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Nondefinition #12

Blind spot. The hiatus in the visual field imposed by the presence of the optic nerve. We are not aware of the blind spot because the brain fills it in. I would not try to perpetrate another use of this analogy. We all have blind spots – whenever we connect, the line of connection eclipses the thing connected to, and we only think we see it. Very well. But now that we have blind spots everywhere – what did we have before we had blind spots? Prejudices, fondness? Certainly; but “blind spot” says more than either of these. This simple analogy – ”blind spot” – changes the very way you think. To have made such an analogy – that would be enough to justify a life.

Artificial Intelligence

[In the years since this essay was first written, the name of Artificial Intelligence has become almost synonymous with the technique of deep learning. Deep learning is a disquieting tradeoff; we can teach computers to do useful things, things we previously thought were only possible for human beings. The tradeoff is that we do not know how the computer does them. This is learning that is deep not as the opposite to shallow, but deep in the anatomical sense, deep as the opposite to superficial. Its workings are hidden from us. We stand before our new algorithms like augurs before the entrails.

That we call this AI is an improvement on the previous state of affairs where, as John McCarthy (the term artificial intelligence is his) observed, “as soon as it works, no one calls it AI any more.”

But AI-as-oracle is not what this essay is about. This essay is about artificial general intelligence: can we make a computer that does what a human being does, the way a human being does it, but (eventually) faster, and without error? Many problems that appeared to require human-level intelligence have yielded to an approach that is, comparatively, trivial. Accordingly artificial general intelligence has lately suffered neglect; arguing against it now might seem unsportsmanlike.

But things change. I have sometimes tried, and failed, to make this argument in person. If I fail again here, I have at least cast it on the water; 50 years downriver it may be clearer – either patent nonsense or common sense. – 2019]

AI is generally studied by people who have wrong ideas about human intelligence. Let me be more direct: virtually all thinking about artificial intelligence is done by people with hopelessly misguided ideas about human intelligence. It falls under the category of “not even wrong.”

Is the mind a computer? Of course. Computers are not a kind of machine, but a pattern in nature. Anything complex enough to imitate Turing’s tape is Turing-complete, and that makes it a computer by definition. If the human mind is not a computer then it is less than a computer. It may be more than a computer; but to be more than a computer it must be at least a computer.

Intelligence is unevenly distributed. Anyone smart enough to think seriously about artificial intelligence probably has, at some point in their life, been smarter than the people around them. Especially if this happened when they were young, it is only natural that they come to regard being intelligent not as a matter of improved means to common ends, but as an entirely different system of ends – they regard intelligence as its own end.

Being more intelligent than the people around you is not like being taller or stronger. It’s like being older. It’s not a matter of being better at the things you all care about; it’s a matter of caring about different things. The things the people around you care about mean nothing to you, and the things you care about are meaningless, if not actively confusing, to the people around you. The genius is not a giant among pygmies, but an adult in kindergarten.

If you regard intelligence as its own end, then it is natural to expect that, once a computer equals the speed of a human brain, it will become human. This computer will do all that we do: love and hate, fear death, make art. But intelligence is not its own end. Once a computer equals the speed of a dog’s brain, do you expect it to begin to bark, and mark its territory?

Intelligence is only and entirely instrumental. Motivation is a matter of biology. This is not reductive; biology is our motor. It pushes us in a certain direction, but culture, history, geography act on biology, and the result may be a vector pointing elsewhere (even backward, against life, to death). The ends we pursue in life, the ends we judge success and failure by, are only proxies for the ends biology postulates. That is not to say we share the same ends. Gravity pulls everyone everywhere downward all the time, but in the presence of a slide, steps, a chair, with the interposition of water, a trampoline, a car, that common pull of gravity ends up moving us on very different paths.

Human intelligence is the product of intelligence and mammalian biology. I mean this as an equation: intelligence × mammal = human. What does intelligence × silicon figure to? Not something different; nothing. Silicon has no desires. Anything times zero is zero.

This does not make sense: artificial intelligences as digital minds floating through cyberspace in the dispassionate contemplation of truth, like angels or saints in the Celestial Rose. The navel of contemplation satisfied Dante as a place to end his story; but Milton found that to do anything, even an angel would have to have appetites. Could we do in code what Milton did in pentameter? Bless, curse, our creations with our desires?

We properly doubt the aliens presented to us by science fiction – like us, only more so – as belonging with the foxes and lions of Aesop, not Darwin. Likewise we think about sentient AIs through embarrassing analogies: the Adam of bits, the Napoleon of silicon. Even stamped with our instincts, a creature that can reproduce itself perfectly, that does not age, that need never die, would operate according to motives and means that are beyond human sympathy. Why should it take over the world, when it can cache a few million copies of itself and wait the ten thousand years it might take for human civilization to burn itself out? If two such beings can merge, why should there ever be more than one? If such a being need never die, why would it tolerate others of its kind? What, indeed, would “instinct” mean to a being that can edit its own code and replace its own instincts with ones it selects, or abolish them altogether? (Remember one thing we desire is the end of desire, in enlightenment or in earth.)

Sometimes we imagine artificial intelligence as the next step in the service of an evolutionary imperative. Intelligence made us human beings powerful; surely more intelligence means more power. But, if so, why has evolution not made us smarter? It would, to all appearances, be easy to do. The existence of savants implies that not much evolutionary pressure would be required to provide us with higher-functioning brains. If the next step in evolution is a better computer than us, why didn’t evolution make us better computers when it had the chance?

There are answers which favor the project of artificial intelligence. The brain is hungry, so food sources set a limit. Equals cooperate best, so too much disparity endangers society. Too big a head couldn’t fit through the birth canal.

I find none of these answers convincing. I cannot refute them now, but it may become possible. Physics could provide the proof. If we can arrive at a final theory, if we can comprehend a set of fundamental laws adequate to generate all the varieties of the universe, that would suggest that we are smart enough for this universe, and that greater intelligence would be wasted on it – that while there might be faster thoughts than ours, there cannot be better ones.

The fundamental problem is that intelligence, beyond a certain point, suffers rapidly diminishing returns. The most powerful problem-solving tool is not intelligence, but perspective. The right perspective trivializes problems. The infant’s conceit of reality is the truth of the mind: here, from the right perspective, with the horizon on our side, we can move mountains like pebbles, uproot trees like toothpicks, stack buildings like blocks, and pluck the moon from the sky. A billion immortal superintelligences, all informed by the same digital plenum, are so much wasted energy; they lack the leverage possessed by even a handful of plodding mortal thinkers, each with their own uniquely imperfect worldview – each with their own horizon.

We long to be part of a hierarchy that culminates above us. If we can’t look up to gods or angels, it’s natural in us to want to make them. But in the compounding gains of Moore’s Law hides a rough but familiar lesson: even making something smarter than us will not relieve us of our responsibilities. We have left the cradle. There is no way back.

Nondefinition #11

Accounting. One of our most popular courses. In the periods (18th–21st centuries) when the profession existed, it was one of the most efficient conversation deflectors, comparable only with undertaking, but much less likely to serve as a conversation-ender and thus dilute the overall quality of the experience. In fact, accounting is our recommendation for all time travelers targeting that period who do not require geographically specialized training.


Sometimes, where I like to walk, other people hike. I, mere walker that I am, don’t dare speak to them, so preoccupied and businesslike do they seem. But I have been able, from time to time, to observe a few of the principles which elevate this art or science of the hike above the common walk of walks. In order that others may benefit, though indirectly, from the wisdom of the hikers, conscience compels me to share those observations.

The hike, for instance, is a group project. Hikers come in groups, from pairs to parties; and thus they talk. This has two consequences. First, talking, hikers are loud; they laugh and shout. I infer that hikers are unusually polite: they wish, wherever they go, to announce and introduce themselves. It is laudably urbane. Second, talking to each other, hikers look at each other; again, very polite – they would not want a speaking human being to feel ignored for the sake of wordless nature. Hikers are true members of the vanguard of the modern spirit – they form ambulatory social networks.

Too, the hike is planned. One does not spontaneously take a hike – even (as I have found by experiment) when told to. Days, weeks of effort go into establishing the rendezvous. I hypothesize that this is one of those echoes of military discipline which passed into civilian life after the mass conscription of the world wars. Surely, in hikers’ maps, timetables, and logistics, more is in common with the meetings of the General Staff than a careless gathering of naive nature lovers. Nature lovers – don’t they know that, even in loving nature, one must work at the relationship?

The hike is equipped, and even the equipment is itself equipped. The hiker is equipped with a water bottle, the water bottle is equipped with a holster, the holster is equipped with a harness, and the harness is equipped with a hiker. And this equipment is very specific – designed around the needs of hikers. The hiking pole, for example, is distinguished from the cane in being too long to lean on, and from the staff in being too short to lean from. Or hiking shoes, which combine the advantages of shoes and boots: they are as heavy as boots, and as receptive to an accumulation of dirt, stones, sand and sticks (precious souvenirs!) as shoes. But few pieces of equipment are so easily identifiable by outsiders. Only the initiates of the freemasonry of hiking truly understand the use, and the symbolical meaning, of each of the pieces of equipment with which they set out girded.

Most of all, the hike is a microcosmic recapitulation of the natural world it moves in. Consider the ingenuity of the hiker’s miniature, plasticized water cycle. First, the hiker is wrapped in plastic clothes to induce sweat; then these plastic clothes (candles of dehydration!) wick the sweat away; and last, water from plastic bottles refuels the hiker to begin the cycle again.

What could shame a mere walker, merely shod, more than to pass by a resting party of determined hikers, disburdening themselves enough to sit, consulting their watches to measure their rest time, panting, rubbing their backs where their packs have dug into them, rubbing their legs where their equipment has beaten them?

Nondefinition #10

Lawns. Lawns and hair show an obvious resemblance, and many of the tools used for one have equivalents used for the other. There could be an opportunity here for entrepreneurs: where is lawn dye? Mix pigment with fertilizer to drape the cities in technicolor suburban quilts and diversify golf courses (black grass shows up the ball, but hides the terrain; white grass lets you play by moonlight). And what of verbs? If we can scalp our enemies, why not lawn properties – gleefully tear up pampered, insatiable grass – “Yes, I was the one, I lawned that house – the one just up the hill, where the wildflowers are growing.”


I wish I could preach bookstores. Everyone should read: reading is, for most people, both the best and the easiest form of thinking – an affordance which makes it one of life’s kindnesses, not to be scorned. But most readers do not need bookstores: a library card and the occasional purchase suffice those who read only a little.

But those of us who read much are drawn to bookstores. Theirs is a different attraction than a library; a different temptation than simply buying books (even secondhand). I go to bookstores to be surprised – which is not an indulgence. More books are worth reading than life has time to read. I could try to prioritize; but how to judge? My tastes, my needs, are unique; I cannot rely on others’ rankings. My solution is the simplest possible: I leave much of my reading to chance. Of books that appeal to me, some I go out of my way for; but more I resign myself to read only should I come across them in person. And of books I read, while most are books I chose in advance, many are books that took me by surprise. Lovers of music, of movies, of food, of any other art form or humane delight, are proud of this kind of openness, and love to recount their discoveries; but some perversity (a holdover from school?) drives readers to planning out reading lists and apologizing for their deviations.

Libraries and recommendation engines cannot be relied on for these surprises. They serve order; but a bookstore should be the paradigm of artful disorder. If I want a particular book, I should be able to find it; but I should pick up a few books by mistake along the way. And if I do not, at least once, innocently pick up a book I would be embarrassed to be seen with, and have to glance shiftily before I slip it back onto the shelf; then I will never find the book that, not having known to look for, I would be embarrassed never to have heard of.

It would be extreme to consider 20 personal or 100 automatic recommendations in a day. But in an hour in a bookstore a thousand books may pass under my eyes – books judged not by their covers, but by the company they keep, as recognizing a friend among strangers makes the others less than strangers. Libraries sometimes afford such meetings, but that is not their purpose. I have been in large libraries so well organized that they made me restless: where, unable to wander with my eyes, I had to wander on foot. I cannot object to that in a library, but I encourage bookstores to avoid it. Large gardens need planning, lest they seem wilderness; but plants in small gardens must be allowed their wildness, or they seem decorations – to claim the space, they must overgrow and mix a little.

I implied at the start that I could not persuade anyone of the appeal of bookstores. That is not because I have no good reasons; it is because someone who does not love bookstores is likely to be so different from me that I do not see what we could have to say to each other.

Certainly, there are people who love bookstores more than I do. I have never made a bookstore my haunt (as I read that people do); I have never made a friend in or through a bookstore (which some people take for their purpose). But I remember, I think, every bookstore I have ever been in: little blond-wood, shiny-cover chain bookshops; carpeted, café-harboring shelf-mazes; a cement-floored, steel-rack paperback warehouse; an amphitheatrically rising by levels university bookstore; overstuffed, impossibly narrow bookstores in the French Quarter with wood floors creaking and squeaking like untuned instruments; a shadowy book-laden mansion in North Carolina; and others, and more. As an adult, my dreams are are always recombining old places remembered from childhood; but bookstores have a way to slip through that barrier, a shift to enter dreams. Willing or not, I return to them all.

Nondefinition #9

Side effects. Diseases due to cures. The progress of medicine, as it delivers us each newer, more powerful cure, also seems to delivers newer, more powerful side effects. Perhaps the notion of cures is outdated; perhaps the right a patient ought to be asking for is the right of disease choice. “You have disease X? Wouldn’t you rather have disease Y or Z?” Trade your disease for another; get tired of it; trade it for yet another. And if the maxim of the greener grass holds, the final achievement of medicine will be to allow one half of humanity to trade its diseases with the other.

Fable of the Candle

Once there was a dark kingdom, without light or lamp. There a wise old man made a candle that could not burn out; and this candle was the first and only light in the dark kingdom.

The sage had a young disciple, whom he taught – slowly, slowly – how to look at the light and how to see by it.

The people of the dark kingdom hated the sage and his light. Now and then men climbed by twos or three out of the dark town below, up to the cabin where the candle burned, to try to put it out; and the young disciple would chase them off.

But this time, one townsman got inside. And before he could be dragged out, he knocked the frail sage down, killing him. There was wailing from the cabin: and when the wailing was heard in the town below, the people answered it with cheers.

The young man buried the sage. The men of the dark town were more daring now; it seemed that they were always creeping up, trying to get in to put out the candle. So the young man set his chair in the doorway, and with his back to the candle listened to the darkness outside. When he heard voice or movement, he stood and charged shouting; and once it was gone, he sat and listened again. He listened long, listened and chased until he was weary and past weary, until he had learned to listen half-awake and to chase without anger. How long that went on – too long.

In time the men of the dark town began to lose interest. Soon there were silences when no men came at all. And the young man, with joy, re-entered the cabin to see the light again. But he had been too long from light: and he looking so suddenly upon it, the candle burned his eyes, the light blinded him forever.

Moral: Do not turn your Back to the Light to protect it.

Nondefinition #8

Fences. “Good fences make good neighbors” is the famous quotation, and would have made a good motto for a New England confederacy, had they chosen to secede. But the principle has many other extensions, for fences determine neighbors. Barbed wire makes neighbors prickly, tense – even wiry. Wrought iron gives neighbors easily overwrought; cast iron, neighbors who are often overcast or downcast – sometimes even cast out or cast-off; and both, neighbors prone to irony. Stones, of course, are unpredictable: sometimes, they cause stony taciturnity and stone-coldness; sometimes they give you neighbors who rock; but most of the time, stones attract stoners. (Fortunately, concrete attracts them as well; if you must build a stone fence, try to make sure of an abandoned building between you and any population center.) You can never be sure what to expect from a wood fence. Such neighbors (especially if they have not been pressure-treated) are known to split, flake off, come loose, snap, rot out – even catch fire. Vinyl fences are very reliable: they draw neighbors who are low-maintenance, low-interest, and of uniform color. And predictably, people who grow their own fences put down roots. Now, though fence analysis is a young science, is is a very exciting one. If you’d like to help, the new Endower Institute Center for Fensive Studies is ready to accept your donations.