Scale and Memory
Ruminations about human augmentation.
I often think about scale and memory. I understand that humans think mnemonically whereas machines need precision of a different type. In combination man + machine can be formidable. But there are often gaps.
For example, I just was looking at sports cars, and I have decided that if I get one, it is most likely to be the new twin turbo V6 Nissan Z. With 400hp, stunning good looks and about 40k, it doesn’t get much better. Something similar could be said about the Mustang or the Corvette. I’ve loved the ‘Stang but never much loved the ‘Vette. Even the classics. Mr. Ganci, the 5th grade teacher at Virginia Road Elementary had a red and white 1959 Corvette. I can’t remember Mr. Ganci’s first name, but I do remember Edna Cohen who was the principal at the time. After her was Mrs. White. Mrs. Bishop was the music teacher who was laid off, and so went our music program. After the Sylmar Quake in 1971, they demolished the auditorium, and so went our drama program. All of those names and what happened to them should be records somewhere, but I doubt they’ll ever get digitized. They are lost to mankind and those who have the memories are scattered.
Every once in a while somebody from the old West Adams neighborhood friends me on Facebook. I can only tell that’s the case by seeing which other friends of mine they know. After I turned 19, I did almost nothing with those same kids. My closest friends turned over again when I turned 23 and I rarely saw any of that group by the time I was 27. I recently found my very small deposit ledger that I used as a phone book back when everyone had the same area code (213) and I mostly didn’t write people’s last names. Suddenly I only remembered John Grant who laid down my new motorcycle and said it was OK for me to punch him in the face. I didn’t. I’m sure I only had 100 phone numbers in the days before I started collecting business cards.
My friend the Young Scientist tells a story of how he set up cameras in his home in Atlanta so that they could monitor his daily routine. After just a week or two of training a machine learning model, it was over 90% accurate in figuring out where he would be. It was a remarkably small data set.
We travel in small circles for much of our lives and are imprinted like baby ducks on the smallest things. Yes I am also thinking about Dunbar’s Number and how much we like to think we can violate it. But do we? I know a dozen people on Facebook who argue around in circles as they have been for the past 15 years. Their writing is predictable.
The buried lede is here. I recognize that I am running out of time in my life. I never got rich enough to fund the project of my biggest ideas. My company never quite got to 5 million annual revenue where things might have opened up. And yet I’m mostly satisfied with my also-not-rich peers. It occurs to me that there are always enough people to know. No matter how you grow there will always be people at your level. They won’t be who you expect them to be, but they will exist. It only remains to be seen if you can find them and make something of it. That’s all there is. Celebrities will suck all the oxygen out of human history, and the only things that will persist about you in digital memory are your tax payments, your transcripts and your criminal record. The only love there is, is the love you make.
People are like farts; they obey the Ideal Gas Law. They will fill whatever space you have in your life enough to be a consistently bad yet funny smell. When you are being discriminating in choosing your friends, especially to the point of loneliness, you are only fooling yourself to think yourself that rare. The trick is to get over yourself and make yourself humbled by what strangers have that you don’t yet know or appreciate. It’s still at your level.
You might know something special. If you truly know it, you could patiently explain it. I understand why you don’t. You haven’t achieved your dosh point. You are still needing and trying to sell your skills, your talents, your personality. All of that happens on a very small scale, as do all of the accommodations to allow people to fill your empty space, bad or funny.
Augmented by information technology, we incorrectly guess we might be more expansive than we are. I could find a way to hack the LA Unified School District pension computers and probably find out where Edna Cohen went and what Mr. Ganci’s first name was, rest all their souls.
One of that Facebook circle brought up something about Iraq and compared it to Ukraine. What kind of computer and memory did she have? I know she was out of her league, as are 99% of us. We don’t know the 7500 people who matter most in the USA and get to decide the strategic interests of the nation. I could get a printout and name the names and phone numbers with area codes and that still wouldn’t help our memory. I think only the few who get to write thirty books or more are that well versed in what they can patiently explain to the rest of us. We’re talking about old women and sunflower seeds, tractors and mud, no-fly zones and MANPADS as if we had all that in our little black books.
I’m having a technical discussion with the support entities at Google. My $300 thermostat lost the plot and cannot connect to wifi any longer. That means I cannot fight with my wife about the temperature in the middle of the night when I wake up cold. My smartphone can’t help me remotely turn on the heat. I’d have to walk downstairs and twist the knob. The serial number on the back of the device lets them know it’s under warrantee. I emailed them a JPG. I register with Google Pay. They’ll put a hold on my credit card until I ship back the defective product. This is how shopping has been democratized. We have support entities that are half man, half machine. In the old days, we called them servants.
People who try to be big moralists in public often complain about the minimum wages of their pet victims. They used to be Walmart employees who couldn’t unionize. Now they are Amazon warehouse workers. At scale, all of the Amazon distribution and logistics are just democratized personal shoppers. Now that the price of gas has risen 25% we’re even more reluctant to drive to the mall and market. Our lazy asses have flunkies courtesy of Amazon, Doordash, Grubhub and a dozen other high flight companies that didn’t exist back when our parents walked 5 miles to school in the snow.
My biggest tweet ever has been running for over a day now. It has more than 1k likes. It’s a pointer to Dan Carlin’s second podcast on slavery, specific to the Atlantic trade in African flunkies started by various kingdoms in what we now call Western Europe over to what was once called the New World. Roughly speaking up until the days when Equiano and Wilberforce went viral but before Cotton was King in the US, call it 1800, the number of Africans who survived the Middle Passage ran somewhere around 5.5 million. We don’t have those names either. But that was just a fraction of all of the slavery in the world. But what were we going to do before we had machines? Opposable thumbs don’t come cheap and silk fabrics don’t weave themselves.
Did the Industrial Revolution free us or enslave us? Hard to tell. It still continues to provide the continual illusion that we are more capable of dealing with the masses. We claim to master mass production, mass logistics, mass markets. But we are clumsy with all that. We mistake the Yellow Pages for the business community, the White Pages for the people, the manifests for the men.
Now for some reasons unknown to us exactly, for our lack of knowing the 7500, we will suffer inflation, shortages and a host of other dysfunctions as various shockwaves grind our mass society into jaggy convulsions. Maybe it’s OPEC production restraints. Maybe it’s weapons of mass destruction. Maybe it’s China. What if China brokers the peace? We don’t really know any of them either.
Yet here we are, we Americans with our unexceptional hubris. Starting at $3999, you can buy Mac Studio with the M1 Ultra and be a creative who changes the world. That’s what Tim said just the other day. His Apple watch band is yellow. The new iPhones come in two stunning green colors. The cheapest one you can get is just over $400. Mine has 1 terabyte of memory. When I worked at Xerox, the workstation of the future had an 80 megabyte hard drive. Who could have guessed? I’m still on the cutting edge, I got myself the latest Mac Mini with the M1 chip last Christmas, but I still keep the old wired aluminum keyboards. I have two spares. You can still get them refurbished for $60. I’m still using text and not choosing from a palette of over a billion colors that the new Mac Studio Display can work. I like the efficiency of reading. I like writing for my small crowd. I don’t trust the pretense of mastering the masses.
A lot of supremely elegant and inspiring things just don’t scale. I think we are rightly afraid of giants and huge things, things with way more legs than we have, things with way more eyes than we have. I think we will all be chilling our heels in the near future and aiming for balance at a human scale. You’ve heard me say and imply it before. We’re paying attention to far too much and it’s not doing us any good. Then again I would say something like that. I’m trying to always reduce things to divine principles as a follower of Gall’s Law. Indeed you should sweat the small stuff, because it’s all small stuff. Make the small stuff work and be pleased. The only love there is, is the love you make. And the poet said:
Happy is the way to meet your burdens
No matter how heavy or dark the day
Pity on those with no hope for tomorrow
It's never as bad as it seems until we say