What I learned from GQ this time around

philadelphia theater and gq
Good stuff?

Having been inspired last time around to write one of  PPAA’s most popular articles “What Learned From GQ Today,” I thought I might mine the current issue for fodder for another fascinating PPAA essay explaining why GQ was relevant to Philadelphia’s performing arts scene. I picked it up, looked through it: I found no inspiration. Not even on a toiletry/fashion level did I find inspiration in “The All-American STYLE Issue” with Channing Tatum The Wild One on the cover (March, 2011). I’m still wearing yesterday’s clothes, combinations of two decades worth of Christmas clothing gifts and sales rack items from GAP. (I did wonder if I shouldn’t propose to a group a buddies that we all dress up in cotton suits and make pancakes together, because that’s what guys do in GQ.)

Still, I enjoyed a personal essay called “Schemes of My Father” by Eric Puchner (p. 134) about growing up in California—having moved from Baltimore—where his dad played out a fantasy as a flamboyant, rich Californian only to be undone by the Savings and Loan scandals of the 1980s, of which he was a part, leaving his family $2 million in debt. But I skipped the interview with robots, it seemed too cheeky, as well as the latest article on how being in the NFL can damage your brain, I’d already read other articles about the subject, and frankly, no shit.

I was disappointed that I might not be able to use GQ as a monthly literary vehicle to comment on things of great cultural merit. So I turned to my other Frequent Flyer magazines to see if they could provide some inspiration. The Rolling Stone with Justin Bieber on the cover was a complete waste of a tree; Travel & Leisure, like I’ve said before, never has had any redeeming value; Vogue, with its masthead on page 208 and its first editorial content—word or photo—on page 280, has a million pictures of beautiful women so that’s something, but I couldn’t get through their obligatory starvation story or their successful, attractive lady CEO of the month story (why don’t they cover a successful woman who is butt-ugly and dresses in sweats?); then I came to the current issue ofWired, which had a interesting article about the science professor/sociopath who shot up her colleagues at Auburn University—something I’ve noticed Wired is specializing in, articles about heinous crimes committed by underappreciated geniuses.

Then I turned to the current New Yorker (Fe. 14 & 21, 2011), a magazine we pay for, and read “The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology” by Lawrence Wright. I am not a big fan of the New Yorker’s profiles, but this goes way beyond their usually format, using the screenwriter Paul Haggis’s break with Scientology for a launch pad into a juicy history of the church and all the devilish games that go on within the organization. The most disturbing part of the article is about Sea Org, by which they take over the lives of children, willingly given to them by their parents, sequester, educate, and train them in their Scientologist ways. There are secret compounds, forced labor, forced abortions.  Since it’s been around a while, there is a whole group of people, some of whom are in their 50s, who have never known anything—education, work, other people—that was not part of the Scientology empire. What keeps so much of the church together as a workplace, even for those who have suffered continual abuse, is that your direct path to spiritual salvation (or whatever their equivalent is) is through the various levels of enlightenment you attain as doled out by the administration of the Church, which is headed by David Miscavige, who has reportedly beaten (physically) many of his subordinates in a Scientological rage. The idea of administrative power mixed with spiritual salvation puts a whole new spin on the machinations of the workplace.

Now, I was beginning to find myself in a magazine reading groove—I was not going to just let them pile up this time around, I was actually going to read the magazines before the next group came in.  I switched back to my Frequent Flyer pile and picked up Time, the one with title “2045 The Year Man Becomes Immortal” (which I guess sounds better then “2045 The Year HUman Becomes Immortal”). Honestly, I hadn’t much hope and may have even commenced reading in the bathroom. No matter.  I got sucked into the article by Lev Grossman about singularity, “the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history” (Feb 21, 2011, pp. 40-49).

How can I distill how weird this idea of singularity is?

The article begins with the theories of Raymond Kurzweil, who at 17 made computer in 1965 that composed a piece of music. He went onto many successes and inventions, and now “Kuzweil believes that we’re approaching a moment when computers will become intelligent, and not just intelligent but more intelligent than humans. When that happens, humanity—our bodies, our minds, our civilization—will be completely and irreversibly transformed. . . . the end of human civilization as we now it is about 35 years away.”

See as the world turns, computing power increases at an exponential rate, as oppose to a linear one—”computers are getting faster faster—that is, the rate at which they’re getting faster is increasing.” You may also drag in the separate growth industry in computers—machines that make machines. If you add artificial intelligence, you have machines making machines of their own devising. If you combine artificial intelligence with exponentially increasing power of computers with machines making machines, you have computers that are faster and smarter than humans, inventing and making machines that are even smarter and faster than themselves. (And then you have COMPUTER WORLD.)

We generally live with the notion of linear movement—a gradual, steady incline that we adapt to in our own linear fashion. This may be a false notion to begin with, but it is something we certainly build our careers and relationships around and how we set our goals. Computing power since the transistor has been doubling every year or so. It’s an exponential climb, in other words, a segment of our technological world is speeding up toward infinity, has been doing so for more than 40 years, and continuing full steam ahead.

By the way, one of  technological aims of Singularity is to transfer your mind into the brain of a cyborg.  Sweet!

So then I remembered another Wired magazine that had been hanging around unread for a couple months, the issue dedicated to artificial intelligence. It has a different take on A.I., with a series of articles under the banner of “Artificial Intelligence Is Here. In Fact, It’s All Around Us. But It’s Nothing Like We Expected.” (Jan. 2011, pp. 86–96) So I took a look through that. In a piece by Steven Levy, he points out how much of a COMPUTER WORLD already exists, especially in such exciting places as the warehouse. Diapers.com, a company I have become very familiar with in the past 17 months, organizes its warehouse according to and by robotic logic, not human logic. “Instead of organizing the warehouse as a human might—by placing products next to one another, for instance—Diapers.com’s robots stick the items in various aisles throughout the facility. Them, to fill an order, the first available robot simply finds the closest requested item. The storeroom is an ever-shifting mass that adjusts to constantly changing data, like the size and popularity of merchandise, the geography of the warehouse, and the location of each robots.”

It you can get beyond the mendacity of the enterprise, think about what is happening. You have robots making decisions (placement) for the benefit of other robots (picking up). And I’ll tell you, Diapers.com is superfast, with a big box at your doorstep the next day full of all your survival needs, and I don’t think there’s ever been a mistake. The robots talking to robots exists in the stock market as well, with computer programs, built using algorithms, buying and selling stocks on their own.  “The result is a universe of competing code, each of them trying to outsmart and one-up the other.” (“Bull vs. Bear vs. Bot,” by Felix Salmon & Jon Stokes, p.92.)

In Levy’s article he points out was that in the early conceptualizing of A.I. “the trailblazers in the 1950s and ’60s believed success lay in the mimicking the logic based-reasoning that human beings were thought to use.” But that shifted and now the most successful A.I. has come from building “something like intelligence from groups of systems that operated according to their own kind of reasoning.” In other words, machines that can think in theirown way, not our way. Which means instead of machines attaining our intelligence, they are creating a separate or parallel intelligence system.

If machines also create a parallel creativity, what will that be? And once that happens, what will happen when will human thinking and creativity converges with  the thinking and creativity that robots have developed? Or will our spheres of logic and thinking grow further apart instead of closer together? If robots merely imitate humans, that is nothing new. What will be new is when they are an entity wholly unto themselves. Which is whacky, but it already exists to a large degree in the stock market and our warehouses of our suppliers. It takes only four years for technology to be 16 times as powerful as it currently is.

So at this point I’m thinking, this is interesting fodder for a blog post, and as the subject of  A.I. seems to be jumping from one mag to the next, I return to my latest issue of GQ, and give it one more chance, particularly “Robots Say The Damnedest Things” in which the author, Jon Ronson, has sought out the most human-like robots to have conversations with.

Generally the bios of the creators are more interesting, because they are both whacky and extremely accomplished scientifically, than his interaction with the robots themselves. But Ronson has one very interesting moment with named Bina48, a robot designed in voice, face, and memory of the wife of Martine Rothblatt, Bina Aspen-Rothbatt. The billionaire couple is pretty reclusive, and Martine never talks to journalists. Yet towards the end of Ronson’s somewhat frustrating conversation with Bina48 (all of his robot encounters have moments reminiscent of purchasing a ticket from a phone voice robot), the robot begins to talk about her brother, someone she rarely talks about in real life. After some verbal prodding, Bina48 reveals that her brother was in Vietnam and after ten years home, he became unstable, and has become homeless and a drug addict. “Talking to Bina48 has just become extraordinary,” Ronson writes. “The woman who won’t meet the media is talking with me, compellingly, through her robot doppelganger, and it is a fluid insight into a remarkable, if painful, family.”

If you take that idea a few steps further just by getting past the various technological fits and starts these robots have, you have a machine that contains all your memories, your entire mind let’s say, and it may speak to your past and your feelings more honestly than the real you is prepared to do. In other words, through a conversation with your robot self, I may get a better understanding of who you are as a person than if I had a conversation with the real you.

Speaking of brains, I did end up reading that GQ article on yet another football player who’s brain has gone to shit thanks to his professional career of being pummeled. “The People v Football” turns out to be the issue’s best article. It is a painful, tragic story of a man and his family coming unglued as his brain does the same. Fred McNeil was a linebacker for the Minnesota Viking from 1974–1985. He had begun studying law by the end of his NFL career, and soon after he got a degree, and for 10 years he was a very successful lawyer. Then his mind began to drift, and he began acting “crazy” here and there. Gradually he became a man who is not in control of his own mind, and no one could understand what was happening, particularly those closest to him.

There are a couple things that are strange here—one is, in a world that has robots that interface with other robots in their own robot world, why is it so hard to understand if you have the fastest and heaviest and strongest people in the world smashing into you for ten years (plus college, plays high school) it will have an adverse effect on your brain? Like pollution, in which the very word clearly denotes a problem, why would there be such denial for so long—by players, fans, owners, physicians, trainers, and media—that effects of repeated concussions might be really fucking bad? The other thought I had was if we created a robot out of Fred McNeil’s brain circa 1987, one that still accumulated knowledge from experiences past that time but one that did not deteriorate into dementia? Who would that robot be? Fred without the bad shit? And whom would you rather have a conversation with? Anyone who has had to have conversations with those suffering from dementia like symptoms knows that it is a very emotionally draining experience.

This may soon be a very real question. Particularly if you’re rich or have a good retirement fund. (If you’re not rich could you take out a loan for your robot, the one with your brain? And if you default, will they take your robot back?)

So what does the perverse inner workings of Scientology, robots, artificial intelligence, and the intimate details of an ex-football player’s life falling apart have to do with the performing arts?

Unfortunately very little.

These are dramatic, intense stories which raise questions about the world we live in, what the world will be like, as well as big ideas that are filled with moral, ethical, and emotional questions. The articles are all exploring real problems, many of which take place in very intimate spaces and are packed with drama and consequence. Perfect for theatre, and all stuff that theatre should be taking ownership of . It is time for theatre to start making a mark on the world that exists today by confronting the ideas that are unique to our time. All of the amazing transformations that are occurring throughout the world in our time are not being explored on the American stage in any meaningful way (meaningful in numbers at least), either at the most commercial level or the grassroots level, where that failure is truly inexcusable.

Let’s do it before the machines do it better.

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority

P.S. Thanks GQ, I should never have doubted you.

P.P.S. Not every new play or theatre work needs to be about the here and now, or the world we live in, however you might want to phrase it. But currently 95% percent of plays and probably more have no connection to what is going on around us. I’d say 50% should seek to understand today’s world. It would help get people to care about what is said on stage.

P.P.S. What is interesting about GQ is that besides the Vogue-style ads and photo spreads where clothes are meant to feed the ego, most of the magazine editorially consists of nuggets of useless information in spreads clearly evocative of a website—and website reading. Yet it is the 4-5 substantive articles shoved in the back that make it valuable as a print publication, i.e., where the magazine format, as oppose to a website format, has an advantage. This is somewhat echoed in the layout of Wired as well—a lot of unthreatening spreads up front, things of substance always past the halfway point. Why is this interesting? It’s not, really, but both these magazines seem confident in their post-internet-threatened print form. The other feature they both seem to invest heavily in is some intense interior graphic design work that changes each issue and even article to article.


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