Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Dehumanization: Surrendering to the Death of Democracy

 

Greetings, Teeming Brainers. I’m just peeking in from the digital wings, amid much ongoing blog silence, to observe that many of the issues and developments — sociocultural, technological, and more — that I began furiously tracking here way back in 2006 are continuing to head in pretty much the same direction. A case in point is provided by the alarming information, presented in a frankly alarmed tone, that appears in this new piece from Scientific American (originally published in SA’s German-language sister publication, Spektrum der Wissenschaft):

Everything started quite harmlessly. Search engines and recommendation platforms began to offer us personalised suggestions for products and services. This information is based on personal and meta-data that has been gathered from previous searches, purchases and mobility behaviour, as well as social interactions. While officially, the identity of the user is protected, it can, in practice, be inferred quite easily. Today, algorithms know pretty well what we do, what we think and how we feel — possibly even better than our friends and family or even ourselves. Often the recommendations we are offered fit so well that the resulting decisions feel as if they were our own, even though they are actually not our decisions. In fact, we are being remotely controlled ever more successfully in this manner. The more is known about us, the less likely our choices are to be free and not predetermined by others.

But it won’t stop there. Some software platforms are moving towards “persuasive computing.” In the future, using sophisticated manipulation technologies, these platforms will be able to steer us through entire courses of action, be it for the execution of complex work processes or to generate free content for Internet platforms, from which corporations earn billions. The trend goes from programming computers to programming people. . . .

[I]t can be said that we are now at a crossroads. Big data, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and behavioral economics are shaping our society — for better or worse. If such widespread technologies are not compatible with our society’s core values, sooner or later they will cause extensive damage. They could lead to an automated society with totalitarian features. In the worst case, a centralized artificial intelligence would control what we know, what we think and how we act. We are at the historic moment, where we have to decide on the right path — a path that allows us all to benefit from the digital revolution

Oh, and for a concrete illustration of all the above, check this out:

How would behavioural and social control impact our lives? The concept of a Citizen Score, which is now being implemented in China, gives an idea. There, all citizens are rated on a one-dimensional ranking scale. Everything they do gives plus or minus points. This is not only aimed at mass surveillance. The score depends on an individual’s clicks on the Internet and their politically-correct conduct or not, and it determines their credit terms, their access to certain jobs, and travel visas. Therefore, the Citizen Score is about behavioural and social control. Even the behaviour of friends and acquaintances affects this score, i.e. the principle of clan liability is also applied: everyone becomes both a guardian of virtue and a kind of snooping informant, at the same time; unorthodox thinkers are isolated. Were similar principles to spread in democratic countries, it would be ultimately irrelevant whether it was the state or influential companies that set the rules. In both cases, the pillars of democracy would be directly threatened.

FULL ARTICLE: Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

Of course, none of this is real news to anybody who has been paying attention. It’s just something that people like me, and maybe like you, find troubling enough to highlight and comment on. And maybe, in the end, Cipher from The Matrix will turn out to have been right: Maybe ignorance really is bliss. Because from where I’m sitting, there doesn’t appear to be anything one can do to stop this streamrollering, metastasizing, runaway train-like dystopian trend. Talking about it is just that: talk. Which is one reason why I’ve lost a portion of the will that originally kept me blogging here for so many years. You can only play the role of Cassandra for so long before the intrinsic attraction begins to dissipate. Read the rest of this entry

The world of tomorrow? You can have it (Hollywood post-apocalyptic supercut)

Horror encyclopedia: My work is (almost) done

Horror_Literature_through_History_edited_by_Matt_Cardin

This week I finished the primary body of editorial work on Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears. It has been my all-consuming focus on this vast project that has kept The Teeming Brain mostly dormant for most of 2016. I just now counted and saw that I have published a mere twenty-five previous posts this year. Quite honestly, in the past twelve months I have become something of an editor monk, devoting myself single-mindedly to this project during every “extra” (ha ha) hour, and working the equivalent of two (or more) full-time jobs.

This week, I sent the book’s edited contents to the publisher, after having already engaged in much editorial collaborative back-and-forth with my project editor there in recent months. There’s still a lot of work left for me to do, of course, when the galleys are ready, but the bigger part of it — which at several points got so big and complex that I wondered how I would ever complete the danged thing — is now done.

That means I’m now able to share the rundown of the total two-volume behemoth (something I’ll doubtless do again when the book’s publication date grows near in 2017). Here are the basic specs:

The encyclopedia contains more than 400 entries written by seventy contributors (or seventy-one, if you count my direct hand in a couple of them) from seven different countries. It is organized as follows: Read the rest of this entry

Book news: ‘The Secret of Ventriloquism’ by Jon Padgett

Maybe someday I’ll have more time to start tending The Teeming Brain again and stop leaving these gaps of weeks-turning-to-months. That time may still be a while off, however, since I’m currently buried under the equivalent of two and a half full-time jobs, what with the horror encyclopedia project eating up so many so-called “extra” hours each week that I’ve lost count. (It’s currently up to 69 contributors, most of them hailing from the US and UK, but also represented are Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany, and China.)

At the moment, I wanted to make a point of poking my head above the snow (as in snowed under) to call attention to this, which should be of interest to many readers here.

the_secret_of_ventriloquism_by_jon_padgett

With themes reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ligotti, and Bruno Shulz, but with a strikingly unique vision, Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism heralds the arrival of a significant new literary talent. Padgett’s work explores the mystery of human suffering, the agony of personal existence, and the ghastly means by which someone might achieve salvation from both. A bullied child who seeks vengeance within a bed’s hollow box spring; a lucid dreamer haunted by an impossible house; a dummy that reveals its own anatomy in 20 simple steps; a stuttering librarian who holds the key to a mill town’s unspeakable secrets; a commuter whose worldview is shattered by two words printed on a cardboard sign; an aspiring ventriloquist who spends a little too much time looking at himself in a mirror. And the presence that speaks through them all.

CONTENTS:

  • Introduction by Matt Cardin
  • The Mindfulness of Horror Practice
  • Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown
  • The Indoor Swamp
  • Origami Dreams
  • 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism
  • Infusorium
  • Organ Void
  • The Secret of Ventriloquism

PRAISE:

“The Secret of Ventriloquism is horror with a capital H. Some of Padgett’s lines raised the hair on my neck.”

– Laird Barron, author of Swift to Chase

“Padgett…proves with his stunning debut collection [to be] a worthy successor to the master [Thomas Ligotti]. There’s no gristle, no bone, no dilly-dallying here: only pure meat whose terrors seamlessly grow into the metaphysical…this volume is jam-packed with the stuff that nightmares are made of.”

– Dejan Ognjanovic, Rue Morgue Magazine

“…a voice that lodges in the reader’s mind with colossal force and intensity, marking…this book as unforgettable.”

– Matt Cardin, from the Introduction

Both a limited-edition hardcover and a bundled hardcover plus softcover plus ebook are currently available for pre-order from the publisher, Dunhams Manor Press.

The Pseudopod site — where you can listen to Jon’s awesome reading of “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” — has a good bio to give you a sense of who Jon is and where he’s coming from:

Jon Padgett…is the creator and long time administrator of the Thomas Ligotti Online website, and — as such — has been the first publisher for a number of Ligotti’s prose works over the years, including MY WORK IS NOT YET DONE and CRAMPTON….Padgett is a professional — though lapsed — ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans with his spouse, daughter, two cats, and dog. Padgett is also a professional voice-over artist with over thirty-seven years of theater and twenty years of audio narration experience.

Trust me. This book is something special. You might consider running, not walking, to secure a copy.

How medicalization corrupted our mythic relationship with sleep and dreams

Sleep_and_Death_Carrying_Away_Sarpedon

Fascinating reflections from “a psychologist specialising in sleep and dream medicine”:

Nyx and Hypnos were a dynamic duo of sorts — supernatural heroes who romanticised night and sleep. Nyx gave birth to sleep and created an aesthetic of darkness where Hypnos could flourish. And Hypnos loved sleep. Surrounded by fields of wild poppies on the River of Oblivion, his lair was a sanctuary — a cool, magical retreat open to all in celebration of the sensual, even sexy, mysteries of sleep.

Today, mother and son have been largely forgotten. Nyx has been in exile for well over a century as our night sky is eroded by light pollution. And Hypnos is remembered mainly by his namesakes, hypnosis and, surely to his chagrin, hypnotics. Sleep is no longer personal, transcendent and romantic — it is medical, mundane and pragmatic. . . .

The Industrial Revolution radically transformed our perception of sleep from a gracious, transcendent experience to a mechanistic, biomedical process. . . . In more recent decades, the domestication of sleep has given way to its medicalisation. Hypnos has been abducted and is being held captive in research labs, clinics and pharmacies. The field of sleep medicine has encouraged us to think of sleep as a complex biomedical process that lies outside of our awareness — a perspective that impedes our personal relationship with sleep. . . .

We are mired in a pre-Copernican-like, wake-centric era regarding consciousness. We presume waking to be the centre of the universe of consciousness, and we relegate sleeping and dreaming to secondary, subservient positions. . . . Medicalisation obscures sleep’s true nature — its breadth and depth and joy. It conceals the personal, transcendent and romantic dimensions of sleep. We are in dire need of restoring our sense of sleep’s mythic dimensions — of reimagining our personal experience of sleep. I believe this can be best accomplished through poetry, spirituality and, ultimately, personal investigation. . . .

Mythic perspectives suggest that there is something in the deep waters of sleep worth accessing, and invite us to personally investigate it. Metaphorically, they encourage us to practise our descent into the waters of sleep with our third eye open. . . .

Sleep loss, then, is not simply a medical problem; it is also a critical spiritual challenge. Our epic struggles with accessing deep sleep are, fundamentally, struggles with accessing deeper aspects of ourselves. As wakists, we presume that who we are is limited to our waking-world identity. Essential parts of who we are, however, are obscured by the glare of waking life. And these become more visible at night — in the deep waters of sleep and dreams.

FULL ARTICLE: “Falling for Sleep

Image: Sleep and Death Carrying Away Sarpedon of Lycia by Henry Fuseli, 1893 [Public domain ], via Wikimedia Commons

 

‘The Starry Wisdom Library’ becomes an audiobook

The_Starry_Wisdom_Libary_audiobook

Remember The Starry Wisdom Library, that unique Lovecraftian book project helmed by rare books expert Nate Pedersen, released by PS Publishing in 2014, and containing my faux scholarly commentary on the imaginary occult tome titled Daemonolorum, along with a plethora of similar fake commentary on other imaginary occult books by the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Michael Cisco, Gemma Files, Richard Gavin, Simon Strantzas, F. Paul Wilson, and more? Today I received word from Nate that he has just released an audiobook edition.

Here’s a reminder about the contents:

Scholars and book collectors across the country have long pondered the intended fate of the infamous collection of rare occult books left to rot in the Church of Starry Wisdom in Providence, Rhode Island, after the Starry Wisdom cult dispersed to parts unknown in the late 19th century.

The recent shocking discovery of a previously unknown book auction catalogue issued in 1877 offers insight into the myriad mysteries of the cult. Entitled Catalogue of the Occult Library of the Recently Disbanded Church of Starry Wisdom of Providence, Rhode Island, and issued by the notorious Arkham firm Pent & Serenade, the catalogue reveals the long-suspected fact that the church intended to sell its library to finance its removal from Providence. The sale, of course, never materialized, as later events make obvious, but the book auction catalogue informs us of the cult’s original intent and leaves for us an enormously valuable and fascinating piece of ephemera detailing the infamous collection of rare occult books in all of its dark and foreboding glory.

Furthermore, the book auction catalogue is unique among its contemporaries in that the auction firm Pent & Serenade, recognizing the importance of the exceedingly rare volumes in the cult’s possession, commissioned a wide variety of 19th-century scholars to write essays on the histories of the books offered at auction. As such, the catalogue is a uniquely, almost absurdly valuable item for scholars and collectors around the world and is presented here in exacting facsimile by PS Publishing.

On the burning of manuscripts in the digital age

When we talk about burning books or manuscripts, we usually think in terms of a Nazi-like, Fahrenheit 451-ish circumstance of repression and censorship. But there’s a venerable and remarkable tradition of writers burning their own manuscripts, or expressing a desire to burn them, or talking about the value of burning them. Think Kafka (burned most of his life’s work) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (burned his poems before becoming a priest). Think Umberto Eco, who once said that “later in life good poets burn their early poetry, and bad poets publish it.” Think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whose first draft was burned either by Robert Louis Stevenson at the urging of his wife Fanny or, according to some versions of the story, by Fanny herself because she thought it either artistically unsuccessful or so horrifying that it would ruin his reputation.

But what becomes of all this in the age of digital manuscripts? In a recent essay, Nick Ripatrazone offers an interesting meditation on the long tradition of manuscript burning — especially by writers themselves, but also at the hands of others — and its enduring value:

I’ve only burned one manuscript — the first draft of my first attempt at a novel. I had kept the printed pages in a cardboard box in the garage, deluded that I might return to them years later and finally discover why agents weren’t interested. Instead the pages sat there and collected sawdust and grass clippings. When my wife and I bought a new house, I decided to get rid of the box. I took the first twenty or so pages to the fire pit in our backyard. That night we roasted hot dogs and their oils dripped on my first chapter.

That was years ago. Now, like so many writers, most of my manuscripts live exclusively on my computer screen. Burnt manuscripts seem outdated. They belong in the days of typewriters. Yet writers are no less wracked with self-doubt, anxiety, and frustration than they were in earlier generations. We might not tear our terrible pages out of the typewriter, but we are still often unhappy with what we create.

The emotions that have led writers to burn manuscripts will never disappear. All that has changed is our medium. When I hate a story that I’ve written, I move it to a folder labeled “Writing” on my desktop. Then I drag it to a subfolder labeled “Old Work,” and let it sit there. Grow digital moss. Become forgotten. Yet that action is like stuffing old sneakers into a closet rather than throwing them in the trash. Part of me hopes that the story will be recycled; that a character or even a sentence will migrate into some later work.

If you burn your only copy of a manuscript, you are making a statement: it’s over. There’s simply not as much drama moving a file to the trash bin of your computer as there is watching a conflagration smother your words. So here’s my advice to contemporary writers. Print a copy of that story you hate. Drag the file to the trash bin and make sure the file is permanently deleted. Then take that printed manuscript to a fireplace, or better yet, a bonfire. Set it aflame. Watch the paper blacken and wrinkle. Sometimes we need to burn our pasts, literary or not, to move forward. Trust that your words and secrets are safe, clouded in smoke, soon to become part of the sky.

Full text: “Burn after Reading: On Writerly Self-Immolation

When mental illness is really demonic possession, according to a psychiatrist

The following two paragraphs are excerpted from what’s basically your everyday, run-of-the-mill article about the reality of demonic possession as distinct from mental illness. Written by a board-certified psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. For The Washington Post.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness – which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.

Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.

FULL TEXT: As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession.

(For more on the relationship — and distinction — between possession and mental illness, check your local library or any online bookseller for my Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies, which contains separate entries on possession and exorcism. Also see relevant entries in editor Joe Laycock’s excellent Spirit Possession around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion across Cultures.)

 

The cover design for my ‘Horror Literature through History’ encyclopedia

Last week ABC-CLIO posted a cover design for Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears. This is appropriate timing, since for the past month I’ve been fielding a flood of contributor submissions, and my editorial work on the project is eating up literally all of my extra time. (Well, that, plus editorial duties on the new Vastarien journal, which is progressing nicely.)

So here’s that cover (at fairly small size; it’s the only one available right now), along with a portion of the official description of the project. What that description doesn’t list, by the way, is the fact that the encyclopedia will have a fantastic lineup of contributors, including names that will be familiar to many Teeming Brain readers who are students and fans of horror fiction and its surrounding scholarship. A short “for instance” list to illustrate the point might include S. T. Joshi, Darrell Schweitzer, Michael Cisco, Richard Gavin, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Brian Stableford, June Pulliam, Steven Mariconda, and more.

Horror_Literature_through_History_edited_by_Matt_Cardin

Many of today’s horror story fans — who appreciate horror through movies, television, video games, graphic novels, and other forms — probably don’t realize that horror literature is not only one of the most popular types of literature but one of the oldest. People have always been mesmerized by stories that speak to their deepest fears. Horror Literature through History shows 21st-century horror fans the literary sources of their favorite entertainment and the rich intrinsic value of horror literature in its own right. Through profiles of major authors, critical analyses of important works, and overview essays focused on horror during particular periods as well as on related issues such as religion, apocalypticism, social criticism, and gender, readers will discover the fascinating early roots and evolution of horror writings as well as the reciprocal influence of horror literature and horror cinema.

This unique two-volume reference set provides wide coverage that is current and compelling to modern readers — who are of course also eager consumers of entertainment. In the first section, overview essays on horror during different historical periods situate works of horror literature within the social, cultural, historical, and intellectual currents of their respective eras, creating a seamless narrative of the genre’s evolution from ancient times to the present. The second section demonstrates how otherwise unrelated works of horror have influenced each other, how horror subgenres have evolved, and how a broad range of topics within horror — such as ghosts, vampires, religion, and gender roles — have been handled across time. The set also provides alphabetically arranged reference entries on authors, works, and specialized topics that enable readers to zero in on information and concepts presented in the other sections.

Full publisher description: Horror Literature through History

 

Strangling imagination: Science as a form of mental illness

Here’s a generous chunk of a really interesting and incisive blog post by author and Presbyterian pastor C. R. Wiley, who has been articulating interesting and incisive thoughts on religion, science, culture, Lovecraft, C. S. Lewis, and an associated network of ideas and writers for a some time now:

For [my scientist friends] the imagination is just a tool for problem solving. It’s not a window to view the real world through; it’s more a technique for envisioning ways out of conceptual impasses.

They’re unable to get past the factness of things. Meaning eludes them. . . .

When I ask my scientific friends, “what does it say?” (referring to any work of art) they look at me blankly. They seem to be unable to move from facts to meanings. Worse, they reduce meaning to facts in some sense. There’s a savanna theory for instance, which asserts with darwinian certitude that the reason some landscapes seem beautiful to us is because our prehistoric ancestors found savannas conducive to survival. (Darwinians have the same answer for everything, what C. S. Lewis is said to have called, “nothing-butterism”, meaning, whatever you think is the case can be reduced to “nothing but” survival.)

Seeing that the scientific method is a fairly recent phenomenon and we’ve had interest in meaning of things from the very beginning of recorded history, what is going on here?

I can’t help but believe something has gone wrong, that in the interest of understanding the world we’ve lost the world. The world is reduced to cause and effect, but its meaning is something we can no longer see.

FULL TEXT: “Is the Scientific Method a Form of Mental Illness?

You may recall Wiley as the impetus behind one of the more popular posts here at The Teeming Brain in the past few years, “C. S. Lewis and H. P. Lovecraft on loathing and longing for alien worlds.” He’s well worth following. (For a relevant case in point, see his March blog post “H. P. Lovecraft, Evangelist of the Sublime.”)

For more on the mental illness that is scientism and the threat it poses to authentic imagination, see the following: