Tags: philosophy

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Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

T E N Ǝ T

Jessica and I went to cinema yesterday.

Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but in our current circumstances, it was something of a momentous decision that involved a lot of risk assessment and weighing of the odds. We’ve been out and about a few times, but always to outdoor locations: the beach, a park, or a pub’s beer garden. For the first time, we were evaluating whether or not to enter an indoor environment, which given what we now know about the transmission of COVID-19, is certainly riskier than being outdoors.

But this was a cinema, so in theory, nobody should be talking (or singing or shouting), and everyone would be wearing masks and keeping their distance. Time was also on our side. We were considering a Monday afternoon showing—definitely not primetime. Looking at the website for the (wonderful) Duke of York’s cinema, we could see which seats were already taken. Less than an hour before the start time for the film, there were just a handful of seats occupied. A cinema that can seat a triple-digit number of people was going to be seating a single digit number of viewers.

We got tickets for the front row. Personally, I love sitting in the front row, especially in the Duke of York’s where there’s still plenty of room between the front row and the screen. But I know that it’s generally considered an undesirable spot by most people. Sure enough, the closest people to us were many rows back. Everyone was wearing masks and we kept them on for the duration of the film.

The film was Tenet). We weren’t about to enter an enclosed space for just any ol’ film. It would have to be pretty special—a new Star Wars film, or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune …or a new Christopher Nolan film. We knew it would look good on the big screen. We also knew it was likely to be spoiled for us if we didn’t see it soon enough.

At this point I am sounding the spoiler horn. If you have not seen Tenet yet, abandon ship at this point.

I really enjoyed this film. I understand the criticism that has been levelled at it—too cold, too clinical, too confusing—but I still enjoyed it immensely. I do think you need to be able to enjoy feeling confused if this is going to be a pleasurable experience. The payoff is that there’s an equally enjoyable feeling when things start slotting into place.

The closest film in Christopher Nolan’s back catalogue to Tenet is Inception in terms of twistiness and what it asks of the audience. But in some ways, Tenet is like an inverted version of Inception. In Inception, the ideas and the plot are genuinely complex, but Nolan does a great job in making them understandable—quite a feat! In Tenet, the central conceit and even the overall plot is, in hindsight, relatively straightforward. But Nolan has made it seem more twisty and convuluted than it really is. The ten minute battle at the end, for example, is filled with hard-to-follow twists and turns, but in actuality, it literally doesn’t matter.

The pitch for the mood of this film is that it’s in the spy genre, in the same way that Inception is in the heist genre. Though there’s an argument to be made that Tenet is more of a heist movie than Inception. But in terms of tone, yeah, it’s going for James Bond.

Even at the very end of the credits, when the title of the film rolled into view, it reminded me of the Bond films that would tease “The end of (this film). But James Bond will return in (next film).” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the very end of Tenet’s credits finished with “The end of Tenet. But the protagonist will return in …Tenet.”

The pleasure I got from Tenet was not the same kind of pleasure I get from watching a Bond film, which is a simpler, more basic kind of enjoyment. The pleasure I got from Tenet was more like the kind of enjoyment I get from reading smart sci-fi, the kind that posits a “what if?” scenario and isn’t afraid to push your mind in all kinds of uncomfortable directions to contemplate the ramifications.

Like I said, the central conceit—objects or people travelling backwards through time (from our perspective)—isn’t actually all that complex, but the fun comes from all the compounding knock-on effects that build on that one premise.

In the film, and in interviews about the film, everyone is at pains to point out that this isn’t time travel. But that’s not true. In fact, I would argue that Tenet is one of the few examples of genuine time travel. What I mean is that most so-called time-travel stories are actually more like time teleportation. People jump from one place in time to another instaneously. There are only a few examples I can think of where people genuinely travel.

The grandaddy of all time travel stories, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, is one example. There are vivid descriptions of the world outside the machine playing out in fast-forward. But even here, there’s an implication that from outside the machine, the world cannot perceive the time machine (which would, from that perspective, look slowed down to the point of seeming completely still).

The most internally-consistent time-travel story is Primer. I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who didn’t like Tenet and people who wouldn’t like Primer is a circle. Again, it’s a film where the enjoyment comes from feeling confused, but where your attention will be rewarded and your intelligence won’t be insulted.

In Primer, the protagonists literally travel in time. If you want to go five hours into the past, you have to spend five hours in the box (the time machine).

In Tenet, the time machine is a turnstile. If you want to travel five hours into the past, you need only enter the turnstile for a moment, but then you have to spend the next five hours travelling backwards (which, from your perspective, looks like being in a world where cause and effect are reversed). After five hours, you go in and out of a turnstile again, and voila!—you’ve time travelled five hours into the past.

Crucially, if you decide to travel five hours into the past, then you have always done so. And in the five hours prior to your decision, a version of you (apparently moving backwards) would be visible to the world. There is never a version of events where you aren’t travelling backwards in time. There is no “first loop”.

That brings us to the fundamental split in categories of time travel (or time jump) stories: many worlds vs. single timeline.

In a many-worlds story, the past can be changed. Well, technically, you spawn a different universe in which events unfold differently, but from your perspective, the effect would be as though you had altered the past.

The best example of the many-worlds category in recent years is William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It genuinely reinvents the genre of time travel. First of all, no thing travels through time. In The Peripheral only information can time travel. But given telepresence technology, that’s enough. The Peripheral is time travel for the remote worker (once again, William Gibson proves to be eerily prescient). But the moment that any information travels backwards in time, the timeline splits into a new “stub”. So the many-worlds nature of its reality is front and centre. But that doesn’t stop the characters engaging in classic time travel behaviour—using knowledge of the future to exert control over the past.

Time travel stories are always played with a stacked deck of information. The future has power over the past because of the asymmetric nature of information distribution—there’s more information in the future than in the past. Whether it’s through sports results, the stock market or technological expertise, the future can exploit the past.

Information is at the heart of the power games in Tenet too, but there’s a twist. The repeated mantra here is “ignorance is ammunition.” That flies in the face of most time travel stories where knowledge—information from the future—is vital to winning the game.

It turns out that information from the future is vital to winning the game in Tenet too, but the reason why ignorance is ammunition comes down to the fact that Tenet is not a many-worlds story. It is very much a single timeline.

Having a single timeline makes for time travel stories that are like Greek tragedies. You can try travelling into the past to change the present but in doing so you will instead cause the very thing you set out to prevent.

The meat’n’bones of a single timeline time travel story—and this is at the heart of Tenet—is the question of free will.

The most succint (and disturbing) single-timeline time-travel story that I’ve read is by Ted Chiang in his recent book Exhalation. It’s called What’s Expected Of Us. It was originally published as a single page in Nature magazine. In that single page is a distillation of the metaphysical crisis that even a limited amount of time travel would unleash in a single-timeline world…

There’s a box, the Predictor. It’s very basic, like Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine. It has a button and a light. The button activates the light. But this machine, like an inverted object in Tenet, is moving through time differently to us. In this case, it’s very specific and localised. The machine is just a few seconds in the future relative to us. Cause and effect seem to be reversed. With a normal machine, you press the button and then the light flashes. But with the predictor, the light flashes and then you press the button. You can try to fool it but you won’t succeed. If the light flashes, you will press the button no matter how much you tell yourself that you won’t (likewise if you try to press the button before the light flashes, you won’t succeed). That’s it. In one succinct experiment with time, it is demonstrated that free will doesn’t exist.

Tenet has a similarly simple object to explain inversion. It’s a bullet. In an exposition scene we’re shown how it travels backwards in time. The protagonist holds his hand above the bullet, expecting it to jump into his hand as has just been demonstrated to him. He is told “you have to drop it.” He makes the decision to “drop” the bullet …and the bullet flies up into his hand.

This is a brilliant bit of sleight of hand (if you’ll excuse the choice of words) on Nolan’s part. It seems to imply that free will really matters. Only by deciding to “drop” the bullet does the bullet then fly upward. But here’s the thing: the protagonist had no choice but to decide to drop the bullet. We know that he had no choice because the bullet flew up into his hand. The bullet was always going to fly up into his hand. There is no timeline where the bullet doesn’t fly up into his hand, which means there is no timeline where the protagonist doesn’t decide to “drop” the bullet. The decision is real, but it is inevitable.

The lesson in this scene is the exact opposite of what it appears. It appears to show that agency and decision-making matter. The opposite is true. Free will cannot, in any meaningful sense, exist in this world.

This means that there was never really any threat. People from the future cannot change the past (or wipe it out) because it would’ve happened already. At one point, the protagonist voices this conjecture. “Doesn’t the fact that we’re here now mean that they don’t succeed?” Neil deflects the question, not because of uncertainty (we realise later) but because of certainty. It’s absolutely true that the people in the future can’t succeed because they haven’t succeeded. But the protagonist—at this point in the story—isn’t ready to truly internalise this. He needs to still believe that he is acting with free will. As that Ted Chiang story puts it:

It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t.

That’s true for the audience watching the film. If we were to understand too early that everything will work out fine, then there would be no tension in the film.

As ever with Nolan’s films, they are themselves metaphors for films. The first time you watch Tenet, ignorance is your ammuntion. You believe there is a threat. By the end of the film you have more information. Now if you re-watch the film, you will experience it differently, armed with your prior knowledge. But the film itself hasn’t changed. It’s the same linear flow of sequential scenes being projected. Everything plays out exactly the same. It’s you who have been changed. The first time you watch the film, you are like the protagonist at the start of the movie. The second time you watch it, you are like the protagonist at the end of the movie. You see the bigger picture. You understand the inevitability.

The character of Neil has had more time to come to terms with a universe without free will. What the protagonist begins to understand at the end of the film is what Neil has known for a while. He has seen this film. He knows how it ends. It ends with his death. He knows that it must end that way. At the end of the film we see him go to meet his death. Does he make the decision to do this? Yes …but he was always going to make the decision to do this. Just as the protagonist was always going to decide to “drop” the bullet, Neil was always going to decide to go to his death. It looks like a choice. But Neil understands at this point that the choice is pre-ordained. He will go to his death because he has gone to his death.

At the end, the protagonist—and the audience—understands. Everything played out exactly as it had to. The people in the future were hoping that reality allowed for many worlds, where the past could be changed. Luckily for us, reality turns out to be a single timeline. But the price we pay is that we come to understand, truly understand, that we have no free will. This is the kind of knowledge we wish we didn’t have. Ignorance was our ammunition and by the end of the film, it is spent.

Nolan has one other piece of misdirection up his sleeve. He implies that the central question at the heart of this time-travel story is the grandfather paradox. Our descendents in the future are literally trying to kill their grandparents (us). But if they succeed, then they can never come into existence.

But that’s not the paradox that plays out in Tenet. The central paradox is the bootstrap paradox, named for the Heinlein short story, By His Bootstraps. Information in this film is transmitted forwards and backwards through time, without ever being created. Take the phrase “Tenet”. In subjective time, the protagonist first hears of this phrase—and this organisation—when he is at the start of his journey. But the people who tell him this received the information via a subjectively older version of the protagonist who has travelled to the past. The protagonist starts the Tenet organistion (and phrase) in the future because the organisation (and phrase) existed in the past. So where did the phrase come from?

This paradox—the bootstrap paradox—remains after the grandfather paradox has been dealt with. The grandfather paradox was a distraction. The bootstrap paradox can’t be resolved, no matter how many times you watch the same film.

So Tenet has three instances of misdirection in its narrative:

  • Inversion isn’t time travel (it absolutely is).
  • Decisions matter (they don’t; there is no free will).
  • The grandfather paradox is the central question (it’s not; the bootstrap paradox is the central question).

I’m looking forward to seeing Tenet again. Though it can never be the same as that first time. Ignorance can never again be my ammunition.

I’m very glad that Jessica and I decided to go to the cinema to see Tenet. But who am I kidding? Did we ever really have a choice?

Thursday, April 30th, 2020

Et In Silicon Valley Ego – Dr Beth Singler

The parallels between Alex Garland’s Devs and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020

Living in Alan Turing’s Future | The New Yorker

Portrait of the genius as a young man.

It is fortifying to remember that the very idea of artificial intelligence was conceived by one of the more unquantifiably original minds of the twentieth century. It is hard to imagine a computer being able to do what Alan Turing did.

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Four Days Trapped at Sea With Crypto’s Nouveau Riche

A brilliantly written piece by Laurie Penny. Devestating, funny, and sad, featuring journalistic gold like this:

John McAfee has never been convicted of rape and murder, but—crucially—not in the same way that you or I have never been convicted of rape or murder.

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

[Essay] Known Unknowns | New Dark Age by James Bridle | Harper’s Magazine

A terrific cautionary look at the history of machine learning and artificial intelligence from the new laugh-a-minute book by James.

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Using Ethics In Web Design — Smashing Magazine

A remarkably practical in-depth guide to making ethical design decisions, with enjoyable diversions into the history of philosophy throughout.

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Escape the News with the British Podcast “In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg” | The New Yorker

A lovely profile of the lovely In Our Time.

In part because “In Our Time” is unconnected to things that are coming out, things happening right this minute, things being promoted, it feels aligned with the eternal rather than the temporal, and is therefore escapist without being junk.

Anyone remember the site After Our Time?

Friday, November 24th, 2017

Swimming in Complexity – James Box at UX Brighton 2017 - YouTube

Boxman’s talk about complexity, reasoning, philosophy, and design is soooo good!

Swimming in Complexity – James Box at UX Brighton 2017

Monday, November 20th, 2017

Trolleys, veils and prisoners: the case for accessibility from philosophical ethics

The transcript of a presentation on the intersection of ethics and accessibility.

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

This Future Looks Familiar: Watching Blade Runner in 2017 | Tor.com

If you subtract the flying cars and the jets of flame shooting out of the top of Los Angeles buildings, it’s not a far-off place. It’s fortunes earned off the backs of slaves, and deciding who gets to count as human. It’s impossible tests with impossible questions and impossible answers. It’s having empathy for the right things if you know what’s good for you. It’s death for those who seek freedom.

A thought-provoking first watch of Blade Runner …with an equally provocative interpretation in the comments:

The tragedy is not that they’re just like people and they’re being hunted down; that’s way too simplistic a reading. The tragedy is that they have been deliberately built to not be just like people, and they want to be and don’t know how.

That’s what really struck me about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go: the tragedy is that these people can’t take action. “Run! Leave! Go!” you want to scream at them, but you might as well tell someone “Fly! Why don’t you just fly?”

Friday, July 14th, 2017

Patterns Day 2017: Ellen De Vries on Vimeo

The latest video from Patterns Day is up—Ellen’s superb philosophical presentation: Patterns in Language, Language in Patterns.

There’s so much packed into this one, it might take more than one viewing to take it all in.

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

Developer Fallacies | HeydonWorks

Some of the explanations get a little ranty, but Heydon’s collection of observed fallacies rings true:

  • The gospel fallacy
  • The Luddite fallacy
  • The scale fallacy
  • The chocolate fireguard fallacy
  • The pull request fallacy
  • The ‘made at Facebook’ fallacy
  • The Bob the Builder fallacy
  • The real world fallacy
  • The Daphne and Celeste fallacy

I’ve definitely had the Luddite fallacy and the scale fallacy thrown in my face as QEDs.

The ‘made at Facebook’ fallacy is pretty much identical to what I’ve been calling the fallacy of assumed competency: copying something that large corporation X is doing just because large corporation X is doing it.

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

How David Hume Helped Me Solve My Midlife Crisis - The Atlantic

A fascinating detective story of the Enlightenment, told from a very personal perspective.

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Hope

Cennydd points to an article by Ev Williams about the pendulum swing between open and closed technology stacks, and how that pendulum doesn’t always swing back towards openness. Cennydd writes:

We often hear the idea that “open platforms always win in the end”. I’d like that: the implicit values of the web speak to my own. But I don’t see clear evidence of this inevitable supremacy, only beliefs and proclamations.

It’s true. I catch myself saying things like “I believe the open web will win out.” Statements like that worry my inner empiricist. Faith-based outlooks scare me, and rightly so. I like being able to back up my claims with data.

Only time will tell what data emerges about the eventual fate of the web, open or closed. But we can look to previous technologies and draw comparisons. That’s exactly what Tim Wu did in his book The Master Switch and Jonathan Zittrain did in The Future Of The Internet—And How To Stop It. Both make for uncomfortable reading because they challenge my belief. Wu points to radio and television as examples of systems that began as egalitarian decentralised tools that became locked down over time in ever-constricting cycles. Cennydd adds:

I’d argue this becomes something of a one-way valve: once systems become closed, profit potential tends to grow, and profit is a heavy entropy to reverse.

Of course there is always the possibility that this time is different. It may well be that fundamental architectural decisions in the design of the internet and the workings of the web mean that this particular technology has an inherent bias towards openness. There is some data to support this (and it’s an appealing thought), but again; only time will tell. For now it’s just one more supposition.

The real question—when confronted with uncomfortable ideas that challenge what you’d like to believe is true—is what do you do about it? Do you look for evidence to support your beliefs or do you discard your beliefs entirely? That second option looks like the most logical course of action, and it’s certainly one that I would endorse if there were proven facts to be acknowledged (like gravity, evolution, or vaccination). But I worry about mistaking an argument that is still being discussed for an argument that has already been decided.

When I wrote about the dangers of apparently self-evident truisms, I said:

These statements aren’t true. But they are repeated so often, as if they were truisms, that we run the risk of believing them and thus, fulfilling their promise.

That’s my fear. Only time will tell whether the closed or open forces will win the battle for the soul of the internet. But if we believe that centralised, proprietary, capitalistic forces are inherently unstoppable, then our belief will help make them so.

I hope that openness will prevail. Hope sounds like such a wishy-washy word, like “faith” or “belief”, but it carries with it a seed of resistance. Hope, faith, and belief all carry connotations of optimism, but where faith and belief sound passive, even downright complacent, hope carries the promise of action.

Margaret Atwood was asked about the futility of having hope in the face of climate change. She responded:

If we abandon hope, we’re cooked. If we rely on nothing but hope, we’re cooked. So I would say judicious hope is necessary.

Judicious hope. I like that. It feels like a good phrase to balance empiricism with optimism; data with faith.

The alternative is to give up. And if we give up too soon, we bring into being the very endgame we feared.

Cennydd finishes:

Ultimately, I vote for whichever technology most enriches humanity. If that’s the web, great. A closed OS? Sure, so long as it’s a fair value exchange, genuinely beneficial to company and user alike.

This is where we differ. Today’s fair value exchange is tomorrow’s monopoly, just as today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s tyrant. I will fight against that future.

To side with whatever’s best for the end user sounds like an eminently sensible metric to judge a technology. But I’ve written before about where that mindset can lead us. I can easily imagine Asimov’s three laws of robotics rewritten to reflect the ethos of user-centred design, especially that first and most important principle:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

…rephrased as:

A product or interface may not injure a user or, through inaction, allow a user to come to harm.

Whether the technology driving the system behind that interface is open or closed doesn’t come into it. What matters is the interaction.

But in his later years Asimov revealed the zeroeth law, overriding even the first:

A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

It may sound grandiose to apply this thinking to the trivial interfaces we’re building with today’s technologies, but I think it’s important to keep drilling down and asking uncomfortable questions (even if they challenge our beliefs).

That’s why I think openness matters. It isn’t enough to use whatever technology works right now to deliver the best user experience. If that short-time gain comes with a long-term price tag for our society, it’s not worth it.

I would much rather an imperfect open system to a perfect proprietary one.

I have hope in an open web …judicious hope.

Friday, January 9th, 2015

Internet Under Fire Gets New Manifesto

There’s more than a whiff of Indie Web thinking in this sequel to the Cluetrain Manifesto from Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger.

The Net’s super-power is connection without permission. Its almighty power is that we can make of it whatever we want.

It’s quite lawn-off-getty …but I also happen to agree with pretty much all of it.

Although it’s kind of weird that it’s published on somebody else’s website.

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Ross Andersen – Humanity’s deep future

A really great interview with Nick Bostrom about humanity’s long-term future and the odds of extinction.

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Tapeworm logic by Charles Stross

The Fermi paradox as applied to tapeworms.

‘Sfunny; just yesterday I was revisiting this classic tapeworm tale on Fray.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

Big Questions Online

A site that aims to ask and explore the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality, with a focus on science, religion, markets and morals.

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

The Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook

"Tuna Casserole Ingredients: 1 large casserole dish Place the casserole dish in a cold oven. Place a chair facing the oven and sit in it forever. Think about how hungry you are. When night falls, do not turn on the light."