What is machine language?
January 23, 2015 6:19 AM   Subscribe

A gigabyte and a half was a lot of data, once. It’s thought that the last person to have read every available published text was the fifteenth-century Italian philosopher and original Renaissance man, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. To do the same thing today would be impossible. And as it turns out, the greatest collaborative literary project in human history isn’t really human at all.
posted by spacewaitress (42 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
I hope that writer gets the help he needs.
posted by flabdablet at 6:29 AM on January 23, 2015 [8 favorites]


yes but also no
posted by b1tr0t at 6:30 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: Silicon Valley dickheads spend their days sucking kale juice from plastic nipples and thwocking brightly coloured balls against their idiot heads inbetween engineering our new technofeudalist dystopia.
posted by symbioid at 6:34 AM on January 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


Darn, he beat me to my short story idea of automated spam as a Zalgo-like memetic virus / elder god that gradually subsumes human consciousness.
posted by xthlc at 6:38 AM on January 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


Oh dear.
posted by yoink at 6:39 AM on January 23, 2015


Being a cyborg is so depressing. I want to go back to being a mammal.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 6:49 AM on January 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


Neil Gaiman did it better.
posted by domo at 6:57 AM on January 23, 2015


Although it goes off the rails at the end, the point here is a good one, that computing and postmodernism have very similar ideas of "the text" (i.e. just symbols referring to other symbols). I just think that this, like all the recent articles written by humanities people about the horrors of algorithms, is a little overwrought. Probably computers would seem less like eldritch horrors if they had a high-level conceptual understanding of how these machine-learning-type algorithms work.

I think it's really important for humanities people to engage in criticism of how machines shape society, but for that to work, the technology can't just be a black box.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:09 AM on January 23, 2015 [14 favorites]


So, I'm pretty sure that was a totally okay essay with a bunch of interesting and valid ideas. I just don't see how the kind of puerile concept-art meta-whatever does anything but obfuscate them? A pretty good read regardless.

On preview, also what vogon_poet said, pretty much.
posted by Nomiconic at 7:09 AM on January 23, 2015


~vogon_poet: what would you recommend for a humanities person to read to get a "high-level conceptual understanding of how these machine-learning-type algorithms work"? Asking for a friend.
posted by Cash4Lead at 7:22 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


It didn't strike me that he was aware that the phrase "machine language" already has a specific meaning in computer science.

Most educated people, I think, should at least know about algorithms. Also then some basic linear algebra and an understanding of things like Markov chains.
posted by vacapinta at 8:01 AM on January 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think it's really important for humanities people to engage in criticism of how machines shape society, but for that to work, the technology can't just be a black box.

I think it's really important for technology people to engage in criticism of how society shapes machines, but for that to work, oh who am I kidding...

The idea that "machines shape society" has the chicken-or-egg problem... but it's also a power fantasy for people who make machines. But this fetishization of technology is also part of how "people who make machines" are exploited by people who make money.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:01 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think it's really important for humanities people to engage in criticism of how machines shape society, but for that to work, the technology can't just be a black box.
vogon_poet

It seems like it goes the other way, too: Technology people should learn to think more critically about what they do and not act like Technology is a divine road to Progress, and that the humanities are a waste of time beneath the notice of the STEM master race.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:06 AM on January 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


The people on the periphery of machine language, those who run the tech startups, share the articles, read the quotes, are themselves reprogrammed according to machine language. You might have noticed people referring to great works of literature as content, or the sky-shattering truth of religious revelation as a meme...
This is both the core of this essay, and where the essayist goes wrong. The only reason why you might take the time to learn linear algebra or about "markov chains" in this context is to be able to say with confidence that, no, these things are actually irrelevant to the way our society works. The way culture has been "disrupted" via the internet has nothing to do with specific technologies and everything to do with the politics of finance and capital.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:19 AM on January 23, 2015 [8 favorites]


Needs more Pirsig.
posted by flabdablet at 8:24 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


It leads one to skepticism about the 'if you don't know how to code you can't critique observable effects of algorithms' (which MeFi seems to cheat in the direction IMO) crowd to attack something that is mostly speaking to the effects on language and a spoken/written medium for interaction (it seems like sophomore year Borges to me) and not making sweeping statements about comp sci.

But when Target sent those offers to a pregnant woman who had yet to tell her family, that wasn't a bug, that was a feature.
posted by 99_ at 8:28 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


I feel like the author's obvious bitterness kinda poisons his whole argument for me. I also don't buy into the claim that what he calls "machine language" assimilates / reprograms / infects whatever it touches.

"Silicon Valley billionaires talking about books as if they were an exciting new informational app, film company executives trying to assess brand tie-in strategies for rereleases of silent masterpieces, real physical people who don’t quite talk like human beings, who have a strange hunger about them, who are clearly idiots but still far more successful than you could ever be. Hilarious facebook fails These are the new humans, our future, our saviours; in other words, people who aren’t really human at all."

It seems to me more the case that the empty technology he's railing against is created by the empty mindset he describes here, rather than the other way around.
posted by zchyrs at 8:43 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hm. Cute.

Very much worth the read for the word "ideologemes," though; what a useful critical term I didn't previously have in my toolbox!
posted by Mooseli at 8:56 AM on January 23, 2015


The idea that "machines shape society" has the chicken-or-egg problem... but it's also a power fantasy for people who make machines.

The premise "that machines shape society" may have these complexities yet solid examples in support of the claim can be found by the cart load. Boats, clocks, firearms, the turnplough, the printing press, television, radio, aircraft, ICBM are all examples of machines that has deeply shaped societies.

I also don't buy into the claim that what he calls "machine language" assimilates / reprograms / infects whatever it touches.

I agree, the Silicon Valley entrepreneurship mindset was more likely created by geeky enthusiasm for a technological utopia combined with the need to formulate pitches for VC.

I heard a student the other day saying something like "how can we insentivize our product by making it appear that we are providing value to the user?" And it wasn't with the tone of who is going to ever buy our junk, or how can we dupe the mark, it was a earnest question of a 19 year old learning exploring this mindset.
posted by bdc34 at 9:20 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just keep thinking about poor Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Imagine finishing a book and knowing it was the LAST book. The SkyMall catalogue moment on the long flight of your life.
posted by looli at 9:35 AM on January 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


I feel the opposite; I envy Pico della Mirandola so much. I feel overwhelmed by the books that I'll never get to read in my life. I want to read everything; all of Vonnegut, all of Dickens, all of Lessing and LeGuin and Dunnett (those are just examples, there are scores of authors and hundreds of books on my list). And I'll never, ever get it all done.

And then there are the reams of blog posts piling up, some of them brilliant, some of them self-indulgent, but all of them an interesting window into another person's humanity.

I wonder if I would feel relieved living where a world where, say, fewer than 50 titles were published per year.
posted by spacewaitress at 9:59 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


That article had a rare thing, a good comment after all the spam:
I can hardly stand to comment on blogs anymore for fear that people will think I’m not a real person, but I want to say I’m so glad I read this.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:02 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


That article had a rare thing, a good comment after all the spam

After? It seems like that even rarer thing to me, a blog post that almost demands comment spam and manages to recontextualize it into something meaningful. A string of CH3AP CIAL1S below the post would (for me at least) have provoked more genuine thought than half the earnest but deeply point-missing attempts at communication in this MeFi thread, and that by itself is sort of an interesting accomplishment and illustration.
posted by RogerB at 10:13 AM on January 23, 2015


The only reason why you might take the time to learn linear algebra or about "markov chains" in this context is to be able to say with confidence that, no, these things are actually irrelevant to the way our society works. The way culture has been "disrupted" via the internet has nothing to do with specific technologies and everything to do with the politics of finance and capital.

There's a bit of a failure of imagination here. Linear algebra sits at the heart of pretty much every technological interaction we engage in, whether its rendering your email to the screen of your smartphone, or optimizing the route that your amazon shipment will take. Saying the linear algebra is irrelevant to the 'way our society works' is like saying that the structure of language has no bearing on culture.

Markov chains were mentioned because they're at the heart of many automatic text generators. If someone is going to go out and write a semi-coherent screed about computers and language, it's worth having at least a passing familiarity with how they work. Otherwise, you sound like a 19th century dandy complaining about all the unclean Chinese being brought in to work on the railroads, degenerating the culture with their loose morals and opium. Which is to say, embarrassingly ignorant.

Politics and capitalism certainly have a lot to do with the shape of the new companies, and the direction things are heading. But they're not the only lenses through which one can view the world.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:24 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


What is machine language? Firstly, machine language is vampiric, shamanic, xenophagic, mocking. It's a changeling. Often it tries to imitate human discourse; the machine wants you to think that it's human. This is the first level of deception. Often this isn't enough: machines will use various methods to take over other text-producing systems, so that without your knowledge you end up advertising weight loss pills to all your old school friends. ... This is the second level of deception. In the third level of deception, the machine convinces itself that it has a physically extended body, that it has an independent mind, that it really wants to produce the text it generates. This might happen very soon. It might have already happened, somewhere on a dusty plain in western Africa, somewhere that never really existed, tens of thousands of years ago.
This is one of the main points I got out of the essay. By default, machine language is repetitive and meaningless, whether its atoms are "C A G T" or "spam free cialis download video spam". But somehow, after millions of years of recombining and rearranging those atoms in a literally meaningless process, evolution and natural selection found an arrangement of "language atoms" that assigns meaning to itself. We can look at the bodies produced by our genetic code and say we have "arms" and "legs", and assign them purposes like "pointing" and "walking", and feel a desire to fulfill these purposes. If World War III killed everybody and only the spambots were left, perhaps after enough time their comments would be encoding something meaningful too.
posted by Rangi at 10:27 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


~vogon_poet: what would you recommend for a humanities person to read to get a "high-level conceptual understanding of how these machine-learning-type algorithms work"? Asking for a friend.

I don't know of a good popular science book on this topic. I hope someone writes one.

I guess just Wikipedia. It is possible to skim those articles, ignoring any math or code, and come away with a vague intuitive understanding (the diagrams are excellent). Strictly speaking you would need some linear algebra and statistics, but just skimming would get across how banal "the algorithms that govern our daily lives" are.

It seems like it goes the other way, too: Technology people should learn to think more critically about what they do and not act like Technology is a divine road to Progress, and that the humanities are a waste of time beneath the notice of the STEM master race.

This is true, but personally I would rather read criticism by a scholar with some understanding of CS and statistics. That person would probably be able to explain exactly where and how technology causes problems, and maybe even point at some solutions. Right now there isn't a solid response to irrational techno-optimism.

Sometimes the details of the technology have a huge influence on its social consequences; and sometimes ideology has an influence on why and how systems are designed the way they are. You have to understand both to theorize about them. Foucault (say) looked at the detailed workings of historical and present-day prisons (and actually visited some). He didn't have to learn enough to be a judge or warden.

Like, I bet some concrete implementation details would improve the discussion about the political "filter bubble". And it's not about computers exactly, but Addiction by Design is the kind of thing I really want to read.
posted by vogon_poet at 10:38 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


"In the third level of deception, the machine convinces itself that it has a physically extended body, that it has an independent mind, that it really wants to produce the text it generates. This might happen very soon. It might have already happened, somewhere on a dusty plain in western Africa, somewhere that never really existed, tens of thousands of years ago."

I don't see why this is a bad thing. It sounds like he's describing the evolution and development of something resembling intelligence, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof? I mean, at that point, if a machine can pass the Turing Test (which, let's be honest, some humans can't), is it any less valid?
posted by qcubed at 10:40 AM on January 23, 2015


I think a few of you are taking Sam Kriss a little more seriously than he means to be taken.
posted by atoxyl at 11:00 AM on January 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


I keep reading it again and again to try and assemble some meaning out of that word vomit, but I still can't make heads or tails of it.

Like the bit about the DNA thing. I mean, maybe the writer didn't know it, but yes, the genome is actually "small" when it comes to amount of data, but again, it's the way it's used, not what's in it. And it's the way that everything interacts with it, how things get constructed...

And I don't get why they're so upset about humans and machines generating so much data? Is it some sort of elitist thing, where they want some curation? Is it a completist thing about wanting omnipotence? Is there something wrong with content generated algorithmically?

Is it the whole fact that they're mimicking humans? Is that a bad thing?

I think I'm missing the point entirely.
posted by qcubed at 11:00 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just keep thinking about poor Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Imagine finishing a book and knowing it was the LAST book. The SkyMall catalogue moment on the long flight of your life.

You could always do what Milton did after he'd read pretty much everything available to him and spend the rest of your life writing long poems that will make it that much harder for the next generation to re-create your feat.
posted by Copronymus at 11:30 AM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


I actually really enjoyed the discursive style of this essay, because I think the author is skilled at bringing in a lot of different themes and concepts and weaving them into a cohesive narrative.

But man have I never disagreed with anything more deeply. The fact that technology is now capable of automating and improving on tasks that humans are really crappy at - from sending out 100 emails in a split second which would have been hand written letters in a pre-technology era (just thinking about it is making my hands cramp up) to automating the creation of obscure Wikipedia entries that turn masses of data into a human-digestible form, the fact that there is so much - too much? - information out there in textual form, isn't even remotely existentially terrifying to me. IT IS AWESOME. I am so excited for a world where less and less stupid tasks that I hate are my responsibility and I get to use my actual human capacities for thinking about things and interpreting things and taking action on things which are things humans are the best at.

achine language inhabits a pure textuality, in which the sense-making function of language, if it appears at all, is subservient to its general function as data, as text.

c'mon dude that doesn't mean human language is becoming obsolete and we have entered a terrifying machine era, it means humans are more important than ever, because we have to write the damn algorithms. But if we have machines that write their own algorithms then that too will be awesome.
posted by capricorn at 11:32 AM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


It didn't strike me that he was aware that the phrase "machine language" already has a specific meaning in computer science.

word. i was thinking, 'cool , we get to talk about assembly and linkers.' nope. really highlights how little domain knowledge dude has for writing an essay like this.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:35 AM on January 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yes, I was expecting a discussion of bit-patching.
posted by rfs at 11:42 AM on January 23, 2015


I think it's really important for humanities people to engage in criticism of how machines shape society, but for that to work, the technology can't just be a black box.
posted by vogon_poet


Ah freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me,
As plurdled gabbleblotchits,
On a lurgid bee,
That mordiously hath blurted out,
Its earted jurtles,
Into a rancid festering confectious organ squealer. [drowned out by moaning and screaming]

etc.
posted by lalochezia at 11:44 AM on January 23, 2015


Never would've seen it coming, but apparently people interested in assembly-language programming, of all topics, tend to be a bit literalistic, to the point of sometimes even being pedantic or insensitive to nuance or ambiguity
posted by RogerB at 12:24 PM on January 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


It’s thought that the last person to have read every available published text was the fifteenth-century Italian philosopher and original Renaissance man, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

Nah, he didn't know Chinese.
posted by zompist at 12:33 PM on January 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


> Never would've seen it coming, but apparently people interested in assembly-language programming, of all topics, tend to be a bit literalistic, to the point of sometimes even being pedantic or insensitive to nuance or ambiguity

Really? I find it as unsurprising as reflexive sarcasm in those interested in textual criticism.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:37 PM on January 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah the author really didn't need to do the whole Zalgo-esque thing there at the end; he or she could have made the same point by just finishing the essay normally and then waiting 24 hours for all the spambots to post comments in reply (as they seem to be doing just fine!). That's really all the punctuation you need.

There are exactly two apparently-real comments, one that might or might not be real, and then it deteriorates quickly into obvious spamlinkery, then a weird axe-grindey comment about the NSA that might or might not be written by a person, then a few more comments that could go either way.

It's very likely that if you write a low-traffic blog, your "audience" is more machine than human, by the numbers anyway.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:06 PM on January 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


I originally read this piece in Lynx, and switched over to Chrome to see if I was missing anything with the formatting and images stripped out. Holy mother of Christ is it more readable in a terminal window. Italics become blue text instead and the awful justification is gone, making those endless paragraphs way more readable.

Given that this article seems to be designed more with Lynx in mind than any graphical browser, and given that most Lynx pageviews are generated by bots, I can only conclude that this piece was intended to be read by machines.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:06 PM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Regarding the machine language derail, the title of the piece doesn't use the term, it was made titular by the poster. Also, the author is clearly British, where machine code is by far the preferred nomenclature, and even if buddy's day job keeps him knee deep in assembly, he probably wouldn't feel like using machine language to refer to something other than opcodes was beyond the pale.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:33 PM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


bdc34: "And it wasn't with the tone of who is going to ever buy our junk, or how can we dupe the mark"

Calling M. Night Shyamalan...

**he was the mark all along!!!

posted by symbioid at 3:50 PM on January 23, 2015


In its recombination, something not unlike the anagrammatic games Kabbalists would play with the Torah, internet spam gives us the final truth of our civilisation.

GO HOME GIORGIO AGAMBEN, YOU'RE DRUNK
posted by DaDaDaDave at 4:56 PM on January 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


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