magic and technology


 Prof Alan Jacobs wants to know whether magic and technology can learn to get along with each other. He laments the dominant tone of fantasy literature that sees natural magic opposed to cultural machinery.

 Jacobs hopes for:

“A fictional world where magic rules but is not the only game in town”.

This sounds very much like Tolkien‘s home town of Oxford. When he lived there his charmed life as a university don was under a certain amount of pressure from the city’s belated industrialisation. The Morris Motor works had been built in Cowley, on the edge of town, lending a new, Fordist edge to the politics of town and gown. It’s hard to look at the map of Middle Earth without seeing a psychological map of Oxford just behind it. So writers who want magic and the machine to coexist could do worse than to fictionalise the way they see this working already in a specific place. China Mieville has done this with New Crobuzon – and more explicitly with UnLunDun and Kraken.

The either/or/both/neither terms in which this discussion is framed will be familiar to the readers of Fourcultures.

Now read:

Magic needs rules

The four cultures – no way

Putting an End to Endianism: the feud you probably never noticed but take part in every day

“This is an attempt to stop a war. I hope it is not too late and that somehow, magically perhaps, peace will prevail again.” (Cohen 1980)

Let’s begin this tale of the conflict you’ve probably never heard about with a quotation from Gulliver’s Travels:

It began upon the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefuscu did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’

For Jonathan Swift, the wars of religion and generations-long rivalries between Britain and France were precisely as arbitrary as a decision about which end of a boiled egg to crack. Since it really doesn’t matter, everyone should do as they see fit, and ‘break their eggs at the convenient end’. The question remained: which end would that be?

For modern day computer engineers considering which byte order to set their hardware and software to, the decision is still fairly arbitrary, but it matters at least a little which end is adopted. Rather like driving on the left or right, no one really cares which is which as long as everyone agrees on a convention, but also like driving on the left or the right, no one is prepared to shift their preference, and when pressed will provide justifications for the status quo. Unlike driving on the left or right, however, those justifications do have some reasoning behind them. It actually is possible to come up with a list of why a particular byte order is useful for particular purposes, and therefore to prefer one order or the other on somewhat rational grounds.

Danny Cohen’s article, the one that announced the war in the first place, lent its central metaphor of big endians and little endians to the concept of byte order:

“Endianness describes how multi-byte data is represented by a computer system and is dictated by the CPU architecture of the system. Unfortunately not all computer systems are designed with the same Endian-architecture. The difference in Endian-architecture is an issue when software or data is shared between computer systems. An analysis of the computer system and its interfaces will determine the requirements of the Endian implementation of the software. ” (Intel white paper, quoted in Blanc and Maaraoui 2005:2)

For instance, Intel x86 architecture is little-ended (see LaPlante and Mazor 2006 for a history), while Motorola architecture is mostly big-ended. ARM architecture and some others, meanwhile, have switchable endedness, which tends to be set one way or the other by default. The distinction between Intel chips used in most IBM compatible PCs and Motorola chips used in most Apple computers meant that the byte order issue was, to say the least, overshadowed by intense marketing competition and rivalry during the 1980s and into the 1990s. Behind the embryonic “I’m a Mac – I’m a PC” rivalry lay another much less glossy rivalry, between big-endian and little-endian architecture.

In seeking a resolution to these fairly arcane distinctions in computer architecture, Danny Cohen identified a number of alternatives, which, as it turns out and though he probably didn’t know it, relate quite well to the four cultural biases or worldviews identified by the anthropologist Mary Douglas in her Grid-Group Cultural Theory . The first was continued ‘holy war’. This is what Lilliput was pursuing against Blefuscu and, according to Cohen an appropriate metaphor for the standoff between big-enders and little-enders in computer communications architecture. It seemed likely to continue because:

“Each camp tries to convert the other. Like all the religious wars of the past, logic is not the decisive tool. Power is. This holy war is not the first one, and probably will not be the last one either. The “Be reasonable, do it my way” approach does not work. Neither does the Esperanto approach of “let’s all switch to yet a new language”.”

An alternative was to somehow supply a big man like Gulliver to come and sort out the problem from on high. Here we see the strong Grid – strong Group approach of the Hierarchical cultural bias:

“We would like to see some Gulliver standing up between the two islands, forcing a unified communication regime on all of us.”

Yet another alternative offered by Cohen was to trust to chance and abide by the dictates of fate:

“How about tossing a coin ???”

This is a nod to the strong Grid – weak Group cultural bias of Fatalism.

Lettle Endian / Big EndianCohen, like Swift before him, was not terribly optimistic that conflicts over arbitrary decisions would be resolved amicably. He forecast:

“Our communication world may split according to the language used. A certain book (which is NOT mentioned in the references list) has an interesting story about a similar phenomenon, the Tower of Babel. Little-Endians are Little-Endians and Big-Endians are Big-Endians and never the twain shall meet.”

Cohen was writing in 1980. Computer engineers have now had thirty years to resolve the war of the byte order. So how have they fared?

What happened next? How did things pan out? Which end of the egg triumphed?

Continue reading

The Google Dilemma, Part 2

What kinds of organisations require there to be nations, complete with identifiable and distinctive national characteristics? In the past we knew we’d traveled because the people around us spoke a different language, or wore different clothes and ate different food. But these differences were often more regional than national.  For many purposes, that’s not enough. Isn’t there something about a nation’s respect for authority, or its approach to gender differences, or view of time – the long-term and the short term? What kinds of circumstance would lead to a need for greater categorization of national differences?

Hierarchical, Individualist and Egalitarian: contested views of nationhood

The very concept of the unified territory is strongly Hierarchical in origin (specifically, it is ‘strong grid’) – it is the king who unites the nation, under God. And it is the king whose task it is to demonstrate by conquest that in the divinely ordained hierarchy of nations, his nation ranks first. The early nation state is really an extension of the power of the monarchy. The modern version of this, that political legitimacy derives from a people, underpins the modern bureaucratic nation state, characterised by a cascade of checks and balances and a distinctly poor track record at making binding international agreements that don’t merely reinforce the established league-table of nations. Such institutions as monarchies and parliaments will be likely to attempt to naturalise national identity by identifying ‘innate’ national characteristics and establishing institutions that are ‘national’. [A national football team is a construction from the late 19th Century; supporting it is supposed to come naturally]. Every international gathering or institution is an opportunity to assert national supremacy.

The idea that national characteristics are to be ignored, or don’t exist, or are constructed, and not natural, is an anti-hierarchical one (specifically, ‘weak grid’). A non-hierarchical approach will regard evidence of national cultures not as information to be acted on but as noise to be filtered out and ignored.

There are two distinct versions of this filtering out of national difference. Continue reading

The Ethics of Autonomous robots

Further to a recent post about the ethics of autonomous robots, it seems military robots are not the only kind that can kill, allbeit by ‘mistake’. In Japan there are already robots that feed the elderly and baby-sitting robots in shopping centres. So who exactly should be held responsible when they go wrong? It’s an issue that has concerned Noel Sharkey of Sheffield University for a while (he and Ronald Arkin were interviewed for the radio recently), and now the Royal Academy of Engineering has weighed in with a discussion report.

Autonomous Systems: Social, Legal & Ethical Issues, commissioned by the Academy’s Engineering Ethics Working Group, is online at

It’s an interesting read, but it doesn’t begin to ask the kind of questions grid-group cultural theory might…. Continue reading

Beware – Dangerous Robots!

Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project has been thinking about the possible ways of reacting to robots that kill. It’s a relatively new set of technologies, but what happens when AI merges with weaponry to produce robots that want to kill you? He thinks the arguments could go in several ways and I tend to agree.

The ethics of this is already being worked out, with the aim of making robots behave ‘more humanely than humans’. There is a summary.

The title of a key book on the subject points to the potential contradictions:

Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots

Governance is great – as long as we’re the ones in charge

The context in which all this is happening is an Hierarchical one: the so called military-industrial complex. Hence the great significance of the term ‘Governing’. For Hierarchy, governing is exactly the correct response to ‘lethal behavior’ – and this applies to all lethal behaviour, not just that of robots, who in a sense are nothing special. The point is, in the Hierarchical worldview violence is warranted, provided it is clear who is doing the warranting. But lethal robots present something of a problem. What happens if they aren’t programmed to be ‘governed’? Continue reading