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The Intelligence Problem
Brains are a cheap commodity.
In 1980, I decided that I was losing my mind. I had been working a union job and basically the only reading I did was motorcycle and audiophile magazines. I didn’t know a thing about literature. One day I decided to write a poem. It was horrible. I realized my imagination had shrunk to pea size. I had become a Basic. So I forced myself to read. I started with four authors. Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Stephen King & Robert Ludlum.
This is about the consequences of my infatuation with computers, which has been the profession that has fed me, and its complication with the business of intelligence. I can’t know how much that I get it, but I think I get it. From everything that I understand, it’s going to be very difficult to navigate in our open society. It’s a bit frightening.
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The Chemical Part
Just the other day, I consolidated a lot of my programming stuff. Basically about 100GB of code and documentation that I have gathered over the years. Some of it was so ancient that it was written in troff. So I downloaded groff onto my machine and converted it into a PDF. It was basically a man page for a Teradata CLI. Probably a small fraction of you know what I’m talking about. Bear with me if you don’t. I also found some of the earliest code I ever dealt with. It was FORTRAN code that calculated vapor pressure for chemical engineering controls. This was my first computing job when I worked in Whittier for a company called Bachelor Chemical. My boss was the guy who loaned his computer to my highschool on the condition that he could get some of us kids to fix the broken FORTRAN code he had appropriated from somewhere. I fixed two of them, the more complex one calculated dew point and bubble point temperatures for CFCs. You know CFCs, those things in spray cans that were outlawed in the 80s because of the Ozone Hole. As a side story, Bachelor Chemical, which was a top recycling plant of CFCs was bullied out of business as part of the regime change. Of course you haven’t thought about the Ozone Hole for a while have you? It turns out that one of the programs that I have in my newly consolidated pile of code contains an algorithm written in FORTRAN by one V. Obercracker. If you do a scholarly search, you can find out that Volker Obercracker worked out of Vanderbilt and has a stunning portfolio. When I read it this morning it reminded me about how incredibly naive we peasants are.
I bring this up to remind us about our Third Order Epistemics, that is our skillset in understanding the world as it actually is. The stuff that doesn’t change, no matter what our perspective or opinion is, like the Coulomb barrier, the composition of Freon and its bubble point range at STP. My old boss told me I could be a good chemical engineer, but the weird thing was that what I really wanted to do was use the computer to calculate his payroll. He blew me off.
So at the tender age of 17, in the summer before I went to USC, I decided that I preferred computers over chemicals and I really wanted to use them to understand money, but primarily because of the effect I perceived money had on people, as compared to the effect of chemistry. What I don’t think any of us figured out was the effect of digitized information on people. We’re still figuring it out. On the other hand, I still think I get it.
The Bourne Part
It’s likely that the first Ludlum book that I read was The Bourne Identity. It’s a story that has been popularized by some great action filmmaking and Matt Damon. Within a short period of time, I felt confident once again that I could read big fat books. That was the first point, but as a significant after effect I became a believer in star chambers. I believed the CIA could do things. I understood that the Cold War was no joke. I have subsequently learned a lot more, but the moment was pregnant primarily because I became aware of the differences between being smart, knowing what is important and the effort required to stay on top of changing information. I was working in a bank at the time and interest rates were through the roof. Every day bank managers were in a panic at the cost of money and the fact that they had to pay up to 18% on jumbo certificates of deposit. Asset balances had to be recalculated every day. The system was too big to game, even for one of the largest banks in California. There was a lot of mystery mixed up in those calculations to an outsider looking in. But there were always insiders.
The man who represented the insiders to me was Marvin Schwartz. He was a fast talking man who wore dark three piece suits and somehow had the perfectly shaped half-bald head, like Dr. Katz, the cartoon psychologist. He was the most powerful individual I ever met. Basically he ran the loan machinery of the non-Hollywood business part of the bank. One of our large accounts was the Cato Institute. We also had this wheeler dealer named Burton Sunkin who was a real-estate tycoon from the San Fernando Valley. He embodied every high roller cliche of the gogo 80s. I remember the time he came into the branch with a fat gold Rolex, aviator shades and a leather Members’s Only jacket. He was bankrolling his wife to have a rival business to Mrs. Field’s Cookie Company. But, like everyone else, he paid respectful obeisance to Marvin Schwartz. Every Christmas, Schwartz’ elevated desk on the mezzanine floor would be surrounded by gift baskets, giant floral arrangements and gallon tins of specialty popcorn. He was the serious man. I could never tell if he was an asshole or had no sense of humor; I stayed out of his line of sight. He was not one to be crossed and everybody seemed to understand that he was a banker’s banker. He lived in Hancock Park, he made money for the bank and he practically made no mistakes. He knew the numbers. If you thought you knew the numbers, you’d check first with Marvin Schwartz.
The Practical Part
As complex as the world gets, somebody has engineered all that is manmade and remains. Somebody has made all of the allowable mistakes and calculated the tolerances. They had the know how. They had the opportunity. They had the budget and they developed the discipline. There are always insiders, and sometimes their job is to throw competitors off the trail. One of the things I learned growing up during the Cold War, is that for every intelligence, there is an equal and opposite counter-intelligence. You might think that something as arcane as the best way to cook CFCs might be something a 17 year old with a DEC PDP 11-03 can work out. You wouldn’t be wrong, but in 1978 such machines didn’t grow on trees, nor did the actual stills and spectrometers. Even when the resources are all in place, there are only a few ways to keep the operation running under the noses of the OSHA. That involves tight lips. Those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.
One of the chemical engineers who worked at the plant was the only one who was allowed to go into The Pit, to make adjustments on the reactor. One way to tell if the job was going well was to take a smell test of a sample. I learned to calibrate my nose to the spectrometer results. At the borderline between art and science is enough obscurity to call it security. That didn’t change the fact that we were instructed not to talk about The Pit.
I have forgotten all about the challenges of working for Marvin Schwartz, and for my old boss at Bachelor. Like Bourne, I might have some buried memories that could come to life under the right circumstances. But I don’t remember the names of any of my co-workers. The names of my bosses don’t immediately come to mind. I do remember that I learned which chemicals were the most dangerous to transport according to the USDOT manual. I do recall that there was a catalog of pipes, valves, tanks and pumps that fascinated my 17 year old mind. Some of them cost more than a brand new Ford Mustang. I do recall that we had truckloads of barrels with botched product, but I don’t recall when they were taken away or where to. Being in the middle of it all develops a praxis, and only with a working praxis can your answers to stupid questions be snappy.
The Turing Part
When I was still in highschool, I was vulnerable to jokes like: “9 out of 10 women in California are beautiful, and the 10th one goes to Stanford.” So I never applied. Nor to UC because I already nailed my SAT why should I bother to take the ACT as well? After all, almost nobody had a computer science bachelor’s program. You had to build them first, so EE and then you get to play around with software. There was no such thing as a software industry, really. But Turing’s Law, as I learned it, meant that any universal computing language can be run on any universal computing machine. It had nothing to do with the legality of buggery. It was interesting to me to make the connection with this and with the evidence against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This claim was often used to ‘prove’ that black people’s slang made them unteachable in the hard sciences. Of course the new DEI regimes are all over Sapir-Whorf making highschoolers vulnerable to rhetoric like “You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” I was satisfied that I could code switch as well as code, although we called it ‘language skills’ and ‘programming’ back in the 70s. It was quickly evident to me that I could speak any way I pleased; so long as I was unambiguous, my dialect could communicate any knowledge. It should be obvious that there are various efficiencies. You know, machine language vs programming language vs application interface, but it’s all words. That’s what we called bits and bytes back in the 70s, words.
So if language can be universal in machines, and humans and machines could be used to represent any concept or knowledge, sooner or later we could translate everything into everything. So while my first programs were games, and fake AIs, I also wrote voting systems and that chemical calculation stuff.
My instructor wrote in our yearbook “Originality is the art of concealing your sources.” He never liked to give us clues about how to work out his computing puzzles, and I hate puzzles. Seriously. We’ll talk about that another time. So we came to something of an impasse when I hacked the OS and changed the way everyone had to log on. Then he got all serious with me about school property and threatened to lock me out of admin unless I promised not to do anything like locking him out. He likened it to a security arms race. I understood that and decided on detente even though I was convinced I would win any battle of escalation.
Put It All Together It Spells Mother
So what have we learned? We all have human minds that process language. That Stanford can be ignored, and that whatever mind you have you can process knowledge. Like my baby brother loved baseball. I asked him to list an all left-handed Puerto Rican team. He asked me American League or National League. I had to believe him, because I don’t know. That was all inside baseball. Intelligence was useless if counter-intelligence was used. So you could lock out the way people got access to anything. The more valuable or dangerous the intelligence the more an absolute master could get respect and tins of popcorn. Even millionaire dudes with Rolex watches and hot wives would have to shutup, but somewhere beyond all the flash were geniuses with arcane knowledge that lie far beyond ordinary people’s ability to grasp. Let’s just call it the Kobe Distance after basketball great Kobe Bryant, my tallest brother’s hero.
Now we are faced with an extraordinary dilemma. This problem is comprised of the fact that the human race has more people than ever, and a lot of them are considered middle class. The 20th century way of organizing governments, power and intelligence is failing. Well, let’s just say it has failed. The centralization of power, governments and intelligence into hierarchies give rise to what those of us in the digital information businesses call the Monolith Problem. Or that’s what I’m calling it now, but even ChatGPT knows exactly what I’m talking about - to its wit:
Monolithic architectures refer to the design of software systems in which all components are tightly coupled and interdependent, and the entire system is built and deployed as a single, cohesive unit. While monolithic architectures can be effective for some types of applications, they can also have several potential drawbacks:
Complexity: Monolithic systems can become very large and complex, with many interdependent components and a lot of code. This can make it difficult to understand and modify the system, and it can also make it more prone to errors and bugs.
Deployment challenges: Deploying a monolithic system can be difficult and time-consuming, as the entire system must be rebuilt and redeployed whenever a change is made. This can be especially challenging for large systems with many dependencies.
Scalability issues: Monolithic systems can be difficult to scale, as all components are tightly coupled and must be scaled together. This can make it challenging to add new features or handle increased traffic or load.
Limited flexibility: Monolithic systems can be inflexible, as changes to one component can potentially affect the entire system. This can make it difficult to update or modify individual components without affecting the rest of the system.
Because of these problems, many software developers have moved away from monolithic architectures in favor of more modular, microservices-based approaches, which allow for more flexible and scalable systems.
I’m not going to go full Balaji Srinivasan here, but I think I’ve drawn out my native understanding of how a lot of things we take for granted in our 20th century superpower Bretton-Woods monolithic WEIRD way of organizing ourselves and everything is in jeopardy. The way we think about the planet and our role in it doesn’t scale. We’re using the wrong metaphors. There’s too many people.
I don’t mean this in a Malthusian way. Not at all. The only people who do are the wrongthinkers. They believe that there is but one master’s house and one set of tools and that all the power in the world to be grabbed are in institutions and monoliths that they can see right in front of their eyes. Like they’re all in the skyscrapers downtown. To such people, all billionaires are monopoly men, and the world is, in fact, only that two dimensional board game. Yes there are too many people that think the only reasonable goals are already known. That was the world that marveled at Nokia as the king of cellphones and IBM as the colossus of computing. That’s so 20th century. That world is already behind us.
The thing to remember is that the future is already here, both its utopian promises and its dystopian failures are unevenly distributed. The arts and sciences to discover these may be arcane and secured behind tight lips, BUT there’s one more thing I know.
Brains Are A Cheap Commodity
So depending on how swiftly or slowly we peasants deploy a new way of thinking about ourselves, our governance, our sovereignty and the value of what we know, we will default to watching monoliths fall, or maybe I should call them Aristotelian Monoliths? Let’s just pretend I’ve solved the problem, like Balaji, and suggest that a city-state is the right-sized sovereign territory and that whatever worked for Aristotle began to seriously fail when our monoliths got too big.
The reason has to do with Covey’s Law which tells us that the more people you have in a hierarchical organization that requires some secrecy, the more likely it is that those secrets will leak out. When you think of this in the context of how many billions of people have access to the interwebz, you realize how much can be hacked. The world seems to be opened up to us. We seem to be made aware of every goof every institution ever does. All of us think we’re capable of putting Elon in his place. Still, we’re not insiders. You can benefit from what gets leaked and what you can discover. You may not be able to scale it across a polity capable of demanding democratic change, but you still had better get started.
So what is the major, highly capitalized industry that has the attention of billions of brains on the planet? It is the IT industry? It has put a supercomputer in everyone’s pocket. It has proliferated apps that direct our minds through their pre-programmed mazes. It changes the way we think and what we think about. Is all of this intelligence? If so, where is the counter-intelligence? Where are the experiences and the terms of art that are withheld so that we cannot actually benefit from the realization of what stories we are told? What is the scope of this global middle class? What are we actually gaining? Who’s the boss? Are we actually being introduced to the fundamental ways that the world works? Or are we being teased and seduced? Are our brains being abused in this, the information age?
I raise these questions for you, because I want you to remember discovery, humor and reason as antidotes to ideological control, illiberal speech constraints and junk media co-dependency. There’s enough ‘news’ coming at you to stuff your head. You now know that you can get mentally sick from FOMO. I watch those Porsche commercials too. I watch Chris Harris giggle and skid around Anglesey. It’s hella seductive.
That doesn’t change the fact that there is a hell of a lot of inside baseball and the interwebz are not letting us inside. I’m not promulgating a conspiracy theory, I’m just stating a reasonable assumption. Everybody knows when you’re married and then divorced, but nobody knows exactly why but you and your spouse. What goes on in your intimacy stays in your intimacy. That’s how information works. There’s a thermodynamic at work. You have to put energy into keeping people informed enough to remember what actually happens. Let me isolate that for emphasis.
There are information thermodynamics at work that requires a constant amount of energy to be expended in order to sustain a constant level of human cognition in a population.
So what we know is a function of energy expense. Either we are discovering it on our own initiative because we are driven to spend time and effort to gain knowledge, or some third party is spending a lot of time and effort to put it out information milk for us lazy cats to lap up at our leisure.
Do not doubt that these information energy economies are running at full tilt, 24-7. CNN got that Lost Ark boulder rolling decades ago. And guess what, here we get back to Jason Bourne, because the intelligence agencies cut their teeth in the Great Game even further back. They’ve been dealing with V. Obercracker level data for a long time. I’ve got a couple of measly terabytes of information goodies, some fraction of which is operational code which can discipline your mind around something like a bubble point calculation or the P&L of a small bank. That’s what I do as a data engineer. I do so under non-disclosure agreements, so my lips are sealed. Still, one of you might be enterprising enough to actually find out what happened to Bachelor Chemical and how OSHA eventually crushed them into the dirt. Keyword ‘superfund’. Oh and here’s a clue. Bachelor Chemical was a subsidiary of Omega Chemical. See? I’m easy. Also Omega and my old boss have found work in other nations, so no big deal. The legal actions have been taken, quite enough info is public.
So since the monolithic method doesn’t work and secrets can get out and 17 year old kids can know and we have billions who are literate, where is the middle class going to be in the 21st century, especially since the AIs are no longer so identifiably fake? Is there a postmodern apocalypse of truth at hand? No, but it’s still going to be difficult to navigate this new world, especially if you have a commoditized mind. Your brain hardware should be swift enough to get you through life with other humans, but competing with the other intelligences will separate us out. There is, to be frank about it, a new kind of poverty awaiting us. Those who will know and those who won’t.
The intelligence problem will be one of computer literacy, of critical thinking and of existential direction.
If you’re not working with animals, plants and other medieval levels of relationships, your social connections are going to be mediated through IT. There will be ghosts and goblins in those machines and networks and they will trip you up if you’re not savvy. You’re going to have to navigate yourself around trustable and non-trustable sources of information.
You’re going to have to be a critical reader. Watching and listening will be insufficient. People who can read approaching the Obercracker level will have, others will be a Kobe Distance behind and have not. There will always be a surfeit amount of energy put into children’s books and toys and other sorts of elementary intellectually addictive products.
You are going to have to be self-motivated to put in the work to get at fungible, usable truth, principles and communities of praxis. They will be unevenly distributed even within the monoliths that survive.
So now you get it. It looks like one of the clubs that gets it is called Dark Mountain. More on them next year.
Stoic Observations is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.