Legacy System


Android Jones, “Forward Escape”


This paper proposes the creation of what I call the “Legacy System,” a system whose design begins, in phase one, with a person’s systematic capture of their own personal data. It is a system for ensuring that data generated by a person remains of that person and for that person.[i] The system includes (1) an organization (conceived as non-profit or not-solely-for-profit), that issues (2) an iron-clad, user-protecting contract for (3) a device and operating system running (4) an application (“legacy software” / “legacy app”) that backs up (5) personal data to (6) a private, secure, user-controlled virtual machine. In phase two, the “big data” on that personal machine is subjected to (7) artificial intelligence algorithms (machine learning code) whose goal is to maximize (8) personal happiness (conceived as an ongoing exercise of virtue, with respect to both success and fulfillment).


We begin with human existence and meaningful human action as our primary value. Humans are a technological species. We use tools. History demonstrates that our species began differentiating itself from others with the invention of the handaxe. Following philosopher Andy Clark, the handaxe can be seen as an extension of the human body, of the human mind. Perhaps even more importantly, language is a human invention, a human technology. Language helps us form thoughts and communicate them to others. Language is the original telepathy. Fast forward to the digital age, and humans are still humans, but we are using digital technologies and, because of that, we are leaving digital traces or “data”. Following Matt Ridley, there is a reason why the handaxe and the smartphone are roughly the same size and shape. The human hand holds a smartphone as it would a handaxe. Both are extensions of the human body, the human mind. These observations make clear why it is crucial that in the Legacy system the human interface begins at the device and operating system level. In the generation of “data”, there is no break in the chain of “input” from human mind to human hand to smartphone to operating system to application.  This point is just as important for user experience as it is for the legal protection of any data generated by such means.

Humans, using technology, are the wellspring of data. The fundamental idea behind the Legacy system is to establish a private pool at the wellspring of data—before it escapes into the wider world. To use another metaphor, the Legacy system keeps the original “wet-ink” data, and releases a “copy” into the world (through an app, etc.). If users track themselves and retain a copy of their actions at the device and operating system levels, there can be no legal argument against the claim that the user owns the original.

Think about the sensors (and actuators) in your smartphone device. To name a few: camera(s), microphone, radio, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, proximity sensor, thermometer, hygrometer, barometer, and ambient light sensor. Channeled through an operating system, these sensors and actuators provide the hardware infrastructure for the primary software functionalities that comprise the reasons we carry our smartphones: phone calls, SMS, email, internet, social media, navigation, and myriads of applications.[ii] Each time we use any of those higher level software functionalities, someone else is capturing our data inputs (e.g. Google search, Facebook like, etc.) Originally, however, that “search” or “like” originated with our all-too-human life and its perceived needs. Why put our lives in the hands of someone else who manifestly does not have our best interests at heart?

Personal data privacy has been in the headlines since Snowden. Recently, the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandals have highlighted the issue once again and have prompted some to call for a “User Data Bill of Rights.” Holding businesses accountable for their collection of user data (which is sometimes massive—looking at you, Google and Facebook) is certainly a good start, but doesn’t strike at the root of the issue. The Legacy system does.

Early Prototypes

The core vision of the Legacy system (and its early concept) is something I call “VirtuAlly,” inspired by a seminal article by Danny Hillis, the Quantified Self movement, and of course, Aristotle’s discussion of “Friends of Virtue” in his Nicomachean Ethics. The idea is to turn the self into Big Data and run Machine Learning over that data. IOW, the goal is to build a system to collect as many of my own digital traces as possible into a database. The machine learning that runs over that data would have the explicit goal of making my life better (and not, for instance, serving me ads or trying to sell me shit I don’t need). A truly personal AI. The following mind-map provides a glimpse into the data-capture side:

One shortcoming of this early concept is that data capture operates downstream from the application layer. As such, it is beholden to any number of “contracts of cohesion” which may cede the data as belonging to the platform.

Moving from concept to prototype, I have developed the following personal journaling system using IFTTT and Evernote, a project I call “LifeLine” (think “Life Timeline”). IFTTT.com (If This, Then That) is a service that allows users to create “recipes” (basically little logic modules) to connect up various popular online applications using front-door APIs. The “If” side specifies the inputs (or “triggers”) and the “Then” side specifies outputs (or “actions”). So IFTTT provides the logic, and Evernote serves as the data repository / database. Here is a sampling of the types of logic rules I have setup to generate input:


And a sampling of the output:


Steve Jobs promoted the principle that technology should be either beautiful or invisible. A benefit of the above system is that it operates invisibly. I simply go about my daily life, and the logic rules work behind the scenes to capture the data I’ve told them to capture and to archive it in Evernote. In my Quantified Self practice, I primarily use such data for health purposes (the system provides excellent data benchmarks for diet and exercise),[iii] time-management, and a sort of externalized (and infallible) memory. As more features are added to the system, it becomes clear that the database itself could function as a sort of “digital legacy” to be handed down to heirs—along with, or instead of, a shoebox full of photos. It is a step in the direction of digital immortality.

A problem remains, however. As mentioned before, the current early prototype falls prey to the same issues as the early concept—in the current architecture, data capture operates downstream from the applications themselves (e.g. Facebook, Gmail).

Prototyping Proposal (Data Capture)

Fast-track for prototyping the Legacy system. The hardware (device), operating system, and VM components could be off-the-shelf solutions. Device (smartphone) is conceived as GSM phone. Operating system is conceived as a kernel-hardened, open-source version of Android. Virtual machines would use something like Amazon Web Services (likely running Linux). Smartphone data plan could be negotiated via strategic partnership with a company like FreedomPop (uses Sprint & AT&T networks; currently offering “Privacy Phone” / “Snowden Phone”). If we are able to use off-the-shelf infrastructure, the main work would be building the “Legacy software” app, which is basically a massively powerful key-logger (actually, an all-activity-logger) that uploads daily to a Virtual Machine proprietary to the user.

Ideally, all data would be stored on the blockchain for security. Of current solutions, Ethereum seems adequate for the task.

Prototyping Proposal (General AI)

A discussion of the General AI involved merits its own conversation, and a separate paper, “Developing Conscious Agents”, is forthcoming (in collaboration with a developmental psychologist). For present purposes, initial prototypes for the Legacy system would begin with off-the-shelf machine learning techniques. This means the “Big Data” of the self would be collected privately and analyzed privately by a personal AI. Private, personal data collection lays the real and legal foundation for a culture of consent with respect to data. Opportunities would exist within this culture for sharing specific amounts and degrees of personal information, anonymized appropriately, with a communal AI whose goal would still be to help the community and its individuals maximize their personal and communal virtue. To be clear, there are two levels here: the personal AI, and an opt-in communal AI.

A highly abbreviated summary of “Developing Conscious Agents” is worth sharing, as its core ideas will scaffold the AI in all later generation VirtuAlly instances.  The word “developing” in the title is critical. Much ink has been spilled of late wondering if AI is best approached using the model of child development. Let’s take this strategy to its logical conclusion. The idea is to clone human intelligence as it develops in real time. In short, we propose developing a virtual agent modeled after a live newborn subject. In each instance of the experiment, the experimental design would include two developing agents: (1) an infant with real senses (and also equipped with virtualizing sensors, including camera, microphone, environmental sensors, et al), and (2) a virtual infant with virtual senses living in a virtual environment. The virtual environment, and all virtual bodies within it, are a physically realistic construct of the real world, driven by a highly accurate and granular physics engine (including, but not limited to an optics engine).[iv] Sensory data, collected from the real infant’s experience, streams to the virtual infant’s database where nested modules of machine learning algorithms constantly run over the collected data. The physical infant’s sleep periods provide extra windows for processing and engineering assessment. The virtual infant has the opportunity to learn EXACTLY what (and how) the real infant learns. Because the virtual agent’s conscious experience is simply actual experience copied into a virtual environment, the virtual agent “develops” exactly as the infant does, with dynamics such as joint attention, visual cliff, mirror phase, and theory of mind emerging for both agents simultaneously in real time.

The benefits of this experimental design are too many to elaborate here.  To highlight one, per Saussure’s linguistics, the virtual agent will inhabit a rich world of signifiers but also a rich world of signifieds. Like the real infant, the virtual infant learns through interaction with its caregivers and adapts to a rich physical environment and a warm social environment infused with a wealth of linguistic content. The mapping of physical experience to linguistic meaning allows for the formation of concepts and practical reason. The first 200 words a baby learns are not necessarily the “top 200 words” output by frequency analysis algorithms—although significant overlap is likely to occur. More importantly, the way in which an infant learns language (through oral repetition and the labor of learning to vocalize phonemes in the context of joint attention) will allow its virtual agent to follow the same path. Many impatient types in Silicon Valley will despise this experimental design because the experiment will take at least 18 years to complete. However, it solves the AI alignment problem.

It is this AI, properly aligned with human values, that will eventually serve individuals and communities as their VirtuAlly, their Friend of Virtue.


We misunderstand Danny Hillis’ dream of Aristotle (as an artificially intelligent personal tutor) if we assume it to be equivalent to what some today call “AI personal assistants”, e.g. Siri or Alexa. If we care about augmenting our own virtue, using everything from today’s computerized technologies to ancient techniques, we must set our sights higher.

In discussing existing prototypes for the Legacy system project above, I outlined my “LifeLine” project. Actually, before that, for years, I kept a journal. And even before that, I engaged in a pursuit of virtue as a social animal. That’s the true underlying technology here. That’s what’s foundational. If language is a technology, how much more so is how you speak (your idiolect, as well as exactly what you choose to say and when). If philosophy is a technology, how much more so is your personal philosophy a technology? And personal virtue is a technology. Once we understand personal virtue as a technology, we can hack it, tweak it, make it better. Like Susan Sontag, “I’m only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation.” If these kinds of people come together, the novelty of the technology we use for communal and personal transformation is immaterial. Our resources are both of the moment and of the millennia.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (350 BCE)
Andy Clark, Natural Born Cyborgs (2004)
Joel Doerfel, Slices and Traces (2012)
Daniel Hillis, Aristotle (The Knowledge Web) (2004)
Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future? (2014)
Cathy O’Neil, Congress is Missing the Point on Facebook: Americans Need a Data Bill of Rights (2018)
Tim Palmieri, What Sensors are in a Smartphone? (2018)
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist (2011)
Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (1913)
Doc Searls, The Intention Economy (2012)
Gary Wolf, What is the Quantified Self? (2012)


[i] Following thinkers like Jaron Lanier (2014), “data” is defined here primarily as any information or digital trace generated in digital space by the actions of a human person, and secondarily as private information deriving from an outside source that is the rightful sole property of that person.

[ii] In Andy Clark’s sense, these become human functionalities, extensions of our human functioning (e.g. when is the last time you navigated without GPS?).

[iii] A high-ranking, explicit motivation in capturing data about myself is to track my physical and mental health. As such, all data captured should be subject to HIPAA protection.

[iv] IOW, the virtual environment is basically the Matrix. A side benefit of the experiment is that afterwards, you also have the Matrix (and can use it for things like discoveries in physics; like Feynman says, “there’s plenty of room at the bottom”).


cosmodicy of local systems (a thought experiment)


“problem of evil”? no problem. evil doesn’t exist. neither do omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent beings.

to say that “evil doesn’t exist” means that “evil” doesn’t exist as a standalone generic category (or “universal”) or as a mysterious cosmic force. propagandist tabloid-thinking that takes up “evil” as this sort of “false universal” does irreparable harm. a “war on evil” is just as foolhardy as a “war on terror” (fish, 2001).

if we stipulate that “evils” refer to specific, concrete acts of “evil”, then we might allow that a generic, historically-open concept of “evil” exists as the sum of all evils. this would be like a register of all individual grievances, outcries in the face of suffering, feelings of being wronged, etc. an open, descriptive amalgam, not a closed, prescriptive code.

suppose, for now, that we do not wish to distinguish between sources of moral reasoning (in the strictly logical sense of “moral”, i.e. that from which a “should” is derived, in the sense in which a logician speaks of a “moral” premise) as these bear upon specific existential judgments about an action’s moral status (e.g. judging a human action to be “bad”, unsavory, intolerable, detrimental to ourselves and our own, strategically misaligned with the greater good, etc). we can still note that specific existential judgments about an action’s moral status are *relative*, and require a local context.

after einstein, physicists no longer acknowledge newtonian absolute space. in a newtonian cosmos, an object can be in motion (full stop). in an einsteinian cosmos, an object is always in motion “with respect to” a frame of reference. just so, there is no absolute evil, only relative evils. in fact, just as the einsteinian worldview swallowed the newtonian, wherever notions of “absolute evil(s)” have arisen historically, their existence can be explained by the “relative evils” theory–where “evils” are defined as relative to some culture’s holy book (and since most holy books are hallowed because they are “old” and “closed”, definitions of “evils” are perpetually “under-coded” in the wake of advances in any culture that follows such a book).

just as “evil” is a false universal in the moral realm, so “motion” is a false universal in the physical realm–specifically with respect to the centuries-old discussion of “free energy” or “perpetual motion”. in classic formulations, “perpetual motion” can never and will never be achieved because “a system that has more energy output than input” contradicts both logic and physics. so too, in classic formulations, one will never reconcile “god” and “evil” because doing so would contradict both logic and physics. both classic formulations lack a frame of reference, or what might be called an “ecology”.

what *can* be done is to frame the ecology as a closed system, both physically and temporally, as systems that do useful work for a useful amount of time. neither we nor anyone else will ever build a perpetual motion device. we can, however, build a 10,000 year clock. we can build communities that run solely on renewable energy for many generations. much effort in construction and maintenance may be required, but we will do it if we deem the output to be worth the input. similarly, neither we nor anyone else will ever win a “war on evil”. we can, however, enact local laws, establish local norms, and instill local values that curb the expression of injustice, inequality, oppression, and other specific, concrete evils.

in our local system, it may be that we could win one battle against one evil. organizing into larger groups, we may be able to expand our community’s sphere of influence to battle larger systematic injustices. ultimately, the planet itself is our ecosystem. if we can build a 10,000 year clock, perhaps we can build a planet whose societies, with constant maintenance, approach the limit of fairness toward living beings, one law, norm, or value at a time. from this perspective, doing so would be a question of engineering within our ecosystem.

a grand thought experiment, perhaps. but surely, one worth thinking.



http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/15/opinion/condemnation-without-absolutes.html (fish, 2001)

Infinite Material Gratitude


Infinite Material Gratitude
is “infinite” in the sense
that it is practically limitless.

Isaac Newton, in his “Calculus,”
developed the mathematical notion of a “limit“:
the value a function or sequence “approaches”
as the index (or input) approaches some value.
In practice, in appropriate circumstances,
limits “round up” the impractically large to infinity
and “round down” the impractically tiny to zero.
Contemporary physicists borrow this
Newtonian conceptual slang
when discussing the mass of blackholes:
“Infinite mass, zero size.”

The Infinite Material Gratitude of Being Human, then,
begins by recognizing that each of us
is born onto a fully-developed,
inter-connected social, cultural, and communal stage.
We didn’t “work” for Michaelangelo’s “David,”
or Einstein’s relativity,
or Rumi’s verse.
We simply inherit it.
For free.

Without this free, common, cultural heritage,
we’re the biological equivalent of great apes.
Our human cultural heritage makes us who we are.
And we are freely given this birthright in bright,
diverse, continually-evolving overabundance.

In their book “Multitude,” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
talk about how even the “non-working poor”
contribute to our humanity
through their existence and actions,
their thrift, their aspirations,
their ingenuity, their family and community lives,
their resistance to oppression.

In any population,
there will be a group of people
who break social norms,
whether by necessity or choice.
French sociologist Émile Durkheim called this group “deviants,”
and argued that while deviance in society is,
by definition, a deviation from “normal,”
it is utterly normal for populations to evolve
outliers, fringes, and deviant groups.

The poor in the USA today
are treated by the system
as deviants,
often criminals.

Especially the poor who,
for whatever reason,
are currently “non-working.”

But anyone who has ever done any “work”
(on the “forces” model of Newtonian physics,
not just a post-industrial, capitalist “jobs” model)
feels our visceral interconnection:
that culturally speaking,
we not only “stand on the shoulders of giants,”
but that we also are knit
into local and global communities.

Chefs, plumbers, electricians, artists,
grocery store clerks, city workers,
preschool teachers…
Challengers of fathers, helpers of siblings, comforters of loved ones…
Smilers at strangers…
Speakers of English, Mandarin, Farsi, Ancient Greek…
Archaeologists, botanists…

None of us does exactly what any Other does.

And yet, we all depend on each Other.


Aristotle said that we
owe our parents a debt of
“infinite gratitude” –
they gave us LIFE itself,
and no market can put a price
on that precious gift.

We owe each Other this infinite gratitude.

We owe it to
our families,
our lovers,
our cultural forbears,
our fellow-laborers,
our employers,
even our (sometimes broken) governments.

That doesn’t mean we sink into
reactionary politics or
reformism or

It means we don’t undermine
our own projects
by kicking the giant footstool
from beneath our own feet.

Let’s bury ingratitude
in the Imperial,
colonial past.

Better:  let the dead bury their dead.

Politics require tactics.
The best revolutions do too.

If there’s something within
post-industrial capitalism
that IS the problem,
it’s this:

blinding ourselves to the Other
(and to the infinite gratitude toward them
it is our birthright to foster)
behind the isolationist curtains
of privacy and individualism,
summed up in the
institutional history of the practice
of private property
(Specifically, the history of private property on the Imperial, colonial, “rape-murder-privatize” model. Yes.  That was us.  Both on the giving and the receiving end. No one gets a free pass here.)

The gratitude we each owe each other is infinite (practically limitless).
The gratitude we each owe each other is material (as in actual money, raw materials, material preconditions of the good life).
And the “Others” to whom we owe this gratitude are standing right next to us in real life.

Let’s get busy.