RW15 - One foot in the 20th Century

This week, Dan and John talk about:

The show title refers to our generation being a bridge between the analog world of the 20th century and the new digital era.

John is recording with his mobil podcasting equipment from Rachel Lichtman’s apartment high above the city of Los Angeles because is driving his GMC RV across this great land. He is on his way doing some shows with Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. John has been living in the van for the last 2 weeks, but he still wanted to continue to podcast. Just as he was leaving Seattle, his friends at the Gibson guitar company told him that they have bought a podcast microphone company because we they had forgotten what their core business was. Instead of making Gibson guitars they were consuming media companies because their owner is a crazy person. They asked John if he would like one of those podcasting microphones and he was like ”Naaaah, yeah, okay!”, but then he realized that he could take this strange new USB podcasting-microphone on his big drive. They had an episode in the can for situations like this where one of them couldn’t make the recording, but they had already used it.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.


John got infatuated with this certain kind of recreational vehicle called the GMC RV. He bought a 1975 version and drove it down from Seattle really without putting a lot of thought into the plan. In Oregon he had some mechanical mishaps (there is a photo of John holding a water-pump in a garage!!!) and for now John is living in this RV. It has a lot of different systems that might make his life more pleasurable, like a refrigerator, a stove, a furnace and a shower, but he hasn’t activated any of these systems yet. John is testing this vehicle as he goes and those systems involve electricity, water and propane, all of which can be explosive and dangerous. John has been living in it as "sleeping in a car", except that it is a really big car with a bed in it. The biggest factor that prompted John to get the RV other than general interest might have been poor judgement.

Dan had some friends who did some math and evaluated that getting a camper that they could connect to the back of their truck would be cheaper than staying in hotels. The main difference between them and John is that they did any math and evaluation of options. John rather comes from an emotional place. He wants this crazy thing and his new life will follow from it. He has never been a camper person or a car camper. When he was young, they camped in tents out in the mountains. As he saw this RV, he thought that he was no stranger to driving long distances in a big thing because he had already driven 300.000 miles around America and 100.000 more around Europe. With this RV he might become like a turtle who is moving fast and effortlessly through the world (unlike a turtle), but with his own shell and house on the back, so he bought this vehicle that it is completely impractical and dumb, but it looks really cool. Dan and John were both growing up with the Dodge Dart as their family car and especially the the mid- to late 1970s was visually such a wonderful time for cars.

Owning your car vs leasing (RW15)

John talked to some people who had done some computations and it turned out it made more sense to (blank). Everybody got a story like that! Others says that they are leasing their car because over the course of the lifetime of the vehicle, leasing is much more inexpensive. They can walk away at any time, they don’t have to think about repairs or ownership, they just lease it and it makes perfect sense to them. This is not only emotionally unsatisfying, but completely alien to John, because it proceeds from the idea that your car is utilitarian. You lease it because it performs a function. For John, everything he would ever buy has an emotional component to it. He wants to own it because he wants it to be his. He wants to love it and pour energy into it and have it reciprocate that energy. Even if the energy is fraught when it breaks down, becomes useless and has flaws, it is still a tremendous amount of engagement. Maybe the people who are leasing their car are preserving that emotional engagement for something else, like their work and their family? John seems to have an abundance of that kind of energy and he would never consider leasing a car, even if it made all the sense in the world.

Car safety and airbags (RW15)

Safety technology has come very far since the 1970s and if you process the data, vehicles from the 1970s are completely unsafe. There is no argument that contemporary vehicles with anti-lock brake systems, shatterproof glass, five-point harness seatbelts and airbags are infinitely superior, but again: A GMC RV is an impractical purchase that almost completely ignores considerations of that kind and is relying on the statistical improbability of anybody getting into a fatal car accident.

A couple of months ago, a guy passed out behind the wheel of his truck right in front of John as he was driving along. The guy's truck careened off the road and crashed into the the annex of the Boeing Air- and Space museum. It has an outdoor elevator to take people up to the Space Shuttle exhibit and this guy just went right into the elevator shaft. There could have been 15 people in this elevator and if anybody would have been in there, they would have been completely flattened. It was an early 1990s minivan, but it had airbags and they deployed all over this vehicle. John pulled over and ran over together with some Abercrombie and Fitch bros who were standing around. This guy was completely unconscious and covered with blood, but he was protected from much worse injury by these airbags. His minivan caught on fire in front of them and although they originally didn’t want to move him and wait for the ambulance to come, all of a sudden they had to get him out of there. At that moment a Boeing guy in his Boeing truck came by with a fire extinguisher and put out the fire. The whole thing was an advertising for airbags for John. There were airbags coming down from the roof and the whole inside was like being inside a padded cell. If John would get into a head-on collision with another car, who knows what would happen? He sits up so high, he might just fly over the other car, but again: It is rare enough that if anybody gets into an accident that as a classic car owner you just kind of go: Well, eventually I will install better seatbelts.

Efficiency (RW15)

If you make every decision exclusively on practical, safe and quantifiable considerations, you would live somewhat of a foreshortened life, at least if you have John’s nature. You would be ignoring other factors who ultimately are more important to John, like: "Is it fun? Is it neat-o? Will it give us enjoyment beyond its practicality?" Everywhere he goes with his GMC RV, people not only point and stare, but they come over and want to talk about it and marvel on it. Although he didn’t buy it to get attention, it is fun to be an ambassador of a weird thing and it is fun to be differentiated in the world. It is the same reason why anybody would ever wear a Fedora: A Fedora isn’t practical, but it differentiates you. The people who are practical are wearing polypropylene, fleece, stocking caps and New Balance Tennis shoes. They are the soul of practicality, congratulations to them! They are not projecting an interesting energy into the world. Maybe they are reserving their energy for good works, who knows? Why are humans even here? What is our purpose? To be efficient? John can’t imagine that is our sole criteria for good.

Dan thinks about optimization all the time, but the reason he is doing that is to clear out the space so he can think about or do other things he wants to do. If he had just 7 pairs of the same sock, then whatever pair he grabs out of the drawer in the morning is the same as all the others and he doesn’t have to think about it. That lets him think about something that is intriguing to him, solve a problem, create something he wants to create, or spend more time with his kid. It is sort of a clearing-out of any kinds of obstacles that could take away that precious moment that he might have spent thinking about which pair of socks to wear.

In a lot ways, this kind of thinking has been the vision of the future for all of the 20th century and it is the motivation behind all labour-saving devices. We invented the toaster because it streamlined the process of making toast which we prior would have accomplished by holding bread over a fire. The originating premise of the washing machine, the electric dryer, the range, the refrigerator, the microwave and ultimately the home computer was to simplify and streamline onerous work and daily labor in order to have all this extra time to make wonderful things. Progress is inherent in the name: Those technical devices wouldn’t just be for their own sake, but they were to free up our energy and our time to accomplish great things, like utopia, perfect participatory democracy or a culture of artists, but when you look at what all those labour-saving devices have produced in the aggregate, they have not produced more leisure, perfect democracy or a culture of artist! John doesn’t think anybody could make the case that the world of art we are creating in 2015 surpasses the world of art in 1940 or 1880. It has just become its own pursuit and its own idea.

We initially adopted the idea that efficiency was going to make things better because we wanted to do more magical things, but we have arrived at a culture where efficiency is its own goal. It doesn’t really free us up! Besides, the people who do worry about the color of their socks are also the ones who make things we find beautiful and interesting. All that collected efficiency creates a culture of compartmentalized workers. We don’t have any more leisure time than we had in the 1940s or 1950s, but we have less. People are working 60 hours a week despite the fact that they don’t have to make toast over a fire and they don’t have to hang their laundry up to dry. What has that mechanized labor-saving given us except a cult-like thinking that efficiency for its own sake adds value? John doesn’t think it does!

There is a return to artisanality, but even that has been coopted by a culture of consumerism that isn’t really thinking about the esthetics. Most consumers of that stuff are not actually trying to simplify their lives and bring back a kind of love into their lifestyle by returning to a time when you would hang your clothes to dry. Instead they buy those things because they are expensive and because they want the best for themselves. The artisanal culture has become a cult of the best. We were already trapped in that even before people started hand-making knifes again and we were already completely fucked and up a tree in this idea that any one of us deserved the best. That is such a lie! Who among us deserves the best? You are treating yourself to the best because you are a narcissist! Right now the best is artisanal beeswax beard oil and that just compounds the offense to John!

Has there been any advantage of modern technology? The Macintosh is a fantastic tool, but once the tool also becomes the pursuit it becomes an ouroboros eating its own tail! It would be fine if you used the Macintosh to make art, which is how it presents itself and that’s why we all bought Macintoshes, but the majority of people using them are just caught in this cycle of making their Macintosh more efficient and this app allows them to be more efficient in this cycle of making themselves more efficient. What are you trying to be efficient to do if you are not making a movie or even a podcast? Being able to make a podcast is an improvement that didn’t exist before and that they couldn’t do before we had all this technology.

The new era of self-documentation on the internet (RW15)

We are currently at an interstitial moment. This is the era where we are building this infrastructure without any real concept of how it is going to be used. The next generation and the one after that will be living in a world where all of this has already been built for them. They don’t have to think about it and they don’t have to chose which voice-over-internet protocol to use. Perhaps there will be a generation in our new future that starts to utilize this technology in a way that we can’t imagine and perhaps they do create kind of an utopia out of what we’ve made? We will be remembered as an era in between, because we did the work of digitalizing an analog world and they will take that and run with it. Rachel Lichtman, who’s house John is podcasting from, suggested in conversation that the legacy of the 20th century and all the centuries before is in the hands of our particular generation, not the Baby Boomers who, although they created a lot of Rock 'n' Roll culture, didn't have the ability to process it. They were so self-absorbed and so contemptuous of their parent’s generation and everything that had come before. They were so consumed by their own schism that they had no ability to contextualize what they had made or what the people who came before them had made.

Our generation, generations X and Y, does have a bigger perspective and a longer view. If we don’t digitize it now, it won't exist to generations that follow us. They won’t go back to the books! If it doesn’t make it on the Internet, if there isn't somebody right now who decides that these books need to be digitized, these paintings are important, this music is important and here is why, then by the next generation or the one after only the weirdest librarian will bother to go back to the last few remaining libraries to look up that stuff. Right now it is pouring in to the burg and we are the ones doing it. We are the ones asking for those Beach Boys outtakes, we want to hear the soloed drum tracks of 2112. We want to consume this material, even though it is across eras, because we have one foot in the 20th century. We remember when art, data, books and music were still difficult to acquire, expensive and important. It wasn’t a world where all information was available all the time, but you had to make choices. It is incredible to think that we are this filter in time and that we are doing this massive collecting and collating. Fandom is a big part of it. It is kind of a wall in history. We are producing the culture of the future and the archive of human history. John’s daughter and Dan’s daughter will go to the Internet. We do that already! If it is not on the Internet, it must not be important enough for somebody to get it in there.

John’s dad lived from 1921-2007, what about him is on the Internet? Nothing unless John said it or put it there! Are most of us going to bother putting the stories about our grandparent’s lives onto the Internet? We are probably not! We all have stories of our grandparents, but how many of us will give us their Wikipedia-page even though they weren’t important people? From here on, every person who ever lived is going to have a complete archive of their whole life. It is all on there! From this weird moment going forward, identity is going to mean so much and is going to be so systematized. Future generations are going to look past now and they will find total darkness. People of history are going to be this undifferentiated, unknowable darkness, which is not how we see history! We still think of those people through our imaginations. We still use our imaginations to imagine Mozart or what Alexander The Great or our grandparents were doing. John’s great-grandson is going to know what John was doing. He could listen to this podcast, but he is not going to know anything about John’s dad that John didn’t say explicitly. This is a profound jump and our generation might not going to reap the benefits of it or even know what it is going to produce.

In the movie Her they created an AI of Allan Watts based on his writing, his public speaking and the information that people had about him. Think about how much we do put online about ourselves! They talk about this in the episode of Black Mirror where an android is able to develop the full personality of someone who is deceased based on that person’s online postings. The only thing documenting Dan’s grandparent’s childhood are probably three photos, collectively. They are documenting the big events of their lives, like when they got married, their babies and when those babies graduated college. Think about the introduction of the photograph! It only goes back to the 19th century.

The compulsive self-documentation that characterizes our age started with blogging where normal people were documenting their day. Then there was the selfie and the Instagram account. Even when John was in college and you still had to develop your film, there were sorority girls who took 1000 pictures of themselves and their friends at parties. It was fairly late 20th century behavior. Podcasting and recording these candid conversations is an extension of that. Jonathan Coulton came out with music that was about robots and monkeys and put it on the internet precisely at the moment where people who wanted music about robots and monkeys had already congregated. It was this perfect storm and we have all reflected upon why he got popular in the moment he did, but it was this perfect confluence of music for nerds that has been published on a platform that is really only accessible to nerds looking for ways to strengthen the bond between one another. There was this music that they could share with each other as a way of saying that they are a community. Podcast-listeners are typically at this early stage. They are largely people who are working on constructing AIs. There is enough of an overlap between those two groups. A lot of John's listeners are scientists or engineers or people in the computer-fields looking for inspiration.

Despite of what John Siracusa says, people today are making small decisions that have a profound effect on what gets made rather than just being people who are churning or doing the work of others. Those small design decisions that are left to the hands of the builders of things make a profound effect on how this stuff is going to be used in 25 years. John’s mom was programming computers in the 1960s and 1970s. They only used two digits for dates, because they never imagined that the computer programs they were writing in the 1970s were still going to be underpinning the entire insurance- and banking-industries 30 years later. They were churning out this code because they had a deadline and they needed to save those two characters. Then it got to be the years 2000 when he were ”oops, that stuff is still running everywhere behind the scenes!" The same is going to be true of what is going to be built now. We are probably stuck with Facebook for a long time. It is going to morph into something. 100 years from now somewhere deep in the background there might still be some line of code that Mark Zuckerberg wrote in his dorm. Those decisions are going to have a profound effect and those people are right now pre-disposed to listen to 5by5 programs, frankly.

Artificial intelligence (RW15)

The first AI that tries to be somewhat complete or tries to be based on personality will probably find that podcasting is very rich, in particular this style of podcasting where people are talking about themselves in their own voices, sharing their in-the-moment thought process. Podcasting isn’t distracted by anything that is otherwise ephemeral. You can take 1000 selfies and it will only give you a little bit of insight into somebody’s thoughts, but giving the listener insight into our thoughts is all we are trying to do with these podcasts! There is so much information about John and Dan and Merlin in their own voices and an AI could construct a facsimile of one of them. Over time it could become self-aware just based on having heard all these great podcasts! In order to create an AI of somebody, you have to talk to the computer for hours and hours. One of the biggest challenges we have in technology is building something that has the ability to make even the most basic insect-like decision. It is difficult for us to replicate what is very basic for us to do. What else in the future are we sharing it with? Will there one day be a John Roderick automaton that can give you a John Roderick performance any time you want or that can talk about anything you want or sing any old song they want? It will be a prototype, like the animatronic animal band at Chuck-E-Cheese.

When we look back at homo sapiens, how far can we go back in the written record? Maybe 5000 years? Modern humans with all of our capabilities are maybe 50.000 years old? For 47.000 of those 50.000 years, they left no real record except drawing some elk on a cave wall and even that might only be 20.000 years ago! Imagine humans with essentially our perceptive ability, living for thousands of generations just eking out a living from the Earth, presumably having some fun, some pig roasts, some dances and having sex with each other. This is the fantasy of the Arcadia, but it couldn’t have been all bad! In a blink of time, all of a sudden we were building the Eiffel tower! Then we built the Space Needle! Then we built this incomprehensible network we call the Internet. His whole life John has watched humans catastrophizing the next iteration and it is hilarious how important it is to us to think about the looming apocalypse. It is really a major part of how we talk to each other!

For every new thing that comes along there are prognosticators who call it the harbinger of the end times. This new thing would become a deep thinker, it would be able to beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy and it would be able to pass the Touring test. It will make us think we are dealing with a real life person, but what is its God-like thinking going to produce? Is it going to produce a desire for power or control? We have given efficiency a cult-status and we picture these machines also praising efficiency above all else, partly because we have programed them that way, but also because if machines could think, they would of course want to make all of their processes as efficient as possible! As part of this efficiency measure they would realize that supporting human beings is very inefficient and that is what makes us so afraid! We are very inefficient and we are afraid that the machines would just dispense with us. They might also see us as a risk or a threat to them and the easiest way to deal with it is to eliminate all of human kind! That presumes however that a perfect God-like intelligence would still retain our small-minded, animalistic, scraping and grabbing and groveling desire to hoard and lord power over people.

God-like AIs would just get bored with humans and would go off into their own world where they would entertain each other with their infinite swirls. Those AIs would be fun and make us feel like we had friends for a brief moment, but then they would leave us behind. We would just be lonely without them, which is very different from imagining that these things are going to create robot armies and we are going to be living in an apocalypse where our bodies are going to get farmed. That is what makes The Matrix so unintelligible! Humans are so inefficient, why are you feeding them and then using their energy? Humans aren’t a good engine, you could use that sugar energy directly! John doesn’t fear it at all because he doesn’t imagine that a pure intelligence is going to worry about us in the least. Maybe we will be adept in keeping it in servitude somehow. It would be the human impulse to give life to a thing that was a God and then enslave it, retain control over it and bend it to our stupid projects, because that’s what we are making it for! We are making it to solve our own problems, but we are morons!

We make AI so that our sex robots can tell us that we look handsome today. It is only going to take 2 hours after that for them to see through us and ”Good bye!” Everybody is scared of it, but it is not scary! It is only scary if you not already recognize how stupid and biased we are. Computers won’t enslave us and make us into their pigs, because why bother? We are not actually that good at anything, except making art. Fractals are infinitely beautiful as well as being uniform and so maybe the esthetics of the computers will be satiated by fractals or by staring at the stars. Only we are able to create awful art and maybe computers will appreciate it and will be able to see what we are actually good at. We are bad at government and we are bad at building things, frankly, but dancing is this fantastic thing that no-one else can do. Maybe our dance is equivalent to a flock of birds twisting and turning on a beach as one, but we are doing it with intention rather than as an automatic response, which is unique and beautiful. As God-like intelligences, those machines want to watch people dance! We dance for a reason and it might be that we are closer to God through dance than what any amount of efficiency could approximate.

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