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Monday, November 28, 2005

The World According to Siggi

Siggi Becker is blogger, music teacher, and philosopher with a keen interest in the concept of the Singularity. He lives in Düsseldorf, Germany. I’ve recently met him at the Web Monday in Cologne and now email-interviewed him on the technological Singularity, Web 2.0, the spiritual inspirations of Google Earth, and the future to come.

Hi Siggi! Can you tell us about your life... who are you, where do you live, and what do you do in life?

I’m inhibiting Terra for over 5 decades, mostly within the deeper Rhineland area. During stone age I studied electrical engineering and thanks to Moore’s law, could witness how pocket calculator prices dropped – from the equivalent of a small car to a giveaway. From a sociological point of view it was interesting to note how some geezers saw their Porsche melt away, so to speak.

I drifted away into music after that. Natural sciences later on never managed to pay my rent, even though they helped me prosper in matters of the mind. They also gave me the strength to survive in a surrounding of improvisation and artistic delusion. I’m teaching guitar playing since some umpteen years, and play a game of Go every now and then to finish off the aesthetic training of a guitar student.

During the late 80s I discovered Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation (which still hasn’t been translated to German, probably because it’s written in a completely unknown language: English). From that moment on, I realized – small step for a man, giant leap for mankind – we were in for a few more surprises other than a global warming catastrophe in 2100, break-down of the pension system, or Peak Oil 2040. It was in 1994 when I gave a speech on nanotechnologies, and I ended on a somewhat inconsequential note because I failed to sufficiently emphasize the technological Singularity. I figured that wasn’t the way to go, or else, they’ll never invite you back to a party! After all, measured merriment guarantees measured gratification, as Sinclair Lewis puts it.

After another three years, thanks to Stefan Zöllner I had the chance to give the first German lecture with an explicit focus on the Singularity. Location: the “1997 ..... Ausstellung, Forum, Labor” exhibition in Cologne. The opening speech: the technological Singularity. The feedback: from “uhmm” to “wow.” I left some dropped jaws as well as a drunk underground writer with a newfound meaning to life. Later, the same man would use the term “Singularity” twice in his writing. Oh, progress!

Can you elaborate, what’s Peak Oil?

That’s the point in time at which we’re extracting less oil than we have to consume. And then the dilemma starts. Some say we’ve already reached this point, others hope it’s still to come. Alas, nobody knows anything precise, and the oil industry would be damned to hand us exact figures on a silver plate.

Can you explain your blog’s title... “Was Wyrd” (a German world play on “what will be”)?

Well, only girls explain jokes, but since it’s not a joke... it’s not easy to explain though and unfortunately, not really funny. You have to live it to get it. If you google the term “wyrd” you’ll find yourself in the midst of new age kitsch, but you’ll also stumble upon mythology and etymology. The web of fate. The three witches of Macbeth. The Moirai, the Norns, stuff like that. If you interpret the term as a symbol, map it on the net, extrapolate the findings into the future, to then let it hit onto your own Lobi, you’ll realize there are strong similarities to blogs and the web. You’re going to a Web 2.0 get-together, drink a lot of flavorless yellow liquids, and next thing you know your log files are toast.

What are you discussing in your blog, and how’s the feedback?

Of course most entries circle around the self-accelerating technological progress. Within the stream of news I’m digging for indicators of this acceleration, or I’m pondering which part in this scenario we’ll be playing, or might play. I had a rather naively optimistic outlook once but over the years, my view has become more differentiated. In particular when you think of the continuous concentration of wealth – which is a needed motor of the technological acceleration and complexification (to use Teilhard de Chardin’s terminology), but also leads to a transhuman ghetto of the rich and super-rich. My latest interest: econophysics. Check it out! It’s a perfect fit for this discussion.

As for the feedback I’m getting for my blog, a running gag in Garfield comes to mind. He’s climbing a fence, starts to sing, and people throw garbage at him. So far so good, that was bound to happen. On another night, he’s climbing the fence again and sings, but nothing happens. Garfield’s comment: “I can hear you breath.” And that’s how I feel. An increase in visitors, a healthy PageRank, a lean design, rarely comments. I can hear you breath. There are those who’ll click through the whole site, taking a look at every last bit, to finally make a quiet exit. GandhiCon 1, I suppose ;-)

What are “econophysics"?

A fruitful fusion of physics and economics. During the early ’90s someone somewhere realized human crowds bear a likeliness to gases. He then began to apply our knowledge of gases to the field of economics, with mindblowing and often disillusioning results. Take one of the cornerstone principles of western society that a person’s income correlates to that person’s time-honored attributes like his productivity or intelligence. Unfortunately econophysicists could prove that’s not the case. So Pareto is nothing but ideology. You don’t actually earn what you deserve. In those countries where income is well documented we can see a random distribution. Random means: the income doesn’t correlate with any characteristic. None. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Here’s my interpretation of this: you can aim for a type of role, duty or job. It’s just that within the present state of affairs there’s no one to guarantee you there’s a correlation of being smart and getting rich. Interestingly enough, and understandably, successful people oppose this theory the most, jumping at you for every mention of it. And they have to react this way, too; after all this correlation is deeply burned into our collective memory. Only those people forget there are equally intelligent and excessively devoted competitors who didn’t make it on that same road.

Once you’re above a certain income level, about $100,000 in western states, your fortune starts to independently grow and you’ve started to play outside the rules of the “finite game” (JP Carse).

A wealth of information on this can be found on the pages of a March 2005 conference in Kolkata.

How much time do you spend blogging?

Ever so often only a little, sometimes more, but mostly enough. Maybe much more soon as I can’t seem to find a way to escape confronting the English language anymore.

The Singularity is an important topic in your blog. Can you describe the term to newcomers?

By definiton the term points to the moment in our future when the creation of greater-than-human intelligence is followed by recursive self-enhancement. The accelerating technological progress, especially within the semiconductor industry, leads to these and other observations. The observations go way back to the 1920s, like the work of Teilhard de Chardin. Another milestone here is de Solla Price. Here we can see the creation of the core terminology. There’s a lesson in there for those who think Ray Kurzweil’s the man with the plan ;-)

You’re subscribed to a mailing list on this topic, right? Is it English? What are you discussing there?

Nah. I’m just following some of these lists, in particular SL4 by Yudkowsky. I wouldn’t even dare say a word on those lists without an IQ of 140 or higher ;-)

Did you ever have personal contact to Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, author of “Staring into the Singularity“? Which other AI experts pick your interest?

I’ll answer with a dry “yes.” One email in around ’98. While technically his answer was free of logical errors it didn’t inspire me to continue pouring my heart into the conversation.

Do you think we’ll live to see this technological turnaround (or dead end) of the technological Singularity? Do you think this is the only possible future, or do you believe there are alternatives to it?

Especially when the terminology is falling on youthful and fertile grounds I got to stress it’s only one scenario amongst many possible ones, with a probability impossible for us to precisely measure. Just to cool things down. On the upside, to me and a bunch of other idiosyncratic inhabitants of Terra it appears to be an incredibly probable possibility.
If people like Yudkowsky, Goertzel or an as of now undiscovered genius in China really get a grip on this, we might live to see it. Myself, I might miss out on it, especially if I don’t improve the way I eat, but it’s likely that everyone who’s around 30 now won’t ever be leaving us.

Does that mean the Singularity turns us into immortals?

Not necessarily. During a transitional phase it might result in extreme longevity. That’s what projects like Aubrey de Grey’s Methuselah Mouse are all about after all. But ultimately no one can guarantee us we won’t be hit by a nearing supernova hiccup which sterilizes everything in its immediate surrounding.

Talking about immortality, do you think the information tracks we’re leaving online will be resulting in an infinite life of sorts? Or is this accelerating our decay and we’d fare better engraving our thoughts into stone?

Assuming the storage media won’t be failing on us, we’ll have many tracks be around for a long, long time. One day this will make it possible to reconstruct a person up to a certain point. Considering that you can only hope for many of the teen bloggers to never stop blogging. Paradoxically enough that’s the opposite of what you feel when you’re reading them.

So does humanity have the power to turn around the event of a technological Singularity? Do we even want to do that, i.e. is it a positive event?

Does the ant have the power to lock up an elephant? No. But the ant has the chance to get to the drawing table (AutoCAD 826.9) to realize its elephant creation could mean trouble... and to then make sure it’s a nice elephant. Right from the start. Everything else could be – or rather: is – Dexter’s Lab, and there goes the pension problem.

Will those teen bloggers one day face analysis software that creates a psychological profile out of their blog archive? Do you think that’s a realistic notion and that it could be a threat?

Just a short while ago Google Analytics was released. A service that’s free to use but costs Google millions at the same time. It’s hard to know what you can do today on a given single data pool on a supercomputer. There’s a time lag of around 10 years between supercomputers and desktop computers. We can only speculate on what a human resource manager in 2015 will be able to pull off in terms of using the profile of John or Susan...

What do you find fascinating online, and what do you find appalling?

The web’s a perfect mirror, being of incredible size times two. Starting with the first encounter with Gopher and Veronica I’m in a state of tunnel-reality induced euphoria when it comes to that interthingie. The web’s reflecting just what you are: those people who don’t expect anything of life will never find a thing except porn. In the ’90s, those who were seeking, researching and asking questions needed exactly 3 milliseconds to realize this thing was made for them. Appalling? Hmm. This being a net within other nets, if we’re appalled the worst that happens is we exit into another subset – there’s simply no way out.

You knew Gopher, so you must have been playing with the web quite early on. Did you have an epiphany of sorts, a time when you realized “Wow, this could be big?”

That was the moment right after I managed to overcome my problems navigating Gopher. Boom! Those who didn’t immediately get it were still asking questions in 1997: “Just what’s the purpose of this?” In its most basic form it was already visible within Gopher. God, people of the Chaos Computer Club understood this when there were only acoustic couplers around. And Douglas Engelbart is probably bored senseless for the last 30 years already ;-)

This is my theory: you’re able to recognize important things on superluminal velocity. It’s like saying “hello”! If you don’t get it that way, then you’re up for visiting management trainings, paying business consultants, or being insulted by Tom Peters.

What do you think is interesting about Google, and do you believe there is a connection to the Singularity?

I’m not interested in what they are, but where this could lead us. Google today, well that’s just what’s common. What Google one day could become though, now that’s science fiction: the revenge of the geeks! And of course the ultimate sci-fi plot is the technological Singularity. By looking at the people Google hires we can clearly see this concept is known to them. If any of their engineers knows how to spell “exponential” we’re in for a few more surprises. After Christmas, that is.

What blogs are you reading? Which “offline” writers pick your brain?

I have about 300 subscriptions in Bloglines. That just kills off thinking.... ’cause that takes time. I should trim this selection quite a bit. Delete all the echo chambers and link blogs. I’d rather have 10 blogs which are digesting than all that noise that’s so easy to confuse with speed.

Teilhard de Chardin. Again and again whenever I need to recharge my battery. I’ll just ignore his religious implications because his observations are valuable without them as well.

Ken Wilber, but not as much as before. It’s quite nice as a map of the different stages of the evolution of the human mind. I do believe though that even when developed to its highest possible capacities, it’ll still be Human 1.0. And it’s possible that by the time every hairless two-legged being reaches this level our little yellow star has burned out already.

Other than that, I’ve probably forgotten more books than others have read. If I’m bored I’ll read a few lines of Rilke. “For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of Terror that we’re still just able to bear, and why we adore it is because it serenely disdains to destroy us.”

Which of the 300 blogs you’ve subscribed to do you find the most interesting?

Hang on, I’ll take a look. Dave Pollard? Global Guerillas. Future Now. The Speculist. Robotic Nation. But everyone knows that can change any day. I’m always on the lookout for people who digest topics, and don’t just report on them. I’m trying to avoid human link machines.

Your friend Mario Sixtus is also actively participating online. Do you know him from Real Life or the web?

We met in Meatspace, around ’97 or ’98. Thanks to him I was able to give one of those Standard 2.0 speeches on the Singularity, swigging coffee and tea and putting on some selfmade slides. That was another art association panel. Somewhere there’s a lesson in there...

Do you often go to see web conventions like the recent one in Cologne? Is there a digerati scene down in Düsseldorf?

Indeed I’ve been to one or two blogger conventions. As far as digerati hobnobbing goes, it’s sufficient when Mario and I sit together.

Will you be at the next Web Monday in case there is one?

Maybe. Maybe not.

What’s Web 3.0 to you (you mentioned it in your blog)?

One of many numbers that aid orientation. An ironic rebuttal of the Web 2.0 discussion. Can you get a grip on water? We need cartons to neatly wrap terms like these. Cartons are found in the shipping department. Nowhere in a laboratory will you find cartons. We are living in a laboratory.

Disregarding language and quantity, do you think there’s a fundamental difference between the German and English blog worlds?

You bet! Somehow, German nature and blogs don’t go too well together. Somehow the spark is missing. Maybe Lenin can help us find a fitting description – he said, “German revolutionaries will not storm a railway station without first buying a platform ticket.”

In your blog you drew a connection between Google Earth and geography lessons, and even spiritual meaning. Can you explain that?

Dissociation. The Overview effect. It’s known from astronauts who get a view from up there and suddenly find their brains slipping into their trousers. All of a sudden, you can get a hold on that small round thing which we happen to inhibit. We’re breaking down the walls erected by our everyday newspapers, and get a sense of things in grander scope... moving our focus across Google Earth and its bits and pieces of history, we’re able to clearly see our actual home: a small blue borderless planet. If you don’t get spiritual meaning out of that you have to sign up for the army, sell drugs, or start to lift your petty anger into the realms of religion.

Some people say the internet did not radically change human behavior. Do you agree?

Like I said, due to its size the internet acts as a mirror. If you can’t transcend the image reflecting back on you, you’re cursed to find it evolve into a too-large distorting mirror. The good only gets better while the bad turns evil. Right on the net. Live and in color.

During the last couple of years did you see anything online that made your jaw drop? Maybe the first time you laid your eyes on a blog, or wiki, or...

I think a part of me was anticipating blogs. It was a natural thing to come out of this technology. Upon discovering wikis, I started to tremor and jubilate. I found deep satisfaction seeing the command-and-conquer approaches of this world disrupted in an uncontrollable outbreak.

Can you give a comment on ... Creative Commons?

Final payment will be at the end.

... the “You are Germany” campaign?

Gini index and Boltzmann-Gibbs.

... predeterminism?


... lucid dreaming or dream diaries?

An old habit of mine. Lucid dreaming gives a whole new perspective on what’s “real”, and that’s a good lesson.


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