Calculating the Mean

Notes from 2014

[Some notes from Fall 2014, watching the WenXin Road (文心路) MRT being built]

Forget for now that you ever heard the word man, or woman, or boy, or girl, or tree, or animal, or robot or computer or ship or brain or consciousness. Just remember this concept: organism.

Trees grow in a forest, and a city is a forest. Creatures, some like us, are made of cells and bacteria and host parasites, attract mosquitoes, fruit attracts flies. Organisms grow in environments, and cities and towns are environments. So are space stations. So is at Atlantis under the ocean. It grew there like trees grow out of the ground. Living things grow from organic material, and machines are made by organic beings like ourselves. But who can say what the difference is? When I use the words your mind comes up with pictures. ‘Organic’ makes you think of something green, maybe vegetables, maybe lush forests, gorges by a waterfall, extraterrestrials who float through space in fungal vessels that breathe like Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

When I was eighteen I listened to a young professor with gray hair and a Slavic accent argue that when we eventually do upload human minds to computers they won’t be truly alive, because they won’t be acting out an existence. But not so fast responded another. “The reason I know it’s possible to make robots that are conscious, is because they already exist. They’re us.”

Even to me, who spends most of his waking hours up in the clouds somewhere (and a few of them on the roof literally looking down at the processes of small every-day commercial transactions) the idea that evolution will continue only as Artificial Intelligence and leave us organic humans behind is somewhere ‘over there‘ off to the side. The cliché “you never know what you can do until you try” would have been a lot more inspiring to us when we were kids if there were sincere promises that we would be the ones to personally create humanoid robots and flying cars. Not just to consume colorful 70’s sci-fi art and make believe, but like Prometheus with his torch steal the fire from the Gods and terraform the universe.

But technology doesn’t grow unbidden in self-replenishing gardens. It is a feature of postwar consciousness to assume endless social and technological progress. Science fiction movies and TV series depict a space-travelling future made up of modern-day Westerners. In that same room with the professors three years later, I remember another student saying “…we get better and better stuff.” By stuff he meant superior technology. Better computers, better smartphones, self-driving cars, new medical equipment. But if technology was an assured continuous process, why aren’t we on the moon? Whence came the dark ages? The collapse of Rome?  The Chinese dynasties? Question: How does one know whether something is possible? Answer: First look to see if it has happened before. Smog and drab ugly modern structures encroach the Sphinx and the Pyramids. I know that hyenas can dance over the gnawed bones of the king of the Jungle, because I have seen it.

The organism is the thing made up of many parts working in synthesis. If I can take apart a human and examine the elements of his character, if I can de-personify him and picture his energy that of a ball of light or a fire or the ocean, then I can personify any object. Any group of objects. Any environment. God is the sum of experiences of all objects. I want to take images of a half eaten-through log, a termite-infested attic, moss growing on a crumbling castle, the underwater city, the empty temple, wrecked mosaics in Mosques turned-Cathedrals. The idea of a big fire going out, that one candle in a dark room we were told was Jesus in the mortal realm. A network of living people forgetting what enabled their predecessors’ greatness.

Black ink lines on a white page is what most of my drawing has been reduced to. Crossing over one another, horizontal and vertical but in varied lengths and positions. They are just forms, they are before material. They are the space in the sky before the monument gets constructed. They are the form. Take apart the organism; peel back through the animal kingdom, the man, the character, and slice the apple until two elements remain. Yin/Yang (阴阳), Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, Eros (ἔρως) and Thymos (θυμός). When cracks finally work their way through the castle walls, which of the two principles does the organism require? When a man sits on his couch in the dark while the sun sets, and sleeps while it rises letting history go on like a wound-clock…is it more love he needs? He has progressively better distractions with which to entertain himself. More options than ever for a synthetic experience. Whatever force makes leaves grow on trees again is what makes this pathetic twenty-first century man stand up and pretend he’s the archetypal soldier, worker, explorer, sage, until it’s no longer pretend. Until the organs of the ruined castle start rejuvenating. Until the machine’s processors activate, and it consumes and burns fuel. It grows again. It expands through space using all the matter it can consume. It doesn’t think about growing. It just breathes.

Abstract Lines 2

“For men are good in one way, but bad in many. Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.” -Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 


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