Two kinds of technology

I’ve had another thought about the backstory implicit in Avatar (see my previous post). Probably not that profound but it seems worth mentioning.

Humans are tool creators and tool users, our technology consists of tools that have grown bigger and more powerful and become weapons, vehicles, computers, prostheses, etc. That is the human technology we see in Avatar.

Tools are relatively simple (compared with our bodies and minds). Early tools are passive, requiring energy from us or domestic animals. We started making wide us of non-living power in the last couple of hundred years, and only began to build tools that can regulate themselves in significant ways in the last few decades.

But under different circumstances maybe we would have developed biological technology that wasn’t primarily mediated by tools (we have a lot of this such as domestication of animals, brewing, folk medicine, yoga, etc. but it is secondary to our tool use). If we figured out how to build a complete suite of biotechnology this way we might not use tools very much at all.

In this case we’d be almost entirely working with living things including our own bodies. These are active, very complex, and are intrinsically self-regulating.

To create a primarily biological technology, we’d have to learn how to manage evolution, emergent behavior, symbiosis, etc. We’d have to work with the intrinsic self-regulating tendencies of living things, rather than just shaping passive material. We’d develop a very different set of values, assumptions, skills, and probably cultural patterns.

Arguably imagining Pandora and the Na’vi as having developed through primarily biological technology is the best way to understand the world we see in Avatar.

Avatar and the posthuman future

Avatar is the best and most elaborate advertisement ever created for posthumanism.

The posthuman message of Avatar is easy to miss because Cameron invents a new form of posthuman — the Na’vi, apparently primitive children of Eywa (the “world spirit”). None the less, the conclusion is unavoidable. Compared to the Na’vi, humans are small, weak, ugly, inept and morally deficient. Avatar’s protagonist is crippled as a human, but athletic as a Na’vi. The whole narrative drive of the film is to transcend the human body, the human condition and human society, to transition to a more perfect world — but a world that is very much material, embodied, and shaped and maintained by its inhabitants. And humans make the transition to the posthuman by “uploading” their minds into Na’vis — a bog standard posthuman trope.

Admittedly, the Na’vi as tribal posthumans don’t fit into typical narratives of posthumanism. Both posthuman critical theory (e.g. Donna Haraway) and typical posthuman science fiction emphasize hard-edged scenarios such as cyborgs (the origin of the Star Trek borg, pretty much the opposite of the Na’vi), uploading our minds into computers and robots, etc. Furthermore, the “noble savage” aspect of the Na’vi seems to be the weakest, most cliched aspect of the movie.

But arguably if we believe the Na’vi are “noble savages” we are underestimating Cameron, or at least underestimating the potential of the world he has created.

Taking the Na’vi and Pandora at face value implies accepting a lot of incoherence. Many features of Pandora make no sense if we assume the ecosystem “just grew”. There’s no evolutionary reason for “horses” and “dragons” to plug into the nervous systems of “people”. There’s no evolutionary reason for all the trees to wire themselves together into a giant brain. And so forth.

But we can make sense of Pandora if we grant that Na’vi biotech is extremely advanced. Suppose the entire Pandoran ecosystem evolved normally, until the (precursors of the) Na’vi got to the point where they had to (or wanted to) manage their entire planet (the very point we on earth are reaching now). They took the path of adapting themselves and their ecosystem to become fully self-managing, and then could “relax” into a more or less tribal culture.

If the Na’vi engineered a self-managing planet, such techniques as networking the trees into a planetary brain, and providing ways to plug their minds into the nervous systems of plants and animals are sensible engineering solutions. The Na’vi transcend death by having their memories absorbed by the trees. This fits the goal of a sustainable system much better than making each individual biologically immortal (though potentially a society could do both).

The giant Na’vi “mind meld” with the trees to form a powerful system capable of identity transfer between bodies, also makes sense within this account. No mystical trappings are required.

The Na’vi have no need for a process of identity transfer between bodies, much less between human and Na’vi bodies. They must have created the process to deal with the situation, which implies that the Na’vi didn’t simply regress to a tribal culture. They retain the necessary knowledge — presumably stored in the trees — and the ability to integrate with the tree network to a level where they can rework nature, bodies etc. when needed. Again, that’s a good engineering solution to living in a simpler culture and still having high technology available when needed.

Unfortunately there’s one fact about Pandora that still doesn’t fit our account: the Na’vi have bodies that are exactly analogous to humans, except for their tails, while all other animals on Pandora have six legs and breathe through holes in their necks. Obviously the Na’vi similarity to humans is required to engage the audience and to use motion capture, so we could just ignore it. But let’s treat it as a meaningful discrepancy and see where that leads.

The surprising analogy between Na’vi and human suggests a plausible extension of our backstory. Perhaps the Na’vi were reshaped based on genetic samples and observations of the first human explorers, to serve as a “honey pot” that attracts human attention and interaction. In that case the Na’vi similarity to humans is another excellent design choice.

If that is the “real” story, the honeypot strategy has obviously worked well (in both the system security and seductive senses). The corporations and military commanders are totally sucked in to the honeypot and are paying no attention to the real nature of their opponent. Only a few no-account scientists have even noticed that the trees are important.

On the other hand, perhaps we should not think of the Na’vi as the dominant species on Pandora. The trees may in fact run the show (after all they are more or less worshiped by the Na’vi). Perhaps the trees have already snuck stealth versions to Earth, and are now in the process of slowly taking over our planet as well (see James Schmitz’ “The Porkchop Tree”). If the trees are in charge, perhaps we don’t have such a happy ending, but otherwise nothing fundamental changes. This account is more similar to posthuman scenarios in which intelligent machines are in charge but host humans or posthumans for inscrutable reasons. Such stories are often dystopian, but they can be quite positive (as in Ian Banks Culture novels).

All of these accounts involve a very high level of bio-technology and a sophisticated approach to managing the whole planet. In any coherent account the “noble savage” schtick is just a cover story. Cameron’s vision implies a pervasively posthuman world.

I don’t, of course, know if Cameron would endorse any of these accounts. But his vision of Pandora is more feasible and consistent than it at first appears, and adds an important dimension to imagining posthuman futures.

Analyzing crazy beliefs

Recently there’s been a renewed attempt in the liberal / scientific blogosphere to figure out what’s up with all the crazy social / political claims that keep erupting — about creationism, Obama, health care, global warming, etc. A new and I think potentially major step forward in this analysis has just been posted by Mike the Mad Biologist, building on two excellent posts by Slactivist (False witnesses, False witnesses 2). This analysis is the first one I’ve seen that makes me feel like I understand most of the craziness we are seeing today (and have seen in some form for many decades), and have at least a hope of figuring out how it will evolve, how we should respond, etc.

The basic point is that the crazy stories (death panels, global warming conspiracies, Obama’s birth, etc. etc.) aren’t really “believed” as we understand that term, at least not by their most vigorous proponents. We use “belief” to mean ideas that are part of an overall picture that we intend to be coherent, to help guide our actions in the world (including in the lab if we are scientists), etc.

Instead, these crazy “beliefs” are really a way of recruiting emotional and social support, declaring membership in a group, etc. So “believers” can’t be persuaded that the “beliefs” are “wrong” just because they are incoherent, lead to obviously wrong conclusions that the “believers” won’t adopt, etc. A strenuous attempt to persuade believers on pragmatic grounds just confirms you are not one of their crowd, can’t be recruited, and are probably one of the enemy. The post “False witnesses” referenced above has a very good discussion of this in some detail. It is worth reading because it is hard to imagine this state of mind (at least I find it hard) until you see it laid out in very specific terms.

I don’t want to say the crazy stories aren’t “really” beliefs — though I’m not sure saying they are crazy beliefs is any nicer. Instead, let’s call the first kind of belief (aiming at coherence and effectiveness) “pragmatic”. We can call the second kind (aiming at recruiting or maintaining support) “participatory” beliefs. (I’m sure there are harmless and even charming participatory beliefs, as well as these crazy ones.) Realistically we all have both kinds, the question is which kind are dominant in any given area, how we react when they are challenged, etc.

Properties of pragmatic vs. participatory beliefs
Slacktivist usefully summarizes his expectations and how he found these extreme participatory beliefs actually work:
I was operating under a set of false assumptions [viewing these as pragmatic beliefs]. Among these:
  1. I assumed that the people who claimed to believe [a particular crazy story] really did believe such a thing.
  2. I assumed that they were passing on this rumor in good faith — that they were misinforming others only because they had, themselves, been misinformed.
  3. I assumed that they would respect, or care about, or at least be willing to consider, the actual facts of the matter.
  4. Because the people spreading this rumor claimed to be horrified/angry about its allegations, I assumed that they would be happy/relieved to learn that these allegations were, indisputably, not true.

All of those assumptions proved to be false. All of them. This was at first bewildering, then disappointing, and then, the more I thought about it, appalling — so appalling that I was reluctant to accept that it could really be the case.

But it is the case. Let’s go through that list again. The following are all true of the people spreading the [crazy story]:

  1. They didn’t really believe it themselves [using the "pragmatic definition of belief].
  2. They were passing it along with the intent of misinforming others. Deliberately.
  3. They did not respect, or care about, the actual facts of the matter, except to the extent that they viewed such facts with hostility.
  4. Being told that the Bad Thing they were purportedly upset about wasn’t real only made them more upset. Proof that the [crazy story wasn't true] made them defensive and very, very angry.

Rather than saying the people he was talking to “didn’t really believe it themselves” and intended to misinform others, I’d say that they didn’t care about the pragmatic dimension at all, and so didn’t consider their recruiting to be misinformation. Quite possibly they didn’t expect those they were trying to recruit to interpret the rumor as a pragmatic fact.

This analysis has a lot going for it, much of it discussed rather well in these posts. Obviously participatory disagreements will be more like turf wars than practical discussions. As Mike says in the first post below, “part of the reason [for global warming denialism] is the ever-present desire to punch a hippie in the face” but he thinks that is a different issue. No, it is the same issue — hippies are cultural icons who stand for a different set of participatory beliefs incompatible with the main crazy participatory beliefs. (Obviously for this analysis it doesn’t matter if hippies really do have those beliefs or if hippies even exist.)

The members of the tribes that tell these crazy stories fear they can’t recruit hippies (and in fact fear that hippies are dangerously capable of seducing their own weakly committed members). Punching them in the face is their sincerest form of acknowledgement.

I think this analysis is a good guide to anticipating likely future scenarios, and to judging the effectiveness of possible actions. The worst scenarios are very bad, and while not highly likely I think they are credible. The 20th century leaves us with many examples of participatory “cults” that generated massive death, suffering, and social destruction (military cultures in Europe and Japan, Nazis, Soviet Communists, Maoists, Khymer Rouge, and so forth).

What’s the role of religion?
None of these posts focus on religion per se (though the crazy beliefs they talk about are especially relevant to evangelicals). And certainly some major participatory cults have been very hostile to religion (e.g. the Khymer Rouge, Maoism, etc.) — I suppose viewing it as competition.

However I think just about all organized religion depends on participatory beliefs (some forms of buddhism may be exceptions). Even if a believer is otherwise rational, their religion says it is OK for them to have beliefs that are basically incoherent (or carefully not evaluated for consistency), that aren’t effective in guiding action (or aren’t evaluated in terms of effectiveness), etc. Evangelical religions, furthermore, are defined by recruiting others to their participatory beliefs — that’s what evangelism is.

One of our constraints is that liberals have a participatory belief (or meta-belief) in pragmatic belief. We want to debate at the level of pragmatic beliefs (what is coherent, what will work) and avoid tribalism. Thus liberals can seem weak when they are attacked in social turf wars at the level of participatory belief. I guess this liberal participatory belief is partly historical, in that the liberal coalition (meta-tribe) was largely founded on the rejection of religious wars and the valorization of pragmatic choices relative to participatory beliefs, and partly structural, in that the liberal coalition still depends largely on uniting groups with partially incompatible participatory beliefs (liberal protestants, liberal catholics, liberal jews, liberal non-religious, liberal muslims, etc.).

We don’t anyway want to respond to tribal attacks by organizing tribal counter-attacks — that just tends to pull everything down to the tribal level and would make our problems a lot worse. So as an initial response, the rejection of participatory, tribal responses by the liberal coalition is correct. However we can’t just respond with pragmatic arguments because that doesn’t work against participatory attacks. We have to actually take on the participatory attacks and defeat them — we just have to find ways of doing it that are better than fighting them on their own participatory terms.

Designing notes

I just spent a while adding a feature to my blog, or from another point of view removing an annoyance from my writing.

I found myself often experiencing a conflict between either (1) leaving out explanations or details that were likely to be useful or entertaining to some readers, or (2) dumping content that is too extensive, too basic, too fancy, or whatever on other readers. Readers differ enough so there’s never really a “right” level and I found the resulting compromises uncomfortable. Most likely other writers of long-form posts experience the same conflict.

My response is basically simple. I added notes that open in place when the note reference is clicked.

Like this
The note looks like this when it’s is open, and another click will close it.

Why do something new?

Dead tree media has a number of techniques for dealing with optional content. Discursive footnotes, sidebars, flagged sections, etc. are used for content that may be too detailed or too basic for the main line. But these methods don’t work very well on the web. Footnotes in particular, the only one of these methods that is supported in common authoring environments, is terrible on the web, because reading a footnote typically involves scrolling far away, so you lose all your visual context, and then scrolling back again to continue reading, so you can no longer refer to the footnote.

On the other hand, we can show and hide content in web pages quite easily, since the advent of DOM twiddling libraries.

What’s a DOM?
Modern browsers provide a standard way of manipulating the content of a web page. The content of the page is represented as a set of “objects” that contain text, images, formatting information, etc. and this whole set of mechanisms is called the “Document Object Model” or DOM. Scripts embedded in the page (typically written in Javascript) are triggered by your actions and can basically change anything in the page. (For security, they can’t touch anything on your machine outside the page.) Modern web apps, like GMail, Google Maps, etc. are largely built out of scripts that manipulate the DOM.
So on the web it seems more appropriate to display optional content in context, only when requested.

The concept is simple. I looked around fairly carefully for some existing way to do this that I could adopt in my (WordPress) environment. There doesn’t appear to be anything available (I’d still be happy to use an existing solution so let me know if I missed one). There are plenty of ways to support footnotes at the bottom of the page, but no way to handle notes that open and close in context, and that integrate cleanly with the rest of the page. So, I went to the trouble of implementing my own.

The basic mechanism is also simple. Unfortunately as could be expected with the web being a steaming pile of half-integrated standards and one-quarter documented software, the actual execution was not so simple and involved a couple of significant compromises. However in the end I hacked my way through it and have something that makes me fairly happy. The result is visible in the previous post and in this one.

What’s the design?

I pretty much stuck with notes (foot notes, end notes, etc.) as we understand them: a short reference (typically superscript), taking you to an arbitrary chunk of content that basically can contain anything. References are arbitrary text; they could just be numerals, letters, special characters, or whatever. They could all be the same — for example just asterisks. I prefer to use descriptive references so the reader doesn’t have to open a note to figure out whether they want to read it.

To simplify the design, a reference takes you to the immediately following note. That way I don’t need any links, anchors or identifiers. Notes open in place just after the reference, but they could be floated left or right (looking more like sidebars).

A number of pleasant properties emerged from the design.

  • All of the appearance of references and notes is determined by normal CSS.
    What’s CSS?
    Modern web content is marked up to indicate the intended usage, and then styles are defined to say how it should look. Styles can be applied with a clever mechanism called “Cascading Style Sheets” that basically say “Make everything that’s marked this way look like this“. There are very powerful ways to describe which things to style and how they should look.
    Even pulling notes out of the text and making them into marginal notes could be done by styling them differently.
  • Because we’re on the web notes can contain a very wide range of content; for example the steps of a tricky recipe could be annotated with embedded video, available for those who need it, out of the way for those who don’t.
  • The open and closed state of notes is persistent, so the user can pretty much tailor the text to suit themselves. For example in the case of the annotated recipe, some illustrations could be open and others could be closed as desired.
  • Notes can be nested to any depth. With my current styles the depth is indicated by the indentation. So far I haven’t actually needed to nest notes…

What’s the mechanism and what are the compromises?

I just defined custom elements for note references and notes, used jQuery to translate them into appropriately styled spans and divs respectively, and also used jQuery to add click handlers to open and close the notes.

What does all this mean?
jQuery is one of the “DOM twiddling” libraries I mentioned above, written in Javascript. Beyond that, I’m sorry to say, I don’t have the time or energy to explain this; realistically you need to have a basic knowledge of HTML, the DOM, and CSS to understand things from here on.
jQuery was an excellent way to express this — very terse, but declarative and clear, aside from the clutter introduced by all the anonymous function syntax (unavoidable due to Javascript).

All that took a few hours, from the time I decided to do it (and basically I didn’t know jQuery or Javascript). The core notes implementation should work in just about any environment that can load jQuery.

Then the “fun” began.

the “p” tag is evil

I had problems getting my notes to behave nicely; they kept introducing line breaks even when closed (and styled with display:hidden). Eventually I figured out that notes are incompatible with “p” tags, basically because of historical constraints. I’ll explain the specifics in another post so possibly other people trying to figure this out will find the answer. So in posts where I use notes, I have to use appropriately styled divs rather than “p” tags.

and feeds aren’t styled!

Now the rendering of a post depends heavily on the styles. But the posts in my feed didn’t have the style sheet, and feed readers strip all embedded style information. With unstyled divs rather than “p” tags, the feed version of the post was nearly unreadable.

So I had to figure out how to generate “p”s rather than divs when the post content was written out to the feed. WordPress has filter hooks for this kind of thing, but it turned out it doesn’t have a hook to process only content being written to feeds, so I had to find the right place to hack in another filter hook. (I may also explain this in a post; I’ve requested that WordPress add a standard hook for this.)

how can I make notes look OK in feeds?

Also, as unstyled divs (or “p”s), the notes couldn’t be distinguished from the main text. The only way to control the rendering of content in feeds is by choice of elements. So when generating a feed, I needed to either delete the notes or translate them into elements that would “look like notes” in a feed reader. After some thought I realized I could use definition lists, which look quite “note like” in typical feed readers, and even nest well.

What does a definition list look like?
I didn’t know either until I went looking. Like this:
Note 1
Some note content.
Note 2
Some more note content.

Perhaps going on somewhat longer.

Lots of leftovers

Now I basically have a blog with notes that work the way I want, within the limits of current web standards and software. But I still have a lot of cleanup before I feel done.

  • I hacked an existing text replacement plugin for WordPress to use my hacked in filter hook. I should generalize my hack and release the plugin.
  • The jQuery script does two searches when it should just do one; I need to figure out the right jQuery idiom.
  • Authoring now requires manually generating the note markup. This is pretty easy but I should probably write some authoring macros.
  • Content isn’t properly styled when printing and perhaps in other cases; I need to fix that, probably with more WordPress filtering.
  • For extra credit, printing should reflect the customized state of the page (which notes are open or closed); this is likely to be hard, but maybe I can figure out how by deciphering some apps that do it, like Google Maps.
  • I need to figure out how to get the filter hook adopted by standard WordPress so I don’t have to maintain a forked version.