To whom the machine listens

Gathering up a crowd of more or less ten people in my apartment and watching them as they interact with each other and also with their own thoughts constitutes a favourite Friday night for me. The event generally starts at around eight pm and continues well into the  early hours of the next day. People usually show up at around the same time and the evening starts. The departures are less homogenous; some people leave before midnight. These are the ones who have something “important” to do the next day, or even the same night. Parents are generally amongst this group, as it is known that the environment may not be safe for minors. And that is one of the curious properties of these gatherings. No particular activity or imagery can generally be pinpointed as a potential source of duress for a child that may be present in my living room in these magical get-togethers. I have come to the understanding that it is the atmosphere that is deemed inappropriate for an immature brain. And that primarily is an artifact of the thoughts that are shared. Here is an example.

A friend who is the newest addition to these nights announces, upon taking a seat and greeting Sion, my cat, that he has chosen to make fewer decisions about the mundane aspects of daily life. He approaches this idea from a philosophical perspective, while using his hands to stir the air in front him so that he can find a more appropriate channel for communicating with the others. His mouth is dry, possibly as a result of the mixture of the passion that he has inside of him for expressing his thoughts while, at the same time, knowing that a typical audience would find his musings confusing and potentially outright incongruous. There is nothing typical about this audience, however. I have arrived at the understanding that many of the participants of the Friday gatherings in my apartment do in fact belong to the fringes of the societies, most of them lacking at least one aspect of the “usual” way that people live their lives. And this alone has given me much food for thought.

Why are there so many “normal” people out there? The ones that seek and find and marry the least unsuitable mate, reproduce once or twice or three times, bury their finances in the pithole of a hefty mortgage and manage to become the Platonic Form of the banality of existence. What is the appeal of the usual, the highway, the path taken by any and every one? These questions do indeed carry in them a judgment, however sublime that is, and yet the questions themselves are important and if one answer to them is that these actions constitute the conventional way that one may live her life, then a more critical question would become relevant and also ever so sensitive: How do I manage to steer away from the banality of being taken away by the strong winds of living life as the shopping mall wants me to.

Here is a thought.

I came to work on Sunday and was welcomed by a notice from the cluster that every task that I had deployed has successfully completed. I deployed the tasks at the end of Friday. More precisely, I issued a single command to one machine, which then translated that command to a set of instructions for the entire cluster. I did not bother to watch the machines as they took off and started their choreographed dance, yet I knew that it was happening as I took off towards the subway station with Abeer Nehme’s delicious voice caressing my earlobes. In the meantime, the machines distributed the work amongst themselves and worked for thirty six hours. They then sat still for me to come back and harvest the fruits of their labour. I, on the other hand, spent those thirty six hours primarily “doing” three things, the first of which was the Friday gathering in my apartment. In addition to that, I also spent some time on the Machine Learning piece of digital art that I am working on with a group of friends. We are breathing life into a set of traffic lights that we are planning to take with us to the next Mooseman, and, who knows, to the Burning Man, at some point. To make my weekend slightly more enjoyable, I also watched the Theatre Gargantua production of the The Wager and completed the night with a drink and a discussion about the play and everything else that was of interest to the small group of us who went to the play. I was able to do all of this because I have transferred a minuscule shred of my cognitive abilities to the machines that do my dirty work, or rather my boring work. Is that the key to freeing one from the banality of the contemporary society?

To live a life of meaning one needs money. This proposition may appear perplexing at first because it seems to resort to an aspect of the hegemonic ideology in order to combat it. I suggest that is not the case. Indeed access to financial resources does not guarantee that one would lead a life that is capable of sticking its head above the smog of mediocrity that covers the earth. A healthy bank account is, however, a necessary requirement for such an endeavour, and one must be careful when considering what constitutes a “healthy” bank account.

One needs to have access to food, shelter, and pocket money to go to plays and to purchase books and also to travel the world. The minimum number of zeros on the right side of the balance on one’s checking account that would allow for these activities to happen, is dependent upon one’s skillfulness in managing her expenditure, of course. And that is a key distinction between different individuals and why there are people who can happily subsist on smaller incomes that allow them to live more and why there are people who live a life of self-induced, or at least non-mitigated, misery whilst their bank accounts are overflowing with cash. Given the vast range of people and how they manage their own financial footprint, I suggest that there is an underlying reality in the system: One needs to have money in order to stay away from the catastrophe of the lifestyle that is so prevalent and is in fact imposed by the modern society. I opine that Machine Learning is one way to achieve this state.

I imagine every mathematical model that I implement and every line of Python code that I write as one step towards freeing my soul from the shackles of the modern day symbolization of life. In other words, what is important about Machine Learning is not only that one can make a living out of it, but, more importantly, that one does not need to spend one’s own time for that purpose. Hence, for example, one can replicate herself within and through the machines and then escape away from the harshness of the city for the closest lakeside and let the machines that follow her instructions to the word translate miniature jumps of electrons within silicon into cents and dollars that pour into one’s bank account.

And this is where the key question stares into one’s eyes and becomes undeniable. Machine Learning does fit the bill for a technology that can help select individuals escape the humiliating crush of the society into a box of mass-produced human figurines. The same technology, however, is the force that will devastate the scaffolding of the dignity of a sizable portion of the human population. Is Machine Learning the wagon that will lead the elite into intellectual prosperity whilst leaving the rest of the humanity in the agony of ultimate uselessness? Is that the next stage in the predetermined fate of the herd? Are the zombies that roam the shopping mall destined to the distress of having to compete with and surrender to the Machine Learning algorithms that the new elite are devising as the vehicle of their superiority?

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