Sunday, November 12, 2006

TECHNOQUACKS ATTEMPT COMEBACK: Still good funnymen

Today's New York Times shoved a species onto the frontpage DD hasn't seen in such lofty quarters in a long time: The Technoquacks.

"Entrepreneurs See a Web Guided by Common Sense: New Technical Wave" was the title; John Markoff, the reporter.

The story was all about how an alleged bundle of geniuses prone to intelligence-insulting proclamations which sound sort of gnomic when unaccompanied by sarcasm or a sense of humor, were going to issue in Web 3.0, "Pushing the Boundary of How Information Can Be Organized." This would set conditions so "A new kind of web would seek to supply meaningful answers."

" . . . the very idea has given rise to skeptics . . ." writes Markoff, which is something Times tech stories would never have mentioned about similar subjects ten years ago.

And then the reporter begins to trot out -- as examples of common sense -- dudes of a kind known as just the opposite in the mid-90's.

But first DD has to set you up with the definition of technoquack.

A technoquack, according to the Crypt Newsletter ca. 1997, was "an individual, e.g. a consultant or computer scientist, who specializes in mentufactury -- the generation of gratuitously stupid, insane and/or incomprehensible claims about future technology."

Usage: The technoquack from the MIT Media Lab enjoyed vexing people with periodic declarations that Americans would eventually harvest gasoline from trees in their backyard.

It went hand-in-hand with its synomym, Golden Pizzle of Information.

Golden Pizzle of Information: any authority figure accustomed to being publicized unquestioningly; or, computer experts fond of making dumbly obvious, fraudulent, indecipherable or insane statements which few dare to seriously question. See technoquack.

Keep in mind the phrases "dumbly obvious" and "gratuitously stupid."

"There is a growing realization that text on the web is a tremendous resource," comes the first of the dumbly obvious as well as gratuitously stupid declarations,
genetic markers of the technoquacks. In Markoff's piece it was attributed to Oren Etzioni, "an artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Washington."

Next up, W. Daniel Hillis, "a veteran artificial intelligence researcher."

"It is pretty clear that human knowledge is out there and more exposed to machines than it ever was before," said "W. Daniel Hillis." Human knowledge is out there and Hillis showed the wealth of his wit in an instant.

Hillis was one of the original technoquacks, pilloried in Crypt Newsletter for an infamous 1997 editorial published by the Los Angeles Times.

Hillis, then billed as a computer scientist who worked at the well-known molecular biology research firm -- note the requisite sarcasm -- Disney, in Glendale, California, gave readers his thoughts on the future of biotechnology.

As a product of the Gobble-Wallah College of All Computing Knowledge, aka the previously referenced MIT Media Lab, Hillis was said by the LA Times to have invented a computer out of tinker-toys, one perhaps capable of besting lab staffers at tick-tack-toe.

The editorial was classic technoquack. Quoting from it is still a gift almost a decade later.

Wrote Hillis:

"I'm as fond of my body as anyone else, but if I can be 200 with a body of silicon, I'll take it."

"We may grow telephones, but manufacture cabbage."

"[We may develop] a tree which has gasoline or kerosene as its sap."

"My scientific friends accuse me of being a mystic . . ."

"Maybe you'll plant a house, let it grow, and then move into it."

What's that about brains and body being made of cabbage? Oh, my bad, the man meant silicon.

The Crypt News jibe made it into the famous tech comic book, WIRED magazine, a coincidence which -- at the time -- was like seeing the town whore applying for sessions in the Church Universal and Triumphant.

Amusing as this is, a bigger funnyman was set to follow -- Doug Lenat who "has labored" on an artificial intelligence system named Cyc "[for] the last quarter century]," a brain " . . . that he claimed would some day be able to answer questions posed in spoken or written language -- and to reason."

Lenat, wrote Markoff, was underwritten by our intelligence agencies.

And what stupendous question can the Cyc supercomputer, allegedly packed with common sense, answer?

Since it's said to funded by our intel organizations, you're given a pass and a few good try points for guessing, "Where are the WMDs in Iraq?"

Instead, it's "Which American city would be most vulnerable to an anthrax attack during summer?"

Wouldn't you just know it, a quarter of a century passes for Lenat and Cyc and it takes the war on terror to give them purpose.

Anyway, that firmly qualifies as a question only a department of homeland security apparatchik would think is interesting. It also comes too late, homeland security types and every other analytic function in the security apparatus having answered it -- ad nauseum -- just post-9/11 when anthrax spores were put into maildrops in New Jersey and Florida. [The best answer to the question is not to ask it, as it's more senseless than practical, which may say something on the nature of the labor of technoquacks.]

Keep up the good work, fellows. It's priceless.

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