Sunday, October 5, 2008

Thoughts after reading Neal Stephenson's Anathem

I just finished reading Neal Stephenson's new novel, Anathem. I don't know where to start: it's a fascinating story, if occasionally slow, but that seems unavoidable given the deep ideas Stephensons expose. I'm not an avid Science Fiction reader, though I don't avoid the genre. There's just so much else to read about! (And I'm a slow reader, especially in English, which is not my first language.) But I like Stephenson's work, which I first encountered with Cryptonomicon. I ate up the Baroque Cycle, and when Stephenson showed up at Google a few weeks ago to discuss Anathem, I tuned in from the SF office. Hearing him talk about his ideas made me want to read the book even more -- but I decided to do some "homework" first, and bought Snow Crash in the same Amazon order as Anathem, and read it first.

(Warning: mild spoilers may be ahead.)

Snow Crash is fascinating, but it rings a bit hollow -- in the end I felt like it was mostly a superbly crafted fantastic adventure story. The "deep ideas" in that book felt a bit fake: the technical details of how the Metaverse works make little sense from what I know about virtual reality systems (this was corroborated by a friend who worked in the game industry for 25 years), and the idea of an "ur-language" that is like the low-level software of our brains strikes me as nonsense from what I've read about the functioning of our brains (see note above :-). The idea of a virus or anti-virus that can be fed into our brains by appealing directly to this low-level software of hackers' brains then becomes rather bizarre, and the idea of feeding this same information into non-hackers' brains via the blood utter nonsense. So then we're left with a great, dark view of a possible future where many phenomena of modern society, from the mafia's code of honor to suburbs full of bored teenagers, have become fantastically exaggerated, and a lot of cool wish-it-could-be technology, from the Metaverse to skateboards and motorcycles with "smart wheels" (why doesn't the Wikipedia article mention those?). I find it hard to believe that there are many women who would enjoy this book, it's the ultimate testosterone fantasy.

Fast-forward to Anathem. Stephenson has gotten a lot better. It's more likely that women might appreciate this book (and not just because in the end the couple "get" each other and clearly will live happily ever after). As long as they're into philosophy and not afraid of long detailed explanations of space technology. Ok, so maybe it's still mostly a guy's thing (please prove me wrong!) but it's a lot less testosterone-laden, and the technology and "deep ideas" presented are a lot more realistic.

I find it interesting that in Snow Crash the (near) future has gotten completely out of hand, while in Anathem a world is depicted that develops more or less cyclically for thousands of years: after the high point of technology (roughly, today's age) things stay more or less the same, society and prosperity going down and up cyclically without much news being added. Stephenson's explanation for this is that most people prefer to deal with technology they can understand and tinker with, like internal combustion engines, rather than the more advanced space-age stuff that most Sci-Fi authors (including Stephenson, see Snow Crash) love to make up. Although nobody seems to object to the ubiquity of cell phones connected to the Internet -- they are apparently too useful (for society, or for the plot) to ban.

I loved the puzzles for the reader, small and large, that Stephenson spreads throughout the book. I recall that in Cryptonomicon he often starts a new chapter with a minute, detailed description of an everyday phenomenon from an unexpected vantage point or using precise scientific language, which often made me chuckle. There is some of that in Anathem, but the main class of puzzles is the introduction of new vocabulary (ostensibly because the world depicted is not Earth) for familiar things. E.g. ark for church, drummon, fetch and mobe for freight truck, pick-up truck and car, syntactic device or syndev for computer, praxis for engineering, Andrakhonic theorem for Pythagorean theorem, and Gardan’s Steelyard for Occam’s Razor. (I found one place where Stephenson apparently forgot to apply global substitution and used the word "computer-generated" instead of syndev-generated.) In general the new words are remarkably easy to remember once you've figured it out -- sometimes it helps to know Latin or French (for example fraa and suur are clearly from frère and soeur).

The only stuff that's hard is the names for the various philosophical schools -- probably because I'm not really all that well-schooled in this. I can recognize the references to Plato, but that's about it. There are probably tons of references to philosophic schools of the past two centuries, but I don't know my Nietzche from my Kant, and I'm not all that well-versed in interpretations of quantum mechanics. Except I did recognize the idea of consciousness as a quantum computer as originating with Roger Penrose -- I read his book long ago, and decided I simply disagreed. The whole idea of merging together world lines in such a way that the history of one world appears in the present of another sounds like a Sci-Fi device of the same nature as travel faster than light: useful as a plot device, but not realistic.

Yes, of course it's fiction! But Stephenson really does seem to try to make everything else realistic -- the ideas he presents have roots in real science, and so does much of the technology, from the "long now" clock to the electrodynamic tether propulsion device (both mentioned in the acknowledgements). So I guess at this point we (Stephenson and I) simply disagree on the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is not something to be particularly worried about, as it's all highly speculative in the real scientific world too.

When we're talking about the nature of consciousness, I'm definitely in the camp of Douglas Hofstadter, who makes (what I think is) an eloquent point that it's just a bunch of extremely sophisticated software running on highly developed hardware, both evolved over a very long time, starting with the earliest animals that were capable of making decisions based on sensory input. I recently bought and read Hofstadter's I am a Strange Loop and loved most of it, although I had to skip some of the sentimental stuff; it made me pull out Gödel, Escher Bach and The Mind's I (both of which I'd read when I was about half my current age) and re-read much of them, enjoying them just as much as the first time (and probably understanding a lot more).

My only quibble with Hofstadter is his insistence on the importance of self-referentiality of consciousness. While I appreciate the relevance of introspection, and love the idea that the algorithms for searching our (various kinds of) memory are derived from the pattern matching algorithms originating in our sensory processing (which clearly was a precursor of consciousness), I don't believe that in order to be called "intelligent" a piece of software would necessarily have to have a concept of "I" that resembles that of a person. (And no, I don't think we're anywhere near developing such intelligent software yet -- we don't know enough about the most basic stuff like perception. For that matter, I think that the whole "Singularity" idea promoted by Ray Kurzweil is bulshytt, as the inhabitants of Stephenson's world would say.)

But I do agree with Hofstadter that there is no a priori reason why sufficiently complex (presumably layered) software couldn't be developed that has representations of real-world concepts that can be queried and updated and connected in ways very similar to the way this apparently happens in our brains. Personally, I think that one of the keys to the development of such software is better understanding of our preceptional mechanisms. Which is a long-winded segue into the work of Oliver Sacks, whose works I've also been reading recently. (I am about to dive into Musicophilia, his latest work.) Sacks writes yarns that are as accessible (or more) as Stephenson's, and almost as exciting (for me anyways), with the added value that they are science, not fiction.

I wish I could work in a reference to Richard Dawkins, whose ideals on evolution also seem highly relevant. (Even though to a 3rd generation atheist like myself his rant against organized religion seems a little over the top.) But I'll save that for later.


Noah Gift said...

Interesting review, I didn't know you were into the study of Consciousness I will have to read the book. The reason I got serious about development was to work on developing sentient software. This is still my life's goal.

I learned a lot about Consciousness from a professor I met at Caltech. In the last months of his life he believed he found where Consciousness exists in the brain.

Guido van Rossum said...

I'm curious... Why do you write "Consciousness" consistently capitalized? I haven't seen this usage elsewhere. Does the capitalization somehow imply a specific definition or school of thought?

I find it hard to believe that your professor really did find where it exists in the brain -- to me that is about as useful as claiming to have pin-pointed the location of MS-Office in your computer.

jrivero said...
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Daniel said...

Curses! I really wanted your review, but couldn't force myself to read past the *spoiler* alert. :(

Since you briefly mentioned the Baroque Cycle, I must ask, is it worth reading? So far, loved what I've read of Stephenson; Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and Diamond Age! Yet, most of the reviews of the Baroque Cycle claim that you need to be a history buff to understand most of the plot and, essentially the greatness of the series.

So, my question boils down to the following: would a highschool student have the background knowledge necessary to read and enjoy the series, or should I read up on some general history first?

reine said...

yeah!, a woman could really enjoy that "snow-crash", even my dog appreciated the state of mind i was in while reading it, but the real kick was: "In the beginning was the command line". Tot straaks, en pas op voor de bus!.

[ dut ] said...

i'm rereading hofstadter and moving to new gibson soon. 'watchmen' is distracting me at the moment, tho. and i'd forgotten about 'anathem'! thanks!

other thoughts:
* if it recognizes its own output as an input and filters on it, it's "self referential". that doesn't happen with audio/video output, but it does happen with tcp/ip (esp. firewalling).
* "i" =
* what else would be required before a software's introspection "resembles that of a person"?

* singularity - it's just a name for the power law inherent in accreting technology. like "heat death of the universe". we're in the middle of it now! (bring a blanket)
* will the pieces come together for us to "upload consciousness" in my lifetime? not likely.

spongefrob said...

GvR: "Snow Crash is fascinating, but it rings a bit hollow -- in the end I felt like it was mostly a superbly crafted fantastic adventure story"

"Snow Crash" does ring hollow, but that's because it's not finished. It was much earlier in Stephensons' career, when (it seems) he was much more at the mercy of his editors. (The character of Juanita disappears for large stretches and other characters are developed and not followed, e.g. Y.T's mom...)

"Cryptonomicon" is a much more fully realized work not because Stephenson is necessarily a better writer, but because he had a less intrusive editor who trusted him more and wasn't afraid of a lengthy book.

Stephenson ought to revisit the draft and fill in the holes he was obviously forced to take out. Call it 'the Directors cut'

Guido van Rossum said...

@spongefrob - do you have any evidence for this?

Noah Gift said...


There is no particular reason for my capitalization of Consciousness other than perhaps creative spelling. I believe you are correct in keeping it lower case.

In regard to finding the exact location of consciousness in the brain, yes, I am not really how that would apply to solving any particular problem, except for perhaps lending some evidence against the idea of the Judeo-Christian (I think this does need to be capitalized) idea of a soul.

For example, determining a mapping to consciousness to an exact area of the brain would take some of the thunder out of the spooky world of religious mysticism, and how a soul is transported to some netherworld

You also have to understand his background, he was a neurosurgeon who did split brain research, with a team of people, one of which, Robert Sperry, one a Noble Prize. A lot of his life he spent identifying the functionality of parts of the brain, and at times operating, or removing parts.

One story he told me was about doing surgery on the brain of a women who was terminally ill, and I forget the exact name of the rare procedure, but it caused her to be in a state of nirvana, and without any inhibition. This is how he thought about the brain, I suppose.

Also, I have had the pleasure of working with, and for some very intelligent people in my life, and he was the smartest guy I knew. I think he had ideas for doing research on that specific region of the brain, but just ran out of time before he died.

Another researcher at Caltech that is involved in this work is Christof Kock:

Noah Gift said...

Also, this article seems particularly interesting:

PJE said...

Consciousness is just a hack; we have logical brains so we can convince our fellow tribe-members to give us more at their expense, and conversely, so that we can *avoid* being convinced by them. It's also largely separated from the useful levels of the brain so that you can argue "sincerely" for beliefs that don't actually align with your real behavior... which is why you can have all sorts of "good intentions" that you never actually follow through on. ;-)

So I'm with you on this one: trying to make machines conscious in a human way probably isn't a useful goal; that would just give them the dubious ability to be hypocritical and experience inner conflicts. :)

Noah Gift said...

PJE and Guido,

(I am not an expert like my mentor Dr. Bogen, or Dr. Koch)
Actually, consciousness is much more complex than that. If you read the PDF, that I linked to, according current research, being aware, self-reflective, or even having language or emotion and being conscious are two different things.

The subject of consciousness is extremely complex, and it often means different things to different people. I just happen to know a bit about it because I met Dr. Bogen at Caltech. There is incredible research on the subject, that requires a substantial amount of reading. Often, in my extremely limited experience, common sense understanding of consciousness is wrong.

Also, Guido, back to my point about knowing the exact spot of consciousness, yes, it is important. I just remembered why. If you look at some of the Nobel Prize winning research that Dr. Bogen, and Dr. Sperry did:, you will see this statement:

Sperry and his colleagues tested these patients with tasks that were known to be dependent on specific hemispheres of the brain and demonstrated that the two halves of the brain may each contain consciousness. In his words, each hemisphere is
indeed a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing, and emoting, all at a characteristically human level, and . . . both the left and the right hemisphere may be conscious simultaneously in different, even in mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel"

That blows my mind. There are possibly two mechanisms for consciousness in the brain. What if we could remove half, and then duplicate ourselves for example? Are we really two people?

Python is fun stuff, but this really gets me excited :)

spongefrob said...

@spongefrob - do you have any evidence for this?

Sorry for taking so long to get back to you... Dreadfully rude. My apologies.

I don't have 'hard evidence' that might convince you either way. I've only closely read both books; but a careful comparative analysis of both books side-by-side, reveals inexplicable pauses, gaps and stops in 'Snow Crash'. Punctuation, paragraph, chapters, threads and lines can all be used to fingerprint a novel and a novelist and 'Snow Crash' is an incomplete picture.

I am a writer. I've dealt with editors. and I've seen too many writers at the mercy of their editors. This is good and bad. Often a writer will just keep writing and will have to be 'reigned' in. In other instances, an editor has to learn patience and trust the writer.

But, to this writer, it's painfully clear that there are whole sections of 'Snow Crash' missing.

'Cryptonomicon' is much smoother and tighter in a way only explainable by differences in editing (not writing) maturity.

This is not limited to writing, as I mentioned previously, there is a whole sub-industry of movie/DVD releases bearing the nomen "directors cut"... which is the parts of the movie put back in after having been cut from the initial release. There's always a 'writers cut'. (not that these cuts are always superior... But Stephenson is too good for a bad editor...)

Ryan said...

I just finished Anathem and thoroughly enjoyed it too. I'll have to ask you more next time I'm in the SF office!

Agreed, the cog sci and quantum mechanics stuff was interesting and debatable. I found myself just as moved by the depiction of monastic life, though. It's been an inspiration to (continue to) look for ways to prune and simplify my own life, minimize or automate things that aren't important, and prioritize things that are.