Algorithms. While teaching a week-long course in half-model making and marine drafting I came across a tangible definition of an algorithm. In drafting we use splines, long, thin wooden battens that we bend around control points held by lead weights called ducks or whales. The shape, density and grain of the wood influences how it bends and the character of the curve it produces in each case. So not only the points we chose, but the batten’s character affect the result.
In Computer Aided Design, we also use “splines.” These are virtual battens that are algorithms in the sense we’ve come to know them through computer science. They are a complex equation that programs a certain influence into their operation so that they inflect a curve between a series of points in a certain way.
There is a direct connection between the physical tool and the virtual one. I’d like to look at the similarities and the differences to illuminate the consequences of relying on either.
Algorithms are a series of decisions programed into a tool. In an actual tool, whether a batten or a hand-plane, for example, the way the tool’s qualities interact with our use affect the quality of our output can be seen as equivalent to what a mathematically derived algorithm does within a computer program. Our lives are increasingly shaped by the results of the way these algorithms effect our interactions with conditions and circumstances. Economic decisions, buying and selling, and casting predictions and divining correctives, are now done at gigaflop speeds by complex algorithms interacting directly with each other beyond the reach of any human operator.
To some this is breathlessly touted as another step towards the Singularity! I see it as the embedding of intention ever deeper into loops that elude our ability to monitor and respond.
Let’s look at the use of that wooden “algorithm” in drawing a curve. We decide on an overall width, the beam of the vessel. We establish an overall length. We refer to curves drawn in cross-section and profile view before attempting to lay out this plan view of the boat’s sheerline, its edge of deck, or rail. We set up our ducks to hold the batten and we fiddle with their placement. There are certain points we decide we must hold. Others, we decide we can relax or inflate to give us a curve that appears to meet our intentions. We sight the line. We then draw it, in pencil. This process continues in a round-robin working about the three views as we hone our shape and reconcile the views, making sure that what we see in cross-section is accurately reflected in the other views so that we are establishing a truthful three dimensional object. – A false one would have curves in one view that would not lie on the surface described by the other views.
Throughout this slow, meditative process we are constantly pondering what the boat will be called on to do, how it might interact with the water in varying conditions, how the volume held within it might be useable for its crew. We are always working with a keen awareness that accuracy is elusive and that we must work to maintain it. This is literally true of the pencil lines we draw, whose widths when scaled up to full-size could be as much as an inch wide. It’s also true in a deeper philosophical sense as we are navigating the space between intention and perception and possibility of outcome. We are within the mindset of the submariner’s creed.
Say not, “This is the Truth!” but “So it seems to me to be as I now see the things I think I see.”
Working in this way we keep in sight the need for humility. We also remain on the lookout for signs of grace, for the serendipity that signals a confluence of factors both in and out of our intentional control that might lead to something greater than what we expected. In the end, we are involved in a practice. We are dealing with an aspect of life within an outlook that keeps us open to what life has to offer and to the gulf between mere intention and what actually occurs.
Now let’s jump into the virtual world. First of all there is accuracy to burn. The mathematical certainties of binary computation guarantee that location, any quantitative measure we input into the system, will have an accuracy of computation well beyond any practical level of usefulness. In modelling a boat for instance, we are working to tolerances of ten thousandths of an inch! Our economic calculations are also breathtakingly accurate. That is, the sketchy figures we input with little sense of what they might mean, or whether they reflect any reality at all, are manipulated precisely. This leads to the fallacy of accuracy. We are overwhelmed by the sheer volume, speed, and precision of the manipulations possible. We respond by generating meta-algorithms to manage our algorithms and these proliferate until we are working well beyond the limits of our perceptual and intentional abilities. We reach a point where we no longer have any traction with the phenomena we are purportedly attempting to analyze and shape.
How does this affect our relationship with intention?
I’ve written on the limits of intention and the possibilities of action without striving, living within a different relationship with intention than what is commonly considered the only way to act. What I’ve been finding – both in following insights and living within practices that bring me in direct contact with the limits and uses of intention – I’ve been finding that I’ve increasingly been acting from within a relationship to intention that restricts intention to a narrow and limited sphere. I’ve been finding that intention is useful to aim attention, but that beyond this, action is directed by the interplay of perception, attention, and the ongoing iteration of actions that appear to well up out of some necessity beyond my ability to analyze or control. I’ve found that instead of limiting my effectiveness and making me more “passive,” this relationship with intention has brought me greater effectiveness and a more direct connection with a wellspring of action that is anything but passive.
Within the average expectations society presents us regarding intention it has a much broader, more central role. There is a conflation of intention, and the striving it leads to, with a misunderstanding of causality and its subsequent results. We are continually striving to control what we do and what is done to us while we are continually confused by what we consider unintended consequences when the actual outcomes of our actions don’t line up with the results we’ve wished for. Our response to this condition is most often to double-down and “try harder!”
Our blindingly fast and inhumanly accurate algorithms are at the leading edge of these attempts to try harder.
If we give intention a primacy it does not actually deserve. And we then bury intention within virtual tools that work so quickly and so far beyond our capacities to understand them, making it impossible to follow what they are doing; then we are leveraging the power of our intentions, while at the same time, we are insulating their affects from our ability to make judgments about their consequences.
This falls directly within the dynamic of all power relationships. The fallacy of power is that it amplifies our strengths, when in fact, it depletes our strength while masking this effect until it is too late to adjust. In this way our reliance on virtual algorithms is just the latest in our flailing after power as we wish it will be able to save us from our weakness. The weakness that is the direct result of striving after power.
Our misunderstanding of the effects of power lead us to over-value intention and insulates us from their results as consequences build to a breaking point. The promise of efficiency we chase after in the effort to leverage our striving strips away the time and space in which our interactions with our tools creates a dynamic inter-relationship between us, our perceptions, our actions, and their results. In their place we are left increasingly blinded to our consequences as our new, hyper-tools, working in a virtual space and at a rate of speed beyond our ability to experience, take what should be, what would have been if not but for these tools, a passing intention that we could modify as its consequences became apparent, and turned them into the equivalent of “Doomsday” machines. As in the parables of the Genie, we are at the peril of having our wishes come true, with a speed and a power that is guaranteed to make us regret it, but assuring that we will only recognize it when it is too late.
These algorithms give us the promise of Utopia, a literal – or shall I say – virtual, no-place. They insulate us from the world while they magnify the effects of our intentions. They dazzle us with Utopia and make dystopia that much more likely. All for the price of maintaining a hubris that claims the right and abilities to dominate everything and subjugate everything to our ill-considered desires.