Thursday, October 4, 2012

Intro: Sketches from 2030

The year 2030 seems far away, but not too far—something of a middle-ground between the present, and the “real” future. If our current rate of change holds or increases, it’s likely that this future world will seem as foreign to us as our present world would seem to someone from 1994. The future is a funny thing: it always progresses in some ways that surprise us, in some ways that don’t, and sometimes the progress we expect fails to appear. Starting today, I'm going to start interspersing among my larger posts some short pieces about my predictions for what the world will look like in the fourth decade of this century—while we’re being inundated in new technology, most of the biggest changes are likely to come from social reorganizations. Of course, while I think I'm a reasonably smart guy, I'm totally open to being told my predictions are crazy.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Homestuck Timeline Post

Gamzee, Egbert, Bec: An Eternal Golden Bluh :: Hofstadterian Self Construction, Homestuck, and Intelligent Systems

Spoiler Alert.

In his review of their list-book Inventory, comedian David Cross says The Onion’s A.V. Club “has decided to embrace what it parodies until it meets itself just outside of heaven and shakes its own hand while flipping itself, and you and me, off.” For many fans of Andrew Hussie’s megalithic webcomic Homestuck, that beautiful epiphany and the associated obscene gesture are multiplied manifold. The work is so laden with paradox, self-reference, and sheer impossibility that it appears to be made of the stuff.

The post-modern Italian novelists would have loved it. Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, one of the few novels written in second person that was not a Choose Your Own Adventure, experiments with reader/text relations (that slash, of course, has a double-meaning—Calvino clearly “ships” the reader and the text) in a roundabout, self-referential way. Umberto Eco performs a similar maneuver with the literary symbols in The Name of the Rose, though this is a bit easier to read. As much as post-modernists love paradox, we can go back to Oedipus for the  first causal paradox in fiction, making this, as TV Tropes would say, older than dirt. (Although, as we’ll see, its existence in the natural world makes it, um, older than stars, probably.)

The Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1980 went to Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which featured whimsical musings on mathematical theories, impossible drawings, and symmetrical musical scores to make points about the nature of consciousness. Hofstadter felt that his point may not have been as well understood as he had hoped and wrote the more on-the-nose title I Am A Strange Loop in 2007. Its thesis is this: the human concept of self is a result of the fact that our sensations create a neurological feedback loop. Hofstadter is best-known for his ideas on general self-reference, though, illustrated by the xkcd strip which snarked that his six-word autobiography would be: “I’m So Meta, Even This Acronym”.

Hofstadter’s self-reference work and its associated implications for the construction of self (as well as self-construction) interpret Homestuck exceptionally well: the heterarchies of the plot, its construction, and its interpretation include all kinds of self-reference, paradox, and causal looping. A complete analysis of these features appears unwieldy or downright impossible, but suffice it to say that the topography of plot and plot generation appears to indicate a work that exhibits the downward causality usually reserved the generation of a human consciousness.

Aboutness and Paradoxes in the Meta-Narrative

After a certain number of pages, a reader could become convinced that HS is simply a webcomic (albeit in a non-traditional format) about kids playing a video game, and that the game mechanics in the plot are simply an artifact of the characters’ gameplay. But this isn’t precisely true—the mechanics start well before the first player (Rose) installs Sburb: John is messing with his fetch modus and leveling up on the Echeladder from the very beginning of Act 1. Clearly, the reader has been playing the “game” of Homestuck, which happens to be about kids playing the game of Sburb. (By Act 6, it becomes clear that the reader has been playing the game of Homestuck, which in turn contains the game of Homestuck, the game in Intermission 1, the game of Hivebent, and another game also called Homestuck.) Never mind that the reader/player is implied to have killed him/herself in Act 5.

Starting with the first panels, we’re asked to input a name for the characters, as is customary at the beginning of most RPG video games. “Our” inappropriate suggestions are always rejected by the kids, but later we find that the reader-player wasn’t responsible for those suggestions after all—they were typed by the trolls in Act 5.

Later, Hussie’s author-insert character (often referred to as “AH”) is shown throttling Doc Scratch after some disagreement as to whose narrative style is more interesting. Scratch is made out to be omnipotent (or nigh omnipotent) through the preceding Acts, but against the author himself, he wobbles like a ragdoll and is killed, being shown to have been full of stuffing. Lord English emerges from Scratch’s corpse; Hussie’s character has had a direct effect on the plot. Lord English then proceeds to shockingly kill Hussie’s character. Strangely, a non-dead author character is later shown attempting to propose to Vriska Serket, who reacts poorly. (Note: This may have been his “dream self” or a dying hallucination.)

Plain Vanilla Stable Time Loops

The psychotic villain Jack Noir is shown to have ruined the Act 5 [Post-Scratch] trolls’ session by preventing them [link with sound] from winning Sburb (er, Sgrub), by entering their final door, though he did not prevent them from deploying a new (abortive) universe. This new universe is the home to the Act 1 kids, who in turn are responsible for the rise of the super-powered Jack that prevented the trolls from entering their door.

A future version of Dave travels back in time to save John from following Terezi's suggestion to cheat at Sburb, which would have resulted in John’s death. This Dave sticks around after John talks himself out of the troll’s plan, unaffected by the change in the timeline.

These and dozens of other plot points mirror the standard stable time loops from golden age sci-fi like Robert Heinlein’s short story “—All You Zombies—”, in which a natural hermaphrodite travels through time to become his (and her, as the character identifies as both genders at different times) own father and mother.

Meta-Stable Time Loops and Time Shenanigans

Other time loops are ostensibly stable, but the reader is only treated to a view from inside them. That is, they’re unable to see how the loop was created, just that it is created. The clearest example of this is the advent of Lord English, who emerges from the puppet corpse of Doc Scratch, but about whom it had long been claimed: “He is already here.” That is, before he emerged, he was already present. In the words of Hussie’s in-story character: “The dude is ALWAYS already here. When it comes to being here, already is practically all he ever is.” Again, we’re not sure how that is possible, but it clearly is possible, as it is fact. Take a drink.

There’s a third type of infinite loop that seems to more closely track to those that construct consciousness in Hofstadter’s work: the relationship between the kids and their “dancestors” (that’s “descendant” + “ancestor”). You see, due to John’s ectobiology exploits, he and the rest of the Act 1 kids are the ancestors of the Act 6 kids. The Act 6 kids, in turn, are the ancestors of the Act 1 kids. It is unclear how this does not cause infinite regression in both directions of the timeline, but it does create a stable matrix of personalities: the kids model their behaviors after the ancestors they admire, who in turn modeled their behaviors after the kids themselves.

The Act 6 characters Calliope and Caliborn are playing a two-player instance of the Sburb game, though they share the same body: Calliope is asleep when Caliborn is awake, and vice versa.

The Circular Nature of Content Creation

There are also some interesting feedback loops in the construction of the comic itself. Analogous, perhaps, to the standard-level stable time loops in the story, is the direct collaboration Hussie has with people that have been contacted directly to produce things like mini-games, music, and some Flash work. Beyond that, there is direct fan contribution, which until Act 4 was a necessary ingredient of much of the content, and post-Act 4 has remained an integral part of many plot points and details. Note that HS is not unique in this regard—see Ze Frank’s vlog “A Show” for more great examples of an auteur acting as a moderator for user-generated content.

The third level of author-user feedback is this: Hussie has admitted to occasionally using fan forum ideas for further content, without making a direct request. In this way, speculation about future plot points can become self-fulfilling, looping back upon itself.

Downward Causality and Intelligent Systems

Hofstadter takes great pains in I Am A Strange Loop to explain that simple self-reference or infinite regress does not make consciousness. After embarking on a “Video Voyage” of creating endless video feedback tunnels using a camcorder and a television, he makes it clear that the tv/camcorder combo is not conscious. There’s no perception taking place inside the loop itself. Only the humans on the outside of the loop are capable of perception.

That said, there is a niggling sense that “self” can be constructed outside of the neurological substrate. He falls short of saying that an army of ants has a “self”, but it’s heavily implied that a self could be made of any physical components, so long as self-perception was taking place in the process. That is, it appears that in Hofstadter’s world, any system in which a stimulus from inside the system can be perceived by the system itself is conscious.

Of course, one could not legitimately make the point that Homestuck is an actual artificial consciousness, just that it has a similar structure. Hofstadter refers to “downward causality”, in which processes on the level of the neuron are responsible for the construction of a “mind”, which is then perceived to be the construct which is responsible for the neuron-level processes. It’s an infinite loop: chicken and egg, the Apollonian prophecy and Oedipus’s transgression, Lord English and Doc Scratch, Rose and Roxy.

Something that extends beyond the bounds of the study of the construction of self, but is definitely related, is memetic construction and propagation. Hofstadter allows for the low-fidelity propagation of self through the minds of others, as when he himself “thought” as his deceased wife Carol. Homestuck allows for this type of personality propagation through the dream bubbles—the memories of the truly dead (there are so many kinds of "dead") allow for their perceptions of the living to continue.

The desire to propagate one’s universe, i.e. one’s mind, is a prominent feature in human psychology, and may simply be a common feature in the mind of any intelligent system. That is, any system that can produce a “mind”, even outside of strict human-neurological substrate, might theoretically “want” to reproduce that mind-construct. In this way, biological evolution in itself might be considered a mind, and it clearly acts as though its desire were to propagate itself.

It’s clear that in the Homestuck mythos, a universe is a living organism, which appears to have evolved and continues to act as any other living organism: by developing the organs in needs to survive and reproduce. In this case, the universe’s propagation appears to depend on the development of an Information Age intelligent society, which then obtains a copy of Sburb, distributes it, and plays it. The win condition of Sburb is the creation of a new universe.

John Searle famously proposed the “Chinese room” thought experiment in 1980, right around the time that Gödel, Escher, Bach was published. In it, a man sits in a room with a computer. He is fed scrap paper with Chinese characters on it under the door, then consults a computer program for a correct response, then copies that response and slips it back under the door. The argument was that the man clearly did not speak Chinese, and neither did the computer. Hofstadter points out that the system of man and computer do actually speak Chinese together.

Likewise, it could be said that the systems of plot loops, circular content creation, memetic propagation, and self-reference cause a simulacrum of an intelligent system to develop. And while this system cannot solve problems, react as a human, or actually become self-aware, it does become a thing unto itself, like a self. A thing, shaped like a self.