On humanness

There’s a notional concept of a distance between each of us. Distances of belief, of needs, of geography. But there’s also a hard distance between us of time. In a sense each of us lives in a small temporal valley; forever isolated from those around us. When I utter something, or write something, it simply takes time to reach you. And the further away I am the longer it takes. Even if I’m right in front of you it still takes time for my words to reach your ears, to be digested by your mind, and for your body to formulate a response. Of course we can still hear, see, smell, we still have a kinesthesia; but distance seems to red-shift our inputs. Increase the delay long enough, to say 20 milliseconds, which is the minimum reaction time for the fastest humans on earth, and conversations stutter. Above 70 milliseconds and we have to switch to CB protocols. These are numbers built into our protocols, into our telephony networks, into our culture.

It’s said that it’s harder to lie in sign language, and (not to romanticize anything unduly) from the semester I took in sign language, and perhaps due to the amazing caliber of my teachers I’d say that was true. I recall taking an entire first day of class before I realized that my teachers were actually deaf; that they hadn’t said anything — that they’d pantomimed the entire first lesson. It was if they were telepathic. And over the months I became so much better at reading faces and micro-expressions; because they were a formal part of the grammar. It was surprising to understand that the value of a face even wasn’t about beauty or aesthetics so much as utility; the sheer utility of a high speed low latency connection between minds. I’m unsure if the speed of light and a visual medium was the cause of this; or our hyper-attentive gaze as new students. Or was it something else?

My pet theory is that the closer you are to a person the harder it is to lie; or rather, the human part of your truth is revealed. Words are a translation downwards that necessarily throws truth away. Latency in sign can be so low that it’s difficult to tell two stories without in some way succumbing to the beliefs yourself. Trust I think arises from close proximity; or perhaps as a function of input over time. Truth I think is a kind of unconscious production. Any night of drinking with friends together; and one becomes a kind of group organism with one mind if (even a drunken one). It’s perhaps something that we feel when we make music with friends, or are busy involved in building collaborative art projects. That loss of a lover or friend also is in a sense a loss of a trusted voice; one hard won by simple proximity over time. Even aside from whatever special relationship one had.

Today we have these machine mediated social networks; stretched out temporally. We’re becoming unsure if the voices at the other end are even human, and less sure if there’s any human truth behind them. With machines mediating our every interaction more often than not this is increasingly unknowable. A few years go there was a movie entitled “Perfect Sense”. The summary as follows: “A chef (Ewan McGregor) and a scientist (Eva Green) fall in love amid a plague that robs people of their senses”. For me I saw this as a metaphor for the loss of our humanity, a decrease in touch, or even intimate interactions. As the distance between us grows our senses degrade. Perhaps it’s a necessary part of growing up in a sense, as we become cyborgs. But it’s a loss nevertheless.

We may one day find ourselves struggling to find another actual human to interact with. In an age of AGI’s our every whim will be perfected by machines of loving grace. One can imagine already how valuable it would be to know that an article your reading, perhaps this very article that you’re suffering my inarticulate words of, was actually written by a human; not just designed to tickle your senses just so as part of an ad campaign. Not designed expertly to amuse and slightly irritate you just so in order to get you to purchase more refreshing Pepsi (tm). Of course ultimately there won’t be any difference, but prior to autonomous artificial intelligences it would be nice to know that what you were consuming was made by real, artisanal bespoke humans who have humanlike interests at heart; in all our selfish glory.

To me it seems like a broken part of the internet fabric is an idea of transitive trust. Twitter is to be scolded for how poorly they mediate human affairs. For allowing bad actors to have the same voice as our friends and friends of friends. But they’re just one example. It’s becoming less possible to know if an article written in Newsweek or Macleans, or the Washington Post is about events that are true, or that the article is attempting to be true, or that the article is not malicious. Although likely written by humans we can’t measure these people; there’s no actual connection to you. Right now reputation substitutes for connection; reputable news agencies stake a claim of integrity and defend that claim; when they make mistakes they work at correcting those mistakes. But another approach would be to build transitive networks where the ground truth is established by actually tracing out the network between you and the first-hand witnesses of the news in question. It’s a problem that is correctable, but we see services like which have trust graphs between individuals, yet avoid applying them, probably because truth is not as salacious or profitable.

SFO Hacker Dad Artist Canuck @mozilla formerly at @parcinc @meedan @makerlab