Feed Me Donald! – Trump, Musk, the Internet, and Monsters from the Id

by Bill Benzon

Seen on Google search, Friday morning, September 9, 2018:

Musk Toke

I’m sure you’ve heard about it. Elon Musk went on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Rogan lit up a blunt, and Musk took a toke. The next day Tesla’s stock tanked. Well, not exactly tanked, but it was down seven points, and the drop can’t be attributed entirely to that toke–there’s been some turmoil in the executive ranks–but that made for a good lede.

Not to mention the image! Billionaire inventor, boy wonder, real-life Iron Man, with his “Occupy Mars” T-shirt, head cloaked in a cloud of smoke­. Get it? Share-holder value, up in smoke?

It’s the stuff of mythology, of realityTVnews.

But that wasn’t the most interesting thing in the interview by a long shot.

I know, because I watched it – though a day later. It started at 9:30 PM Pacific time, which moved it to 12:30 AM for me. I made it through an hour and then went to bed. Got up Friday morning and picked up where I’d left off. When Rogan lit up that blunt I was thinking “don’t do it Elon, don’t do it!” But of course he did it. How could he not, bad boy billionaire and crazy-ass fun-loving genius that he is?

Really, it was nothing. Just one drag. Elon said he almost never did pot, and this toke didn’t affect him at all. And it’s perfectly legal, at least in California.

But if you were paying attention, really listening, that toke was the least interesting thing in the podcast.


Limbic Resonance

The conversation covered a bit of ground –

“the Tesla is the most fun thing ever…a thing to maximize enjoyment”,
flying cars: “too noisy, too much air flow”,
“it’s going to be very tempting to use AI as a weapon…the danger is more humans using it against each other, I think”,
“that’s what we’re trying to do, make things somebody loves…wouldn’t hurt to have more love in the world”

– and more.


But for my money, the most interesting segment was about the internet. At about 5:23 in the above segment:

Elon Musk: A company is essentially a cybernetic collective of people and machines. That’s what a company is. There’s different levels of complexity in the ways these companies are formed. And there’s sort of a collective AI in the Google sort of search, where we’re all sorta’ plugged in as nodes on the network, like leaves on a big tree. We’re all feeding this network with our questions, and answers. We’re all collectively programming the AI. And Google plus all the humans that connect to it are one giant cybernetic collective. This is also true of Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram, and all these social networks. They’re giant cybernetic collective.

Joe Rogan: Humans and electronics all interfacing, and constantly now, constantly connected.

Yes, sure, we all know this, right. Just let it sink in. We’re going somewhere, but it’s going to take awhile. We need to get a lot of the neural mesh humming.

A bit later (7:43):

EM: Yes, uh, I mean, … some years ago, it feels like we are the biological bootloader for AI, actively, we are building it. And then we’re building progressively greater intelligence, and the percentage of intelligence that is not human is increasing, and eventually we will represent a very small percentage of intelligence. But the AI isn’t formed strangely by the human limbic system [sic], it is in large part our Id writ’ large.

JR: How so?

EM: Well you mention all those things, the sort of primal drive…

JR: Um huh.

EM: All the things that we like, and hate, and fear, they’re all there on the internet. They’re a projection of our limbic system.

PAUSE. Musk has an intense look on his face. Rogan too, he starts chuckling.

EM: It’s true.

JR: No, it makes sense. Thinking of corporations and thinking of just human beings communicating on line through these social media networks as some sort of an organism that’s a, it’s a cyborg, it’s a combination, a combination of electronics and biology.

EM: Yeah. … The success of these is sort of a function of how much limbic resonance they’re able to achieve with people. The more limbic resonance, the more engagement.

JR: Ummh…Whereas like one of the reasons why probably  Instagram is more enticing than Twitter…

EM: Limbic resonance.

JR: Yeah.

You knew that too, right?

Of course there’s nothing unusual about comparing AI to the brain; it’s done all the time; it’s a major article of intellectual contention. But the comparison is generally to the brain’s capacity for cognition, for reason. Not with the limbic system, the so-called lizard brain, the source of emotion, desire, and impulse. That’s what’s interesting. When the typical super-AI goes haywire in science fiction it’s through hyper-rationality, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Ray Kurzweil wanted to extol the inevitability of super-AI he called his book The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. In this conversation Musk makes a different, and more interesting, connection, one that harkens back to the Monsters from the Id in the classic 1950s science fiction film, Forbidden Planet.

In the last few years we’ve heard a lot about irrationality on the Internet, especially since the Trump presidential campaign starting blowing up in our faces and taking over. There are two Trumps, the official one in the Oval Office behind the Resolute Desk, and the unofficial, the person Trump, he of the midnight Twitter rampage and the campaign-style rally out there displaying for The Base. That’s the Trump who’s a master of limbic resonance.

Trumposaurus Rising

I’ll let my friend David Porush tell you about that Trump. I’ve known him since graduate school. He got his degree a year ahead of me, went to William and Mary for a couple of years, and then joined me at RPI for a couple of years. He spent a couple of years out West as a dean, came back East to head-up distance education for the State University of New York, and then once again went west to run MentorNet for a couple of years. Somewhere along the way he toured his book, The Soft Machine, in Japan and took a Fulbright year in Israel. David is well-educated and well-traveled, not the sort to fall under the spell of the Trumposaurus.

And he didn’t, well not for more than a moment or two. But Trump Rex scared him.

It was March of 2016 and he was in DC for the annual AIPAC meeting (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Luminaries were speaking, Biden, Hillary, Kasich, and Trump. Yes, Trump.

David was almost within spitting distance of the man himself:

Trump’s weird head was blown up even more than it is on TV. His crazy, swooping owlish comb-over, comb-forward and comb-back “do” is a doesn’t: it doesn’t hide his baldness when lights shine from atop. He’s fat. The blubber on his face, rippling like Jabba the Hutt’s, doesn’t seem to be connected to any muscle or bone, and certainly not to any emotion except self-satisfaction. The tanning bed orange face and white around the eyes are fluorescent. He’s an alien. You wouldn’t invite him back to the party unless it was to have something to titter about the next day, because he looks like the guy who eats all the hors d’hoeuvres. He might also make a play for your wife.

The man began to speak:

Then, at one point, the crowd lost it and howled in spontaneous unison. His script – and amazingly he read from a script, unprecedented in Trump world – had him claim that he read the Iran deal. But his compulsion to inflate took over and jumped out of its cage. “Yes, I read the whole thing,” he ad libbed. “That’s right. In fact, I know more about it than anyone else.” The AIPAC crowd had been living and breathing the Iran deal for at least a decade and had heard every manner of expert. They hooted. Trump, as is his wont, interpreted the derision as affirmation. “That’s right, that’s right!” he went on, misinterpreting the rolling laughter, his jowls quivering in delight. But then, I saw the Trumposaur. It had been let out to feed.

The Trumposaur is to blame for the moment that has given ammunition to the anti-AIPAC press. Trump’s script said, “And in this, the last year of Obama’s presidency …” Another ad lib erupted from Trump’s lips, one syllable: “Yay!” The crowd laughed, this time with him. The Trumposaur had awoken. “Obama is the worst thing that has ever happened to Israel,” it declared, totally winging it. The crowd rose to its feet in approval. … These were not Trump supporters. It is AIPAC’s tradition to cheer for good rousing lines. Standing ovations are not endorsements. On the other hand, you can see how the cameras may have shown us being turned into a Trump mob. And maybe we were. Maybe you would have stood and cheered, too. Yet at the very moment I became part of the mob, I had this sudden schizoid flash of rational clear sight into Trump. I saw, I mean really saw, the Trumposaur in its naked, primitive state.

That’s what scared David, not Trump himself, but that he could be drawn under his spell, if only for a moment.

THAT’s what is resonating on the Internet. That’s what we don’t understand.

Feed Me Donald

Let me offer you another image, another song and dance. This is from a 1986 film, a rock horror musical comedy called Little Shop of Horrors. It’s about a nebbish named Seymour and his strange plant that he named Audrey II after his workmate at Mushnik’s Flower Shop. While working on Audrey II he pricks his finger and blood drops into the plant. The plant loves it and grows. Wonderful things begin happening to Seymour.

And then, in the evening as Seymour’s closing up, Audrey II starts talking, demanding more blood.

Here’s a bit of what Audrey’s singing (after a bit of preliminary chat):

Feed me! Feed me! Feed me!
Feed me, Seymour
Feed me all night long
That’s right, boy
You can do it
Feed me, Seymour
Feed me all night long
‘Cause if you feed me, Seymour
I can grow up big and strong

A bit of chatter, then:

Would you like a Cadillac car?
Or a guest spot on Jack Paar?
How about a date with Hedy Lamarr?
You gonna git it
How’d you like to be a big wheel
Dinin’ out for every meal?
I’m the plant that can make it all real
You gonna git it
I’m your genie, I’m your friend
I’m your willing slave

And so forth.

Now, instead of Seymour think Donald Trump. Instead of Audrey II think of Trump’s smart phone, his  Twitter connection. At 3AM it calls to him, “Feed me, Donald! Feed me!” Think Fox News, think rallies.

They all connect Trump with his Base, forming an asynchronous cybernetic organism, distributed in time and space.

Trump’s got to feed the beast. That’s the story we’re getting out of the White House through all those leaky back channels. Trump is impulsive and out of control. He feeds it and it feeds him. It applauds, it re-tweets.

It’s mutual. Scary. Dangerous.

Yes, I mistrust those organic metaphors

Musk talked of a company “as a cybernetic collective of people and machines”, of how we’re “like leaves on a big tree”, of us being a “biological bootloader” for a webbed AI. Rogan talks of  “social media networks as some sort of an organism that’s a, it’s a cyborg, it’s a combination, a combination of electronics and biology.” My inner philosopher recoils a bit at these metaphors. But then I end with Seymour and Audrey II. Metaphor, all metaphor.

I fear we’re a long way from replacing those metaphors with sound analysis and explicit construction.

We’re in it and we don’t understand it. Isn’t that always the way? Only when we’ve worked our way through it, up and out, will we understand.

* * * * *

The machine is no longer precisely constructed, its every action no longer measured. The machine is fix upon fix, hack after hack, its safety mechanisms sawed off. It has no brake, no fail-safe, no checks, no balances. It clatters. It thunders. It crushes the Constitution in its gears. The smell of smoke wafts out of the engine room. The machine is on fire.

–Jill Lepore, The New York Times