Computing our Shared Destiny

Computations require energy. That’s another way of saying computation is a chemical activity, where I’m using “chemical” broadly to include pretty much any physical activity.

Our filing system requires that chemical reactions occur in the electrical realm whereas nuclear reactions and the accompanying quantum mechanics belong to physics. These distinctions have to do with administering a university, not with the actual phenomena in question. Let’s keep it simple and allow that all physical activity is chemical activity.

Language channels energy, one may say, or provides rails for some engine to run along. We map out, or choreograph, a set of actions in language, using the future tense as it were. Then we actualize, perhaps after a few rehearsals, or perhaps we continue to fantasize, postponing the drill.

Once we’re recording in the past tense, we’re then memorializing. Many mapped out scenarios never come true, perhaps because of premises that never materialize.

The way computer languages channel energy is especially transparent as we have memorialized computer science itself as a history of incremental innovations, each building on what has come before. From relays and vacuum tubes came transistors and microprocessors.

These CPUs carry out various operations or functions. High level languages compile or otherwise get interpreted in terms of what CPUs, and nowadays GPUs, know how to do.

When Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead were devising their brand of propositional calculus, were they presaging programming languages?

Certainly their type of thinking was feeding ideas to those seeking to model states of affairs. Simulations give us insights into dynamical relationships among variables, including when the interactions are too chaotic to distill into simple closed form equations.

However computer programming is not just about modeling. We program to implement workflows, which we could say model doing similar tasks by hand. However in practice, we don’t have the means to accomplish these tasks manually in any reasonable amount of time.

We imagine the “by hand” way in order to give ourselves more concrete metaphors for thinking about the various processes. In that sense, we still might think in terms of simulating, but with roles reversed: the real process is what the computer does, whereas other phenomena might be used by way of analogy to explain just what such “doing” entails.

In retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight, what appeared at the time to be an effort to find secure foundations for computations, was more a kind of limbering up and mental workout that made room for computer science and the various computer languages.

Mathematics would become more operational, taking its algorithms into the circuitry. Its energy costs would skyrocket, as would its ability to do work.

These mathematical processes then embed in contextualizing ecosystems, such as laboratories, blurring the boundary between computational and non-computational phenomena.

The idea of “one big computation” involving the mico-circuitry of inter-transformable quantized energy particles, returns us to older Newtonian imagery of the cosmos as some giant clock.

Science tends to disparage Astrology as not a science, but let’s recognize that from Astrology comes our most rigorous notion of a deterministic mechanism, with planetary patterns governing human thinking and behavior. The newer theories seem far less rule-bound, in terms of what might happen next. To the extent a theory is deterministic, it hearkens back to an Astrological view.

Is humanity convergent or divergent? What does that question even mean? Getting our workflows computerized resulted in a greatly expanded capacity to process transactions. A greater percentage of people came to have bank accounts and to engage in commerce, if only through consumption. More people gained the vote. In that sense, humanity appears to be convergent, however the threat of major warfare and violence continues to haunt everyone, making this something of a ghetto planet. People living in fear of nuclear annihilation cannot really be considered “rich”. Even our rich are not rich. People surrounded by misery live in misery, if only on the unconscious level.

The question then becomes: will we use our mathematics to diminish human misery? Or we might turn that around: will mathematics use us to improve living standards? Or will our computations push us into some war of mutual annihilation? Time will tell. Much is at stake. I’d say we avoid depth psychology at our peril, and Astrology, along with Alchemy have these days resurfaced in that namespace. Psychology, conjoined with Chemistry, have everything to do with the prospects for humanity, going forward.

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