Hey, what’s that sound?

“It’s time we stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away
We better stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?
You better stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?
You better stop
Now, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?
You better stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?“

Stephen Stills “For What It’s Worth”

Welcome to Analogia

The time has come for a more proper introduction to Analogia. To do so, we turn from the mind of Aldous Huxley to the minds of several contemporaries including George Dyson, Mark Fisher, and James Bridle. It is Dyson who, in 2020, introduces and describes the concept of Analogia itself in his beautiful book “Analogia: The Emergence of Technology Beyond Programmable Control”. For Dyson, Analogia is a world in which digital machines are outgrowing their digital world and have inserted themselves more fully into our analog world. In this world, worse still, the digital machines themselves have reached a level of complexity and a type of form that, as the title suggests, they have moved beyond programmable control. For Dyson, the Internet is the most clear example of digital machines, at large scale, asserting control over the analog world, and that the behavior of the internet itself has moved beyond programmable control.

James Bridle uses slightly different language but points to a similar phenomenon. For Bridle, in “The New Dark Age” the difficulty is in the complexity of the Network. Bridle drives home the example of the Internet. “The greatest signifying quality of the network is its lack of single, solid intent. Nobody set out to create the network, or its greatest built exemplar, the internet.” For Bridle, the Internet is the premier example of the Network. Bridle also points to the use of clouds as a common metaphor used by engineers to illustrate and abstract from complexity of the network. But, in something of a twist, Bridle argues that we can use this same cloud metaphor to navigate the new dark age.

As a gentle reminder, let’s look at the first two sentences that describe the Internet on wikipedia:

“The Internet is the global system of interconnected computer networks that uses the Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) to communicate between networks and devices. It is a network of networks that consists of private, public, academic, business, and government networks of local to global scope, linked by a broad array of electronic, wireless, and optical networking technologies.” 

While Dyson calls this Analogia, Bridle speak of a New Dark Age. In this new dark age, we are collectively lost in the cascading waves of information. Instead of information shining bright to lead us along our pathway of knowledge and truth, it is suffocating us, beating sense from us, and swallowing us up in a cloud of darkness. It’s a weird description of information, one that runs counter to the narrative we’ve been collectively chanting since the birth of the information superhighway. Something, it would seem, is wrong. These attributes of information are weird new combinations that feel as if they may come from the upside down. These information flows, dancing across the globally interconnected computer networks, are also eerie. Very eerie. 

Upon careful inspection, this network of networks has a sense in which it has agency itself. It is growing in size, connecting more and more humans and machines, expanding its influence, using increasingly more resources, and further shaping our private, public, academic, business, and government networks.  With Dyson’s description of the power of machine intelligence and Bridle’s description of the darkness wrought by networked computing machines, it is the recently deceased Mark Fisher’s description of the weird and the eerie that can help guide us. Fisher uses these terms distinctly to separate them from the horrific. For Fisher the “the weird is constituted by a presence — the presence of that which does not belong” while the eerie “by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence.” 

It is the trio of Dyson, Bridle, and Fisher that, together, paint a brilliantly dark picture of the challenge of machine intelligence and networks laid out before us. However, even here, Huxley enlightens us. Bridle searches from the very beginning of the New Dark Age to provide the reader with practical advice on how to navigate this new age:

“This cloud cannot be pierced by thought, but by the letting-go of thought, and through the insistence upon the here and now — not the predicted, computed future — as the domain of agency. ”  


“Thinking the network reveals the inadequacy of computational thinking and the interconnectedness of all things, as well as their endlessness; it insists upon the constant need to rethink and reflect upon its weights and balances, its collective intent and failings, its roles, responsibilities, prejudices, and possibilities. This is what the network teaches: nothing short of everything will really do.”

Here and Now. Nothing short of everything will really do. These words were used by Huxley to capture the ethos of the islanders in his final novel The Island.

Here and Now. 

Nothing short of everything will really do. 

A helpful reminder as we plunge down into the mechanics of the digital universe, where Dyson reminds us, there is no time, only sequences of events. A stark break from our continuous analog universe. And keep in mind just how weird this break is and how it has led to some eerie circumstances. 

The (Weird) Digital Universe: No Time is There

To understand Analogia, one needs to understand the digital universe and its basic physics. Dyson credits Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz with “discovering” digital computing. Leibniz himself credits ancient China as discovering the use of digital, binary computation. Digital computing makes use of two symbols at its core 0’s and 1’s. Everything in the digital universe is, at its most basic representation collections of 0’s and 1’s. Its most basic elements are digital bits, orderings of 0’s and 1’s. How very weird. 

These basic elements of the digital universe, bits, are of two important species. These two species of bits represent “differences that are varying in time but invariant in space, and differences that are varying in space but invariant in time.” That is “bits can be stored over time as memory, or communicated across distances as code.”

So the basic elements, the earth, wind, fire, and air, so to speak, of the digital universe are simply collections of 0’s and 1’s where some collections of these binary digits serve as memory and some of these binary digits serve as code or instructions to the digital computer. The computer, translates between its memory and its code, its “structure and sequence,” according to set rules that while definite provide for broad computational powers. 

This is the very basic structure and functioning of the digital universe. It is built upon a mountain of 0’s and 1’s that form the structure and sequence of the digital universe, the translating from one set of binary digits to another, and thus the digital universe’s definitive characteristics and its behavior. 

While we live in an analog world, one where time is a continuum and that ” any two moments, no matter how close, have other moments in between,” there are some interesting parallels to the translation of sequences into structures that we find in the digital universe. “Nature, too, discovered a method for translating sequences (of nucleotides) into structures (of proteins) — and back. Once this loop is established, evolution will do the rest.” 

And then “evolution will do the rest.” It turns out that evolution is a very general phenomenon, and that it is found in the digital universe as well. And here, in the digital universe, there is no time, there is not continuous flow of moments, instead, there is only sequence, there is only the translation of binary digits from, some that vary with time and some that vary with space, but when put together, these binary digits act. As the form changes, the being changes, and thus the behavior changes, all resulting from digital computation in the digital universe. And the world was forever changed.

Dyson reminds us that stored-program digital computers gave numbers newfound powers, ones that have quickly spilled from the digital universe to assert control in the analog universe:

“This mingling of data with instructions broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things, and all hell broke loose, starting with the hydrogen bomb, as a result. Until stored-program digital computers, numbers represented things. Now coded instructions, termed ‘order codes,’ were given the power to do things — including the power to invoke another instruction or make copies of themselves…. 

Strings of bits gained the power of self-replication, just like strings of DNA. Thus began a chain reaction, with the order codes persisting largely unchanged, like the primordial alphabet of amino acids, over the seventy years since they were first released.”

Without lingering on this point for too long, the digital universe is distinct, it has its own basic DNA. It is constituted of basic building blocks, binary digits, that both structure and bring action to its universe. This action then provides a feedback upon the structure itself, allowing for evolution and natural selection to occur in the digital universe. This process of evolution and natural selection built upon a basic swapping of code and structure is also found in the analog world. It was found first in the analog world, and now has been replicated in the digital one.

This digital universe is weird. And its increasing presence in the analog world is eerie.

Eerie Automata

 “The Weird and The Eerie” by Mark Fisher became available as an ebook on December 15th, 2016. Fisher would die by suicide less than a month later on January 13th, 2017. In this fascinating set of essays on the weird and the eerie, Fisher turns to film, literature, and culture to situate what he saw as the distinct concepts of the weird and the eerie.

In the introduction, Fisher begins to describe the weird and the eerie:

“As we shall see, the weird is that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it… The form that is perhaps most appropriate to the weird is montage — the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together……the eerie is fundamentally tied up with questions of agency. What kind of agent is acting here? Is there an agent at all? These questions can be posed in a psychoanalytic register — if we are not who we think we are, what are we?”

I’ve called both Analogia, our analog world succumbing to digital control, and, for that matter, the digital universe itself as weird. For Fisher the “weird is that which does not belong” and “the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together.” Analogia is weird because the digital universe is being inserted into the analog world in places it does not belong. Analogia is weird because it contains instantiations of digital universes that are beyond programmable control, the digital universes, the Internet, exert their own control. They interact, act, and behave in ways that are beyond programmable control. These types of entities represent the conjoining of multiple things which do not belong together. This makes them weird.

But, they are becoming less weird. The digital universe has networked its way throughout our analog universe and exerts its own control on the global ecosystem. It has asserted itself as normal. As belonging. And, the truth is, it has become normal. It is becoming the case that for humans, the digital and analog universes are becoming deeply intertwined such that it may be impossible to still claim that the digital universe does not belong together with the analog one. 

Despite this, Analogia remains weird, and quite eerie.

The Eerie

While the weird and the eerie are related, the eerie is its own distinct concept. With the weird the sense was that something didn’t belong, the eerie is concerned with agency. That is, according to Fisher, the eerie can be found where agency seems to exist in spaces where we would not have expected it and, also where agency does not exist and we believe that it should. To me, this perfectly captures what really unsettles me when it comes to machine intelligence. In some cases, machine intelligence has a sort of agency that we do not expect. Whether it is creatively playing a game or expertly serving us advertisements, it seems to want something to have a will or desire of its own because its actions are so deliberate.  The Internet is once again an example here. It is so large and so complex, and a network of networks, that it may best be understood as having a sort of agency. It grows, heals itself, grows, specializes, grows, and expands. It influences other systems by coupling with them and subsuming much of their change of information and communication. In a handful of years, the Internet went from non-existent, to a tool of the elites, to a system that blankets essentially every other human system. This is eerie!

Fisher describes the eerie, in part, by contrasting it with the weird:

“In some cases of the weird (those with which Lovecraft was obsessed) the weird is marked by an exorbitant presence, a teeming which exceeds our  capacity to represent it. The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or when there is nothing present when there should be something…..  Behind all of the manifestations of the eerie, the central enigma at its core is the problem of agency. In the case of the failure of absence, the question concerns the existence of agent as such. Is there a deliberative agent here at all? Are we being watched by an entity that has not yet revealed itself? In the case of the failure of presence, the question concerns the particular nature of the agent at work.”

Are we being watched by an entity that has not yet revealed itself? In the case of the failure of presence, the question concerns the particular nature of the agent at work.

In the New Dark Age, fueled by the growth of Analogia, eeriness is everywhere. 

What is the particular nature of the agents at work fueling this New Dark Age? 

“Hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look, what’s going down?”

“Automata, Advertising, and Natural Selection are an Explosive Mix”

One of the earliest books to articulate concerns about machine evolution and natural selection is Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. George Dyson, in his Analogia book, points to Butler’s work as early warning about the possible development of Analogia.

Erewhon is a typified case of an early example of utopia literature. In the story, the narrator journeys to the remote land of Erewhon. Here he finds a curious civilization, one that has banned and abandoned the use of complex machines. Here, as the narrator learns, a watch is an anathema. Within the story, the narrator discovers “The Book of the Machines” where he learns of the history of the Erwhonians. As Dyson puts it, “Samuel Butler’s Erewhon is inhabited by the survivors of a civil war between the Machinists and the Anti-Machinists. The Anti-machinists, having allowed an exception for advanced weapons, emerge victorious, and the evolution of technology is brought to a halt.”  

As Dyson further enlightens us, Butler, published a book titled Erewhon Revisited, but Butler did not resume the topic of technological progress in the sequel. However, Dyson adds this:

“Among Butler’s notebooks are fragments for an Erewhon Revisited where he imagined the Erewhonians giving up their resistance to progress and coming around to the side of the machines. ‘Let automata increase in variety and ingenuity till at last they present so many of the phenomena of life that the religious world declares they were designed and created by God as an independent species,’ he speculated. ‘The scientific world, on the other hand, denies that there is any design in connection with them, and holds that if any slight variation happened to arise by which a fortuitous combination of atoms occurred which was more suitable for advertising purposes (the automata were chiefly used for advertising) it was seized upon and preserved by natural selection.'”

In this account, the Erewhonians set the automata free, and they find that it is advertising, found through natural selection, for which the automata are made to serve. Here, Dyson observes, is the Erewhon where we would feel at home:

“Automata, advertising, and natural selection are an explosive mix. Google’s introduction of AdWords, monetizing not just language, already coded, but also meaning, not fully coded yet, was the equivalent of Lee de Forest’s introducing the control grid into Fleming’s vacuum tube. Internet advertising drives a global high-gain amplifier connecting the reward sought by computers (more machines cycles and instructions) to the reward sought by humans (more of the stimulation now returned with every click). We set loose an evolutionary system that rewards machines that learn how to control both how we feel and what we think.”

 We set loose an evolutionary system that rewards machines that learn how to control both how we feel and what we think.

Weird. Eerie. And dark.

The New Dark Age

Something is amiss out there in the mist. It is weird. Strange new combinations, networks, machines, and societies. It is eerie. Where are the agents? Who, or what, is in control? What sort of agent is it? They do not appear to be human, and they are growing. But who are they?

As we find ourselves at the  birth of Analogia, it has helped give further rise to this New Dark Age. In an evil twist of fate, it was the cascading waves of information directed at humanity by non-human, hybrid superintelligences, that darkened our human world. The most basest of inputs, information, was captured and used, against us humans, to manipulate us, in mass, in the direction of their biddings. 

James Bridle confesses that simply writing about The New Dark Age is unpleasant:  

“Writing about the new dark age, even if I can leaven it with networked hope, is not pleasant. It requires saying things that we would rather leave unsaid, thinking things that we would rather keep unthought. Doing so often leaves one with a hollow feeling in the gut, a kind of despair.”

That is, the darkness itself can become overwhelming when directly stared at. But, Bridle continues:

“And yet to fail to do so will be to fail to acknowledge the world as it is, to continue to live in fantasy and abstraction. I think of my friends, and the things we say to one another when we are being honest, and, at some level, how frightened it makes us feel. There is some kind of shame in speaking about the exigencies of the present, and a deep vulnerability, but it must not stop us thinking. We cannot fail each other now.” 

And Bridle is right. 

We cannot fail each other now.