Futureproofing Myself

This is part two of a two-part series, written together. The first part explains how I chose the ultimate destination for my creations. The second part shows how I plan to create them in the first place.

It is rambling, self-indulgent, and without a real conclusion. However, if by some chance a reader makes it through the entire essay, perhaps they will understand why I’m not worried about that.

I wrote about XML in my last entry, and I want to start with it again. Last time I wrote about its “eXtensible” nature; now I want to concentrate on the “Markup Language” part of its name. Like HTML, XML is a system of descriptive and identifying tags that surround information. Like English, XML is a language, with rules and processes to follow. It’s a pretty good language, though, and as I explained before, it is probably the best computer language to come along yet.

For me, it has promised independence from the constant changing of tags and code. When you try to support new technologies in the computer industry, you are constantly learning the slightly-different language of your new realm. In each evolution, you tweak symbols, add descriptive information, remove outdated styles and more. Creating markup is a phenomenal bore, prompting me to often think how easily my job could be replaced by a computer.

Creating content, on the other hand, is quite exciting. Caught up in the passion of writing this essay, for example, notice how seldom I link to documents, underline words, or add styles. I’d much rather concentrate on the concepts than on the language of their framing document. XML promises to make it easier for me to write what I mean, rather than worry about how it will look. If I define once how a quote from someone else will look (in the code and on a computer screen), then I can simply write (quote)”The text of the quote”(/quote). Much simpler than what I wrote for the sentence below, (/p)(p class=”quote”)”The text of the quote”(/p).

But really, it’s just minimizing the code and making it slightly more universal. I still have to decide what merits a “quote” designation, what the reader should focus on first, and what on the wild wild internet they should look at next. What I would really like is to simply write this essay and let the computer figure out what is a quote, what my main idea is, and what the relevant external resources are.

Sergey Brin from Google has said:

Look, putting angle brackets around things is not a technology, by itself. I’d rather make progress by having computers understand what humans write, than by forcing humans to write in ways computers can understand.

Take a look at the bottom of this page (that is, the bottom of the January 30, 2004 A.D. internet webpage version of this essay–more on that distinction in the first part). You’ll see several sections, two of which are titled “Related Entries” and “Related Web Links”. Related Entries are chosen by the Movable Type publishing system I use, by analyzing all the words, markup, and links in the document, comparing it to the words, markup, and links in all my other essays online, and returning the three essays most similar to this one. It’s automatic, requires no work by me, and highly accurate. Related Web Links, on the other hand, requires me to type in a few “keywords” to be associated with this essay, and then searches Google with those words. This process is terribly hard to remember, causes me tremendous difficulty as I try to distill all the content of the assuredly rambling essay into two or three words, and, since I inevitably fail at that, returns links of dubious relevance.

One of those processes is the computer doing the categorization; the other is me doing it. Currently the latter is merely a problem of technological scale, one that will surely be eliminated in the very near future. However, it points out the danger of forcing humans to categorize things and the benefits of making machines understand us as we are.

In the past, I’ve been skeptical of technologies that try to anthropomorphize the electronic world. Everything from speech recognition, to humanoid robots, to Minority Report-style desktops seems to be forcing a square peg through a round hole. My argument has always been to use computers in a way consistent with their nature, which usually means conforming humans into the shapes machines demand. But having spent a tremendous amount of time this year using computers, I find myself no longer using them as a supplementary tool, but rather thinking like a computer in my everyday life.

I search for the “undo” button when I drop a plate; I brainstorm using keywords instead of full sentences; I try to put my daily schedule into the computer and have alarms go off at each milestone. These anecdotes are always good for a laugh with friends, but every silver lining has a dark cloud. I am excellent in Photoshop but have trouble drawing with a pencil. I have refused to spend time with a friend because my electronic organizer beeped at me. I fail to see many forests because my efficient methods insist on examining every tree. Using computers the way they are used best turns out to be a dangerous philosophy.

When I look at this closely, I see how it is more than just a computer problem. The problem is with how we use language to codify the world. This is something I’ve written about before, how the language we know controls how we feel about the world. For the entirely of the human race, we have been limited by our ability to communicate our feelings. Everything in our lives, of course, begins with a feeling. For a scientist, the feeling may be an inclination to experiment in a new way that results in invention. For a politician, it may be a confidence welled up by the support of followers that causes a gutteral howl. For a husband, it may be the deep attraction to his beautiful wife that inspires him to bring flowers home after work. Each of those feelings found its way out through the language and behavioral pathways that the individual person knew how to use. We are forever searching for ways to express how we feel, and those who can express their feelings the best are likely those who are happiest and most productive in this life.

It is merely a thought, a momentary inspiration perhaps, but I would like to propose that in the coming technological world, we concentrate our energies on letting computers do what they do best, and letting humans do what we do best. I would argue that humans are best at creating–creating love, friendships, joy and ideas; and that computers are best at optimizing those creations–categorizing, sorting, connecting and producing. It is a daunting technological task to conceive such a machine, but if there is one thing I have learned about the technology business, it’s to bet on things getting faster and more efficient every day. If you bet on that in the stock market, you’ll be rewarded several times over, and if you bet on it in life, you won’t come up empty-handed.

The fact is, throughout history that which has caused love to increase has succeeded, and that which caused it to decrease has faded away. This trend will continue because of, not in spite of, technological progress. Betting one’s career on the ability to hand off optimization (consulting work), categorization (administration work), sorting (processing work), connecting (communication work), and producing (manufacturing work) to machines is as safe a bet as you can find. And committing one’s career to the tasks of creating (inventors), loving (counselors), befriending (all of us), enjoying (whoever follows their heart), and thinking (who can resist?!) will not disappoint.

My feelings? I’m tired. I’m tired of constantly explaining myself, constantly having to put labels and categories on that which I have created and conceived. Who am I to say how something I have done will be interpreted or used by others? How can I presume to declare a category for something that will live beyond me? It is a task beyond my abilities to produce an optimal product for each person of the human race, and an overwhelming thought to imagine trying to connect my ideas to each person that wants to hear them. What I am good at is feeling–feeling inspiration, experiencing love, enjoying friends and experiences. I have no time, energy, or desire to plug all of that into specific ends and means.

Furthermore, how can one even live with such a complicated system of goals? I’ve typed this while watching the movie Gandhi, and seen him constantly befuddle his adversaries by sticking closely to just one precept–of non-violently resisting that which is evil. This only shows evil that it is so. In contrast, denying your own weaknesses and trying to maintain the status quo leads to a set of irreconcilable contradictions in belief. Gandhi was phenomenally effective because of, not despite, his simple principle of doing what he felt compelled to do.

But now, as I watch the ending of the movie, I realize that not only do we desire to avoid categorizing, we are terrible at doing it when we try. Onscreen, Muslims and Hindus fight entirely along religious lines, performing atrocities to their neighbors. It seems that once one group categorized as “enemy” (the British) is removed, people seek another category to be their “enemy”. Gandhi’s response to the clash? To fast, taking no side; and encouraging transparency of religion and the denial of one’s own categorization.

So what will I do? Do I now stop creating for the web? Do I stop writing? I don’t know. If anything, this experience is teaching me that the last thing I need is to create more categories, even if they are “right” and “wrong”. There is love, and doing that which I love is what I will do now. I cannot sacrifice that which I love for that categorized as “right” by others or myself.

But at times I love the beauty of computer language, am drawn inexplicably to structure and categories and the power that lies within them. It may be a reflection of my selfish desire to be heard, to be productive and to succeed, yet I love the process of it and therefore am not afraid of the symptoms of the conclusion.

And even if everything in the future will find its source in the wellspring of human emotion and be then interpreted and connected by machines, we aren’t there yet. I wrote before that XML is a beautiful language for computers to speak to each other, but they can’t understand our feelings yet, and as long as I feel joy in doing so I will help build the bridge between human feelings and machines that can store, connect, optimize and produce them. By doing so, I can also help create joy and love for others, which allows allow me to share in it. That is reason enough to continue creating, whether as XML or as friendships, and to continue taking joy in it.

Until computers can understand my feelings and communicate them better than my fifth-grade-level vocabulary can, I will need to use them to store my writings and the connections I make by hand. I realize this is a big contradiction; that it seems I am selling out to the very thing I want to avoid. But the beauty of the internet is that it’s much easier to contradict yourself. You can be John Doe in one page, and Jane Smith in another. You can experiment with different personalities, styles, and principles. Of course, you can do this in the physical world as well, but it’s easy to get discouraged by the looks askance you’re sure to get. This may actually be the case online as well for those whose websites are read by many people. Regardless of readership, online there is an extra layer of anonymity and for me, that’s just enough to start arguing with myself. I’m quite unbiased as to which side wins.

So for a while this space may have different views of the same thing. I’m going to experiment with XML as a publishing language, forcing myself to thing like a computer wants to. But I’m also going to publish in ways that computers can’t handle yet. I’ll scan abstract drawings that come out of emotional experiences and put them online. Maybe I’ll breathe into a jar while feeling angry, take a video of it, and encode it into binary, stored in a *.zip file. I don’t know. But what I do know is that no longer will I allow categorical systems to limit the thoughts and experiences I am able to have.

I believe that the primary reason outwardly successful people on this earth are unhappy is that they fail to truly embrace in life those things that God has caused them to love. Instead we choose to categorize ourselves, following a pattern instead of our hearts. The problem I have with writing or living according to categories is not that what is created is so bad. It’s that what could have been created is so good. Without being constricted by labels and categories, paths and channels, any number of new things could be created that instead will never see the light of day. Dean Kamen references this in Codename:Ginger, saying:

If I gave you objectives, you might reach them, and that would be terrible, because it might keep you from doing something really great.

Love: the ultimate futureproofing. It’s ambiguous, general, and utterly impossible to apply to real-world, categorized situations. But it’s the only way to truly succeed and be happy, and you can rest assured that if it is applied in every question and decision, it will not fail. Gandhi knew that he would not fail when he burned his Indian identification card, when he marched to the sea to make salt, when he fasted for peace. For by always acting in love and by his God-inspired mandate, even his death–considered by most the ultimate failure–would cement his victory over those who opposed him with hatred. We’re still talking about him today…