Tuesday, August 4, 2009

With apologies to...

One might be forgiven for thinking that the title of this blog references a quote from Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu:

“How long can a man live for himself?” he would ask his audience. “How long can he allow the rule of the jungle to govern him? Plundering the pleasures he fancies, acting on every pinprick of desire, a slave to the promise of wealth, a puppet to the calling of the flesh?”

But the speaker quoted above is a guru, and what do we know of
gurus? Is the guru's ambition to lead us down the path of renunciation, or one of engagement? If we tire of the above wheel-spinning, where do we find the desire to do anything at all? From whence does our passion to engage the world arise, if not from desire, and what more compelling, authentic and annoying kind of desire can there be, than one that begins as a pinprick?

But the pinprick in this quote comes from David Berlinski's Advent of the Algorithm. Think of the algorithm as the set of rules that sets in motion the field of play. Sometimes we have the luxury of a well-defined set of both rules and field, and sometimes we don't.

But I will venture that there are two characteristics of excellence in algorithms: on the one hand, they create a practically infinite number of outcomes; and on the other, they engage our desire to participate in that game. They burst the bubble of our complacency with a single, incisive gesture, and lead to worlds that may alternately delight or terrify, but always surprise.

To continue Berlinski's quote, What is, then, that "abstract instrument of coordination, supplying procedural means to various ends"? Who sets up the field of play, and who responds to it? Should we try to influence this, or does it not matter in the least? Concretely, what desirable effects do technology and policy have on structuring the field of play, and equally importantly, what are the unintended consequences?

At what point do you decide to do something, whether you are the writer or the reader of the algorithm? And how certain are you of your role?

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