Ian Bogost

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There are numerous financial and practical reasons for turning society into a giant, tentacled computer that connect us all, but even if mass surveillance and other elements of governmental and corporate fascism aren’t the chief driving forces of the transition, their danger is no less real. My main issue with the febrile fear of Strong AI—computers surpassing our brains and turning us into zoo animals or some such thing—is that this outcome is likely not happening today or tomorrow or perhaps ever, even if it isn’t theoretically impossible.

The bigger issue is that no such superintelligence need develop for humans to be diminished or doomed. Weak AI can do us in with a thousand cuts. The process of computerizing absolutely everything has already begun in earnest, and it hasn’t thus far made us better or wiser or happier. That may be because our best intentions have failed, but more likely is that this new system of digital capitalism has its own agenda and human well-being isn’t job one.

From Ian Bogost’s Atlantic article “You Are Already Living Inside a Computer“:

Newer dreams of what’s to come predict that humans and machines might meld, either through biohacking or simulated consciousness. That future also feels very far away—and perhaps impossible. Its remoteness might lessen the fear of an AI apocalypse, but it also obscures a certain truth about machines’ role in humankind’s destiny: Computers already are predominant, human life already plays out mostly within them, and people are satisfied with the results. …

Think about the computing systems you use every day. All of them represent attempts to simulate something else. Like how Turing’s original thinking machine strived to pass as a man or woman, a computer tries to pass, in a way, as another thing. As a calculator, for example, or a ledger, or a typewriter, or a telephone, or a camera, or a storefront, or a café.

After a while, successful simulated machines displace and overtake the machines they originally imitated. The word processor is no longer just a simulated typewriter or secretary, but a first-order tool for producing written materials of all kinds. Eventually, if they thrive, simulated machines become just machines.

Today, computation overall is doing this. There’s not much work and play left that computers don’t handle. And so, the computer is splitting from its origins as a means of symbol manipulation for productive and creative ends, and becoming an activity in its own right. Today, people don’t seek out computers in order to get things done; they do the things that let them use computers.

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When the use of computers decouples from its ends and becomes a way of life, goals and problems only seem valid when they can be addressed and solved by computational systems. Internet-of-things gadgets offer one example of that new ideal. Another can be found in how Silicon Valley technology companies conceive of their products and services in the first place.•


At the Atlantic, Ian Bogost offers an anti-algorithm screed, which doesn’t argue that we resist the efficacy of these computer driven formulae but that they’re not efficacious at all. Of course, such distinctions matter little to you personally if these numbers are a fundamental part of eliminating your livelihood. An excerpt:

If algorithms aren’t gods, what are they instead? Like metaphors, algorithms are simplifications, or distortions. They are caricatures. They take a complex system from the world and abstract it into processes that capture some of that system’s logic and discard others. And they couple to other processes, machines, and materials that carry out the extra-computational part of their work.

Unfortunately, most computing systems don’t want to admit that they are burlesques. They want to be innovators, disruptors, world-changers, and such zeal requires sectarian blindness. The exception is games, which willingly admit that they are caricatures—and which suffer the consequences of this admission in the court of public opinion. Games know that they are faking it, which makes them less susceptible to theologization. SimCity isn’t an urban planning tool, it’s  a cartoon of urban planning. Imagine the folly of thinking otherwise! Yet, that’s precisely the belief we allow ourselves to hold of Google and Facebook and the like.

A Google Maps Street View vehicle roams the streets of Washington D.C. Google Maps entails algorithms, but also other things, like internal combustion engine automobiles. (Flickr/justgrimes)
Just as it’s not really accurate to call the plastic toy manufacture “automated,” it’s not quite right to call Netflix recommendations or Google Maps “algorithmic.” Yes, true, there are algorithms involved, insofar as computers are involved, and computers run software that processes information. But that’s just a part of the story, a theologized version of the diverse, varied array of people, processes, materials, and machines that really carry out the work we shorthand as “technology.” The truth is as simple as it is uninteresting: The world has a lot of stuff in it, all bumping and grinding against one another.

I don’t want to downplay the role of computation in contemporary culture. [Ted] Striphas and [Lev] Manovich are right—there are computers in and around everything these days. But the algorithm has taken on a particularly mythical role in our technology-obsessed era, one that has allowed it wear the garb of divinity. Concepts like “algorithm” have become sloppy shorthands, slang terms for the act of mistaking multipart complex systems for simple, singular ones. Of treating computation theologically rather than scientifically or culturally.•

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In “What Is ‘Evil’ to Google?” Ian Bogost of the Atlantic tries to decipher the slippery moral code of the search giant that aspires to be so much more:

“All moral codes are grounded in something: a religious tradition, a philosophical doctrine, a cultural practice. Google’s take on virtue doesn’t reject such grounds so much as create a new one: the process of googlization itself. If anything, Google’s motto seems to have largely succeeded at reframing ‘evil’ to exclude all actions performed by Google.

There is a persistent idea that Internet technology companies embody an innocent populism. That the rational engineer is an earnest problem-solver, his fists striking tables instead of noses. But there’s something treacherous in believing that virtue and vice can be negotiated in the engineering of an email client or the creation of a spreadsheet—that evil is just another problem to overcome, like usability or scalability.

Companies like Google actually embody a particular notion of progress rather than populism, one that involves advancing their technology solutions as universal ones. Evil is vicious because it inhibits this progress. If Google has made a contribution to moral philosophy, it amounts to a devout faith in its own ability to preside over virtue and vice through engineering. The unwitting result: We’ve not only outsourced our email hosting and office suite provisioning to Google, but also our information ethics. Practically speaking, isn’t it just easier to let Google manage right and wrong?”


I don’t agree with the premise of Ian Bogost’s new Atlantic article which argues that private industrialists and technologists exploring and colonizing space alongside government efforts will somehow debase our ambitions. It will mean something different and pose new questions, sure, but we need to be confronting such challenges from every angle. Regardless, it’s a well-considered piece. An excerpt:

“[Elon] Musk is a hero of the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who have themselves taken over the role of hero from Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn and Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. He’s also perhaps the closest real-world counterpart to Tony Stark, the fictional playboy and industrialist who becomes Iron Man in Stan Lee’s comic books. Musk started SpaceX shortly before selling PayPal in 2002. Like Stark he’s a modest man, taking only the titles of CEO and CTO at SpaceX, in addition to his role as Chairman and CEO at Tesla Motors, the electric car manufacturer he founded a year later. SpaceX’s contract under the NASA COTS program is worth up to $3.1 billion, more than twice what Ebay shelled out for PayPal.

Musk is in the space freight business, hauling materials and equipment from earth to sky, a kind of twenty-first century Cornelius Vanderbilt in the making. Elsewhere, rich men lust jealously for space now that Earth’s challenges have proven tiresome. John Carmack, the co-founder of iD software and co-creator of Doom started Armadillo Aerospace in 2000, eyeing space tourism via a sub-orbital commercial craft. Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos helped found another private spaceflight company, Blue Origin, in the same year. And of course, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson established Virgin Galactic in 2004, to provide sub-orbital space tourism as well as orbital satellite launch. In 2008, Richard Garriott, the role-playing game creator and son of American Skylab astronaut Owen K. Garriott, paid Space Adventures a reported $30 million to be flown via Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. Just four years later, Branson’s Virgin Galactic was selling tickets for sub-orbital rides on SpaceshipTwo for a mere $200,000. Ashton Kutcher and Katy Perry have already signed up. TMZ Galactic can’t be far behind.”

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