“The Look of Silence” and Antonio Gramsci


Watching the stunning documentary “The Look of Silence” by Joshua Oppenheimer is a moving experience. Of almost enlightening nature.
The titles at the end, full of “Anonymous” references, are a powerful reminder that the grim events of  Indonesian genocide of the year 1965-1966 keep resonating today, almost 50 years hence.
In “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship“, Chomsky advances the following point:

“The Spanish Civil War is one of the crucial events of modern history, and one of the most extensively studied as well. In it, we find the interplay of forces and ideas that have dominated European history since the industrial revolution. What is more, the relationship of Spain to the great powers was in many respects like that of the countries of what is now called the Third World. In some ways, then, the events of the Spanish Civil War give a foretaste of what the future may hold, as Third World revolutions uproot traditional societies, threaten imperial dominance, exacerbate great-power rivalries, and bring the world perilously close to a war which, if not averted, will surely be the final catastrophe of modern history.

In the 1960s in Indonesia you had a powerful left-wing party which wanted to redress the balance of power in an essentially agrarian society, whose economy was entirely subservient to the Western dominated colonial logics. The whole social contract was at stake.
Listening to the Indonesians talking in the documentary, one hears constantly the equivalent of words like “Ideology”, “Revolution”, “Party”. Their sound is almost the same as in any other Western language, as a testimony to the fact that they were entirely foreign concepts, superimposed on an agrarian society by the Western inspired Third World revolutions leaders (here the Communist Party).  But words are like stones, and they contain world views which cannot simply be translated from a society to another.

Palmiro Togliatti, head of Italian Communist Party, was in Spain during the Civil War. He knew what it means to confront deep-seated ideas – like the religious ones – heads on. The Spanish democratically elected government started doing that in 1936.  They ended up with Francisco Franco. That is why, sitting in the Italian Constitutional Assembly, he did not want the Communist Party to confront the Catholic Church and Article 7 incorporated Mussolini’s Lateran Treaty into the Republican Constitution.

Franco LoPiparo analyzed the mechanisms of Cultural Hegemony and their root in language (pgg. 19ff.) in the philosophy of Antonio Gramsci. Words are powerful collectors of images, society debris, thoughts. Uprooting the vocabulary top-down cannot work.
It seems fair to say that the Indonesian Communist Party leaders would have done better reading Gramsci first.

See also this post.

Problems with the Objective Function: the Monkey Pawn

Nick Bostrom, in a wonderful Ted Talk (below), muses about the problem of emerging superintelligence within the human society, so far calibrated to the distribution of biological brains. From the village idiot to Ed Witten.
In “God and Golem”, Wiener evocatively captured that in the story of “Monkey Pawn”, whereby the Golem ruthlessly pursues the assigned target without any human regard.
What binds the two examples together, Wiener’s and Bostrom’s, their common conceptual frame, is the specification of a correct cost function in an optimization problem. Every superintelligence has to be assigned a cost function which is rich enough to incorporate human criteria. The alternative is of course to be swept away.

But humans have already created superintelligent mechanisms, here defined as calculating algorithms that vastly outperforms our species’ computational capabilities. Perhaps the most important (so far) is of course a market economy, whereby a blind optimization engine solves a huge system of (non-linear) equations to compute the price of scarce commodities, thus outperforming any conscious solver, as the Soviet planner painfully experienced and as Enrico Barone had already demonstrated in 1908.
Nobel prize winner soviet mathematician Leontieff had already spoken of the market as a optimizer, based on collective intelligence, in here (jstor). The market is a very powerful approximation engine of a vast system of algebraic equations.
Wiener had already known all this and, similarly to Marx’ 1844 Manuscripts, he famously said the following:

“Perhaps I may clarify the historical background of the present situation if I say that the first
industrial revolution, the revolution of the “dark satanic mills,” was the devaluation of the
human arm by the competition of machinery. . . . The modern industrial revolution [i.e., the
computer revolution] is similarly bound to devalue the human brain. . . . The answer, of course,
is to have a society based on human values other than buying and selling.”
(Wiener, Cybernetics, pp.37-38, bracketed words added)

The issue at stake is then the same: are we able as a species to define an objective function which is rich enough to incorporate human values before unleashing the power of the blind optimization engine?
Stiglitz’ recent proposal of a “minimum corporate tax” is then best framed, for example, as a control problem in the optimization routine which, since at least Adam Smith, has been known as Invisible Hand.

Community life and chipped silicon

http://www.hnf.de/en/museum/galerie-der-pioniere/konrad-zuse-1910-1995.html“If you open a modern computer case and stare at the mother board, it really appears like downtown Detroit” (the image above is aptly a painting by computer pioneer Konrad Zuse).
This insightful comment by a friend of mine conceals a bigger truth, which is best revealed in a passage of “Robot” by CMU robotics maverick Hans Moravec (of Moravec Paradox fame), interestingly named “Community life and chipped silicon”.

There is positive correlation between the size of a community which an individual is part of and the size of his(her) brain, in terms of cerebral connections and apparatus. Naturally, the existence of a community larger than one which can be handled by our brain circuitry, leads indeed to the birth of hierarchical structures, which are best represented in political and economical stratification, i.e. layers of command.

This can also be read in connection with an observation of Daniel Dennet in “Breaking the Spell” (see Micromega, Almanacco Di Scienze, 2009: Girotto/Vallortigara in Italian) whereby it is the darwinian evolutive process that assigns a premium on any belief system which is agent-based. The existence of an external God is just a natural projection of the increasingly complex social structures we live in. Ludwig Feuerbach in disguise. Another variation of classic Commodity fetishism.