In the late 19th century, a German boy by the name of Carl carved a mannequin out of a wooden ruler. For reasons he could not explain, he kept the wooden idol in the attic of his family home. For reasons he could not explain, he would periodically deposit small tissue-paper messages next to it, in a secret language that he himself had created.
This, along with his experience with Australian indigenous peoples and schizophrenic patients would eventually lead to Carl Jung’s treaties on collective unconscious: the part of unconscious mind that contains a predisposition to memories and ideas inherited from ancestors.
Flash-forward some 100 years.
I’m currently experiencing one of those great feelings of human consciousness where you start to draw parallels between things you either a)never thought about before or b)barely thought about before. In this case, it’s the internet (a decentralized information platform), bitcoin (a decentralized currency), and Justice of Toren (a fictional decentralized AI). Let me explain.
Decentralization 1: The Internet
My job as a reputation specialist at BrandYourself requires that I do a lot of things with the internet: social media management, content writing, and SEO (that’s “search engine optimization” for the uninitiated out there)–a thing I heard a lot about (but understood little) before I started doing it professionally.
Part and parcel of being a good SEO guy is knowing how the internet works.
I’m not going to get into to many technicalities, due to an ambition to talk about the big picture and my own limited understanding, but to summarize in oh so brief technical terms, the internet does not exist in one computer; it exists in every computer connected to it. These computers all operate on an agreed upon system of code/laws called the internet protocol. Ever wonder where IP address comes from? Ah, ya see it! If you want to read up more on IP, I recommend you check out Investopedia for a basic explanation or ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) for a more in depth explanation.
Right now, all you need to know is that the Internet is a decentralized information platform that lives on many different platforms.
BONUS: That’s one of the biggest reasons why it takes a long time to see a shift in search results! Google, Bing, Yahoo–they all have cajillions of computers across the globe that are assigned to combing through and appraising internet information for their corresponding search results pages. Think of giant ripples emanating from a cajillions of source and you’d have a pretty good (child-like-drawing) idea.
Decentralization 2: Bitcoin
One of my clients at BrandYourself is interested in cryptocurrency. Heretofore, I’ve written a number of blogs for her based off of a crash-course of Coindesk, CryptoCoinNews, and Reddit. I understood the basics behind the technology. But only through textureless blog posts and news articles. I didn’t have anything really meaty to sink my teeth into. Because of my growing relationship with the client and my own interest, I yearned for something to so sink into. Knowing that it would slake my curiosity and benefit my work at the same time, I decided to take up a little work-related, side-reading project (something that, to BY’s credit, happens more often than you might think).
From the client’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper. Full disclosure: I’m only on chapter 4. But from reading the introduction through Chapter 4, I’ve ingested enough to be bemused by the idea of cryptocurrency–Bitcoin to be specific.
Bitcoin functions much like the internet. Indeed, it something that exists on the back of the internet–it could not exist without it–for just as the internet does not exist in a single computer and is instead spread throughout cajillions of computers around the world, so is Bitcoin. It’s a decentralized currency that exists according to its own IP, originally coined by the mysterious and recently unmasked Satoshi Nakamoto.
Decentralization 3: Justice of Toren
Justice of Torne is a troop carrier ship (the largest class of ship) in the Raadchai Empire. Each troop carrier ship is name after a god (in this case Toren) and is controlled by an AI that is named something like One Esk (one “air”). This is all according to Ann Leckie’s spellbinding work Ancillary Justice.
I picked this up from the Strand bookstore Kiosk at the southeast corner of Central park at the same time I picked up a copy of Pattern Recognition by William Gibs0n–another book that is coincidentally work related. Through a chain of work conversations, I got pointed to a Tim Feriss/Seth Godin podcast, and through listening to this podcast, I heard the marketing deus Seth Godin recommend a number of books, including Pattern Recognition, for its eye-opening relevance to branding.
Pattern Recognition done, itself full of neat insights on internet culture and the aforementioned topic of branding, I set forth on my next read, which was looking to be either Ancillary Justice or Digital Gold. Fortuitously, it was both.
The main character of Ancillary Justice is the above mentioned AI, One Esk. Technically, One Esk is one aspect of The AI of Justice of Toren. Complicating things more, although One Esk is technically a division of a larger shipboard AI, it has the ability to control “ancillaries”–humans turned into AI hosts or as some characters call them, corpse soldiers. Each one these ancillaries is a “segment” of One Esk.
Have I lost you yet? It’s intricate world-building at its best, i.e. a mind-expanding train of thought. Let me break it down for ya:
AI of Justice of Toren>Various Esks>One Esk>Segments
It’s a real Russian Doll sort of situation.
Full disclosure, I’m only at Chapter 9 (roughly a fifth through the book). But from what I’ve read I can tell you that One Esk is currently stationed in a city on a planet with 20 segments.
To the credit of Ann Leckie, the narration of One Esk is told through a mind-bending present tense from multiple perspectives. What’s it like to exist at multiple places at once? According to Leckie’s work, it’s no longer just a concept reserved for the internet or bitcoin.
In the world that Leckie has envisioned, there is such a thing as decentralized consciousness.
“I followed Lieutenant Awn home. And watched inside the temple, and overlooked the people criscrossing the plaza as they always did…On the edge of the Fore-Temple water, a tenneager from the upper city sat sullen and listless.”
In addition to exploring consciousness from multiple horizontal perspectives, Leckie takes things a step further and toys with the vertical aspects of it too (in addition to taking an innovative look at gender). To look at it from a plant-metaphor angle: the segments are the leaves, One Esk is the stem, and the Justice of Toren is the roots. Have you ever thought about levels of consciousness in such a way before?
There is “I” the segment, “I” the Esk, “I” the unit (One Esk), and “I” the ship. And, I’m sure, hundreds of other I’s in-between. Impressively, Leckie alternates this near omniscience with another version of One Esk, a One Esk is that is only one segment; a segment separated from its whole.
What’s more, we’re starting to see emanations of this in our own AI capabilities.
I’ll hold it right there. If you’ve read this far, perhaps you can see the silhouette of decentralization now and the trace of where it may take us in the future.
Carl Jung had the collective unconscious. We might one day have the decentralized consciousness.