Caught in the Net

Mamori Oshii, the Japanese director, once said that “As humans have become more ‘mind-oriented’ and the environment has become more urban, some have forgotten the idea of the human body. As far as they’re concerned, the human body does not exist anymore.”

Today, more people think that way than ever before, perhaps because who we are can now exist outside of ourselves, in our words. We can call someone around the world, and not be there. We can be viewed by thousands of people, and not leave our armchair. But I think it’s more than just this. After our physical deaths, our memories and lives live on in a tangible form. Now that we are constantly recording our lives, we can separate our mind from flesh, and those thoughts and experiences live forever.

In short, like Oshii suggested, physical bodies no longer matter. Sometimes, we are but brief flashes of fame and recognition, slashdotted, Dugg, and then we disappear into the subconscious, a fired neuron becoming dormant until needed again.

We like to think that the machines are not intelligent, because we’re the ones doing all the thinking, and taking action based on that. We believe that the intelligence needed to make decisions on information is provided by an external source, such as a programmer, and this means that we maintain control over the machines. AI has not materialised. Humans are still what matter.

This is the symptom of a delusion that much of humanity suffers from. For some reason, we think of the Net in an abstract fashion. This delusion can be understood by the term, “user”. We’re constantly referring to “users”, as in, Net users. The belief, as noted above, that the intelligence needed to make decisions on information is provided by an external source, is a symptom of this, too.

Who says that the programmer is, in fact, an external source? Who says we are the ones using the Net?

We view the brain holistically, comprised of component parts that perform particular functions, and the brain in turn instructs our body what to do. Why do we treat the Net any different?

The collective of machines and human minds is, by definition, an “artificial intelligence” because there is nothing natural about the electronic unification of our minds. Andy Clark sums it up well, in that we are “human-technology symbionts”, “thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across biological brain and non-biological circuitry”.

To understand this point, we should look into our history towards Socrates. He argued that:

“[Writing] will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves.”

More than that, Socrates saw it as detrimental to society, because it destroyed community, and shifted the individual out from that community.

Over two thousand years of individuality later, a similar meme spreads regarding how the Net makes us stupid. Carr argued that the Net “is rewiring the neural circuitry of our brains in a way that diminishes our capacity for concentration, reflection, and contemplation”.

That “concentration, reflection, and contemplation” are inherently individual pursuits. Like Socrates was lamenting about the birth of individuality, Carr is essentially talking about the destruction of that individuality and the rise, once more, of communities, of tribes, in McLuhans “global village”.

But, there is more to it than just remembering, or the end of the individual. The BBC’s Bill Thompson wrote that:

Perhaps the real danger posed by screen-based technologies is not that they are rewiring our brains but that the collection of search engines, news feeds and social tools encourages us to link to, follow and read only that which we can easily assimilate.

As archaeologist Lambros Malafouris has noted how “ancient clay tablets” used for writing “were not mere objects [but] integral adjuncts of the human memory system”, so too we can recognise how the Net has become integral to our thinking. And, like Socrates identified how writing allowed us to stop remembering, what Thompson and Carr are identifying is that we no longer need to challenge our beliefs. We may no longer really need to think. Already, the connections are being made by machines, rather than us.

A lot of our decisions are based on the almost clichéd ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’. What this means is that we’re making our decisions on information generated by similar thinking people. More than that, we’re doing it based on logical decisions made by machines. You go to Amazon, browse their suggested book store. You buy something, marvel at how accurately they figured out what you like, but what really happened was that you were nudged towards something comfortable, in line with what you generally believe in, because of mathematical equations evaluating not just large numbers of other people’s actions, but you as an individual, too. This scenario is played out across search engines, blogs, social networks … all across the Net.

Increasingly, the actions we take are being based on information – instructions, even – by machines. In the same way that McLuhan showed us that it didn’t matter whether a machine was making cornflakes or cars, so too it doesn’t matter what the action is that we took based on the data they suggested.

When you view it in this fashion, it’s clear that the Net is thinking, and it does take action, it just happens to do so on a collective basis that incorporates us.

The only question then is: who owns the machines?


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August 4, 2008