Article first appeared in, October 10, 1999




RIGHTS!, October, 1999

The Wall:

Approaching Truth

in Human Communication


by Richard Ames Hart

Power to the Precocious! Welcome all! Especially, welcome to those who just linked in from! You are prescreened. I know in advance you have a strange, beautiful kind of intelligence, compassion for humanity, a sense of humor, and unhealed wounds. I know you have those qualities because I have those qualities, and that's how I found you, and that's how you found me.

If there is any prejudice in the world, it's against people who have a strange kind of intelligence. "Don't go to school," they clamor, "Go fishing!"

So I have this thought experiment for people with ordinary, I mean, stranger than ordinary intelligence. Imagine a huge wall, and when anyone anywhere in the world says something, that sentence gets placed on the wall, kept strictly in alphabetic order. Almost immediately you will see that very few people say anything original, so when they say something that's already on the wall, we'll just bump its counter. Here's a piece of the wall (With the counters, which are meaningless):

How many tickets? [52,223,773] • How much did you make today? [665,230] • How much did you pay for that? [980,446,829,998] • How much money do you make driving a taxi? [10,452] • How much do you owe him? [506,239] • How rude! [1,349,271] • How rude of you! [7,436] • How was your honeymoon? [879] • How was your week? [87,302,003,488] • How weak is that? [128] • How would you know? You haven't had any yet. [16] • How'd you get into that? [98,480,348] • How's business? [4,563,449,968,445] • How's Havi? [36] • How's she feel about that? [998,398,338] • How's that pretty wife of yours? [998,340] • How's your husband? [199,395,334,437] • How's your typing? [235,488] • How's your wife? [76,800,308] • Huh? What'd you say? [4,589,005,668,554]

I have this dream — It's in the not-too-distant future. You're in the first grade, and one day when you come home from school, you go over to your teaching robot — what to call it? Electra! — and mimicking the bully you had met on the playground, you cry out, "Shut up!" and Electra, that wondrous robot, says, "—YOU could. —What's your offer?"

You laugh, absorb her fresh knowledge, apply it to the wound in your psyche, and start doing your homework.

Electra is a higher-order teaching robot who has access to the wall, and whenever you speak, she looks up that sentence on the wall, then says something back.

"How's your husband?" you say. "—Suddenly sensitive," says Electra.

"How's your wife?" you say. "—Very elusive," says Electra.

"Where's my homework?" you cry out, looking around. "—Underneath everything," says Electra.

Well, I've already started working on that wall, and as you can see, it has a very curious property: Almost every sentence has a particular code word (marked in red), with a link to exactly one "stargate" (from a total of eighty-eight), for further analysis. That's how Electra does it — Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator, she pulls down the menu from one stargate to find an appropriate response, which she happily — oh, so happily! — repeats.

Electra has some nifty shortcuts. For instance, if you say anything at all in a foreign language, she simply says, "—No doubt," or "—Very enriching." And if she "knows" in advance that you are a computer scientist doing research in "artificial intelligence," and she hears you say something like, "I pushed the red ball across the white room with a string," she just says, "—Very clever." She's smart, but she doesn't push it.

You see, what we have on the wall is not artificial intelligence. It's real intelligence. It's what people really say. And the responses she finds in the eighty-eight stargates aren't artificial intelligence, either. They are real intelligence. And finally, how she gets there, using just one code word from the sentence — Well, that's not artificial intelligence at all — That's exactly how street-smart people do it. You say, "What's up?" to a street-smart person, and they say, "—Just anything!" followed up by, "—Nothing deep." It's pretty basic.

The trouble is, most people don't listen to other people. Almost all communication is designed to stop before anyone can really listen.

It's tragic, really. A few months ago a boy in a Catholic School over in Hayward shot himself to death because someone had been teasing him. That was on the news. However, try as you may, you will not learn the exact words that triggered such a violent response. People will not tell, for two reasons: First, they don't believe in helping people in general, and second, they actually believe, at some level, that the harmful words were true!

That's how insults work: They simply trigger or trick people into insulting themselves. For instance, if you actually believe you're a geek, on some level, and someone says, "Hey, geek!" a part of you calls yourself a geek, and you either turn around and look defiantly cool, or you hurry ahead, feeling frightened.

It's not what someone says to you —
People really insult themselves;
the words you hear are just triggers
for inner beliefs.

Let's hear what Electra has to say: "Hey, geek!" you say to her. "—Not perfect," she cryptically says. "—I don't care what you say."

It's actually good to feel frightened, because then you can grow through it. If you deny those honest feelings, they become crystallized into some sort of inner machinery, which mystics call "sleep." People are born, they create machinery to call themselves or other people names, and then they die. They rarely see "understanding themselves" as an important pursuit — They even attach stigmas (further name-calling) to it.

Most people don't even know
they're insulting themselves.

I used to work at IBM, and later at Atari, as a systems programmer, and now I drive a taxicab in San Francisco. Here's what I've seen: Any attempts to force natural or intellectual pursuits is essentially nonproductive. I'll say it three times on this page. Many business people, however, just want to get something over with, without ever stopping to be human. So arises It's problematic, this division between people, and it leads to people taking seminars in conflict resolution — giving the geek the upper hand!

A person with a certain kind of intelligence can hold two conflicting ideas in his or her mind at the same time. You have to see this as a gift. Thus, we have the intricacies of a particular project, with the need to bring as much of the intellect as possible to bear on the many levels of understanding usually required, and stepping back, as one final level, the presence of a dimwitted businessman who sees no value at all until the whole thing can be "shrink-wrapped" and shipped. He's like the highwayman crying out, "Stand and deliver!"

The entire purpose of Electra and the wall is to provide ammunition for geeks to fight back in the cleverest of ways — almost unnoticeably. It's done by "dumbing down." Notice how one-sided this is: A person with a certain kind of intelligence can "dumb down." Can a person without much intelligence "smarten up?"

The wall and the stargates in this website are triggered by artificial code words, which may or may not satisfy a semiotician, which is too bad! In the real world we don't have time for bullshit analysis. We have to have a means for acting quickly, almost without thinking, and that takes great practice. Here's the problem: If you smile at a hoodlum on the street, or at a businessman at a power breakfast, and they see a smirk behind the smile, you're in fucking trouble! However, if when you smile, they see only your dimwitted instincts behind the smile, why then, you're just like them! This is the ultimate training for acting like a Jedi knight on an outworlder's planet, and that's no joke. It can literally save your life, here and in the present.

As you approach truth
in human communication,
you have to realize how quickly
things can go wrong.

I am walking Achilles and Paris this evening up in Strawberry Canyon, when someone in a group of four from across the street cries out, "Can we pet your dog?"

If I wasn't doing this research in social linguistics, I would have kept my mouth shut and kept on walking, however ... it is dusk, about seven o'clock, and an existential part of me realizes the guy is just saying that, probably to impress a girl, and not noticing anything particularly salient in the individual words of his taunt, I turn and call back, "—Not today."

It's an experiment. (Which Goes Wrong!) It's the wrong thing to say to a guy who is trying to impress a girl. By accident, I had humiliated him, and things are about to get much worse.

Just as I reach the shelter of some trees, the guy calls out, "HOW MUCH? ... I SAID, 'HOW MUCH?'" His tone of voice frightens me and I keep on walking. Life is strange, isn't it? Two words can trigger so much trouble.

When I get home, after shopping for a delicious steak for myself, and cheese for the dogs, which isn't as strange as it sounds, because they really like cheese, and I really like steaks, I turn to Electra.

"Can we pet your dog?" I say. "—Missed out," says Electra, "—We don't mind."

"HOW MUCH? ... I SAID, 'HOW MUCH?'" I yell to my (warm) (electric) (friend.)

"—You're strong," says Electra, "—Let's not argue about it."



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