By: Peggy Nelson
March 15, 2011

Angels and Bits, featuring Fred Astaire, telegraphs, telephones, and the world wide interwebs

In answer to LRJP!, who asked, “How many angels can dance on the head of a bit?” and “Is it impossible to imagine that there might one day be a sort of calligraphy of the bit?

John Dee thinks of calligraphy as the record of the hand’s movement. And as the stroke is the record of the hand, so the dance is the record of the body. These gestures are less about communication itself, and more about conducting it with flair.

Your questions concern both embodiment and legibility. With the virtual turn, embodiment becomes a more flexible concept, whereas legibility becomes more fraught. Conducting is strictly defined as on or off. Any move away from strict function is error, especially at the level of the bit, and any bit-level flair must be encoded as error. So a move toward calligraphy must read error as art.

As for the angels: all of them, but in sequence, as the alternating states of the bit tap out the 9 billion names of God.

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Watson, Come Here, I Want You, featuring Alan Turing, Pontius Pilate, Henry Higgins and the midcentury mainframe of your choice

Does Watson know that he won? Oh, I’m sorry…in linking thinking to biology, John Searle offers an answer that is not in the form of a question.

Watson did quite well on Jeopardy, as it was designed to do. Machines tend to play games well, especially when the games involve logical or mechanical procedures, i.e., rules. Or building SUVs. But did doing well mean it knew the answers? Does it know things? Does it know it won? Can we infer self-awareness, consciousness, from a pattern of perceived causes and effects?

Can Watson say, with Rene, “I think, therefore I am?” Or can it only display it?

For that matter, can you?

The problem of other minds extends to the issue of artificial intelligence, rather than the other way around. I do not have privileged access to your mind the way I do to my own, so how do I know that you think? I don’t know it, I can only infer it, from a pattern of behavior and belief-reports on your part. Aside from that, I have to take it on faith. Since this is the same procedure whether the other in question is you or a reasonable facsimile, then how do I know a machine does not think, if it produces a similarly believable pattern of behaviors and claims about itself?

This is the perspective of Alan Turing, as he designed his eponymous Test: behind each of two doors is a man and a machine. The questioner (let’s say, you) submits typed questions to each through a tiny slot (no peeking!), and typed answers are returned the same way. If you can’t guess from the answers which is what, and what is who, then thinking must be attributed to the machine the same way it is attributed to the man. Of course thinking and consciousness might not be the same thing. But regardless, so far no machine has passed the test.

But so far does not have a logical lock on never, and whether or not the Turing Test will be our ultimate Test, the question is still an open one. So Searle’s recent cri de coeur in the Wall Street Journal turns out to beg the question it claims to consider. Despite observing consciousness’ relationship to biology (so far), Searle does not succeed in establishing a necessary link between the two. “I am” may be an epiphenomenon, or even a congeries of epiphenomena, upon multiple foundations; some carbon-based, some silicon-, and some, perhaps, even more distributed and less tangible.

Cyber-resurrections of 16th century esoteric philosophers may take heart.


Cargo Cult, featuring technology, transport and materiel. Excerpt from IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, by Jóhan Jóhansson

In answer to sargemetalfatigue, who asked: are there still any existing cargo cults?

An excellent question. If you are referring to scattered techno-tribes wielding magic iPads and other interwebbed devices in the hopes of coaxing further information bounty from the cloud(s), then: no. No one does that anymore. Of course not! Certainly not. Not at all. None.


Anime Battles The Elements

In answer to kiplet, who asked, “What significance do the lyrics of ‘Three Little Maids From School’ have for us in the second decade of the 21st century?”

The recitation from three Japanese schoolgirls giggling about boys is of course a caricature from a satirical operetta and exactly the cartoon it was meant to be, although girls giggling over boys will probably be relevant for as long as there are teenagers. In the late 20th / early 21st century we have literalized the metaphor with anime, in which even more two-dimensional Japanese schoolgirls cavort for our amusement. However, it is true that some of the anime’d maids also battle demons and chthonic elementals, braids and batted eyelids notwithstanding. So, there’s that.


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