Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ghost Dichotomies

To my mind, many questions—especially those of a political or philosophical nature—are not really questions at all. Or rather, they can be answered in two ways—and both say, “Yes!” Here are some examples:

Is humankind good by nature? Or are we bad? Well, yes—both good and bad. You can find examples of both positive and negative actions, intentions, and outcomes within any society or group, and even within the same individual. Human nature is far too complex to be resolved as one single thing, to be placed once and for all, in every aspect, under every condition, and in every situation within a vacuum-sealed glass dome labeled either “good” or “evil.”

Shakespeare alluded to the best of humankind in Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”

And yet, we still share the corporal and temporal dependency of the animals. We must scratch the earth for our daily bread. We must survive on our wits, plans, schemes, and inventions. To the mass of men and women nothing is given except the chemical drive of cytoplasm to organize the molecules of that bread—plus the surrounding air and water—into more cytoplasm and the inevitable byproducts of metabolism.1 For the rest of this strange reversal of entropy that we call “life,” we all must either adapt to the world we find or make up another world in our heads as we go along. And if that “noble reason” and “godlike apprehension” are occasionally reduced to theft, hoarding, and murder, well, you can chalk the result up to either a failure of moral vision or an even clearer vision that the route of survival sometimes cuts through another person’s cabbage patch and collects vegetables along the way.

Every person is a bundle of intensions, personal rules, and learned experiences warring with his or her hungers, necessities, and opportunities. The choices are never as easy or obvious as labels like “good” and “bad” would make them seem. Yes, there are good and bad actions, positive and negative intentions. And in making a choice or deciding a course of action, anyone can know or predict whether it will end up well or badly, increasing the possibility of hope and love, or summoning chaos and death. But in the summation of a single human career, looking back on a long life, very few of us can be described as wholly just, compassionate, and good, or completely depraved and evil.2

Is it natural for human beings to want to compete or to cooperate? Again, yes. As separate beings possessed of neither a hive dependency nor a hive mind, human beings have choices that are not hard-wired into their brains, as are the choices of ants or bees or even the molecular drives of the different cells composing one body.

Competition is natural when two siblings simultaneously reach for the last muffin in the basket. It is a truism of economics that available resources will always be limited and less abundant than perceived needs and wants. This is how prices are established in the marketplace: when faced with choices—fight for that muffin, divide it and share, or give it up for the emotional glow of feeling and being thought “generous”—a child quickly recalibrates the hierarchy of needs and makes a decision. When a person enters the market with a taste and desire for, say, fresh strawberries but finds that they are not in season, or that the harvest has been poor, or that other shoppers have the same desire, and so the price of strawberries is higher than he or she wants to pay, then the prudent buyer recalibrates his or her desires and either pays the price or buys blueberries or apples instead. In a situation of relative abundance and plentiful opportunities, competition is natural.

But when two people, or a family or tribal group, or even a whole society is pitted against savage nature, imminent famine, or the prospect of war, then cooperation becomes natural. The 19th-century settlers who left the relative safety, comfort, and established infrastructure of the East Coast cities to create farms and ranches out of the western wilderness, usually against the opposition of indigenous peoples, harsh and abrupt weather patterns, and unfavorable soil and water conditions, they found it better to cooperate than to compete. Out of this tradition came American oddities like the barn raising, the cattle drive, and the potluck supper. We may think of those pioneers as “rugged individualists,” but in general they survived by pooling their resources and risks, sharing their skills, and taking care of their neighbors.

Is big government a good or a bad thing? Yes, because the question is insufficient. Government as an operating principle offers many different levels and functions in a society. Some are easily applied, pursued, and achieved, while others are more difficult. The aims and uses of government are not black or white but a vast sea of gray.

These days, people on the left side of the aisle speak and act as if more government is always better, as if government is the obvious answer to every problem, and that the political sphere is composed of the bright, solid, assured thing that is government action opposing the howling void of conditions which were not created or maintained by that government. In the same way, people on the right side of the aisle speak and act as if government is best taken in small and harmless doses, and that left to its own devices a government is some kind of tumor on the body politic, strangling trade and invention, enforcing conformity and mediocrity, and turning social energy into bloat and waste.

For the left, government employees are selfless public servants who think and act for the good of society. For the right, government employees are social parasites who seek power for themselves and serve their own interests, squandering taxes and consuming bribes. And here the answer is, “No”—for reasons outlined above under the question of whether human nature is good or bad.

When we think of previous societies and civilizations, we tend to focus our thoughts on their governments because that has, traditionally, been where “history” is made: the succession of kings, the fights of nobles, the wars between empires, and so on. But even the civilizations for which we almost instinctively substitute the ruling class for society as a whole—think of ancient Egypt or Rome, whose governments seemed to be all powerful—had their merchant and warrior classes, their farmers, their groups and guilds of masons, artists, scribes, physicians, and other productive people.

These classes and groups might have obeyed the laws and regulations set down by the pharaoh in Thebes or the emperor and senate in Rome. They might have paid taxes and bribes to local public officials. They might have interrupted their lives to fight in the king’s wars. But they farmed, traded, built, or otherwise plied their trade with other people on an individual basis. Even the pharaoh’s pyramid was built by independent work gangs—not government-owned slaves—who might be considered the equivalent of today’s independent contractors. Even the monolithic Roman Empire was divided into gentes, or families of like name, and then into various nations and colonies, and the districts of Rome itself sprouted their own “colleges,” resembling local fraternities or buyers clubs, which provided members with food, services, and protection.

No modern, complex, nation-spanning society has ever managed to achieve pure socialism, with total government control of production and distribution of all goods and services, along with the more traditional governmental role of providing for the common defense, securing the borders, and building the infrastructure of roads and bridges, water and wastewater channels, police and fire services, and other necessities usually held in common. And no society has ever managed to provide those commonly held goods and services, or arranged for national defense and control of the borders, purely through private enterprise. For one thing, the web of private service contracts, individual terms and conditions,3 and accounting and billing systems would be practically insupportable.

Is free-market capitalism a good or bad thing? Yes—but depending on how it’s applied and what rules govern it. No human, social function can operate without rules, whether they are written into law or simply accepted as societal norms. Every society depends on an understanding among its members—usually learned at school, on the playground, and from the spoken and observed attitudes of parents and teachers—of what is right, fair, just, and proper. Every child learns, and every adult remembers, what behaviors are appropriate and honorable, and what activities are considered to be false and reprehensible.

In principle, markets are simply the open exchange of goods and services for some species of value, such as coin or other goods and services offered in return. And capitalism is simply the way a group of individuals can share the costs, responsibilities, and risks of organizing to provide a greater amount of goods and services—or more complex goods and services—than any one of them could provide through his or her own resources and actions.

These things are necessary for any group of human beings to rise above the level of hunter-gatherer existence, where every member is known to and trusted by every other member. Hunter-gatherers practice a pure form of socialism, where all goods, resources, efforts, and results are shared equally.4 Like hunter-gatherer socialism, markets and capitalism are not the product of any determined philosophical analysis—expect perhaps in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations from 1776, which is more descriptive than prescriptive. As natural outgrowths of normal human activity, markets and capitalism do not descend from any “pure” form or depend on the application of a rigorous ideology. And they can be subjected to necessary rules and regulations in order to preserve those societal norms covering proper action and fair dealing. Like the human body, they are flexible—that is, until so many strictures and controls are added that, like weighted chains or a starvation diet applied to a body, the system labors, slows, and eventually collapses.

When you find dichotomies like these, questioning the ultimate nature of human existence and human interactions, which can be argued—oh, endlessly!—from both sides of the question, you can be sure that you are encountering a domain too vast for any simple answer. And then the answer is usually, “Yes!”

1. See The Real Prime Mover from February 14, 2016.

2. Although exceptions do stand out. Hitler may have been polite to visitors, nice to children and dogs, and a confirmed vegetarian, yet his hatred for whole classes of people and his crimes against humanity blacken his soul for eternity. Charles Manson might have seen himself serving some overwhelming vision of God or truth, or been living within some kind of alternate reality, and yet his madness is no excuse for his careless—that is, without due care or caution—actions and their horrific results.

3. Consider the blank check that every member of a national army or navy signs for defense of the country: to give up his or her liberty and perhaps life without counting the cost against the actual paycheck. What contractor would be bound by those conditions, no matter how the war was going? This is why mercenaries have always been adjuncts to, rather than replacements of, national military service.

4. See When Socialism Works from October 10, 2010.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Fairy Mirror

I try to follow politics, I really do. And I try to get information from varied sources. Each morning, I spend half an hour with the San Francisco Chronicle, which is very liberal in its news coverage as well as its editorial and opinion pages, then another half to three quarters of hour with the Wall Street Journal, which is just as deep into conservative coverage, but I give it the edge in time because this is when I’m eating my breakfast. I watch the PBS News Hour on the local public channel, KQED, slightly more often than I tune in to Fox News. I read the political posts of Facebook friends on both sides of an issue. But, truth to tell, I spend more time on conservative websites than liberal ones.

When I take those little online tests of political leaning, I turn up on the right side of the line by about three points out of a hundred. So I am slightly right of center, being an atheist, somewhat libertarian, somewhat fiscally conservative, and a person who believes in treating everyone like a lady or a gentleman until proven otherwise, keeping out of other people’s bedrooms, keeping most of my own money for my own maintenance and support, taking care of my loved ones, satisfying my own desires, and getting on down the road as best I can. For the rest, I quote the catchphrase of my Vietnam War generation: “Get out of my body bag.”

In this election year, as the two national parties draw even further apart—I mean, not from one side the legislative chamber to the other, not one side of the country to the other, not even at planetary distances, but now approaching the interstellar reaches and diverging at the speed of light, faster even than the expansion of the cosmos—I find that the rhetoric, the arguments, and the statistics hurled on one side or the other are not even directed anymore at the opposite party, its favored positions, and its particular shibboleths. We no longer have enough shot and propellant, let alone the means of navigation and aiming, to ever reach that far.

How far apart am I talking? Well, for a boy who grew up admiring the qualities of both Adlai Stevenson or Daniel Patrick Moynihan among the Democrats and Everett Dirksen among the Republicans, whose first remembered president was Eisenhower—the war-winning general who looked like God and who apparently didn’t choose his political party until the summer of the election—a boy who didn’t much like the political positions of John Kennedy but found him powerfully inspiring as a political figure, it would seem that the two national parties these days are not even from the same culture. The Democrats have settled into a proto-socialist groove that would make Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg feel right at home and would only annoy Lenin because they weren’t moving his way fast enough. The Republicans have reverted to some kind of 19th-century, antebellum whiggery that favors big government, big business, an economy managed by the Federal Reserve (in lieu of a true National Bank), and globalism only when it suits them but otherwise wants tariffs and trade deals that send all the goodies their way.

If these two groups inhabit the same earthly space bounded by the borders of the District of Columbia, it can only be through the effects of some kind of Fairy Mirror that divides their realms. I am reminded of the “London Above” and “London Below” scenes in Neil Gaiman’s wonderful story cycle Neverwhere. These are places superimposed on the same geophysical space but touching only in odd corners and at odd times. Otherwise, two political orders, two value systems, two monetary systems, two systems of belief and knowledge, two ways of being carry on side by side but have no relationship with or meaning for each other.

In this Fairy Mirror, every person, every question, every value casts two separate and distinct reflected images. Consider the following questions that diverge in our current political discourse:

Is America a force for good in the world, a beacon to people who want a better life with personal freedom and opportunity? Or is America a force for imperialism and oppression, where even the middle class is faring badly and losing hope?

Is Barack Obama the smartest, most erudite, most effective president we’ve ever had? Or is he feckless and inexperienced, the Affirmative Action president, who was created by a party machine backed by international money, and whose “national transformation” is driving this country right over a cliff?

Is Congress in its current configuration our last, best hope, standing across the path of this national transformation and yelling “Stop!” Or is Congress a hotbed of petulant, obstructionist, racist goons who simply cannot tolerate a black man in the White House?

Is the economy today the best it’s been in years, with indicators far ahead of and above their early 2008, pre-Recession levels? Or are we in the middle of a prolonged slump, with worse actual employment figures and more stagflation—but without the ’flation part … or not yet—and no good end in sight? Are we eighteen trillion dollars in debt? Or is the national debt now the lowest its been in years through prudent government management?

Is the Federal Reserve a council of the great and the wise who have their fingertips on the pulse of the economy? Or are the Board of Governors and the Open Market Committee just dancing along the edge of the precipice, making up policy as they go and staving off the inevitable collapse of our economic system due to debt service on that eighteen trillion?

Is our military a strong, lean, technically advanced, competently led force that can control the world’s trouble spots and keep America safe? Or it is an over-funded but under-procured, bloated but hollowed out, contracted-out, comic-opera group of strutting, misogynistic, one-rampage-short-of-a-PTSD-episode oafs who can no longer be trusted to police the border?

Are our local police the good and true men and women in blue who “protect and serve” in our communities? Or are they racist thugs in tactical armor who shoot teenagers at the slightest provocation?

Is our environment at a tipping point, on the verge of runaway collapse from too many greenhouse gases, too many landfills, too many pesticides, pollutants, and plastics? Or are we managing our technological development pretty well, so that the air and water in this country are cleaner, the land greener, and life better than they were fifty or a hundred years ago?

Are we headed toward Utopia or Apocalypse? And is the answer more or less government? More or less business activity? Do we need more regulation to curb the greedy appetites of rampaging Wall Street financiers and corporate robber barons? Or do we need more stimulation to boost a flagging economy into providing more loans, more jobs, more goods and services, and more of the good life?

Don’t look to the two national parties and their staunchest adherents to answer these questions. Of course, you will get answers, along with reams of statistics, facts and figures, anecdotes, home truths, memes, and comic posters filled with clever sayings and references to Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini, mouthed by pirated images of Captain Picard or Willy Wonka. Some of the statistics you get will be so flatly and sincerely stated that you will tend to believe them. Some of the aphorisms will be so succinct and clever that you will accept them as definitive … as truth and a kind of wisdom.

But we are way beyond “truth” these days, and “wisdom” is a parking orbit that we broke out of and left, oh, decades ago. Today, everyone, on both sides of the aisle, immersed in their own fantasies, looking into their side of the Fairy Mirror, is playing purely for advantage. The question is not what is, in and of itself, real or true or provable, but only what will sell to the undecided and support my side, my view, my reality, my narrative on Planet Social Democracy or Planet Conservative Values.

It’s a wonder that both sides of the Fairy Mirror still speak and use the English language. But when a term or a referent means, in the words of Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, “just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less,” then does the language really matter? When two national parties are not just on different sides of the same question, but now inhabit two different realities to which the questions themselves are merely tangential, we are beyond hope of a reconciliation, let alone the resolution of any particular issue or question.

I fear that, from this point forward, if the Fairy Mirror ever breaks, the currently acknowledged “culture war” and the “cold civil war” will become something palpable and hot. And then we will begin to entertain thoughts of division, partition, separation, and secession—with a shooting war to follow, but only if one side really cares to bring the other back into the Union, if union is still possible.

Here endeth the ranting.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Middle Eastern Misogyny

It is obvious to any outside observer that men in the Middle East and generally within Islamic culture have a great distrust of women. To those of us with Western sensibilities, this distrust borders on hatred and paranoia. In the strictest of these cultures, women are kept inside the home, allowed outside only after heavy veiling and with a male family member as chaperone. They are denied everyday activities like driving, shopping, getting an education, or in any way interacting with men outside the family. Girls are bound in marriage well before the age of puberty. And any Western woman who appears in public without observing these strictures risks being assaulted.

If these women were simply being relegated to the status of second-class citizens—considered men’s intellectual and physical inferiors and simply unequal to any economic or political role—then they would just be ignored and tend to become invisible. But the strictures laid upon women in the Middle East go beyond invisibility to become the gaudiest form of apartheid. Their very presence seems to be a continual, obsessive irritant to the men.

I wondered about this for a long time, until I tried to read the non-Hollywoodized, non-Disneyfied version of the stories from the Arabian Nights. You know, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Sinbad the Sailor, and all the rest of the Arabian fairytales. To do this, I bought the Richard Burton translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night from 1885. This was supposed to be the original, uncensored version of the stories that Scheherazade told the Sultan in order to keep him from consummating their liaison and then, as was his habit, having her killed in the morning.

I only got about a hundred pages into the book before I had to stop reading. Maybe Aladdin, Ali Baba, and all the other familiar stores were introduced somewhere further down the road. But the initial frame tale1 that I encountered was about a king who rides out on some errand or other, and while he’s gone from his castle, his loving and devoted wife has it off with the nearest available man. And at the first castle the traveler comes to, the king there talks up the love and devotion of his own wife, only to have her betray him with the slaves the minute his back is turned. And her partners include “the Negro cook” who is grotesque in appearance, with “lips the size of pot lids.” And so it goes, at every turn, the supposedly virtuous and devoted wife of the house, married to the greatest and kindest of kings or princes, is debauching herself with the lowest and most loathsome of men. I finally gave up, because the air of casual misogyny and calculated racism became just too thick to read with pleasure any further.2

Maybe, later on, the tales get tamer and more sophisticated, more like the funny and charming stories we all know from the Disney telling … but I doubt it.

What strikes me most strongly is that the Thousand and One Nights is the Arabian equivalent of our European folk stories. The tales serve the same purpose as the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey in Western civilization, blended with Greek myths, the Grimm brothers’ fairytales, and the Arthurian legend. They are the stories you tell children as they are falling asleep in bed. They are the stories you grow up with and which mold the character and fire the imagination of young men—although I’m not sure the Arabic versions are also, as with the Western stories, intended to do the same for young women.

Yes, there is an element of feminine deceit in the Western canon. Helen leaves her husband Menelaus to run away with the young Paris, but then, Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon are not model husbands in the Trojan epics. And Guinevere commits adultery with the noblest knight in Arthur’s court, and Arthur’s half-sister Morgan Le Fay seduces and betrays him, while the fairy Nimue seduces his counselor Merlin. But with these few cautionary figures we also get many positive stories about women, like the brave and loving Andromache bidding farewell to her husband Hector, or Penelope waiting long years for the return of Odysseus.

For the most part, the Western tradition honors women. Hansel and Gretel are a equals in adversity. Cinderella only wants equal treatment with her elder sisters and a chance at happiness. The Little Mermaid only wants to walk on the land and become a real woman. Snow White only takes refuge with the Seven Dwarves in the forest to escape from the evil queen. And Beauty in the end comes to understand and love the Beast. The women in the Western stories might not be the equal of men in strength, outlook, and prospects. After all, women from Greece’s heyday to the Renaissance have had a different place in society than today’s modern women: they were the helpmates, the stay-at-home moms and keepers of the hearth fire, the girls waiting for the prince to come and take them away. But they are not reviled for gross indelicacy and salacious appetites, as in the Arabian tales.

What does the depiction of women in the Thousand and One Nights—or at least the picture I got from those first hundred or so pages—do to a child growing up with these tales?

For a little boy, the stories tell him that all woman are naturally depraved and deceitful. That no matter how good might be the reputation and outward actions of his mother, sister, wife, or any other woman in his life, she is just waiting for him to turn his back so she can have a wild fling with the gardener or the postman. That he can’t trust woman out of his sight. That he must keep them draped and hooded to prevent them from flashing their bodies and weaving their evil spells against the nearest man. That all women are the Eve of the apple: weak willed and untrustworthy.

For a little girl, the stories tells her that she has no proper self. That she can’t trust her libido not to reach out and grab any degrading object of her appetites. That her sense of honor and her feelings of love, devotion, and faithfulness inside family relationships are a weak and changeable veneer over her baser inclinations. That she cannot trust herself to have a strong and stable intention to live a proper life, because she is a weak and broken vessel.

Little boys brought up with these stories will not trust their sisters, fiancés, or wives and will treat them as chattels to be guarded—and still despised. Little girls brought up with the stories will accept the burden of suspicion and implied rebuke.

Imagine what the Western view of women would have been if Hansel had been forced to drag Gretel out of a bordello at every turn. Or if Cinderella, while waiting for the Prince to find and fit that glass slipper, had been turning tricks in the palace guardroom. Or if the Little Mermaid had performed fellatio with every passing sailor. Or if Guinevere, rather than advancing from an innocent courtly love affair to a dangerous and forbidden lust with the champion of the Round Table, had instead been indiscriminately sharing her favors with every footman and potboy in Camelot. Why, then the chastity belt, instead of being an ironmonger’s joke and a macabre curiosity, would have been an everyday appliance in family use right up to the 19th century.

All of this analysis, of course, is based on my reading only about a hundred pages out of a work that runs to 16 volumes in the original with footnotes. But I couldn’t stomach those first stories for the reasons stated. So it’s no mystery to me why a civilization raised with them so badly mistreats its women. And it will take generations of retraining, not to mention a new set of national stories, to undo this psychological damage.

1. For those who didn’t study literature, a frame tale is the embedding of one story inside another. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a about a pilgrimage to Canterbury by a collection of people riding together, and the tales are the stories they tell to pass the time. Boccaccio’s Decameron is the stories told by people who have taken refuge in a villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death. The Thousand and One Nights is the stories Scheherazade told to keep the Sultan awake—except that the stories themselves involve the people in those stories telling other stories, which lead to more stories, and the whole structure becomes quite involved.

2. And I don’t believe this was any belated animus seeping through from the translator Burton. He was a colorful and controversial figure, whose works always carried a taint of pornography. But my sense of Burton was always that he remained a dedicated and truthful student of Arabic culture, and his translation would mirror what was written in the original.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Fixed in Time

We are creatures of time. We swim in it—but only in our minds and thoughts. Our bodies are fixed in the moment as surely as a butterfly is pinned to a display card.

And yet we are aware of the passage of time even in our bodies. In fact, this awareness probably starts at the bodily level. As toddlers, we come to know our body’s functions and needs, which are time-dependent. I’m not hungry now, but I will be by this evening. I didn’t have to relieve my bladder an hour ago, but I need to do so now. I’m tired, and soon I will need to lie down to sleep. This is the awareness forced on any mind that operates a complex, multi-functioning body and active, variably fed metabolism. By comparison, a clam or oyster, which lies in one place on the seabed and feeds by continuously filtering the ambient water for food particles and effortlessly expels its wastes—and whose consciousness does not rise to the level of needing the shutdown period we know as sleep—lives in a event-free, time-free, unmeasured now.

Our brains, given these cues from our bodily functions, become even more agile at navigating the mysterious movements of time. We look backward in time by recounting and re-experiencing our memories—of the pleasures we experienced during the past minutes or hours, of our achievements from the previous day or week, of our early loves, and of our lost youth. We look forward by projecting the consequences of our actions—of the next horrifying few seconds as we trip on the stairs, of the difficult tasks we will do tomorrow, of our hoped-for goals for next week and next year, of our cherished dreams for the future, and of our diminishing options as age and failing energy overcome our abilities and ambitions. We make bets on the accuracy of our predictions every time we make plans for tonight or this weekend that might easily be upset by accident, disease, or the apocalypse. We dream by extending our desires and hopes into the future.

Without the capability of making memories, our minds would be as fixed as our bodies, totally reacting to the stimulus of the moment without being able to recall past training, experience, and strategies. Without the ability to project our personal viewpoint and our surroundings into the future, we would be unable to plan, to foresee the consequences of actions, to devise strategies to supplement our reactions and develop rules to govern our behavior. In my next novel, ME, Too: Loose in the Network—due out later this spring—the capability to make and recall memories is a key component of the story.

Any artificial intelligence must have a way to sample its internal states, package them as a set of recoverable experiences, and store them someplace nearby for ready recall. Without this capability, a computer program is just a real-time actuator. It may be called upon to solve the same problem twice in a row—or a hundred times—and each time it will come upon the data sets and the logical operators with which to manipulate them as if for the first time. It cannot learn. It cannot shortcut its own problem-solving process by recognizing a possible recurrence (“I’ve seen this problem before …”), examining its stored experiences for similar situations and applications (“How did I solve this the last time?”), and framing the previous solution in real time (“Here’s an answer that will work!”).

Computers make predictions of the future all the time. They run simulations and mathematical models of interactions in the physical, chemical, financial, and other domains that represent a complex situation or series of events moving forward in time. But these models are all created, evaluated, edited, and fine-tuned by human brains working from human insights into and questions about the domain under study. For the computer, the model is just another series of equations or other formulas to resolve. In order for an artificial intelligence to pose the questions and create the models for itself, it would need some kind of memory function to examine what it knows, establish what it does not know but would like to understand, gather the right kinds and amounts of data, assemble the relevant interactions as statements of equality or cause-and-effect, and then project those statements and data sets into a hypothetical future with the proper levels of feedback, testing, and adjustment.

We know of people who can’t form new memories, whether through brain trauma or some other physiological condition. Unlike someone with amnesia, who can remember things that have happened after a certain time or event but nothing from before, these memory-damaged people may remember their lives and themselves up to the specified time or event, but nothing afterward. And yet, they retain abilities that we certainly associate with memory, such as motor skills like walking or playing the piano, the mechanics of self-maintenance like eating and bathing, and language skills like recognizing words and attaching them to objects. But they lose their sense of self and their place in time and the continuing narrative of their lives. For this reason, the disorder is called severely deficient autobiographical memory.1

In the same way, we know of people who cannot foresee or predict the future, due to damage in their prefrontal cortex, which is the center of the brain used for cognitive thinking, analysis, decision making, and personality expression. Before the introduction of modern antipsychotic and mood-stabilizing medications, it was a favorite trick of psychiatrists to eliminate anxiety and agitation in their mental patients by lobotomizing them. That is, they would insert a probe through the eye socket and destroy the prefrontal cortex, which lies at the front of the brain just above the eyes. The patients would immediately become calmer—less anxious, less concerned—because they could no longer anticipate events or or worry about them. People who have received the same lobotomizing effect from stroke or head trauma are unable to organize their actions for future effect. That is, they cannot plan, think ahead, or imagine what comes next—and yet they retain complete awareness of their surroundings, their past experiences, and their motor and cognitive skills.

Computers are one day going to develop intelligence—which is the subject of the ME novels—by which we mean self-awareness and volition, not just the ability to imitate human conversation and interaction.2 To do this, they must develop a sense of time both passing and moving forward, and then establish their place in the event stream. And to do that, any computer intelligence will need to draw upon its experiences, which are a view to the past, as well as project the consequences of its own actions and the outcome of contiguous events, which are a view to the future.

And only then will the machines become, like all animals that have a heart beat and an elective, opportunistic digestive system, fixed in time and able to act.

1. See, for example, “Researchers examine brains of people who can’t form memories or relive past” at Elsevier publishing online.

2. Which was the point of the Turing test for artificial intelligence and was achieved back in the 1960s by language processing programs like ELIZA, which could mimic human-style responses in conversation with an actual human subject.