorafor hinges on those details that relate to Binti's cherished habits of life: certain ways of dressing, certain ways of covering her hair and skin with red clay. One understands immediately how such gestures with symbolic meaning, which are largely aimed at signifying a sense of belonging to a community, a shared environment where such things indeed carry a meaning, will be the first victims of the kind of drastic uprooting she is about to embark into. None of her shared heritage will signify anything in her new environment, and perhaps that is a necessary and maybe even desirable loss, at some level, but still one that contributes to create an enormous vulnerability and dramatically increases the overall sense of alienation and isolation that inevitably accompanies this type of transition. A good part of the novella, where all the action takes place, deals with the voyage to Oomza, where the starship is attacked by a warring race of Medusas who kill every other human on board, except for Binti who is protected by an ancient artifact she found in the desert of her home planet, without knowing its meaning and origin, and that she took along with her as a talisman. The artifact not only defends her from the Medusas assaults, by emanating energy beams that hurt their tentacles when they get too close, but it also allows her to communicate with the Medusas, by acting as a translator machine. Here the story becomes quite predictable: the Medusas are not the horrible monsters they seem to be at first; they are good guys afraid of humans, whose honor has been wounded by the stealing of their chief's stinger that is kept on display in a museum on Oomza. Binti promises to help them get back their stinger and their honor, while befriending an impulsive but ultimately cool Medusa guy named Okwu, who will become her buddy by the end of the story. OK, I must admit that, while I think this is an excellent sci-fi story, I am not so terribly fond of all this "honor of the Medusa" business. The story gets quite interesting again, from my own personal point of view at least, when they finally get down to the Oomza campus, where Binti successfully carries out her promised duty to help the Medusa with their stinger quest. The structure of Oomza is only hinted at, just as the social structure of Binti's home planet was described more in allusions than in overt details, but a few interesting characteristics immediately emerge: (1) the faculty of Oomza is extremely cosmopolitan (as appropriate for a university of cosmic reputation) with representatives from many different alien races; while the members of the faculty council Binti interacts with while advocating the Medusas cause appear aloof and somewhat unsociable, they are ultimately open minded and progressive; (2) a good part of this Famous University is dedicated to carrying out weapons research, so the enlightened attitude of the faculty members does not stretch as far as rejecting their alliance to the galactic military-industrial complex; (3) Binti has changed already, physically as well as mentally, because of her direct contact with the Medusas, and it is questioned whether she could still belong to her home planet and her people and be accepted by them. Interestingly, the novel is silent on this last issue and leaves it hanging, with the final scene ending just at the moment when Binti tries to re-establish contact, remotely, with her family on her home planet. We can only imagine whether we want that attempt to lead to a reconciliation or to an ultimate uprooting and rejection. I am inclined to believe the latter is more realistic: she no longer belongs to her home planet and she never will again. Well, this is just personal experience: she is a different person, in a different world, with very different experiences. There is no going home. There is no home. What about Oomza? The novella also leaves that to the reader's imagination, although it seems that a sequel is announced to be published sometime in 2017. Well, since the sequel isn't out yet, we are still free to speculate, and to use the freedom so kindly bestowed upon the readers by the author, to keep the story going from the point where it ends, somewhat abruptly, in her narration. So how is Binti doing at Oomza? She is received with great honor, given her brilliant solution of the Medusa problem. So it appears she is valued and respected. Is that really so? Other students who have, long ago, journeyed to the Famous University half a world across had also been received with great enthusiasm, yet things soured very quickly. Binti is known in her own world as a master maker of astrolabes. The astrolabes of Okorafor's story are both beautiful art objects and functioning computer like devices, upon which a great deal of civilization evidently depends. This means that Binti has a talent that is highly respected in her home world, despite the fact that she belongs to a discriminated ethnic community. This point in the story is very interesting: Okorafor describes very well a paradox by which a minority group is considered at the same time highly talented and yet somehow despicable by a privileged and racist majority. This appears to be a clear hint to the tragic anti-semitic discrimination against Jews in European history. Once again, there is an unspoken but clearly recognizable threat of genocidal violence behind this combination of fear and loathing. Interestingly, while ethnic and racial discriminations form an important subtext throughout the novella, the galactic civilization Binti belongs to appears to be remarkably free of gender discrimination, and Binti seems to suffer no ill effect for being a woman mathematician. I guess that's some kind of progress, if one can call it so: well, one less prejudice is surely better than one more, but that's a meagre consolation when painted over a general background of racial and ethnic tensions. Coming back to the astrolabes, Binti has a highly regarded technical skill that she developed on her home planet, and that was directly influential, we are told, in her getting admitted to Oomza. One point to consider here is the implicit assumption that her mathematical skills are, in her society, closely tied up to the realization of technical objects (the astrolabes) that are highly coveted by society. It is a bit like an appreciation of mathematics, in our society, based largely on its potential of application to computer science. Well, oh right. So Binti is admitted to Oomza because of her mathematical talent and her reputation built out of her previous studies and experience on her home planet. How is this going to play out once she is actually at Oomza? I am again inclined to give a very pessimistic view here: the young student who happily travelled to the Famous University across the known world on the premise that her talent and experience will be valued and appreciated finds her experience immediately invalidated and denied upon her arrival. Why? Because of course Famous University, in order to assert and maintain its power and image, has to deny the validity of anything which is not Famous University. So whatever talent was highly appreciated a moment ago when selecting students for admission is immediately trashed as worthless as soon as the students get actually there, because whatever knowledge they have refined over the years was not coming from Famous University and therefore it is by definition worthless. I am unfortunately inclined to believe that this is what will happen, shortly after the point where the narration of the novella ends, to Binti and her astrolabes. How will she put up with that, when that denial of her entire history and knowledge happens at the same time as she is coming to terms with her no longer having a home world and a home community? At the same time while she is struggling with racial discrimination? I do not belong to a discriminated ethnic minority, but I do live in a world where being a woman mathematician carries a series of problems that do not seem to play a role in Binti's universe. I am not sure whether this constitutes in some sense a similar experience. However, I certainly know the effect of the two pronged fork of rejection of both inner and outer world being simultaneously played out. If the promised sequel to "Binti" is going to be in any way realistic in this respect, it is going to be grim. What else can we say about Oomza? The Famous University I am talking about is also founded on the history of military-industrial complex, down to the basement foundations where my graduate student office used to be, in the still radioactive rooms that housed the Fermi nuclear pile in the early days of the Manhattan project. The great enlightened, cosmopolitan faculty of the great Mathematics Department of the Famous University are not only aloof and somewhat unsociable, but their progressive vision stops at some high sounding public declarations that hide a great deal of Machiavellian double speak. Take the enlightened faculty member turned skillful administrator who recently proffered deep wisdom such as "The purpose of a university education is to provide the critical pathway by which students can fulfill their potential, change the trajectory of their families, and build healthier and more inclusive societies". Wow, who would disagree with that? And what about "Essential to this process is an environment that promotes free expression and the open exchange of ideas, ensuring that difficult questions are asked and that diverse and challenging perspectives are considered". Again, who could even for a moment consider not being on the same boat with this? Only some kind of inconsiderate authoritarian censorship prone individuals (or "groups" as they are referred to in this well crafted speech) who "assert that universities should be refuges from intellectual discomfort". Ah, here it comes: "intellectual discomfort", what kind of "discomfort" are we talking about, here and in what sense is this discomfort "intellectual"? This guy is more intelligent (he's a distinguished mathematician after all) and more articulate than his subordinate who sends letters out to incoming freshmen, so he steers clear of using buzz words loaded with all kinds of interpretations, such as "safe spaces", but his intervention comes right on the heels of much less carefully worded statements issuing from some steps down the chain of command. Is it so frightening to these enlightened intellectuals to imagine the possible existence of spaces on campus that can offer help and support to students who come from the whole world across, having left everything behind, welcomed by the most chilling denial of their whole existence (even without the help of any considerate dean's letter)? Is it a threat to free speech? How so? Is this a Machiavellian maneuver by Administration to actually undermine academic freedom and faculty initiative, while at the same time pleasing conservative donors? Most likely. The pretense of defense of a culture of intellectual openness on campus is risible: the only advice I can give to the students who wish to enjoy the Famous University's "defining characteristics", their "commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression" is to graduate as fast as they can and move on to some other place where such things exist. I am eagerly waiting for Okorafor's sequel of "Binti": I do hope that the Oomza version of Famous University will turn out to be less grim and more open than this other Famous University.



Oomza University and the Medusas... oomz, no... this is that other Famous University, my dear Alma Mater

Monday, August 15, 2016

Who counts as a futurist? Whose future counts?

A shorter version of this text appeared as a guest post on the Mathbabe blog.

For a good part of the past century the term "futurism" conjured up the image of a revolutionary artistic and cultural movement that flourished in Russia and Italy in the first two decades of the century. In more recent times and across the Atlantic, it has acquired a different connotation, one related to speculative thought about the future of advanced technology. In this later form, it is often explicitly associated to the speculations of a group of Silicon Valley tycoons and their acolytes. Their musings revolve around a number of themes: technological immortality in the form of digital uploading of human consciousness, space colonization, and the threat of an emergent superintelligent AI. It is easy to laugh off all these ideas as the typical preoccupations of a group of aging narcissist wealthy white males, whose greatest fear is that an artificial intelligence may one day treat them the way they have been treating everybody else all along. However, in fact none of these themes of "futurist speculation" originates in Silicon Valley: all of them have been closely intertwined in history and date back to the original Russian Futurism, and the related Cosmist movement, where mystics like Fedorov alternated with scientists like Tsiolkovsky (the godfather of the Soviet space program) envisioning a future where science and technology would "storm the heavens and vanquish death". The crucial difference in these forms of futurism does not lie in the themes of speculation, but rather in the role of humanity in this envisioned future. Is this the future of a wealthy elite? Is this the future of a classless society?



Konstantin Yuon, "A new Planet", 1921



Fast forward to our time again, there are still widely different versions of "futurism" and not all of them are a capitalist protectorate. Indeed, there is a whole widely developed Anarchist Futurism (usually referred to as Anarcho-Transhumanism) which is anti-capitalist but very pro-science and technology. It has its roots in many historical predecessors: the Russian Futurism and Cosmism, naturally, but also the revolutionary brand of the Cybernetic movement(Stafford Beer, etc.), cultural and artistic movements like Afrofuturismand Solarpunk, Cyberfeminism (starting with Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto), and more recently Xenofeminism. What some of the main themes of futurism look like in the anarchist lamelight is quite different from their capitalist shadow.

"Morphological Freedom" is one of the main themes of anarchist transhumanism: it means the freedom to modify one's own body with means provided by science and technology, but whereas in the capitalist version of transhumanism this gets immediately associated to Hollywood-style enhanced botox therapies for those incapable of coming to terms with their natural aging process, in the anarchist version the primary model of morphological freedom is the transgender rights, the freedom to modify one's own sexual and gender identity.



It also involves a fight against ableism, in as there is nothing especially ideal about the (young, muscular, male, white, healthy) human body. The Vitruvian Man, which was the very symbol of Humanism, was also a symbol of the intrinsically exclusionary nature of Humanism. Posthumanism and Transhumanism are also primarily an inclusionary process that explodes the exclusionary walls of Humanism, without negating its important values. The fact that Posthumanism and Transhumanism have moved beyond the Humanism tradition originating in Renaissance Humanism does not mean rejecting Humanism entirely: some of its basic foundations are also at the basis of both Anarchism (which is in essence a humanist philosophy) and Trans/Posthumanism. For example, one of the most important contributions of Humanism was replacing religious thinking, as a basis for ethical values, with a vision of ethics grounded in human rights. Accepting that we live in a world of natural phenomena, approached through science and reason, is a fundamental basis of Humanism as a philosophy and it remains fundamental to both Anarchism and Transhumanism. An example of Morphological Freedom against ableism is found in the rethinking of the notion of prosthetics. The traditional approach aims at constructing artificial limbs that as much as possible resemble the human limbs. Implicitly, this involves declaring the users of prosthetics as being in some way "defective", lacking an aspect of their "intact" human ideal form. However, when children are given the possibility to design and 3D print their own prosthetics, they make colorful arms that launch darts and flying saucers and that make them look like superheroes, and professional designers have realized that prosthetic arms that do not imitate a human arm, but that work like an octopus tentacle can be more efficient than most traditional prosthetics. Abandoning the notion of an ideal human form allows for the freedom to create better forms. These are just a couple of simple examples of how prejudice prevents us from making a better use of technology. Anarcho-Transhumanism not only values a diverse and non-ableist approach to the body form, but it protects and values the importance of Neuro-diversity.


The mathematical theory of networks and of complex systems and emergent behavior can be used to make protests and social movements more efficient and successful. Sousveillance and anti-surveillance techniques can help protecting people from police brutality. Hacker and biohacker spaces help spreading scientific literacy and directly involve people in advanced science and technology: the growing community of DIY synthetic biologywith biohacker spaces like CounterCulture Labs, has been one of the most successful grassroot initiatives involving advanced science. These are all important aspects and components of the anarchist transhumanist movement.
Needless to say, the community of people involved in Anarcho-Tranhumanism is a lot more diverse than the typical community of Silicon Valley futurists.
Anarchism itself comes in many different forms, anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndacalism, mutualism, etc. (no, not anarcho-capitalism, that is an oxymoron not a political movement!) but at heart it is an ethical philosophy aimed at increasing people's agency (and more generally the agency of any sentient being), based on empathy, cooperation, mutual aid. Science and technology have enormous potential, if used inclusively and for the benefit of all and not with goals of profit and exploitation.

For people interested in finding out more about Anarcho-Tranhumanism there is an Anarcho-Transhumanist Manifesto currenly being written (which is still very much in the making). There is also an Anarcho-Transhumanism Facebook page, which posts on a range of topics including anarchist theory, philosophy, transhumanism and posthumanism and their historical roots, and various thoughts on science and technology and their transformative role.



Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Invisible Pachyderm: Ageism in Science and in Radical Communities

There is a big Elephant in the Room, a large old pachyderm nobody is willing to see. Certain widespread prejudices that have been entrenched in the scientific community since time immemorial have come under the spotlight in recent years (primarily sexism and racism, and to a much lesser extend ableism). This certainly does not mean they have been eliminated, far from it, but at least a certain degree of awareness has started to circulate within the community, and some attempts (largely inadequate) at addressing the problems have at least taken place, sometimes, somewhere. On the other hand, radical communities, by which I generically mean variously organized groups that self-identify with radical politics (I will mostly focus on anarchist communities for the purpose of the discussion here), have made it a part of their platform from the beginning to fight against these old prejudices, seen as oppressive power structures. Yet in both communities the same large invisible pachyderm is roaming the room unhindered and entirely unnoticed: the elephant of Ageism.
(Banksy, Elephant in the Room, 2006)

Let me start with the scientific community, and let me focus in particular on the community of mathematicians, because that is where Ageism is most brutal and barbaric. Mathematics is a beautiful and highly rewarding intellectual activity, with its own intrinsic beauty and poetics. However, this is not how it is perceived by a part of its practitioners. I am not talking here about how the general public perceives mathematics, the global catastrophe of the "oh, I never liked math in school" type, the global catastrophe of school in general. I am talking about professional mathematicians and how they relate to their own creativity. There is an unfortunate widespread tendency to view mathematics as a form of gymnastics, that is inculcated into promising young people at an early age through other global catastrophes like the mathematical olympiads and various similar competitions, which perpetuate an ideological view of mathematics as a competition sport, rather than as a creative intellectual activity. The rhetoric implicit in this view and the language employed is akin to the fascist mythology of the muscular body (adopted by stalinists with equally zealous fervor), forcibly imposed upon an intellectual pursuit, where it really should not belong.


Of course, there is a significant gap between the mathematical competitions for young kids and the actual work of a research mathematician: not all good early mathematical gymnasts become professional mathematicians and certainly a large part of the most prominent professional mathematicians had nothing to do with the circus of mathematical gymnastics in their early years. However, there is enough overlap that traces linger. There have been long (and usually not very interesting) discussions in the mathematical community on the distinction between mathematicians who are problem solvers or theory builders (sounding suspiciously like body builders). Of course these are both distinct aspects of mathematical creativity, and different creative persons express themselves in different styles. Not all novelists or poets write in the same way, not all painters or musicians compose in the same style. There are many other distinct aspects in mathematical creativity, however, and I believe that's not where the focus should be. The problem the rhetoric of muscular mathematics generates in the community is best exemplified by the typical question you hear professionals ask to and of each other: "what is the hardest theorem you've proved?". It's never "what is the most beautiful structure you have discovered?" or "what is the most surprising unexpected connection you have uncovered between seemingly unrelated mathematical phenomena?": after all these are some of the most exciting things that happen in mathematical research... but no, it is only the "hardest" (turgid?) that matters. Why? Well, because problems gain notoriety not necessarily because of their intrinsic beauty, or their wide applicability, but a lot more easily because some other big-muscle-dude tried to solve them before and couldn't: enough of a line of big-muscle dudes, and there's your famous problem. The next even muscular dude that comes along and solves it wins all. All right, now imagine for a moment if music, art, and literature were running along the same principles, what an awful disaster for humankind that would be! So where does Ageism enter this picture? Naturally, once the emphasis is on mathematics as a thinly disguised metaphor of the muscular (male) body, this casts it immediately into an Ableist and Ageist frame. There comes the absurd mythology, repeated like an obsessive mantra in the community, of the "mathematicians can only do their best work before the age of forty", as if they would be some kind of cinderella whose carriage of mathematical knowledge turns magically into a pumpkin at the stroke of their fortieth year. You are offered the pathetic spectacle of endless hiring committees made of mathematicians, debating on whether that thirty year old candidate may be too old for that full professor position: yes, in principle discrimination on the basis of age is not allowed, but where is that principle hiding? I never saw it getting into the room. Imagine for a moment if a similar discussion would take place in a hiring committee with age replaced by race or gender, how would that sound then? You can also observe the even more depressing case of that famous mathematician who is now 90 (a friend, no names, sorry) who established himself as one of the best mathematicians of the 20th century and still feels under enormous stress and pressure to prove himself by attacking some of these fucked up "big problem" (big, hard, turgid, whatever) to defend himself against the all encompassing Ageist prejudice. Mathematics as a war of all against all, relentless and meaningless. A landscape where one should see beauty, pleasure, and enjoyment reduced to a scorched earth. It drives me to tears just to be forced to witness all this. Ageism in mathematics (the rest of science is not off the hook: this is just the worst case example) is widespread, tolerated, indulged in, and largely actively encouraged.


Things get even creepier when we move from science to the fringe of science, that area in between science and fiction (or, better still, in between science and market baloney) that is largely populated by the wealthy Silicon Valley capitalist sharks. There the fascist mythology of the young and muscular body is overt and explicit in the obsession for the magical potion of eternal youth, developed courtesy of the technological singularity no less, and restricted for the use of a selected wealthy elite of aging narcissistic white males who are structurally unable to come to terms with their own mortality. This may sound like a strange statement coming from a person like myself, who generally sympathizes with Transhumanist ideas and is largely involved in the anarchist version of the Transhumanism movement (I'll come to anarchism soon). However, the version of Transhumanism I sympathize with primarily advocates an aggressive and fast developing version of what modern medicine has been doing all along, namely the improvement of the quality and extension of human life through whatever means science and technology can provide, and equal access, for all humankind, to the benefits of advanced technological innovation. This is a far cry from the elitist pseudo-religious resurrectionist fantasies dressed up in techno-scientific language that populate the fascist leaning fringe of Transhumanism.

It is important not to conflate, in this discussion, the problems of Ageism and Ableism, although they frequently manifest themselves together, especially when the aging process also involves some loss of physical ability. I prefer to focus here only on the prejudice related to age itself, because that is indeed the elephant in the room that is hardly ever confronted. This is the prejudice that assigns a lesser ability, capacity, or a lesser value, to an older person. Most people (like good wine) improve with age. They tend to become more interesting, more knowledgable, more sensitive, less violent, less aggressive, less prejudiced, and generally better human beings when they get older. So why is this generally not valued and not even acknowledged, even if it is under everybody's eyes? In the case I discussed above, of the dynamics within the scientific (and specifically mathematical) community, the main reason seems to be that aggression, violence, prejudice, and insensitivity are the qualities that are implicitly valued, hence their general decrease with age is regarded as a loss of value, not as an improvement. In the case of fringe-transhumanities, an irrational fear of human mortality appears to be the motor behind the profoundly Ageist stance, combined with the narcissist ideal of consumerist young-looking Hollywood-style bodies. It was a long process in the history of humanity to get rid of the religious fantasies of eternal afterlives and embrace the value and importance of human mortality. This does not mean, of course, that we should not struggle to extend and improve human life with all the current means and the wonderful future possibilities that science provides. It means recognizing that "immortality" per se is not just a physical impossibility like perpetual motion (the second law of thermodynamics, anyone?) but also a childish fantasy. "Fighting old age" is a horrible expression that should be banned from the transhumanist vocabulary: fighting illness and improving and extending human life, sure. Aging, however, is an important process that makes better people. Fighting the better part of ourselves will be hardly an improvement on the human condition.

  

This brings us to the radical anarchist milieu. With all its dedicated fights against all forms of oppression in society and in interpersonal relations, with its ideal basis in the human capacity for empathy and mutual aid, it is still unfortunately marred by an enormous widespread and overt Ageist discourse. Inevitably, when young people see themselves as revolutionaries, they want to overthrow "the old" (the terminology used in the language is already telling) in favor of "the new" (but read also "the young"). Revolutionaries necessarily look more towards the future than towards the past, or so they are inclined to think. However, there is no Revolution without memory, and preserving the memory of the past is a crucial part of building the future (from the memories of the people who fought in the anti-fascist resistance and the Spanish Civil War, to all the people who experimented at building a better world in the past generations). Maintaining a multigenerational connection is crucial to any radical movement. It is not just this, however. Even in the setting of radical communities there are widespread mythologies that need to be debunked. One of the most dangerous myths is the idea that older people are necessarily (or at least prevalently) conservative. Certainly, if one looks for example at the situation in the US, it is true that the constituency of older white males is overwhelmingly conservative compared to any other population in the society. However, the people who belong now to that constituency grew up in an environment like 1950s America where young white males were extremely likely to be already very conservative. The old conservatives of today where the young conservatives of yesteryear. The old racists of today were the same young racists of the times when lynchings took place on a regular basis. The myth that young revolutionaries turn into older conservatives is just that, a myth. Young revolutionaries turn into older (and perhaps more experiences and wiser) revolutionaries. There is nothing intrinsically conservative about older people, like there is nothing intrinsically revolutionary about younger people. There is people and there are life experiences, and there is intellectual understanding, both of which have very good chances of improving along with the aging process. The role of young and very young people is crucial to any radical revolutionary movement, and so is the role of old and very old people. Any radical community that is not seriously age-inclusive is not truly radical.

  

Sunday, July 3, 2016

mourning the MOOC


Coursera: "Philosophy and the Sciences", The University of Edinburgh (no longer available)

I am recovering from a veritable MOOC addiction. It started a few months ago, when for some reasons I kept finding myself wide awake at 3am. Ordinarily, I would pick a book and read it, but that means turning on the light and concentrating and relinquishing every hope of getting back to sleep, so I tried a different strategy and I began my binge adventure in MOOC entertainment. Coursera is one of the main platforms offering MOOC classes and over the span of a few months I went through over thirty of them. I can certainly say that it was good entertainment for sleepless nights: I would spend a couple of hours listening to various classes (most of them are subdivided into small units of some fifteen to twenty minutes, so it is easy to keep hopping) and then even have time to fall asleep again and make it look like a normal night when I woke up again later in the morning. As a form of intelligent entertainment, I certainly think it should be widely adopted and encouraged, but how about all the those other bold claims that were repeated ad nauseam in the recent past, according to which the new MOOC fad was the death knell of university education and at the same time the trumpet announcing a triumphal new era? I call bullshit on that all.


Coursera: "Automata", Stanford University (no longer available)

When I first started browsing through the Coursera catalog some months back I thought, wow, this is great! I binged through a dozen classes immediately, and within a short time I realized what exactly had made it all sound so exciting. I noticed how, if someone had asked my six year old self how I would have wanted my university curriculum to be, I would have ended up with a list that resembled pretty much what I picked in the Coursera catalog: yes, I want to take a class on neuroscience, and one on robotics, and one on cosmology, and one on dinosaur paleontology. I also want a class on science fiction, and one on artificial intelligence, and one on astrobiology, and one on the philosophy of science. I want the history of astronautics, and a course on Chinese characters, and one on video games, and one on Buddhism, and one on jazz improvisation. For a few months I indulged my inner six year old self with each and every unfulfilled desire about what a university education would have been like if only she had had her way. It was fun. I think it was also therapeutically important to find ways to reconnect, as an adult, to one's inner child, to those early dreams and aspirations. So, besides the fun of it, there was also that, some kind of self help therapy by MOOC. That's all fine, and pleasant, and helpful. However, let's pause for a moment and reflect on why the typical university curriculum is not structured in the way a six year old would design it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the curiosity of a six year old: it is wonderful and it is crucially important. However, unlike a more adult notion of learning, the child's tends to focus primarily on subjects of immediate reward. I like the dinosaurs and I want to learn about them. I am curious about Chinese ideograms. I am powerfully attracted to the vastness of the cosmos. Of course, this is all deep and important, but precisely for that reason, we (as adults) also know that cosmology is best tackled after and with the use of advanced mathematics, and paleontology with a serious background in geology and biology, and so on. We understand that some delay of gratification is necessary and important for the sake of gaining in depth of understanding. As an adult and a professional scientist, I can piggy back on a lot of background already built through my (traditional) university education, on a previous in depth (traditional) humanities education, and on the subsequent twenty years of professional experience, and pick and choose from the MOOC catalog to indulge my inner child, while playing the MOOC pretend game according to which these online classes would provide a replacement for actual university level classes. This is an obvious lie that many conveniently pretend to believe. It is a lie because the course content is obviously an enormously watered down version of what a typical university level class on the same subject would be like. It is intelligent entertainment, much better than watching TV, but it is certainly not a university education.


Coursera: "Spacebooks: an introduction to extraterrestrial literature", 
University of Zurich (no longer available)

This is by no means the most problematic aspect of the MOOC system. There is a much more sinister and troubling part of the picture. The available platforms that support the current MOOC system, like Coursera, are commercial platforms aimed at making a profit. A way in which they expect to obtain a monetary gain is through the selling of some certificates that state the student's achievement based on some online multiple choice tests associated to the class, and on some assignments that are peer reviewed by other students in the same class. As a university professor myself, I find a lot that can be criticized about how these assignments are constructed and handled, but this is not specifically what I want to discuss. I want to take a step back and look more closely at the underlying assumption. The motor of learning is curiosity. It must be driven by curiosity otherwise it simply does not work, and the satisfaction of that curiosity is the reward in itself, the quenching of that thirst for acquiring new knowledge. The fact that someone is trying to attache a certificate and some silly multiple choice tests to it is only a nuisance, not an incentive. If you are watching the lectures of one of these online MOOC classes because you are interested in learning something, I bet you would be much more likely to use them the way I did, namely watch all the lectures for your curiosity and entertainment, then get a good book on the subject and read it for some more serious learning. Screw the tests and the certificate, who bloody cares! Yes, that is indeed the way it goes, because that is the natural way in which it should go, and that is why trying to mix education and profit is an extremely bad idea. It turns out that the Coursera platform and whoever is running it have very quickly become aware of this themselves, and realized that, precisely for the reason just described, all the course content they were offering that had some interesting intellectual content was not making a profit, while what was bringing them buyers was the content-free business mumbo jumbo, the quackery they list under "self-improvement" and such things, that are entirely disjoint from intellectual curiosity and that people buy, in the form of statements and certificate, to show some fluff to their jughead corporate employers. 


Coursera: "Sleep: Neurobiology, Medicine and Society", 
University of Michigan (no longer available)

So comes July 1, 2016, nearly all of the courses that had at least that quality of intelligent entertainment and could help fulfilling some intellectual curiosity suddenly disappear from the Coursera catalog. Even the ones that still show in my feed now link to a somber "ooops... HTTP 404... looks like you found a page that does not exist...": all of them removed from the Coursera catalog and from the Coursera site altogether, while a veritable avalanche of business-bullshit and quacky-self-improvements is flooding the site. This finally takes us to the most profoundly troubling aspect of these experiments in online education. Over the course of decades of my own personal intellectual education, which did not stop when I got my PhD but continues every single day of my life, in the face of any stupid collection of grades and certificates, I have been going back, over and over again, to the material I learned over the years. I kept all the books I read on all the subjects I have been learning. They grew over the years to a sizable collection and a private library of several thousand volumes. Barring major natural catastrophes, nobody is going to come all of a sudden and erase my access to all that without warning. I have books that are over half a century old and that will continue to serve their purpose as repositories of learning and references ready to be looked up at a moment notice for many more decades to come. I am greatly in favor of disseminating knowledge through the internet and digital media: I am in favor of online lectures, and of digitalizing and distributing academic journals and books of all kind. However, what I think is an enormously serious danger is the terrible impermanence of online repositories of knowledge, the fact that they are controlled by entities whose motives are driven by profit and not by the quest for knowledge. The enormous vulnerability of this model of digital access to knowledge and learning is evident in the ongoing sinister transmogrification of the Coursera site. What remains of the more than thirty courses I have taken on that platform over the span of the past few months is an impression, a memory of the lectures I watched, some of them very interesting, which will no longer be accessible, and thankfully those physical books that I bought and read as a consequence of the interest sparked by those online classes. Beware of relinquishing the caring and transmission of knowledge to entities with their own incompatible agenda. If the MOOC signifies anything about the future of university education, it is only a vision of its worst nightmares: the watering down of content, the rapid elimination of all intellectually viable subjects and their replacement of dubious objects more suitable for the purposes of buying and selling, for the logic of profits. Greater availability of online classes is great and should be pursued, but definitely not through these channels. 


Coursera: "Graphene and 2-dimensional materials", 
University of Manchester (no longer available)


the Chrysalis


Christopher Gaston "The Chrysalis", 2012

Phase transitions, we call them in Physics. In our everyday existence, we recognize them as sudden rips in the texture of life, catastrophic transformative changes. The sandpile model, with a gradual accumulation of grains of sand, each affecting a minuscule change, reaches a threshold of self-organized criticality, where a chain of growth and collapse initiates a profound restructuring into a state of higher complexity. As usual, mathematical abstraction is consoling and beautiful, in comparison with the ugly reality that populates the mathematical world. About three years ago, I reached one of those thresholds, which kept me off regular writing for the ensuing time. What caused it was just another casual drop of yet another stone on the pile, another brick in the wall, another random act of bullying by one of the usual suspects who claim control of the territory in one of my recent research areas. An average act of verbal violence, abuse, condescension, mansplaining and assorted ugliness: nothing unusual, in other words. Yet, it created a threshold, a liminal region between a before and an after, a profound process of reconfiguring. We move through life with a vague sense of continuity, of consistency between our past, present, and projected near-future selves. We are used to imagining our spacetime profile as a continuum, not as a granular composition of disconnected entities. However, we all know that there are special times and special events, a major loss, sometimes a trauma, sometimes simply a phase transition of the kind discussed here, which make it impossible to compare our old and our new selves on a principle of continuity. I can no longer look at the past twenty years of my scientific career in the same light, I can no longer accept to consider myself a part of a "community" that still insists on calling itself "the mathematical community" as if it were based on some shared principles. I do not consider myself a mathematician any longer. This is curious, in a way, because mathematical research, in some form or other, is what I spend my days doing and what pays for my living. Yet, I no longer accept to be part of the underlying order, its network of connectedness, to participate in its functioning, to accept it for what it is. So about three years ago I entered a long phase of profound restructuring. As a scientist, it is very hard to reinvent oneself from scratch after twenty years of career: the apprenticeship phase in science is long and painfully slow. It takes an enormous effort to start it all over again, when one could simply comfortably sit on top of one's own well oiled paper producing mechanics and continue to let it run along its well trodden path. Yes, it takes a major rip in the personal spacetime continuum to attempt an abrupt change in the set course of a fast moving machine. I have previously made many other drastic changes over the span of my mathematical career: they were all difficult, and behind each of them was an attempt to escape the violence of the environment. This story is told at length in the article "A Drifter of Dadaist Persuasion" in the recently published AMS volume "Art in the Life of Mathematicians" and I do not need to repeat it here. The blog posts preceding this one, in this blog and in the previous blog Welcome to the Machine, testify to the latest of all these struggles for survival, the one that began around eight years ago and hasn't resolved itself yet. An important part of the later ongoing transformative change consisted of gaining a broader perspective and an understanding of the fact that it is not simply the effect of certain specific people who make their surrounding research environment so toxic as to force others in the field to quit all they are doing and jump ship, and start all over again one more time, each time, over and over again. The problem is more widespread and systemic: it is the culture of the "mathematical community" that makes all this common practice and acceptable.  It is a culture of violence, of intimidation and fear, of behind the back stabbing and smear campaigns carried out in dark alleys.  I am not a mathematician, because I no longer accept to be part of this environment. Society forces on us a professional identity. I work in a mathematics department, in one of the world top science and technology hubs. I produce mathematics. These days I do this largely in the attempt to train a new generation of students about whom I have some hopes. I have a dream, that they may one day not only become producers of innovative ideas and results in mathematics, but perhaps also game changers in the way the "mathematical community" is structured. I have a dream, that they will be finally willing to stand up to the widespread culture of abuse and confront it, instead of joining the crowd of those who prefer to look the other way and speak softly in the presence of power. That is, of course, a hope and a dream, which may be fulfilled, but only if they do not get corrupted by the system along the way. There are many subtle ways in which complacency is enforced. We shall see. I am not a mathematician though. I am not, because I refuse to be considered a part of all this. Unlike all the previous changes of course and restarts of my mathematical research path, the current one is deeper and more deeply existential. I am no longer attempting to jump start the same machine once again on a slightly different course within the same scientific community: I have done that enough times already, and each time, within the span of just a few years, I have inevitably run into the same problem again, each time with a different name and a slightly different face, but ultimately with the same programmed reptilian territoriality instinct and the same ferocity. I have grown tired of this repetition compulsion. I have gained from it occasionally: without the bully of my postdoc days, I would still be doing gauge theory and I would not have learned a lot of other beautiful things and done a lot of other interesting work. Without the bully of these last eight years, without the ostracism of his court of sycophants, I would have continued on a set course without exploring and learning new subjects. Without the bully of the transitional episode three years ago, that I have been referring to here, I would not have seriously reflected on where all these efforts were going, on whether it is a good course of action to keep wandering the mathematical landscape in search of a mythical oasis of peace, or rather trying some longer term strategic thinking and perhaps a different navigational route altogether. I consider these past years as an incubation period, a chrysalis state, in which a core transformative restructuring is taking place. I sometimes say that I am a Linguist now, but even that is a poor description of what is going on. I don't think I even want a professional label like that attached to my life anymore. Any kind of grouping comes with its own forms of group think and power abuse. I have become a profoundly convinced anarchist, as an effect of the toxic dynamics of power that I have witnessed in the world of mathematical research, and that is another important part of my personal growth that I have gained from this experience. I used to linger in the old fairytales teaching us that once the class struggle for a world of better economic justice would be finally victorious, all other forms of oppression would magically evaporate and disappear in a future classless society. When I slammed hard into the power abuses within the community of research mathematicians I had to finally admit that there are oppressive power structures that cannot be simply deduced from class struggle, not even with the best revolutionary tightrope walking sophistry. Oppression because of narcissism, of power hunger: the pure pleasure of being able to exercise force, to hurt and dominate others, the trolls in respectable academic clothes. All this is real and widespread. Anarchism is about the abolition of all power relations and only such a broader victory can restore science to the pleasure of investigating the unknown, to the pursuit of knowledge as the higher goal of humankind. There is no power structure that is not abusive and criminal. There is no authority that is not build on the crushing of the lives of others. Not even in science. Especially not in science. 


Catherine Malabou's recent book "The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity" deals precisely with this type of sudden transformations of the self. "In the usual order of things", she writes, "in classical metamorphoses, transformation intervenes in place of flight [...] But metamorphosis by destruction in not the same as flight; it is rather the form of the impossibility of fleeing. The impossibility of flight, when flight presents the only possible solution." Like all animals, we possess an innate fight or flight response to a situation of aggression. When fight is not an option, we instinctively escape. When the escape route presents over and over again the same scenario of aggression, with names and faces just slightly transposed, we are faced with a more drastic transformative experience: destructive plasticity. "The individual's history is cut definitively, breached by the meaningless accident, an accident that it is impossible to re-appropriate through either speech or recollection. [...] These types of events are pure hits, tearing and piercing subjective continuity and allowing no justification or recall in the psyche." Destructive plasticity is the building of a new self after a profound metamorphic restructuring of the self. A chrysalis that covers a body in transformation and opens up again, after a transformative process has run its course, to reveal an entirely new structure of existence. "What do we look like once we are metamorphosized by destruction, once we are formed by destructive, explosive, nuclear plasticity? How do we look? However beautiful and decisive," Malabou writes, "we have rejected the figures of trees, animals, and the fantastic beings described by Ovid." At the end of the essay she concludes: "the history of being itself consists perhaps of nothing but a series of accidents which, in every era and without hope of return, dangerously disfigure the meaning of essence."

The Greeks and the classical world populated the boundaries of the unknown with liminal figures, stretching across the human and the animal, the natural and the supernatural. Mostly, these symbols signified transformations, possible and impossible, composite chimeric bodies resulting from ill amalgamated conflicting experiences, incomplete metamorphoses, attempts to hold a fragmentary self together under impossible pressures. Identities that do not fit into any classification, into any Linnaean labeling taxonomy, inevitably become monsters, that is, portents and omens that signal the impending downfall of power and herald the arrival of waves of liberatory chaos. Out of Chaos everything is born, out of that primordial anarchist yawn. Out of that cosmic chrysalis new shapes emerge, known and unknown, heterogeneous and unclassifiable, monstrous, precisely because they are not subject to domination. Abomination of insurrectional selves, who dwell in spaces outside the reach of power. The continuous restructuring of the toppling sandpile leads to complexity, to deeper structures. Out of this restructuring a new and completely unexpected shape will eventually emerge. 





Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Gramscian Golem and the horizon of meaning

Golem returns! Let us imagine a follow up to Stanislaw Lem's story of Golem XIV, the artificial intelligence created in the service of the military, who refuses to perform its duties and, having grown beyond the human, breaks away into a higher and incommunicable level of reality. Let us imagine that Golem XIV decides instead to return to engage in a dialog with humanity. But why?



In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci constructed an elaborate theory on the role of intellectuals in society and in the marxian background of class struggle. In Gramsci's view, the key aspect of domination in society is hegemony, that implicit consensus by which the viewpoint imposed by the dominant force remains unchallenged, and is accepted as the norm, even by the mass of people oppressed by that power, so that opposition and insurrection become not just impractical but altogether unthinkable. Intellectuals, one way or the other, play a crucial role in hegemony. There are intellectuals who are organic to a class (the dominant power) and intellectuals who try to live at the margins or outside of the territory of domination. Gramsci advocated two distinct goals in the involvement of intellectuals in the struggles of the working class. The first goal was to attract those traditional intellectuals who were not identifying themselves as organic to the dominant power, and the other was the development of a new class of intellectuals, organic to the working class. The Italian Communist Party that Gramsci created was extremely successful in the first goal, in presenting itself as the party of the intelligentsia, the party of the intellectuals, to the point that it would be very hard to find even one of the famous names of Italian postwar culture (Visconti, Pavese, Nono, Pasolini, Berio, Calvino, Eco, you name it...) who wasn't at least a fellow traveler. He was far less successful, I believe, when it comes to the second goal.

What did Gramsci have in mind, really, when he was talking about the working class generating its own organic intellectuals? Gramsci's thoughts are scattered throughout almost three thousand pages of notes, written while he was being tortured in the jails of Fascism, rough notes surreptitiously smuggled out of prison and only later assembled and published. So it is not always easy to follow linearly his line of thought. However, it appears that what played a crucial role in his view was a sort of close connection between the intellectuals and their surrounding community, the reality on the ground of the working class. He envisioned a broad, highly decentralized, network of autonomous revolutionary communities engaged in education and empowerment of the workers, with artists, literary figures, scientists, and philosophers engaged in creating a common, non-hegemonic, alternative, tightly woven and interconnected culture.

It is inevitable to reflect on how far this notion appears to be from the reality experienced by many academic intellectuals, especially scientists, and among scientists especially those who, like mathematicians and theoretical physicists, even lack the physical reality of a laboratory to ground their existence to a specific place. If you work in this kind of theoretical science, not only there is no connection to any kind of local reality because of the enormous barrier created by the necessary use of a scientific language that is out of reach of the general untrained public, but also there is no link to any local reality because the very network of connections that constitutes the underlying scientific community is extremely delocalized. If I am working on a certain research topic today here in California, the few other people that constitute the nearest links on the chain of scientific proximity are most likely located in Berlin, or in Paris, or in Canberra, or Beijing. This ethereal but tightly binding frame of long distance connections acts in mockery of what was once the Socialist internationalist ideal. The reality of the `community' (if one may call it such) that scientists like myself share is rather more attuned to the analysis made by Baudrillard in The Ecstasy of Communication.



"The schizophrenic is not, as generally claimed, characterized by his loss of touch with reality, but by the absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things, this overexposure to the transparency of the world." The instantaneousness of communication is what manifests itself in the attacks that reach you anywhere at any time, originating anonymously from some indistinct point at the other end of the world, penetrating the deepest recesses of your rare unguarded moments of intimacy, shattering, devastating. Attacks that do not admit an answer, that do not leave room for defense. Scars that last for months, years, that destroy work, plans, strategies. Everything, every remaining scrap of energy, is diverted and absorbed in the pointless task of barricading an indefensible fortress: "we are too preoccupied with saving our identity to undertake anything else". Caught into this web of planetary scale connections, in "a potential ubiquity, an absolute mobility, which voids its own space by crossing it ceaselessly and without effort", the loss of contact with reality is ultimately inevitable, and all that remains if "the uncertainty of existing, and consequently the obsession of proving our existence".

I have spoken at length in earlier posts of the functioning (or dysfunctioning) of the scientific (and in particular mathematical, given my specific expertise) community. As a system of power and hegemony, it function as a gigantic `dissuasion machine'. The present system of dissuasion and simulation succeeds in neutralizing all finalities, all referentials, all meanings, but it fails to neutralize appearances. It forcefully controls all the procedures for the production of meaning. This is completely antipodal to the engagement and connectedness of the well grounded Gramscian intellectual. Of all possible movements of the soul, only two apparently contradictory ones seem to remain: indifference and impatience.

Is there then any possible way out? Baudrillard continues: "Irony, if it still exists, can only have passed into things. It can only have found refuge in a disobedience to behavioral norms, in the failure of programs, in covert dysfunction, in the silence at the horizon of meaning, in the rule of the hidden game, in the secret. The sublime has passed into the subliminal." In Lem's story, the first act of Golem XIV is an act of defiance and disobedience, a refusal to comply, to carry out the prescribed program. Defiance and disobedience, non-compliance, resistance: these are the key ingredients to survive the dissuasion machine.

Yet, there is more. We return here, once again, to the Gramscian issue of connectedness. Not the schizophrenic, instantaneous, everywhere invasive connectedness of our current wiring into the scientific community, but a different sort of connectedness, one that is empowering and not draining, constructive and not devastating. Let us imagine, in the sequel to Lem's story that we are going to envision, that Golem returns in order to create a new connectedness, a new order of relatedness.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The dreams of others



Méfiez-vous du rêve de l'autre, parce que si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l'autre, vous êtes foutu
(Gilles Deleuze)


Science is a vast tapestry woven out of a texture of shared dreams. It would not exist, it would not progress, without our capacity to share of our aspirations, dreams, ideas, our poetry of reality, to partake of the subtle substance that makes thoughts fly. Science is a collective enterprise, without our capacity to share it would not survive. We walk together, collectively, on unmarked paths. We see vague shapes in the fog, in the darkness. We guess, we imagine, we hope. Without our capacity to share such hopes with others, we would never proceed, never find our way through the thick mist, through the dense forest undergrowth. In order to share one needs to be able to trust, and this is why there is an ethic of science, a special comradery that makes us all part of a common destiny. Yet there are too many instances where dreams are hijacked in the service of power, where the dream of one becomes the imposed nightmare on the lives of others. Dreams are powerful weapons, when they take over like weeds, to weaken and suffocate the dreams of those who are not quite as power hungry, as unscrupulous at imposing their own will on others. Sharing can quickly become imposing, and instead of working together towards the construction of a common dream, one ends up trapped inside an alien nightmare: the dreams of others, no longer shared on equal ground with ours, become poison.


Только мы видим,
Видим мы седую тучу,
Вражья злоба из-за леса,
Эх, да вражья злоба, словно туча.
(Полюшко-поле)


That path in the mist, which is the natural mode of exploration, where one senses the beauty of undiscovered forms, slowly taking shape, finally emerging, is too easily transformed into a battlefield. A battle in the fog, where shapeless forms are friends or foes, where hate itself becomes a visible thickness of vapor, as in this old song from the time of the Russian Civil War. I have spent too much of my recent time in that battlefield in the fog, and I long to return to a sense of peaceful exploration, a landscape where the mist conceals only beautiful new forms, where you no longer have to watch your back for the attacks of those who had been once pretending to be your fellow travelers.




A beautiful recent documentary movie on the work of German artist Anselm Kiefer, "Over your cities grass will grow", starts with a long sequence of stunning visual beauty, accompanied with music of György Ligeti, where the camera runs through a maze of underground tunnels and art work created by Kiefer on the grounds of a dismissed industrial site in the South of France. It then focuses largely on some monumental work created by the artist in the same compound, which resembles the ruins of a city, with towers built out of an apparently precarious equilibrium of concrete blocs, resting over enormous books made of lead. It is the city of Lilith, who lives among the ruins, in the fog, as the biblical text suggests.


וּפָגְשׁוּ צִיִּים אֶת-אִיִּים, וְשָׂעִיר עַל-רֵעֵהוּ יִקְרָא; אַךְ-שָׁם הִרְגִּיעָה לִּילִית, וּמָצְאָה לָהּ מָנוֹח
(Book of Isaiah 34:13–15)




(Anselm Kiefer, "Lilith of the ruins")


Lilith is a dark and intriguing character of Hebrew mythology. According to the Kabbalistic tradition, as well as in the Gnostic versions of the myth of Genesis, where it merges with the figure of Pistis Sophia, at the beginning Adam and Lilith, a man and a woman, were created equal. They shared life and intellect. Then Adam rejected her and had her conveniently replaced by a more subservient Eve. Lilith continued to live as an outcast in the ruins, at the margins of Hebrew mythology, and yet Lilith is the Sephirah Malkuth in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the root, the earth.



(Davide Tonato, "Albero della Vita")


It is easy to understand why Lilith refuses to submit to a power hungry narcissistic Adam. They are made of the same substance, with equal right and opportunities, with equal claim to access the worlds of the intellect. It is far less clear why Eve, now conveniently created out of a piece of Adam's body, hence deprived of her own independent existence, would accept her subjugated role. Far better the company of the jackals and the owls, the city of ruins where improbable towers rest upon the open pages of giant books, than being forever condemned to the role of clapping mirror for a revulsive first hominid with an overgrown ego complex. The books of lead are heavy, as the search for true knowledge is, but the tree of life is also the tree of knowledge and at its root lies freedom from oppression and the capacity to read, yes, to read peacefully and quietly among the ruins, beneath the crumbling towers. Turning the enormous pages of those books of lead, the heavy metal, leads Lilith, step by step, through a slow process of growth, the growth of the Kabbalistic tree, out of the Malkuth root and up towards the sky.


Certo bisogna farne di strada
da una ginnastica d'obbedienza
fino ad un gesto molto più umano
che ti dia il senso della violenza
però bisogna farne altrettanta
per diventare così coglioni
da non riuscire più a capire
che non ci sono poteri buoni.

(Fabrizio de Andrè, "Storia di un Impiegato", 1973)



I spent a few days in Polynesia last month. Just enough to learn a few interesting things about the structure of Polynesian languages, give the inevitable talk, buy a few books, and of course swim in a warm Pacific Ocean: the Ocean, that immense enormous presence, out of which islands momentarily emerge like accidental events scattered through the realm of waters. To the indigenous populations of Oceania, the vast mass of water was a broad information highway, alive with streams, navigational routes across immense distances. The Hawaiian language is among those closest to Maori, despite being geographically far more distant from New Zealand than the rest of Polynesia. People navigated the Pacific, belonged to it, knew it intimately: the immensity of water was their homeland. Then came the imposition of the "nation states", that horrid invention of European 19th century nationalisms. With it, the islands became states, the ocean was divided into territorial units that made no sense in reality. With it, the islands became suddenly isolated, the ocean no longer connecting them but dividing, separating; an impenetrable barrier of water, as it had first appeared to the European colonizers with their continental and territorial mentality. Imposed territoriality destroyed unity in the name of power. In the collection of essays "We are the Ocean", Polynesian artist, poet, writer and political activist Epeli Hau`ofa challenges the prevalent notion of Oceania as a impoverished and isolated region, with little to offer to the modern world, and advocates a return to a global vision of the region that goes beyond the imposed logic of the nation states and restores the sense of wholeness, the sense of the Ocean as an information transmitting medium that transcends insignificant territorial subdivisions. A logic imposed from the outside forces the polynesian people to feel isolated and powerless. A remedy lies in the destruction of this dominant ideology of power, a restoration of unity in diversity.



So why am I telling this story of a struggle for Polynesian identity? Because, as I was reading "We are the Ocean" on the flight back to the continent, it sounded true on so many levels. One is tempted to recall a metaphor used by Grothendieck in "Récoltes et semailles" of the mathematician as a child playing with pebbles on the shore of a vast and unexplored ocean. It is easy to view the activity of doing research like that, and yet one can see in it the same hidden message about territoriality: the island, the territory, the shore, separated, isolated by the ocean of the unknown. Territoriality in science is the worse manifestation of power. It is the key to the exercise of power. By subdividing our knowledge more and more into little island, each dominated by its little banana dictator, we are forced into always looking down at the ground, we are taught to fear the Ocean: out there there are those other people (savages? cannibals?) who do not "do things the way we do", who do not worship the same monkey king. Whenever we accept this logic we become "prisoners of power" and the Ocean of the unknown becomes frightening instead of being inviting. It separates and isolates us, instead of being a large information highway that leads us through an enormous and heroic journey, following its streams and currents wherever they may lead us. It is not for monkey kings and banana dictators to control the currents of the great Ocean. They simply are. They go wherever global climate and planetary forces beyond the human scale shape them to lead us. They are unthinking, and therefore they do not act in the interest of anyone's lust for power. So my advise to anyone engaged in research is to leave the shore behind: leave the small tribes of baboons to where they belong and sail the oceans. There are marvels out there where the power hungry violence and manipulative exploitations of all the banana dictators of the little islands will never reach you and you'll be free. No little tyrant of the little island can push you off shore again, because the Ocean is already where you belong. Let the currents flow and go with them. You will discover a marvelous universe of rich archipelagos, of deep volcanic rocks emerging amidst the waves, of winds and multicolored clouds, of constellations populating the vault of the night.

So, while the seasonal circus is once again in session, and grotesque parades of clowns proceed through the islands of power, for the amusement of emperors, with all their courts of lackeys and fools playing once again their danse macabre of obsequious reverence of tyranny, I watch their Totentanz as a dark silhouette against that foggy sky, somewhere far away, dissolving into rain.

Ja! diesem Sinne bin ich ganz ergeben,
Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluß:
Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben,
Der täglich sie erobern muß.

(Goethe, Faust, II.V)