Sunday, June 26, 2022

Off Topic: On Politics

I don't think I'm going to be able to work in a connection to photography here, this is just a mass of material I've been thinking about for a long time, all brought to a head by a recent Supreme Court decision here in the USA, and the reaction to it. But this essay isn't really about that either, it's about politics considered more broadly. I'm going to write in a tone that suggests everything I say is factual, but you should treat it all cum grano salis and keep in mind that, really, it's all just opinions and speculations.

The USA has two political parties, essentially. My observations and experiences with them, as well as a fair bit of reading, over the years have brought me around to a pretty specific conclusion about political parties in general. They are complex bureaucratic apparatuses which are almost entirely concerned with their own operation.

What I mean is that Democrats spend essentially 100% of their time on Being Party Members, and almost nothing on anything else. I'm sure they make sandwiches and play with their children and so on, but their professional lives are concerned exclusively with serving and operating the machine of the Democratic Party. Ditto, I think, Republicans and Conservatives, Liberals, Labour, and so on. In hindsight, I think this is inevitable. If the effort of "getting on" in the party is ever less than 100% of what a normal human can do, the party will evolve new procedures, subcommittees, forms, and caucuses, to consume the excess energy.

The result of this is that essentially all the "statecraft" (by which I mean, roughly, the cunning shenanigans part of "getting on" in any sort of bureaucratic apparatus) is consumed internally. The main difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the latter seem to save a little for actual governing, which is why they come out ahead disproportionately often in matters of actually operating a nation, despite their slight disadvantage at the polls.

It isn't that the Democrats are lazy, or polite, or stupid. It's that they're busy. They'd love to get up to some procedural shenanigans to accrue power in the government apparatus, but they're too busy running procedural shenanigans to accrue power in the Democratic Party to really get around to it.

Set this theory of bureaucratic apparatus aside for now. I can recommend Systemantics if you're interested in where these things come from, but to my eye this is kind of what Flusser was talking about as well, and certainly Orwell, Huxley, and Conrad spend a lot of effort on this sort of thinking.

The other branch of my thinking is this: we don't, functionally, have much in the way of free will. Even if we stipulate that the universe is not a great clockwork, with all outcomes predetermined, even if we stipulate that which we feel: that we have the capacity for free will, we don't functionally have much free will.

Almost everything that we say, think, believe, or do, is predetermined by our social situation, out context, our lives up to this moment. We believe, mainly, pretty much whatever our friends believe. This is in part because we become friends with like-minded people, and in part because we steal our ideas from our friends. It's a symbiotic, feedback, kinda deal. But that doesn't make it less true.

The AIs that write text are not so very different from us. They're just predicting the next most-likely word based on whatever the situation is. That's pretty much what we do, most of the time. Original thinking, original ideas, original acts, are insanely rare and very difficult. In the light of the recent Supreme Court decision, the social media out-roar, the street protests, the whole routine, is 100% predictable. Almost literally nobody is doing anything beyond acting out their predetermined role in response to an event which we've known in broad strokes was coming for years, and have known in detail was coming for weeks.

We are all of us, almost all the time, just dopey robots enacting our predetermined role as set by the social structures that surround and encapsulate us.

If we ruthlessly mash these two ideas together, what do we get?

Politicians and other party apparatchiks are people too. They are also more or less mindless drones acting out appointed roles, within a bureaucratic apparatus that is almost exclusively concerned with its own internal operations. Unlike, say, a corporation, a political party has essentially no constraints on bureaucratic excess, it is essentially a pure bureaucracy that does nothing except operate and expand itself.

I think it's useful to consider that what appears to be ideology, what appears to be a political posture vis-a-vis actual governing, is in fact at best a secondary set of stuff. A political party needs, as part of its bureaucratic operations, some sort of "policy ideas" but what those ideas are is largely irrelevant. So the party that is notionally more conservative tends to be tough on crime, anti-immigration, and so on these days, but those policy ideas are pretty much just drawn out of a hat and are subject to change. When they change, of course, nobody will remember that it was ever any other way, see Orwell. This is part and parcel of the bureaucratic machine.

It is a mistake to think that Priti Patel hates immigrants. Priti Patel is fully occupied with her role as a party apparatchik, Priti Patel doesn't think about immigrants at all. She has no opinion, and isn't interested. She enacts the bureaucracy's notional goals with respect to immigrants which are (checks notes) "we're against them" because she is a party apparatchik, and a very successful one at that.

While it's certainly possible that Priti Patel hates immigrants, is greedy and mean, and craves power, that is not what drives her policy moves. She is enacting her predetermined role within the bureaucracy, and at the moment that role is to oppose immigration.

A party's platform is essentially the same as the set of beliefs you and your friends share, and for pretty much the same reason. It's an incoherent set of ideas that have emerged from the collective mindset of the social group. It isn't based on anything, there is no rational argument for any of it, and it's remarkably fluid. A party needs a set of things to "be about" because the bureaucracy demands that there be sound bites and white papers come election time, but the party isn't actually about anything except itself.

This is why the Democrats are not going to abolish the filibuster and pack the Supreme Court and pass a law codifying abortion rights. It's because they don't care. Not because they're evil, or stupid, or notably incompetent, but because they're much too busy being Democrats. You can't get into the House of Representatives (the easiest win in US national politics) unless you've already committed yourself fully to being a party apparatchik. The bureaucracy of the party will, generally, prevent any mavericks from winning, so it's all apparatchiks all the way down. They will hew to the party line when speaking in public, but their actual job is being a Democrat (or a Republican) and in the USA that means their actual job is in fact fundraising for their next election.

These bureaucracies, in the USA, run on fundraising. They are, to first order and I think second and third as well, fundraising machines. As an elected official your job is to raise money to pay the consultants and staff which will labor ceaselessly to ensure your already-assured election (but if you don't pay them, the party won't endorse you, and the endorsed candidate will win the safe seat — for the British readers, the US system is essentially all pocket boroughs in a uniquely US style.) The goal of every bureaucracy is, when you peel away the bullshit, to expand itself, and in general that translates seamlessly to enlarging its own budget.

I am all but certain that the mechanics of fundraising are accompanied by myriad similar bureaucratic devices that must be successfully operated in order to maintain position in the system. I don't know what they are, but I do know how bureaucracies work.

For whatever reasons, it does appear that the conservative parties in Western Liberal Democracies seem to be saving up a little bit of their juice to actually effect change in the nations the aspire to rule. Perhaps it's as simple as being in a Western Liberal Democracy. Perhaps being perceived as the underdog constrains their bureaucratic excess slightly, in the same way the profit motive constrains a corporation. They feel it necessary, somehow, to save some energy to actually push forward on whatever random collection of items they're currently using as their "policy objectives." I don't really understand it.

The impotence of what appears to be the ideologically dominant parties, though, is obvious. They're entirely focused on their internal affairs, and simply can't be bothered to govern. That's what we have the government bureaucracy for, after all. (see: "Yes, Minister")

Be all this as it may, or may not, be, media certainly shows up in here somewhere. One of the operations of the party bureaucracies is the production of media, ostensibly to inform and/or shape the unwashed. For the most part, in the USA, the aim is less to inform and more to fundraise.

Photography probably shows up in here somewhere, but I told you from the outset that I was extremely unlikely to draw that line, and I'm not going to even attempt it here.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Art and AI

Everyone's excited about DALL-E and its variants, and now we have some boob at google claiming some chatbot is sentient, possibly because he likes to see his name in the press.

I was asked what I thought about art and AI in this context.

Start from here: our ignorance of what sentience or consciousness actually is, is complete. We have literally no idea, not the smallest fragment of an idea, not a sketch of an idea, of how these things work. Everything I've seen, and I do pay attention to the area, is either a) deeply stupid b) deeply trivial or c) observations made from the point of view of a possessor of a consciousness. The third one can be mildly interesting (starting from cogito ergo sum and proceeding, well, essentially to moderate elaborations of cogito ergo sum.)

Given that we don't actually know anything about consciousness, it's theoretically possible that a can of paint is conscious. How would we know it's not? Well, we can make some guesses.

The important elaboration on cogito ergo sum is the idea that a consciousness introspects. We contain within our mind a model of our own mind, which itself contains, etc, with (one assumes) simplifications are every level of re-modeling. My mind is complex, and contains a simplified model of itself, which in turn contains an even more simplified model, and so on until after 2 or 3 steps we have a blob labelled "mind" and that's about it. This implies certain things we can guess about what a sentient AI might look like.

In particular, it has to be able to "think about" AIs, specifically, itself.

DALL-E doesn't "think" about AIs, it "thinks" about visual 2D representations of things. GPT-3 doesn't "think" about neural networks which, like itself, model language. Insofar as GPT-3 cogitates about anything it cogitates about language. I cannot see anywhere in a can of paint where it might reasonably contain a model, simplified or not, of a can of paint. I conclude, therefore, that none of these things are likely to be sentient in any sensible definition of the word.

What AI research has taught us over the years is that you can get really really far without a shred of introspection.

The way you and I understand language is pretty specific. We map the symbols (whether sounds or letters or whatever) into some sort of conceptual thingies, which apply to a model of the world we contain in our minds. That world, importantly, contains a model of ourself, as well as models of other people who resemble us both physically and mentally. We make sense of language like "Susan is happy" by imagining a Susan and imagining her mental state and we imagine reacting to that mental state, and so on.

See also photography.

Given this complexity and nuance, you'd think that maybe you cannot meaningfully understand language without sentience, and therefore you cannot translate English to German without sentience.

This turns out to be, to a degree, false. You can indeed produce a fair translation (not a good one, but ok) without anything that remotely looks like sentience. Indeed, modern methods make no attempt to map the input language to some sort of internal world-model, although in times past that was very much the approach. Modern approaches just mimic known-correct translations as word-masses mapped to other word-masses, with fanatical depth.

DALL-E demonstrates that you can actually get a really long way toward making Art without a shred of sentience, without that introspective modeling part.

So are GPT-3 and DALL-E and all the result just second-rate simulations of some things humans do in a completely different way? Well, that's debatable. It's possible that most of our life is carried out with similar kinds of dunderheaded "computation" that's just fancy pattern matching paired with insect-like responses. The AIs might be completely different, but maybe they're actually working pretty much like the internal autopilots that operate so much of our day-to-day living.

What they're not doing is introspecting. They do not have a "self" to bring to the table.

So the burning question for Art is, does this even matter?

Of course we'd like to pretend that it is our very soul that infuses our work. Our own self, our essence, shines through, our creativity is rooted in that introspection. No Self, No Art!!

I dunno, I kind of think that's right. What's definitely true is that we're on the cusp of finding out.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Photos of The Dead

In the wake of Uvalde, we're seeing journalist after journalist grinding out some think piece about whether or not We The Public should see photos of shot-up dead kids. They all cover the same ground "ethically so complex" and they all make the same remarks "sometimes a photo or photos seems to produce some kind of action, and yet, other times not so much. What a mystery!"

Notably, at least to me, none of them seem to cite Sontag's Regarding the Pain Of Others which you'd think would be required reading here, even though it doesn't actually make any more sense of the issue than the current think pieces.

It is clear that this is something journalists have latched on to this week as an easy way to produce some clickable content. Even the content mills have gotten into the game, and boy, does it produce engagement. It's all gun-control engagement, indistinguishable from BBS fights from 1985, but it probably sells ads the same. Anyway, let's dig into it a bit.

In broad strokes much of the underlying discussion is "does repeated exposure to photos induce numbness, or action?" and the answer is not actually "what a mystery!" but "yes to both, and it depends on the circumstances."

All photos produce an attenuated sense of presence. Pornography produces an attenuated sense that you're in the presence of hot people fucking, photos of a shot-up child's body produce an attenuated sense of being there, of looking at the body. That's how photos work, that's what photos do (I claim.) Consequently, we can ask not what exposure to photos do, but rather what exposure to the real thing does.

We pretty much know what the experience of being around a lot of shot-up corpses is like. We have lots of soldiers and ex-soldiers around. The answer is that it's shocking at first, and becomes while not normal, at any rate in some sense not surprising. It never becomes fun, or positive. I do not think normal soldiers ever entirely suppress their reaction. The body adapts, though, the shock wears off, and it becomes merely exhausting, it becomes long-term trauma of some kind.

It's not fair to describe it as normalized, it's not fair to say one becomes uncaring. It remains abnormal, it remains something to care about.

The emotional reaction remains, I think. The reaction becomes less violent, more internal, more quiet. That might be "numb" I suppose, but "numb" seems too-simple a word for the effect.

In the same way, pornography ceases to be surprising, ceases to be shocking. As a rule, though, it does not stop being arousing. The surprise, the "holy shit am I actually seeing this?" vanishes, and it becomes (again) not exactly normal, but also not surprising. We don't expect pornography to be present during majority of our lives, while we're eating lunch, brushing our teeth, etc. It's not "normal" in that sense. And yet, in those times when pornography might reasonably be expected to heave into view, we're in no way taken aback. We are, if things are working right, aroused.

Photos of violence, and of the results of violence, are shocking when we see them at first. We're appalled, we rend our clothing, we weep.

If we were exposed to them routinely, we would likely cease to react as vigorously. We would feel less intensely. Presumably, though, we would continue to feel sorrow, regret, worry, fear, anguish.

Our sense of the world would likely shift, we would likely internalize more viscerally a sense of the world as a profoundly violent place. We know this already, but here in the West, we often know it more or less intellectually rather than viscerally. We would collectively, I suspect, develop a more somatic sense of the violence of the world.

A regular diet of shooting victim photos would leave us routinely, viscerally, sorrowful and anguished about this victim or that, in a world we understand more deeply, viscerally, as a violent place. We would be, I suppose, sadder and more afraid.

Will our newly visceral sympathy and fear change our attitudes? Will the pro-gun people see this as proof that everyone needs a gun for defense in this dangerous world? Will anti-gun people see this as proof that we need to ban guns, especially the black ones? Fear makes people hunker down and hold harder to their ideas, while empathy has a chance to shift them to a new idea.

If we want changed attitudes, I submit that we should aim for sympathy, for empathy, for love; we should shy away from fear. I don't know how to do that. I don't know what photos would produce more empathy and less fear.

Would any of this translate into action? And if so, which actions?

As noted in my previous remarks, nothing happens until the circumstances of the real world open a path to action. Until there is something concrete that we can collectively do which will actually affect the real world, all the gruesome photos in the world won't change a thing except our emotional state. We cannot really predict what the actions that actually occur will be, or what results those actions will produce.

Will we vote for more cops, leading to a hiring frenzy, resulting in hiring of terrible barrel-bottom losers as cops, producing more violence?

Will we protest for and then pass gun-control legislation? If so, will that legislation have any effect?

I have argued in the past that the American gun-violence problem is rooted in American tradition. This doesn't mean that banning AR-15s or whatever wouldn't have an effect, I simply have no idea. I do think I know where the root cause is, and it's inside us. To truly repair the gun violence problem, I believe we have to change the psyche of the nation, to shift it away from the idea that guns are a great solution to a broad class of problems.

I don't know how to do that. I am not convinced that publishing photos dead kids is going to do it, though, and I am having trouble imagining a path where is even might.

I see how a steady diet of such photographs would shape the national psyche, but I can only trace the path as far as "viscerally: more anguish and sorrow, together with more fear" which does not strike me as pointing to "guns are a bad tool for most problems."

I don't have the answers, I'm just trying to get a little further down the road of understanding, perhaps a few steps closer to the country of answers. Wiser heads than mine, perhaps...

Monday, June 6, 2022

History and Photography

I've seen the second article this week from a Serious Writer Person which asserts that photographs have little power to change the course of history, which is rocking me back a little. Did I miss a memo, or are photos now simultaneously impotent and incredibly powerful? Who knows. Allow me to indulge myself a little and think through a theory of change, of history in the shaping.

As a first approximation, it certainly seems as though everything which happens, happens as the inevitable result of the things that came before. To shape events today, you must alter them yesterday. The events of yesterday, though, were the inevitable result of the events that preceded them. This yields, by induction, a theory of history as impervious to change, as a sequence of inevitable events, one after the other, a clockwork none can alter.

This is, at least, an impractical theory. If true, who cares? Nothing matters. Let us, accordingly, think about some variations on the theme.

Each social entity, perhaps a single person, a group of revolutionaries, or society as a generalized whole, acts, lets us suppose, at any given moment within a fairly narrow scope of options determined by the context. Context includes the state of the real world, and the emotional stance of the social entity. We act largely by selecting the easiest (psychically easiest) action, or at least an easy one.

Note that this does not mean that we do not do hard things. Sometimes the psychically easiest course is very hard indeed. Imagine you've told all your friends you're definitely not going to chicken out the first time you go skydiving. To leap out the terrifying doorway into the air is by no means easy, but it might well be easier than facing your friends tomorrow having punked-out.

A revolutionary group might switch abruptly from sullen insolence to violent revolution, and that seems a long single step taken in a moment. In reality, though, perhaps it is a very small step, psychically. The revolutionaries have been psyching themselves up, they've been painting themselves into a corner as their oppressors harass them into the same corner, and then one morning, at 6:48am give or take a few seconds, violence erupts not because it is hard, or a large step, but because it is the easiest and shortest step to take, given the context.

This suggests that even a single photograph, contributing to the emotional state of some social unit, might tilt the context slightly, might open the path to a new course of action.

The course has to be pretty clear. This is well established by people who study these things, as well as being pretty obvious when I state it. The stage must be set, the emotional state of the social unit must be nearby, the conditions of the real world must be such as to enable action. The photograph arrives, it is seen, the emotional state takes on a new heightened and altered state, and the result is that the psychically easiest course is the action which results. The photograph in some sense caused the action.

Marketing, propaganda, is all about gently nudging the emotional state of the social unit. Often it's not even directed toward a specific action, but if the state of the world is right, the path will be cleared at some moment, and then the emotional state collapses like a quantum entanglement into action, into change. It might seem that suddenly a nation shifts and pelts, incomprehensibly, down a mad path. In reality forces have been slowly shaping the mood of the people, and other forces have been clearing the path.

Photographs and other media have a role here, they set the emotional stage, they show us the world and tell us its meaning. The inspire emotion, they make us angry, or inspire us, or delight us, they show us what ought to be, what is, and sometimes the show us what we might do.

Media, by shaping our ideas of the world, does not directly inspire change. Rather, it shapes us, it shapes our ideas of the psychic cost of this action versus that one. Media plays the role of all those friends to whom we bragged, all those friends who will relentlessly mock us if we fail to jump. Media does not pack our chute, it does not fly the plane, it does not open the door.

Our actions, and the actions of others, those directly shape the real world, they get us in the air standing in front of the open doorway, thinking about our friends. Then, we act, and that shapes the world anew.

It is, of course, not a tidy little loop of "media -> emotion -> (+ world) -> action -> new world" and back around to media again. It's a messy mesh of bullshit with arrows going all over the place all the time.

Still, I think it's a mechanic.

It answers the question of why the photograph of Aylan Kurdi dead on a beach didn't seem to have any effect. There was no easy course that could be activated by this photo, no matter how powerful the emotional impact. The photo of Emmett Till did activate a path forward, because there was a path forward. There were specific actions that could be taken, and which were taken, which were to a meaningful degree efficacious. There was a channel down which the emotional impact could flow, and flow it did.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Action vs. Emotion

It is pretty common to see assertions that go along these lines. Probably I've even made them:

Blah blah blah photograph (usually a dead or dying child) provoked a great outpouring of emotion, but at the end of the day nobody actually cares because nothing changed. There was a spasm of emotion, and then nothing.

It's the "nobody cares" part that got me thinking. Sometimes, in recent years, there's something about capitalism because everyone's an amateur socialist now. Even more recently the overly educated like to add "neoliberal" in there someplace.

My remarks here, it will surprise nobody, are triggered by, or perhaps a response to, some remarks by our old friend Dr. Colberg, who's expressing some positions unlikely to win him friends among his social set in his latest newsletter, here.

I would love to weigh 20 pounds less. I care about that, pretty strongly. To claim that I "don't care" would be nonsense. Yet, somehow, I manage to remain at around my current weight. You might argue that I don't care enough and depending on what we mean by that, it might in some sense be true.

Modern thinking, though, tries to separate things a bit more. It's not just a matter of caring more or less, changing habits is difficult, and the psychology of same is pretty complicated. There are strategies you can deploy, and factors in play, that make it meaningfully more than simply a matter of "caring enough."

In the same way, I suspect strongly that as a society, as a culture, "caring" is not meaningfully correlated with actual change. Change comes from somewhere else, somewhere a lot murkier, a lot more complex, a place where there are many factors some how which are difficult to see.

This is the essential problem that Gramsci was wrestling with when he formulated his ideas of cultural hegemony, although I don't think that he meaningfully moved much past identifying the thing.

All this is, of course, compounded by the fact that the course of action is often not clear. How shall we deal with this refugee crisis, or that? I know how to lose weight, the course of action there is straightforward, and I care, and even so I am largely helpless to actually put desire into action. How much more difficult for an entire society to solve a problem which lacks even a clear solution?

So, the photograph induces the emotion, the caring. We care about the refugees, about the victims of war, or famine. This is a real effect, easily measurable, often measured. It usually manifests concretely in the form of a spike in donations to specific charities, and often that spike is substantial, a clear signal. People care, and to a degree they act; just as I take a walk after the scale reveals to me a number I dislike, but I do not change my life.

Sometimes a photo, or an interval of photos, produces a larger spasm of action. People take to the streets in protest! This is not unlike joining a gym for the purpose of weight loss. It may or may not be an indicator of the larger structural changes which produce real social change (or real weight loss.)

In all cases, there is a gulf between the emotion, the spasmodic response; and the larger changes in structure necessary to produce actual social change. The larger structural changes may as well be described as an alteration of the hegemony of culture, in this case. The switch is from loudly proclaiming that such-and-such cannot stand, cannot continue, cannot happen again, to the construction of a society in which such-and-such actually does not stand, does not continue, does not happen again.

I have no answers here, I only know in broad strokes how a structural change in the hegemony of culture is brought about. It's called marketing, or propaganda, depending on whether you're for it or against it.

To claim, though, that photographs don't induce a genuine response, a genuine reaction, is untrue. To claim, on this flip side, that they alone constitute or maintain or shape a cultural hegemony is equally false. Europe does care about refugees, and that is largely independent of the fact that Europe is simultaneously failing to "solve" the refugee crisis it seems permanently mired in.

If I step on the scale in the morning, I don't like the number that I see. It is too large.

There is, I think, fairly rigorous research which suggests that people who weight themselves daily tend to be better able to manage their weight. The question is this: is is the act of daily weighing that leads to weight loss? Or is it that a person who already possesses the necessary psychological machinery to lose weight is also a person likely to weigh themselves daily? Probably some from column A, and some from column B.

In the same way, the genuine emotional outburst against, say, a war may be a useful or even necessary precondition to the conversion of war into peace. It is, obviously, not sufficient.

I don't think it wildly mischaracterizes Colberg's remarks as bemoaning the apparent fact that photographs cannot produce anything beyond a meaningless, false, emotional outburst. While in some sense he's got hold of something important here, I think it's wrong to characterize the emotional outburst as meaningless or false. Further, I think, I suspect, that these emotional outbursts and also appear as part of a shift in cultural structure.

In the same way that I might weigh myself and shake my head regularly, whether or not I have actually made the changes necessary to live life as a 175 pound man, it's probably true that if I have made those changes, I will weigh myself. It's probably also true that weighing myself will be a part of the changes that I might make, in a successful weight loss/lifestyle change program.

We cannot entirely lose hope for photography. The medium is in play, it has a role to play, but that role is subtle, and perhaps minor. But it's there.