Panta Rhei

I’d basically decided to name the next version of MOFFAS Panta Rhei, over the last couple of days, so it was such a wild and surreal feeling just now when I randomly flipped open a book the poem on that page was called In Heraclitus’s River. The book was a poetry collection by the wonderfully marvelous Wislawa Szymborska, whose work, despite receiving a Nobel prize for literature, still deserves much more recognition (I’ll share the poem at the end of this post). The reason I grabbed her book from my overflowing bookshelf was because I was thinking about naming the new user-focused system, which I’ll cover later, after a woman. So far, I’ve got Brahms for the market intelligence module, which came from a bizarre dream that I couldn’t ignore (I had not listened to him at all for years prior to that dream and I could not understand what triggered my infatuation in that dream), Nick Drake for Dawn, JS Mill and Leibniz reserved for something very special and challenging. The quiet yet everywhere internal security system is dubbed “Catnap” because obviously I was inspired (and continue to be inspired) by my own cats and their soothing napping sounds that could convince you to believe that they are not aware of just about everything. Then I think it’s only fair to dedicate the next important component of the MOFFAS ecosystem to a woman. Unlike Panta Rhei, I haven’t made up my mind on this one yet. Agatha Christie is someone I deeply admire, but, at the same time, I love Szymborska. I could also go with Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman and many others. History has been cruel to women. I wake up every day thinking about all the ladies that fought for this day and paved the way so that someone as average as me could have a (relatively) fair chance to compete and aspire to be who I want to be and the best I can be. Of course, stereotypes, biases and discriminations are still abundant, and, in some more unfortunate parts of the world, women are still being sold or forced into marriage to bear and raise children. There’s still a long hard way ahead of us, but we should take pride in the tremendous progress we’ve made descending from a hunter-gatherer ancestry and an agrarian era that spanned for 10,000 years, both of which necessitated and determined the male dominance in a society. The first and second Industrial Revolution redefined gender roles, setting the stage for the conversation of equality. I always get teary when I read about women’s suffrage movement. Seeing the ladies in those black-and-white photographs holding signs asking for equal rights over 100 years ago is more than a hodgepodge of emotions for me — it’s also a reminder that as a big fan of Hegel I have to quote it here:

World history is the progress of the consciousness of freedom.

The ladies did not all of a sudden get bored and wanted to be invited to the party. It’s their evolving consciousness powered by their own empowerment and independence that finally reached the point of awakening and “captured” the history at the right time (I am not using the word change for philosophical reasons but that’s for another day). I put this quote on a semi-hidden page (it’s semi-hidden because I am terrible at frontend stuff and it looks dreadful) on MOFFAS, the shift, as it motivates and guides me to keep on moving (walking, tumbling, crawling or, worse, dying crawling), difficult and lonely as it might or can possibly be. The only thing more powerful than doing what is desired is doing what one must do. I believe that this progress of the consciousness of freedom is still the ultimate force that drives this very age of technology, almost 200 years after Hegel passed. The technology we create liberates and enlightens ourselves, in terms of both what we can do and what we think we shall do, and then this evolved consciousness in turn empowers us further to create even more and even better. That, my darling, is invincible.

It is why I am going to name the next version of MOFFAS, Panta Rhei, the wisdom of Heraclitus from 500 bc that translates as everything flows, to recognize and honor such unparalleled and indomitable gravitational power of becoming. It’s also quite fitting given the digital nature of MOFFAS. On a side note, I’ve always found his ideas comparable to Taoist beliefs, in the most fascinating way. He and Laozi lived in the same era and, as one myself, I could always see pantheist values in his thoughts and, likely because of that, he never appeared depressive, misanthropic or pessimistic to me. I’ve been thinking about doing a research paper to compare the two (plus Zhuangzi), but that’s for another day. Let’s continue to chat about technology.

The most important innovation of the 20th century should (arguably) be the Internet. It has revolutionized so many aspects of our life and our society. In 200 years, our future generation will look back at this as one of the historic milestones of civilization, just like how we remember the first roar of a coal-powered steam engine as the beginning of the modern world today. Besides connecting the world and then everything beyond, Internet did something else groundbreaking and significant that no other inventions in human history could even match: it makes it technically possible for the first time that any ordinary human being can leave something behind. That is to say, for the first time in history, everyone can be recorded and thereby remembered by time. A peasant in 1495 could live a hard life and die a hard death, but in his time only men like Leonardo da Vinci could get to have a face, a name and a story 500 years later. Well, that’s a lousy example and a bit exaggerated. There’s only one da Vinci at the most every 500 years and you could also be a royal member, a Cardinal, a famous knight to be logged in history — you just had to be someone. The capability to exhaustively and easily archive made possible by the Internet completely redefined a human being’s worth and identity by just being a human being alone; it makes us cognizant of our own values and existence. If we trace back, photography was probably the first step of such self-discovery. Finally, you didn’t have to be a rich person with high social status to sit (or stand) 10 hours for John Singer Sargent to paint you so that your grandkids could get to see how damn gorgeous you were when they were pulling your grey hair in the rocking chair. You were in the picture and you were there; that moment was (eternally) remembered. Then there’s computer. I vividly remember our first Intel 286 occupying half of my desk when I was a kid. Nobody in my household could figure out what to do with it although it did make me secretly feel somewhat “rich” for a while. With a standalone machine, we could already write a few things and save them to a floppy disk, but it was not until the emergence of the almighty Internet (and servers) that those records became potentially permanent and thus part of the history. I have no idea how my great-grandparents looked like or how their life was like, but for my great-grandkids, if there will be any, it is technically possible for them to dig up this blog post in 2102 and criticize my logic and outdated language. As a matter of fact, this will very likely become a future business and all the data we are unconsciously leaving behind will be used to create simulations of our time in the future.

One might wonder if this means anything, if at all, because they might feel that most of what people produce on a daily basis isn’t all that important.

OK, so now I know I leave a trace so when I die I am more than a piece of ice that melts or a leaf that disappears into the ground, but is that important or does it make me important?

It is a non-question for the question itself is based on a false assumption that to be meaningful it has to be considered “important.” The real question is what constitutes meaningfulness, if we consider that as a requirement to be “being” in history. If we believe that being by itself carries meanings, then anything that derives from being should be considered meaningful. If we think history is about recording events, then anything that contributes to, sets the stage for or illustrates those events should be in the history as well. The Black Death wiped off 1/3 of the European population and every one of them had stories that had happened and could have otherwise happened. The life and death of each and every one of them had their own meanings, without which our world would be drastically different today. When Heraclitus talked about his river in 500 bc, what was he really talking about? The river symbolizes life, time and the ultimate becoming, but aren’t we all the river, the splash and the crest of the wave at the same time as well? The people that died from the Black Death should not be discarded as a collective casualty figure on a page of the history book just because they were not considered “important” people at the time. They were the reason history was written. They were the history that was written. The people are the human history itself. And we, with our evolving consciousness of being us and advancing technologies that help us develop such consciousness along the way, have made this far.

Under the giant Internet category, social media has undoubtedly played the most significant role in this revolution. From MySpace to Facebook, social media weaves stories of individuals into our history in an unprecedented way. A person in Iceland can accidentally enter the story of a stranger in Thailand, and, for better or worse, Facebook will always remember that. I can understand why Mark Zuckerberg wanted to launch Metaverse, who’s apparently not having the greatest time lately because of this new venture. I don’t know him and do not like to presume; I can only guess that in his busy mind Metaverse would be the definitive future for humankind and he wanted to be there first to “colonize.” I said in previous posts that all Internet giants were trying to mark territories. The territories are not geographical but rather psychological. With human beings being the most valuable resources, our mental space will become, if it is not already, the most vulnerable yet deadly battlefield. This is another massive brutal zero-sum war waiting to happen, a war that is going to challenge our faith and understanding of personal freedom and authenticity. As a matter of fact, it probably is already quietly happening with cases like Donald Trump being banned from Twitter and TikTok getting sued. It could get worse. In my last post, I briefly mentioned the danger of bots, in particular, real-person bots (fake accounts with duplicate content of real people), to society. In a couple of years, when the NLP development reaches the next stage, it will be very difficult to tell these accounts apart from the real ones and social media channels will be flooded by such cheap tokens for hire (to spread lies, create fear, fabricate narrative and incite violence). It will be the moment when the industry gazes into its own abyss it becomes one itself. Being the dominant force in the existing world of social media, it is only natural for Mark Zuckerberg to expand into another dimension, virtual reality, to sustain his huge empire and hedge against the risks of the imminent wars. While I do agree that we will one day port ourselves into a virtual space and that day might just come sooner than later, I find Metaverse an awkward corporate product built on, frankly, a corny and fundamentally old concept that feels like a geek’s daydream in 2009. Given how premature it seems (and the unbearable hype-type marketing campaigns it has been churning out), I simply wonder if such a rush is out of fear and greed.

We all know about the greed part, but what is this fear then? We will circle back to it shortly. I want to talk about my biggest problem with Metaverse first. While Metaverse is touted as a product of the future, what it actually does is to install the old system in a new dimension of our world. What’s not archaic about this? Isn’t it another aggressive multimember platform that wants to “host” every part of your life? Wearing goggles and rendering a colorful funny-looking avatar of myself does not change the nature of the system — it is merely decorative. Where’s the real progress that human society deserves as we transition into the next era or dimension? The birth of the Internet (and then social media) changed how one perceived themselves and their relationship with the rest of the world. Borrowing an analogy from mathematics, if we compare the objective sense of individuals to scalars and the entire human society to Euclidean space, the Internet plays the most significant role of identifying and informing individual scalars of the existence of this space, altogether with an enhanced concept of time as in the world of the Internet every event is timestamped. Such cognitive ability to form and organically develop this consciousness cannot be overemphasized. Apart from helping to structure an individual’s self-awareness and self-worthiness, it also breeds acceptance and connections between individuals and among communities, which would never so easily form otherwise. These connections or social bonds, usually based on shared values and visions, are incredibly powerful. From the global BTS ARMY that propels a Korean boygroup to dominate in the pop music industry to the madness-driven worldwide crypto community that turns worthless codes into casino chips (I’m running out of nice things to say), if we have to choose one thing about the Internet that makes it important, it’s the unbounded power it promises and gives people, almost equally (and blindly). If Hegel were alive today, he would definitely be one of the most active users on Twitter, posting long essays that nobody has time to read. He would absolutely love the Internet and have his own Github page. He would use a huge font somewhere celebrating the Internet not as a product of computer science but as people’s blooming consciousness of freedom. I’d agree with him and add that 30 years after the first website was launched this consciousness is uncomfortably coping with a new challenge, systemic power imbalance and matters that extend from that. Over the last decade, there have been a number of epic battles that arise from this fundamental conflict between corporations’ (sometimes, governments’) addiction to control and people’s (sometimes, also, governments’) natural instinct to defend their own private domain. We’ve seen changes reflected in updated policies, tighter regulations, prettier slogans, and, more recently, the farewell to the notorious third-party cookies, which are probably one of the ugliest and most vicious technologies that have ever been invented in this industry. That this awareness keeps growing and slowly winning is what I think Mark Zuckerberg fears. Facebook’s profits come mainly, if not entirely, from advertising and collecting data that makes advertising precise (nicely packaged as “algorithm”). If people are allowed to not share their own privacy with the platform one day, then how can the platform make money? Maybe Mark woke up one day and realized the most algorithmically optimal option was like, hey, let me upload the platform to the VR space and boy it would take a decade at least for the regulators to know what’s up and catch up!

If we follow the timeline of our own consciousness, it is not hard to see that unless major setbacks are to happen we are progressing toward more liberation and freedom. The Internet is no exception. I ranted about it a few times previously already that information technologies will and need to be built around and for people, as opposed to as giant machines that consume people. For example, when we go on a website, we are a user of the browser, a member of the website and a target of the advertising platform embedded in the webpage. It might appear that we are consuming the services, but, in fact, we are the powerless objects being consumed, because most of the technologies, if not all, are built to consume us, from tracking your activities to analyzing your mind, and they are getting more and more powerful as hardware develops. I think it’s time to shift to a new paradigm where technologies are built for the people (and their well-being) instead, which means, among many other things, the private content, data and service requests are managed and processed on the user side. Individual users get to have the ultimate control over themselves and their experiences while websites/resource providers can focus on their own content, data and products. The two parties will then meet and transact at the interface level, which can be anywhere, including Metaverse (but with a better name thanks and also kindly change the logo — maybe they’re going for a metamorphosis butterfly effect thing but all I can see is a plain pretzel). It’s not a groundbreaking idea, nor is it complicated. On the contrary, it’s natural and rooted in instincts. When I first started making MOFFAS at the beginning of Covid, I tried explaining to my mom what I was doing. As someone that always turned off her computer every time an unexpected window popped on the screen, she couldn’t understand a single word of my long speech about how we should change POV and make technologies that focus on humanity. When I finished, she simply asked the greatest question (or made a feature request):

Can it plant my own face onto those models when I shop clothes online?

Well, mom, your self-obsession never ceases to amaze me, but what you want is exactly what the human-centric system is about. A shopping website’s job is to provide base data of the merchandise; it’s up to the consumers to dictate how their experience is going to be (I’ll never want to see my face anywhere, but I would like to have the right size picked out for me and I don’t have to click 10 times to get to the item I am looking for) and the processing is done completely on the client side to ensure maximum privacy. When in some cases the user becomes a resource provider (e.g. video content, blogging, OnlyFans, etc.), the resources should always remain originated from the user (“single origin”) and licensed to platforms or any service providers that are specialized in distribution (such as our own Dawn). It never occurred to you that sometimes downloading and uploading the same asset again and again is quite silly and wasteful? Authorship, integrity and copyright issues can all be managed at the single origin level, likely through some type of implementation of community node structure. This client-side human-centric system that gives power and control back to the actual people and acts as a digital agent is what I was trying to name a woman after. I still can’t decide. When I do have a name, we will come back and discuss/imagine her at length.

I probably won’t be able to meet my mom’s specific demand in Panta Rhei, but I do hope she could at least have a rough idea of what I do with the next release. As promised, I am attaching Szymborska’s beautiful poem In Heraclitus’s River to end this post, which admittedly covered way too many subjects after I tried really hard not to get into a couple of others, and matching it with a painting from my favorite artist, Pieter Bruegel:

In Heraclitus’ river

a fish is busy fishing,

a fish guts a fish with a sharp fish,

a fish builds a fish, a fish lives in a fish,

a fish escapes from a fish under siege.

In Heraclitus’ river

a fish loves a fish,

your eyes — says she — glow like the fishes in the sky,

I would swim at your side to the sea we will share,

o fairest of the shoal.

In Heraclitus’ river

a fish has imagined the fish of all fish,

a fish kneels to a fish, a fish sings to a fish,

a fish begs a fish to ease its fishy lot.

In Heraclitus’ river

I, the solitary fish, I, a fish apart

(apart at least from the tree fish and the stone fish)

write, at isolated moments, a tiny fish or two

whose glittering scales, so fleeting,

may only be the dark’s embarrassed wink.

— Poems New and Collected (1998), Salt (1962)

p.s. Computer science is one of the best things that have happened to women. I hope that more and more ladies get to realize that. =]

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