Sunday, September 29, 2019

Twins, digital and mythological

A comment piece in Nature this week talks about mirror worlds (cf. RF mirror worlds), though the authors use the currently-fashionable term “digital twins” rather than Gelernter’s “mirror worlds.”

It’s a technocratic and manufacturing-oriented perspective. There’s more to be said about the substance of the piece, but right now I’d rather think about the cultural underpinnings.



Many mythologies have stories about twins (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twins_in_mythology). They’re often in opposition to each other, or represent polarities (Cain & Abel; Jacob & Esau; Gilgamesh & Enkidu; Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde); they often have deep bonds (Pollux partly gave up immortality to be with Castor), sometimes as two halves of the same whole (Nut & Geb, gods of the sky and earth).

A less well known pair I rather like is the Aloadai, who declared war on Olympus, almost succeeded in killing Ares, and were betrayed by their mother. In one of the versions, “they could not be slain except one the other. As they were trying to carry off Hera and Artemis, a doe sprang between them: … The twins hurled their spears at the doe, and each hit the other” (from Kerényi’s Gods of the Greeks).

The doppelgänger seems particularly relevant to tech twins. From Wikipedia: “In Norse mythology, a vardøger is a ghostly double who is seen performing the person's actions in advance. In Finnish mythology, this is called having an etiäinen, "a firstcomer".”

High-profile twins (loosely defined) are surprisingly rare in contemporary culture. I couldn’t think of many: Larry & Sergey; Gates & Ballmer; Ed & David Milliband; Peyton & Eli Manning; the Koch brothers; George & Jeb Bush; the Baldwin brothers.

I would expect to see more stories about digital twins show up in film & TV over the next few years. The only one can think of immediately is Minority Report. The mythic resonances – or more precisely, the deep psychological pre-occupations we all share about twinning – are too powerful to ignore. It has everything, from sibling rivalry to AI.


All that said:  what in fact is the purpose of the exercise? It should go without saying nowadays that tech expresses the attitudes, drives and biases – conscious and unconscious – of its human makers. Myths do the same thing, but in a more resonant, narrative way. Therefore, one can expect that the patterns encoded in myths will also show up in technology. Consequently, mythology is a fertile source of guesses about how new technologies will play out; or at least, a source of research questions about their social impact.

Here are a few first thoughts about ways in which twin myths might predict, or at least focus attention on, ways digital twin tech might affect us.

The bible stories about feuding brothers suggest that there will be conflict between real-world and digital instantiations. Since the younger brother tends to win, it’s quite possible that the digital versions will trump the real world. I think it was Albert Einstein who said something about “If the experiment doesn’t match the theory, the experiment is wrong,” so that's not a new idea. There’s also the old joke about economics and the real world: It works in practice, the question is whether it works in theory. Of course, the conflict may not only be between the systems themselves, but also (and probably more likely) between the teams of people responsible for two versions.

The Egyptian stories about Nut and Geb suggest that we will come to see the twins as complementary halves: neither on its own will be deemed sufficient. That’s quite a strong claim – the real world will become less real (self-sufficient, complete, etc.) once it is reflected in a digital twin.

The story of Castor and Pollux implies that the “more perfect” twin will have to give up something in order to maintain the bond between them. In the myth it was immortality; what will it be for atom-bit twins? (Which one is the more perfect?) The Greek brothers ended up alternating time between Olympus and Hades; I wonder what that implies for this tech?

One last example for now: the Aloadai, who could only be slain, one by the other. That makes me suspect that the only way to really bring down manufacturing systems in the future will not be to attack either the factory floor or the cloud, but to subvert the interaction between the two so that they bring each other down.


Closing on a tangent: I’m struck that current fad has eschewed David Gelernter’s “mirror world” term. I think it’s more than just trying to look new and original, and hoping nobody will remember that he described this stuff thirty years ago. Gelernter is a vehement critic of the intellectual and business establishment. He’s slammed cultural illiteracy among students and political correctness on campuses; sued Apple, HP, Microsoft et al.; supported Trump, called Hillary a phony and Obama a third-rate tyrant; doesn’t believe in climate change; and challenged Darwin (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Gelernter). He’s also very hard to categorize, working as an artist, writer, entrepreneur, and computer scientist. In short: he’s a Trickster figure.

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