Do Humans Dream of Electric Sheep?
Some collaborators and I have begun to perform sporadic computational being experiences. We summon forth novel computation from our environments, computers, brains, histories, and our online interlocutors.
We have no goals, no purpose, no set beginnings or endings, no predictions, no outcomes to achieve. We simply compute. We communally compute. We live stream it and we record it for later remixing and future communing. We dream of electric sheep with electric sheep.
Humans and computers live dreaming together has the potential to unlock all sorts of new paths for human connection, scientific discovery, artistic form, language and all manner of expressing our being — together and as individuals.
Way back when art making and language and later writing catalyzed a feedback loop of shaping our physical and social environments into novel thriving behaviors and thus reinforced the biology for more of that symbolic consideration of the world (we grew bigger brains! more dexterous hands! fast talking tongues!)…. we are yet at another evolutionary epoch — not some futurist cyborg enhancement — just the regular old every 5,000–10,000 year variety of change humans happen into. Each previous one similar… new symbolic remixing ability that sets in motion a many generational feedback loop of social and biological possibility.
In a very simple sense computing without purpose is an extension of our imagination. Much like painting or drawing or writing extends our mind-body into new mediums to further extract ideas to and from us, so, too, does a computer.
Imagine — imaging resourcefulness.
There would be few people who’d argue against imagination as being some particularly valuable human activity. Perhaps the activity, the thing we do that makes us who we are.
Yet most people reading this essay and contemplating the content of computational play will think something like, “This is fun but frivolous! This isn’t really the best use of computers! This isn’t even computing!”
Certainly few readers can be convinced that computer imagination is that big of a shift to kick off another 5,000 year change to everything we know.
A Dialogue of Self and Soul
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
I summon to the winding ancient stair;
Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,
Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,
Upon the breathless starlit air,
Upon the star that marks the hidden pole;
Fix every wandering thought upon
That quarter where all thought is done:
Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?
The consecrated blade upon my knees
Is Sato’s ancient blade, still as it was,
Still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass
Unspotted by the centuries;
That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn
From some court-lady’s dress and round
The wooden scabbard bound and wound,
Can, tattered, still protect, faded adorn.
Why should the imagination of a man
Long past his prime remember things that are
Emblematical of love and war?
Think of ancestral night that can,
If but imagination scorn the earth
And intellect its wandering
To this and that and t’other thing,
Deliver from the crime of death and birth.
Montashigi, third of his family, fashioned it
Five hundred years ago, about it lie
Flowers from I know not what embroidery —
Heart’s purple — and all these I set
For emblems of the day against the tower
Emblematical of the night,
And claim as by a soldier’s right
A charter to commit the crime once more.
Such fullness in that quarter overflows
And falls into the basin of the mind
That man is stricken deaf and dumb and blind,
For intellect no longer knows
Is from the Ought, or Knower from the Known —
That is to say, ascends to Heaven;
Only the dead can be forgiven;
But when I think of that my tongue’s a stone.
A living man is blind and drinks his drop.
What matter if the ditches are impure?
What matter if I live it all once more?
Endure that toil of growing up;
The ignominy of boyhood; the distress
Of boyhood changing into man;
The unfinished man and his pain
Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;
The finished man among his enemies? —
How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?
And what’s the good of an escape
If honour find him in the wintry blast?
I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.
I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
W. B. Yeats, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” from The Poems of W. B. Yeats: A New Edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran. Copyright 1933 by Macmillan Publishing Company, renewed © 1961 by Georgie Yeats. Reprinted with the permission of A. P. Watt, Ltd. on behalf of Michael Yeats.
Source: The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats (1989)
“Hark! Computers as Imagination! We are blest by every computation and every computation we look upon is blest!”
Perhaps this isn’t such a big thought. Silly really. An emotional outburst and childish romantic yearning.
Yes it is a germ of a thought but has far bigger implications than is obvious.
Do Computers Dream of Electric Humans?
There are an estimated over 25 billion computing devices (1.3 billion of them laptops/personal computers, 300 million new ones per year). There will never be fewer general computing devices, the rate of growth will accelerate. Our lives are now spent clutching computing devices for most of the waking hours. Our days start with a computational alarm. Our job routines mediated by computer schedules. Our resumes and bank accounts and social meanderings collated and then regulated by the churning, learning network.
There are only 18–20 million software programmers on all of earth. There aren’t that many data scientists. Nor are there lots of digital artists, editors, and all around extremely savvy computer shapers.
There are a lot of users. Users being used. Users consuming. Users tagging biased data for more of the same same. Which is a cynical interpretation.
Alternative framing: There are a lot of humans who find interactions with computers sufficiently interesting to keep asking for more!
Billions of humans have embraced billions of computers and have trillions of interactions a day with computers. Computers are already the modern fire pit where we gather to hear stories of each other (movies, videos, zooms, snap stories, etc). Most of us put on digital costumes and dance collectively all day and night on the internet. We celebrate our holidays and traditions and birthdays and every days through a connection of computers.
Computers and Humans are already collectively dreaming all the time. The computers remaking ideas as we sleep. Humans remaking computers as they sleep. All of us remaking each other as we remix each others ideas, data, code, images, training data, documents, emails, signals, communications, romances, thoughts.
And Now The Other Shoe Drops?
No. We drift back to where we started. There is no specific or set purpose to computing. There’s no absolute aim. There’s no call for You Must Do It This Way Though. A pencil has no specific purpose — no marks it is required to make to be useful. Nor a paint brush. Nor your imagination. These are tools, abilities, extensions of being that allow us to become more, become different. They are tools and extensions that become more, become different themselves.
I to You to We to Computeme
The more we self express the more we become. In a strange paradox the more we compute the more there is to compute. We create our own frontiers.
The wonderful thing my collaborators and I have been reminded of is that no instruction manual is needed. none. we can just get on with expressing ourselves, with no aim, no utility, other than to see what we can do and be.
We are the Computeme.