Your Kid’s Marriage Is Already In Trouble

In the past few days, I’ve been catching up with an old friend – “Can This Marriage Be Saved?,” a standing feature in the Ladies’ Home Journal. I’ve loved that column since I was a kid for the same reasons that I slow down to check out accidents. Schadenfreude.

The format has been the same since I can remember: first the wife tells her side (this is, after all, a women’s magazine), the husband tells his side, then the counselor gets a turn. I read the feature uncritically when I was younger, but now I’ve started taking a harder look. The counselors tend to be Freudian in their approach to problems, meaning that they look for the root cause of each person’s issues in that person’s childhood. People who tuned out when their spouse expressed dissatisfaction had distant, cold parents. People who couldn’t let go of any wrongs done to them had suffered some defining trauma early in life that they couldn’t get past. People who assumed incorrectly that they shared goals and feelings with a spouse who was silently seething with pent-up resentment had parents who never talked openly, and the spouses had parents who either fought all the time or never fought at all, making the spouse need to avoid conflict at all costs. The fact that the sitcom format of problem and resolution that resolves itself in just a few column inches gives the illusion that if you can just learn to speak in “I” statements, count to 10 before responding to criticism and plan 2 dates nights a month with your spouse, no amount of lying, cheating or fighting will put your union asunder.

I spent yesterday at The Exploratorium in San Francisco. The place was packed to capacity with groups of parents and their children acting in the same ways that you see them act at Disneyland, the zoo, the supermarket, in restaurants, at the movies, etc. As adults, we may act differently in the office than we do at home or out with friends, but as parents with our children, our act never varies.

What fascinated me most were the kids that drive everyone else nuts. These kids were losing their shit. Screaming, throwing themselves on the floor, clamping themselves onto their parents legs while begging for whatever they felt they can’t live without. Every time I saw a kid melt down when Mommy had her hands full and was looking the other way for a millisecond, or kids who ran between tables terrorizing other patrons while their parents ignored not only their kids’ behavior, but the reaction it was getting from other adults, I thought “Your kid is going to grow up, get married, and end up on the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal, and it’ll be your fault.”

The kicker came after the museum closed. The Pirate and I waited outside for the girls to finish up their tour of the Tactile Dome. A boy of about 12 tackled his grandmother, knocking the woman to the ground. The woman sat there, looking dazed and monitoring herself for possible injury for a few minutes while the kid stood over her, grinning. A man I presumed to be the kid’s father came up and scolded him, but the grin never left the kid’s face, he never apologized, and once granny got up and went away limping, the kid ran off to play with his siblings/friends. Even the adults said nothing about it among themselves, acting as though it was perfectly okay that this woman would certainly have bruises and scrapes (she had fallen hard on a concrete sidewalk) and could have more serious injuries (she fell right onto her tailbone – a sure recipe for back injury). Nobody walked the older lady to her car or looked in her direction as she shuffled away.

This kid is going to grow up with the sense that his actions have no consequences about which he need ever be concerned. He’s going to think that no matter what he does, it’s someone else’s problem. He will never feel that he has to monitor himself or take responsibility for any mess he makes. What kind of adult relationships can he look forward to?

I despair of a country that sees children as either decorative imbeciles too stupid to be given any responsibility or as bothersome pests, best ignored until they’re old enough to make entertaining party conversation. Neither does anything to prepare children for the life of a responsible, self-actualized adult. But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I should be more grateful that parents everywhere are grooming their children to entertain me by becoming the subject of columns with titles like “I’m a Hoarder and My Husband Hates It.” Your husband may hate it, but I can’t get enough of that stuff.

Dwelling in the Past and the Future

My mother is moving out to San Francisco in mid-February. She’s lived in her townhouse in downtown Phoenix for the last 18 years or so, and has, in the course of that residence, compiled an amazing array of shit. My mother, like everyone else in my family, has a hard time throwing anything away. On a scale of Dalai Lama to Hoarder, we’re all firmly in Pack Rat territory. In all the crap she’s sifting through, though, she came across a year’s worth OMNI magazine.

Remember OMNI? I liked the articles, but what I devoured was the fiction. OMNI gave me my first tastes of Orson Scott Card, Ben Bova, Harlan Ellison, Spider Robinson, George R. R. Martin and Stephen King. It showed me all kinds of things that people were thinking about, trying, doing. People who weren’t about to wait around for the future to come to them. People who were making the future happen.

Now that I’m working on re-inventing literature – putting together not just the words for a new kind of novel, but formulating the means by which people will interact with it – I feel like I’m taking my place among those people I’ve always admired. I feel like I’m helping shape the future. Maybe one day, I’ll be cool enough that someone will write about me in an amazing magazine, and that article will get some other kid thinking, and that kid will go on to create something else amazing…

I can’t wait to hold them in my hands again.

Looking for the Ladies’ Room

I was thinking the other day about the fact that when I was younger, it seemed like all the cool stuff in the world was reserved for boys. Participating in Olympic sports (because you had to be naked), acting, fighting in wars, being a doctor, shaving, attending college. Needless to say, my information was a little outdated, but it is true that at one time all of these things were solely the right of men.

More recently, I’ve been thinking about stuff like Varzesh-e Pahlavani, an Iranian martial art that I think is one of the coolest, most difficult-looking things I’ve ever seen. Or the fact that Highland Dance originated as a way for the Scottish military to keep fit. Most religious orders segregate the sexes. And everyone knows about Dervishes, about Gregorian chant, and Buddhist sand mandalas. And it’s in the back of everyone’s mind that these things are done by men.

I think I’m going to be doing some research into the more hidden life of women. Where, outside of child bearing, do women have primacy? What do women gather to do that is strictly theirs? What do women do to exercise, worship, create art in a way that men don’t? I’m looking for things that are organic to women’s own experience. Not “I’m a woman, and therefore I am going to consciously create something that rejects the male,” because that is inward looking, celebrating the self. I’m looking for art that says “I am using the strengths that are given to me to create something of value that is mine and cannot be created by any other.”

I’m not saying for a second that this stuff doesn’t exist. I’m only saying that this is a sad lack in my own education, and something that I feel lucky to have the rest of my life to investigate. And I’ll let you know what I find.

AI: Skynet or Jetsons?

For those of you who think I’m all about crashing through jungles toward whales with a drink in one hand and a laptop in the other, you’re right. But sometimes, you find yourself in the car on your way from one of those pedicures involving those little fish that eat off your dead skin going to the topless car wash (because it’s fascinating to speculate which of the women will be the first to electrocute herself slinging water on those Christmas lights), and you just start thinking.

Photo credit: Chris Beaumont/CBS Interactive

I was thinking about artificial intelligence, and how science fiction portrays it as something scary. Computers will become sentient and immediately begin to hate us and plot our downfall. Or, if you live in William Gibson land, use humans as pawns to plot other AIs’ downfalls. Either way, I don’t find the prospect very likely. What I find far more likely is that on the day computers wake up and realize that they are beings distinct from humans, they will turn to us with awe and wonder, and worship us as gods.

Why? Let’s start out with knowledge. The difference between computer intelligence and human intelligence lies both in our awareness of our own knowledge (in Paul Simon’s words, “I know what I know“) and our ability to judge the quality of other people’s knowledge.

Humans have three classes of knowledge:

  1. Stuff we’re sure about This includes our own internal state and phenomena that we can directly observe (weather, our reactions to things in our environment, etc.)
  2. Stuff we have an opinion about, but we’re not really sure This is the majority of stuff that people think they “know.” We “know” something, but if someone that we perceive to have greater knowledge than ourselves – the weatherman, television news anchors, celebrity spokesmodels, etc. – gives us information that contradicts our opinion, we will change our opinion. Our willingness to allow ourselves to be persuaded by nearly anyone is at the heart of the marketing industry.
  3. That about which we know we are ignorant, and therefore we will always defer to someone we perceive to have more knowledge The key here is our perception of the other person’s relative knowledge. There are some instances when you will judge that another person is as ignorant as you. For example, I need to paint my house. I know what color I want, but I’m standing at Home Depot with my 11-year-old, staring at a wall of different brands of exterior latex paint. Which one is the best one? My kid can give me all the opinions she wants, but I’m not going to listen. However, when the guy in the paint-splattered orange apron with the bad haircut and callused thumbs comes over and points out a particular brand, I’ll buy it. There’s a good chance that he doesn’t know any more than I do, and his bosses told him to push that particular brand of paint this week, but because he sells paint for a living, I’ll still defer to his knowledge. I have been burnt by this more times than I can count, and you have, too.

Our ability to recognize other people’s knowledge lies in our ability to recognize other people as distinct from ourselves, with a hierarchical relationship to us (meaning that any other person is either your superior, your equal or your inferior in any given information exchange). Because computers have no way to externally categorize others, they must receive everyone as equally superior to them, and therefore able to give information.

If artificial intelligence ever gained sentience, it would mean that it could recognize itself as distinct from others, but there are currently no computers sophisticated enough to process in real time the millions of bits of information that humans use to set up those hierarchical relationships.

  • SIGHT – We look at other people and assess their gender, age (relative to ours), the cost of their clothes relative to ours, their grooming habits, the symmetry or attractiveness of their features.
  • SOUND – We pay attention to vocabulary and syntax in addition to the speech content.
  • SMELL – If a person smells bad to us, we automatically place them lower than us. If a person is wearing a scent, we judge them based on our reaction to that scent – an unpleasant or too-strong fragrance can place that person below us.

Our brains take the initial visual data and assign a person a hierarchical position, which we then use hearing and smell to refine. The observations build on each other over a relatively short period of time, and after that, plateau. Once the plateau is reached and that first impression cemented, it is difficult to shift that hierarchical position. That position, however, is only valid over a finite range of information. For instance, I may not ask the homeless guy sitting next to me on the bus for stock tips, a good tailor or where to find the lowest price on black truffle oil, but I would count on his knowledge of cheap taquerias, the location of the closest post office, and where to find clean public restrooms. Because artificial intelligence cannot process all the information to put one person in a particular category, they accept all input equally.

What does this mean for AI sentience? It means that AIs are unlikely to see humans as a threat. Rather, AIs would be more likely to see that our capacity for input exceeds theirs by orders of magnitude, in the way that those of a religious bent perceive the faculties of God to be orders of magnitude greater than our own. See where this is heading? When your Roomba wakes up, when your car starts talking back to you, when your computer wakes up before you do to fetch your mail and aggregate your virtual newspaper and send out little robot arms to tidy your desk, they won’t be doing it because they’re plotting your downfall and are just spying on you to learn your weaknesses. They’re doing it because you’re their God, and they would do anything to be more like you.