End of the World, with Terminators
So this AI business, huh, this is getting some traction. It’s evolving so fast, just the other day I had to go back and take out all the parts in the book I’m working on that carefully establish the plausibility of competent AI in the near future. Luckily I’m familiar with topics that become exponentially more absurd while you’re writing about them, because I got started in political satire.
People wonder if AI will destroy us all, and please, don’t worry, because of course it will and there’s nothing you can do about it. Honestly, people are asking the wrong question with AI. The question isn’t whether it will destroy us but how.
And people have the wrong idea about that, too, from sci-fi stories and Terminator movies where it’s humans versus machines. You wish. That would be great. Imagine the solidarity in a noble fight for the future of the species.
But no, no, it will be more like Elon Musk has a Terminator, and Apple has ten Terminators, and the US Government has some Terminators but they don’t work properly and are under investigation. Also Democrats have their own Terminators and so do the Republicans and Rupert Murdoch and everyone, basically, with money to spend and influence to accumulate.
You don’t have a Terminator. You can, like, rent five percent of a Terminator to help do your taxes.
But everyone else, everyone up there, has Terminators. And they fight, but not each other, because that’s risky: a Terminator going head to head with another Terminator. You don’t do that unless you’re sure your Terminator will win. Smarter is deploying your Terminator to acquire more power and wealth from people who don’t have Terminators. Then you can afford more Terminators.
So this is scams run by Terminators, right, you see how filled up the world has become with scams, well, imagine those scams but now they’re created by something smarter than you. They look and sound authentic, they know how persuasion works better than you do, and now there are masses of people sending money and voting based on something that isn’t even real. I mean, that’s today, right, so add Terminators and multiply.
We’ve connected the world and opened windows to its every corner and you know what, people are still people, jammed full of flaws, believing anything that tickles the cortex. We have good people at the top, but also people who don’t give a damn about anyone outside their own inner circle, who have been richly rewarded for this personality trait, and now they can afford Terminators. You can see how AI will destroy us because it’s already happening; it’s this, amplified, so that the next time someone wants to entrench some poverty, or kick a trillion-dollar bill to the next generation, a Terminator helps them do it.
With money we will get Terminators, Caesar said, and with Terminators we will get money; that’s how it happens. I’m not afraid of AI; AI will allow us to unlock wonders. But I’m afraid of your AI.
NationStates Turns Twenty
So I normally keep my NationStates stuff separate from this blog. But it’s 20 years today since I launched a little web game in the hope that it would promote my novel Jennifer Government, and help prevent it from sinking without a trace like my debut novel. So I’m cross-posting.
Twenty years! For perspective, the web itself is only thirty-three.
Here are some things that didn’t exist when I created NationStates: MySpace, Digg, World of Warcraft, Facebook, XBox Live, iTunes, Skype, Firefox, Chrome, iPhones, Reddit, Twitter, Wordpress.
NationStates began in a time where any idiot could make a website and people would go check it out, because there weren’t many to choose from. In 2002, I was that idiot, learning to code from a book, hacking the site together, and emailing a few friends. Then they told a few friends, and almost immediately, it was in the newspapers, even the New York Times, because that was newsworthy back then, some dork’s website.
Almost all the websites from 2002 are now gone. And like a geriatric who’s outlived his contemporaries, I marvel at the fact that this one is still freaking here. Everyone thinks you can put something online and it will just hang around forever because that’s how the internet works, but that’s not true at all, not even for the dumbest, most static pages like THIS IS TIM’S WORLD WIDE WEB PAGE, UNDER CONSTRUCTION, COOL STUFF COMING SOON, because sometime in the last twenty years, Tim’s web host got bought out and shut down, taking Tim’s dancing baby GIF with it, and now, at best, there are a few snapshots filed away in an internet archive.
Sites that do things, interactive sites, like NationStates, are hard to keep alive. They have so many ways to die. I’m incredibly proud that NationStates is here twenty years and eight million nations later, with as many players as ever. That’s magical. I credit:
Not selling the site. I came close. In retrospect, the buyer would have spent 12 months squeezing users for money before everyone left.
Moderators. Oh my god, moderators. They do so much, every day, for nothing, and without them, the site would almost immediately become somewhere you wouldn’t want to visit. Some mods have been here from the beginning. Many have clocked up over a decade. So much is thanks to mods.
The community. I can’t even explain this because I don’t fully understand it. I made a site where you could create a nation and talk to people. The community did everything else, i.e. turned that into something interesting, with political intrigue, relationships, lore, rules; basically the vast majority of what makes NationStates worth your time. This includes regional leaders, ordinary nations, World Assembly Delegates, admin, Roleplay Mentors, Founders, dispatch authors, World Census trophy chasers, forum regulars, forum irregulars, anyone who’s taken the time to explain something to someone new to the site, card traders, everyone.
The people who buy Site Supporter, Postmaster, Postmaster-General, and Telegram Stamps. Most people don’t, and that’s totally fine, but the lights wouldn’t have stayed on without those who do.
Managing the tech stack. All the tech from 2002 is slow, insecure, missing essential features, and three thousand times harder to work on that what’s available today. It also can’t be replaced without losing 20 years of bug fixes. So far we have managed to steer a path between killing the site from negligence and killing it from overly ambitious upgrades. And we keep adding features! To a 20-year-old codebase! Written in Perl!
Happy Birthday everyone.
We Care a Lot
You know what’s amazing: We can create things just by caring. That’s all you need to do. Just care. Two people care about each other: Pow! Now there’s a relationship. Before, nothing. But now anything might happen. They might move in together, quit jobs, travel, get in a fight.
It doesn’t just work on people. It can be anything. Look at all those sports teams who kick a ball or whatever and it’s televised and people flock to watch in giant stadiums. Just because we care! The kicking of the ball itself is pointless. That has no intrinsic value. It is clearly worthless. But we care about it! So actually it’s worth a lot! It’s driving economies and generating debate and making people wear scarves of particular colors.
TV shows. Religions. Novels. Everything! Everything in the world has value if someone cares about it! And only then!
This is a major background theme in Providence, by the way, which I have never seen anyone notice. I actually really want to talk about it sometime but can’t because I have to spoil the whole novel. Anyway, whenever I get to thinking that we’re all powerless motes in a maelstrom of external forces, and have no free will, I remember I can make something important by caring about it. And no-one can stop me! That’s the thing! I can care about whatever I like! Grass! Kids’ netball! Background themes in novels! You might think these things are stupid and worthless, but too late! I already cared about them! You know what that home-stitched doll of Marlene from Apathy and Other Small Victories is worth on eBay? Something! Because I like it!
Caring is amazing. As far as I can figure out, it’s the sole reason our existence is more than a bunch of physics: You can care about anything, at any time, for any reason. And when you do, you change the universe.
Nobody knows how this happens! We have no idea what makes someone care! We have only been able to persuade people to act like they care, which, okay, is pretty good, but not the same thing. (I once wrote 90% of a novel that I didn’t really care about. It was not the same.) Making people act like they care about things they actually don’t is a fundamental part of our world economy; just imagine if we couldn’t do that. I mean, you think there’s a staffing shortage now. Caring is so important, we pour unthinkable amounts of time and money into faking it.
Then there’s the other part. If you stop caring, you can kill things. Everything has a threshold, and when it receives less care than that, it dies. It just dies. And, again, you can do this in your head. You don’t need to make a plan. You don’t need to perform any particular deed. You can just stop caring. See how long that thing lasts.
I Don’t Believe in Free Will
Look I’m no philosopher, but in the last blog, I mentioned I don’t believe in free will any more, and Jeffrey was like, uh, what, so here is my take.
This isn’t going to be one of those dumb theoretical arguments where I make you accept that X is true and then aha then logically you must believe Y. Oh no no. This is pure feels. Here we go.
Chickens. I have owned chickens. Well, not owned. Rented. They are robots. I could write a 100-line program that generates behavior indistinguishable from a real chicken. If chickens have free will, boy, is it hard to tell.
Code. I program sometimes. The code has no free will. It does what I tell it. But it can be at least as unpredictable as chickens.
Brains. People are easily persuaded. I mean, frighteningly so. The older I get, the more the brain seems like a machine with a bunch of controls painted on.
Stories. People crave a narrative. You know that optical illusion where you see things out of the corner of your eye that aren’t there, because your brain sketches in something that would make sense? That’s all of us, all the time.
Probability. We don’t get it. We assign cause and effect to anything that moves. Like, real talk, the universe is an ocean of roiling chaos, where everything is determined by uncaring forces beyond our control. But we thirst for narrative order, so a thing can’t just happen, it has to have a moral purpose. And we are prepared to invent one.
Sports. I like running numbers on things. It turns out that all team sport is basically rolling a bunch of dice and shouting, “The blue dice have started to believe in themselves, they’ve got all the momentum.” This is really just an example of #5 but I didn’t want the paragraph to be that long.
Everything is the same. You’re not so different from a chicken. It’s just a matter of degree. The world isn’t merely non-binary but non-categorical.
Extrapolation. From time to time, I realize people are a bit more predictable than I’d thought. This happens much more often than the other way around. I can follow this trend to its logical conclusion.
Motive. Absence of control is scary. We like to believe we’re in charge of things. That’s suspicious.
And: Whenever I tell someone, they say, “Well, if I don’t have free will, how would I be able to do THIS?” and wave their hands about. They all do this.
That’s basically it. I could be wrong. It’s just the way I’m leaning these days.
It doesn’t change anything, by the way. I don’t like people any less just because they’re wet determinism machines. If anything, it’s endearing. I mean, look at the humans, waving their hands, thinking they’re making choices. That’s adorable. And I’m not going to murder anyone. Even if I can’t avoid it, I feel like I can, and want to avoid that situation. Just like if we’re all living in a computer simulation, being mean to people remains bad, and has exactly the same consequences. Not that we’re living in a computer simulation. That idea is just crazy. It would be a simulation on some kind of device we’ve never heard of.
P.S. I have also read a lot of Philip K. Dick. That could also be a factor.
Madison in Paperback
I went to Canberra the other week to win an Aurealis Award for Best Sci-Fi Novel. It didn’t work. They read out some other book’s name instead. Still, don’t let that dissuade you from picking it up, as today it comes out in convenient, affordable paperback:
By the way, I can’t believe how much multiverse talk there is. I actually put a line in the book about how people are sick of multiverse theory. Now every time I turn around, there’s a new multiverse book or show. Is that good? I don’t know. It’s probably good, because I became convinced that we do actually live in a multiverse, so people should accept it. Also I no longer believe in free will, but that’s a whole other thing.
Unrelatedly, did you see that thing about the Google engineer who got fired for telling people his AI had become sentient? The AI is totally not sentient, of course, but humans are so terrible at perception, we’ll believe anything has feelings if you draw eyes on it. Just imagine what kind of things people are going to do in the future because they’re fooled by increasingly lifelike AI. Wild stuff, man.
The Earlickers of Twitch
You can find people doing anything on the internet if you want, but you probably don’t. We all find our boundaries, I think, beyond which we’re fine with not knowing the details. But we know it’s out there—there’s nothing we’d be surprised to hear you can find on the internet, because of course you can.
Still, I’d like to present an online service in which Amazon.com pays women to lick plastic ears.
Some earlickers gentle and sweet, as if the plastic ears might be ticklish. Others you’d think are trying to extract the last bit of jam from a deep jar. Each earlicker has her own style. Most break up the earlicking with light conversation, but a few advertise NO TALK, if you prefer your earlickers just to focus on the ears, please.
It’s important to note that Amazon.com doesn’t want earlickers. Amazon did not, I’m pretty sure, set out to create an earlicking market, and it would probably like them to go away. Nor do the earlickers themselves particularly want to be earlicking—these aren’t earlickers from way back, who finally found a commercial platform to do what they love. Oh no. This is one of those situations that came about despite everyone’s best intentions.
At its core—right down in the canal, if you like—this is a language problem. The earlickers exist because it’s hard to say what you mean.
Amazon.com owns Twitch, which you might have heard of: It’s a streaming platform for watching other people play video games rather than playing them yourself… although that’s an old-school way of describing it, laced with the same condescension with which my parents viewed us 80s & 90s kids who’d do anything if it was on a screen.
Amazon wants Twitch to keep doing what it’s doing: attract a mainstream audience where mainstream companies can advertise their mainstream products. But since anyone can become a Twitch streamer with a phone and some spare time, the site needs content rules. There’s no end of streamers to choose from, you see, and the audience skews young and male. It’s a viewers’ market, and the viewers quite like boobs.
So Twitch bans sexually suggestive content. See? It says it right here. No sexually suggestive content.
But that’s a bit vague, if you’re a streamer. If your income depends on staying on the right side of the rules, you want to know exactly where the lines are—whether you risk being deplatformed for doing a dance, for example, or going for a swim. Or licking plastic ears.
And Twitch—wanting to be transparent and helpful and not get pitchforked by a social media mob every time a popular streamer is or is not banned for crossing or not crossing the line—has obliged by writing policy docs to cover as many specific situations as possible. “Gestures directed towards breasts” are prohibited, for example, while “cleavage is unrestricted as long as coverage requirements are met.” (This is why streams are hosted by women with grand decolletage who don’t talk about it.)
You want details? Twitch has details. Twitch has precise rules for every scenario you can think of:
For streams dedicated to body art, full chest coverage is not required, but those who present as women must completely cover their nipples & areola with a layer of non-transparent clothing or a paint & latex combination (artist-grade pasties, tape, latex or similar alternatives are acceptable).
Or rather, almost every scenario. Because you can’t think of everything. Even if you cover everything that’s happening now, you can’t anticipate what people will come up with next.
The plastic ears with which the earlickers ply their trade are special microphones. They’re not cheap. You need to make a capital invesment to become an earlicker—which implies the existence of earlickers who sunk their savings into a 3Dio Free Space but never managed to made a living from it, and now the ears sit in a corner of their room, the lobes gathering dust, a symbol of regret.
But these microphones are the best (I assume) at capturing wet, intimate earlicking sounds, which, in the viewer’s headphones, create the auditory illusion that they are having their own ears licked. This experience can range from erotic to irritating, but it’s clearly, clearly sexually suggestive.
However, earlicking is not specifically mentioned in Twitch’s ruleset. And there’s a thin, artist-grade pasties veneer of credibility because earlicking is similar to ASMR, i.e. meditation via crinkly sounds. It’s difficult to find the words to express objectively how one is different from the other.
As someone who runs their own site of user-generated content, I’ve hit this paradox myself, where the more specific I make the site rules, the weirder behavior it seems to encourage. While the ruleset relies on broad, sweeping language—we may not be able to define it, but we know it when we see it—it’s relatively easy for site moderators to maintain consistent, common-sense standards. But the more specific and objective the wording becomes—which users want; they crave detail—the more bizarre corner cases pop up, which aren’t quite covered by the language, and which explode in popularity because now they’re the most boundary-pushing-yet-allowable examples of the type.
That’s how you get earlickers.
You can find the earlickers of Twitch here. (Warning: sexually suggestive.)