Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The ambiguity is common in post-Neolithic cultures

Wherein this may be of interest to a few people. Not me, mind you...I'm just passing it along

I read it on Instapundit, so it must be true. George Clooney to develop Diamond Age or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, with Neal Stephenson to adapt his own book. Previous Diamond Age mentions on So Quoted:

So what is a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, you may ask? Read on:
"Is the binding and so on what you had in mind? Hackworth said.

"Oh, yes," said Lord Finkle-McGraw. If I found it in an antiquarian bookshop, covered with dust, I shouldn't give it a second glance."

"Because if you were not happy with any detail," Hackworth said, "I could recompile it." He had come in hoping desperately that Finkle-McGraw would object to something; this might give him an opportunity to filch another copy for Fiona. But so far the Equity Lord had been uncharacteristically complacent. He kept flipping through the book, waiting for something to happen.

"It is unlikely to do anything interesting just now," Hackworth said. "It won't really activate itself until it bonds."


"As we discussed, it sees and hears everything in its vicinity," Hackworth said. "At the moment, it's looking for a small female. As soon as a little girl picks it up and opens the front cover for the first time, it will imprint that child's face and voice into its memory-"

"Bonding with her. Yes, I see."

"And thenceforth it will see all events and persons in relation to that girl, using her as a datum from which to chart a psychological terrain, as it were. Maintenance of that terrain is one of the book's primary processes. Whenever the child uses the book, then, it will perform a sort of dynamic mapping from the database onto her particular terrain."

"You mean the database of folklore."

Hackworth hesitated. "Pardon me, but not precisely, sir. Folklore consists of certain universal ideas that have been mapped onto local cultures. For example, many cultures have a Trickster figure, so the Trickster may be deemed a universal; but he appears in different guises, each appropriate to a particular culture's environment. The Indians of the American Southwest called him Coyote, those of the Pacific Coast called him Raven. Europeans called him Reynard the Fox. African-Americans called him Br'er Rabbit. In twentieth-century literature he appears first as Bugs Bunny and then as the Hacker."

Finkle-McGraw chuckled. "When I was a lad, that word had a double meaning. It could mean a trickster who broke into things– but it could also mean an especially skilled coder."

"The ambiguity is common in post-Neolithic cultures," Hackworth said. "As technology became more important, the Trickster underwent a shift in character and became the god of crafts– of technology, if you will– while retaining the underlying roguish qualities. So we have the Sumerian Enki, the Greek Prometheus and Hermes, Norse Loki, and so on.

"In any case," Hackworth continued, "Trickster/Technologist is just one of the universals. The database is full of them. It's a catalogue of the collective unconscious. In the old days, writers of children's books had to map these universals onto concrete symbols familiar to their audience– like Beatrix Potter mapping the Trickster onto Peter Rabbit. This is a reasonably effective way to do it, especially if the society is homogeneous and static, so that all children share similar experiences.

"What my team and I have done here is to abstract that process and develop systems for mapping the universals onto the unique psychological terrain of one child– even as that terrain changes over time. Hence it is important that you not allow this book to fall into the hands of any other little girl until Elizabeth has the opportunity to open it up."

"Understood," said Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw.

"I'll wrap it up myself, right now. Compiled some nice wrapping paper this morning." He opened a desk drawer and took out a roll of thick, glossy mediatronic paper bearing animated Christmas scenes: Santa sliding down the chimney, the ballistic reindeer, the three Zoroastrian sovereigns dismounting from their dromedaries in front of the stable. There was a lull while Hackworth and Finkle-McGraw watched the little scenes; one of the hazards of living in a world filled with mediatrons was that conversations were always being interrupted in this way, and that explained why Atlantans tried to keep mediatronic commodities to a minimum. Go into a thete's house, and every object had moving pictures on it, everyone sat around slackjawed, eyes jumping from the bawdy figures cavorting on the mediatronic toilet paper to the big-eyed elves playing tag in the bathroom mirror to ...

"Oh, yes," Finkle-McGraw said. "Can it be written on? I should like to inscribe it to Elizabeth."

"The paper is a subclass of both input-paper and output-paper, so it possesses all the underlying functionality of the sort of paper you would write on. For the most part these functions are not used–-beyond, of course, simply making marks where the nib of the pen has moved across it."

"You can write on it," Finkle-McGraw translated with some asperity, "but it doesn't think about what you're writing."

"Well, my answer to that question must be ambiguous," Hackworth said. "The Illustrated Primer is an extremely general and powerful system capable of more extensive self-reconfiguration than most. Remember that a fundamental part of its job is to respond to its environment. If the owner were to take up a pen and write on a blank page, this input would be thrown into the hopper along with everything else, so to speak."

"Can I inscribe it to Elizabeth or not?" Finkle-McGraw demanded.

"Certainly, sir."

Finkle-McGraw extracted a heavy gold fountain pen from a holder on his desk and wrote in the front of the book for a while.

"That being done, sir, there remains only for you to authorise a standing purchase order for the ractors."

"Ah, yes, thank you for reminding me," said Finkle-McGraw, not very sincerely. "I still would have thought that for all the money that went into this project--"

"That we might have solved the voice-generation problem to boot, yes sir," Hackworth said. "As you know, we took some stabs at it, but none of the results were up to the level of quality you demand. After all of our technology, the pseudo-intelligence algorithms, the vast exception matrices, the portent and content monitors, and everything else, we still can't come close to generating a human voice that sounds as good as what a real, live ractor can give us."

"Can't say I'm surprised, really," said Finkle-McGraw. "I just wish it were a completely self-contained system."

"It might as well be, sir. At any given time there are tens of millions of professional ractors in their stages all over the world, in every time zone, ready to take on this kind of work at an instant's notice. We are planning to authorise payment at a relatively high rate, which should bring in only the best talent. You won't be disappointed with the results."


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