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Does any of this feel real to you?

Does any of this feel real to you?
Contributors (1)
Aug 08, 2019

Content warning: pessimism, sacrilege
Epistemic status: probably wrong but I just want to vent

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.

Friends, it’s August. Another month has passed, spent juggling the lurid fantasy of lofty research dreams with a pathetic reality grounding their absolute silliness. To literally any outside observer we are indistinguishable from the next cryptoshit pitch decking their technopsychedelic utopia ("""Kn0w1eDg3!!!"""). Do they think that they’re different too? Are we all deluded? How would I even go about empirically separating us?

I just read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and it made me furious - jealous beyond words for a simpler time when “scientific progress” was tangible and we consistently uncovered illuminating new perspectives on the world that repeatedly brought empirical observation in closer alignment with explanatory theory. It’s easy to forget just how much we used to not know. And it’s hard to imagine how valiantly we must have fought for every shred, slogging through a fog of debilitating ignorance to grasp the knowledge we now take for granted.

Things... feel different now. This historical image of wild-west-style science bears almost no relation to “science” as I see it around me, in big mechanical institutions with degree requirements and impact factors. My anecdotal perception now is that academics are depressed and skeptical that their research connects significantly with the kind of progress that is culturally romanticized. They’re not really sold that they’re part of the same process they read about in history books. It doesn’t feel real, it even feels fake.

I think this pessimism often gets diagnosed as Imposter Syndrome, but it’s not the same imposter syndrome I felt in undergrad. There, it was about my personal competence as a student compared to my peers, where “being a student” is seen as a skill itself, measured by grades and internships. But this is different. I think it’s deeper. It’s a hopelessness about the world, not oneself. It’s a sense that we’ve collectively lost the plot, lost the capacity for progress, and are even starting to lose track of the very concept. It’s an existential despondency - a creeping suspicion that our entire generation is just going through some science-reminiscent motions. Science today produces clickbait and TED Talks and chips away at industry-incentivized optimization.

This feeling got the better of me last week and I bet my roommate that nothing will change in 50 years - that life as we know it will look pretty much the same. No AR glasses. No self-driving cars. No revolution. Climate change getting kinda bad but no real action. No fun CRISPR hacks. I had a sudden flash of depression where I saw, counter the dominant narrative, the last decade as pure technological stasis, with no solid hope anything actually moving.

Phones are basically the same. Cameras have gotten better. Websites are a little slower. The human experience has gotten slightly worse. We're still paying for the von Neumann bottleneck. Hypercard and Xanadu died. webOS lost to Android. Android became surveillance software. Facebook killed the web. Now it’s killing us. Big Pharma no longer sees R&D as profitable. A thousand pieces on medium dot com have variously described how Moore’s Law is and is not holding. Headlines herald cancer’s imminent cure, but it never materializes. The hollow shell of CS, once the imitation of creation itself, slaves away optimizing ISAs for JavaScript. Education, transportation, and academia are frozen in perpetual revolution.

We poured trillions of dollars into force-inventing a shitty knock-off of the computer from Star Trek and forgot about the post-war post-scarcity society. Ray Kurzweil says that in 26 years the singularity will detonate “ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light”, but I think everything will basically just keep happening the way it is. What’s going to change? Why would it change?

There have certainly been quiet decades in the past! One of the biases of history is underestimating the time between all the exciting events. So maybe the lack of progress since 2009 is less interesting than the widespread insistence that there definitely has been.

The assumption feels taboo to question! It’s uncomfortable to even consider! Progress is a western psychological necessity - the coherence of our modern narrative depends on steady, constant, abstract PROGRESS. It’s what makes the world go round, justifies capitalism, and gives everyone a broad sense of purpose. The reason why “Cancer Cure Around Corner” sells is that it reassures us, and the reason why we never tire of it is that we want to be reassured. There must, above all, be progress.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard talks about this sort of defensiveness by analogy to religious icons: at first, symbols are introduced as representations of god. But the detachment they bring inevitably corrodes the reality of their referent as idols eclipse god as the object of worship. This leads to a curious sacred symbol obsession because they become the only thing hiding the unfaceable reality that there is no god at all. The simulated becomes the real. The same could be said of impact factor (as symbol) and progress (as god). Every Joe Engelbart at every SF Memex Meetup laments the way we share information online in screenshots and PDFs, but maybe the reason why none of their notetaking apps have any users is that chaos keeps the illusion going, and nobody can imagine it ending.

Here’s Baudrillard direct:

These would be the successive phases of the image:

  1. It is the reflection of a basic reality.

  2. It masks and perverts a basic reality.

  3. It masks the absence of a basic reality.

  4. It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

... and I think most of what happens now is pure simulacrum. We’re a fake generation living a simulated life in a simulated time. Somehow the very possibility of new discoveries or new paradigms or truly new ideas seems precluded, and the old mechanisms that drove change have been hijacked and hypernormalized. It used to be about people and nature, but now I think it’s mostly about companies and institutions and structures. It’s the most boring possible dystopia. The vision of carving nature at the joints is fading from memory. Instead we stare at the precession of simulacra in a hazy post-paradigm paradigm.

Evan Miyazono: You’re saying that people aren’t making discoveries because they believe that discoveries will happen and they’ve gotten complacent? Making people identify and solve important problems seems hard but not impossible. But it’s easy in hindsight, because you can cherry-pick what problems ended up being important. Also, what “old mechanisms” are you referring to?
Joel Gustafson: No, I think our conception of what a “discovery” is has been *replaced* with something else “Old mechanisms” would be e.g. universities and the shift of role of college to be career training
Evan Miyazono: We imaged a black hole with a synthetic aperture the size of the planet using ML to fill in the holes. We landed a rocket and flew it again, and also landed a satellite on a comet. CRISPR is enabling more accurate gene editing. Sure, maybe progress is slower, but it’s there. Just look at for last year or other years for highlights.
Evan Miyazono: I would ask you what you want progress to look like. What’s the most important thing people could be working on but aren’t? And why aren’t you working on that? =P
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Evan Miyazono: or maybe it’s that there are some truly unsolved problems (UX, technological, and adoption) for a Memex.or maybe it’s that whenever we live through a real improvement, it’s slow enough that we dismiss it as inevitable.
Joel Gustafson: Hmm I really don’t think there have been real improvements in HCI since… the very first computers. Definitely never since the first tabbed web browser. There are a few examples of “good” iPad apps that really act touch-native but for the most part even phones & tablets just perpetuated the same paradigm. It could totally be that someone eventually comes up with the right UI, but I’m getting suspicious that it’s really that simple. There have been *so many attempts* at exactly the same goal and they’re all buried in the same graveyard.
Evan Miyazono: If I told you in 50 years that people were routinely using autonomous cars, hyperloops (as originally described), and ground to ground passenger rockets as the high-end option for short, medium, and long-distance travel, would you expect that things had cataclysmically changed? I would postulate it would look like the same quirky R&D efforts and startups we have now, fighting for adoption until they succeed.
Evan Miyazono: But every time we realize a cure is one step further away, it’s because we’ve acquired new knowledge about epigenetics, or what cancer is, or what aging is. Do you want more knowledge or do you want more products, because I think there’s an amount of knowledge needed to make new products, and that buffer runs low occasionally. Maybe we’re waiting on a new way to model and analyze complex systems. I think that’s what the Santa Fe Institute is pretty much betting on. Maybe someone could prove P=NP and create a very different kind of revolution. I think you’re more frustrated at a lack of ambitious science, which I think is totally fair; most systems are incentivized to fund incremental change. But we’ve got a mind-numbing amount of incremental change, so the system works as intended.
Evan Miyazono: do you want a glowing pet bunny? Or do you want to see CRISPR used in pharma trials
Evan Miyazono: Are you implying that cars in the late 1800s looked any less clunky/awkward or worked any more efficiently or reliably than the early google maps cars?
Evan Miyazono: You were talking about science; now you’re talking about products. I think that’s a false equivalence. =P
Evan Miyazono: The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.
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Evan Miyazono: I’d bet that the feeling someone had imagining and creating the first GAN was probably pretty similar to creating the first converging-diverging nozzle for supersonic flight. Granted, people likely call both engineering rather than science, but coming up with an idea that could be impactful if true, testing it, and learning that it is true is meaningful.
Evan Miyazono: Sounds like a culture problem to me. The public didn’t and still doesn’t give a shit about logic or fluid dynamics or even relativity. They like accessing wikipedia or sending texts, flying on planes or watching rockets, and turning people like Einstein into a caricature of scientific intellect.
Evan Miyazono: I’ve convinced myself that one can apply a partial ordering on the delusion of different projects in related areas, based on how blatantly projects are ignoring or addressing the likely failure modes. Compare early SpaceX to Tron pitches during the crypto bubble as a comparison of hackneyed extremes. Solve the hardest problems first so you can “fail quickly and cheaply” is the best way to approach potentially impossible tasks.
Sarah Kearns: From my perspective, science helps us get out of that nihilistic cycle of fake-ness. Do you think that it also promotes it?
Joel Gustafson: Both! Science definitely *is* one of out best tools for breaking ourselves out of bubbles and loops, but the scientific process is still itself susceptible to some of them.
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Sarah Kearns: I love this book though! I still feel like it’s really relevant in looking at how fields shift and change over time. But agreed that there’s a simplicity in what those delineations between accepted and not accepted aren’t (and likely weren’t) as clean as Kuhn describes it.