Ollie: You’d better take my temperature….. get that thermometer.
Stan: The what?
Ollie: Thermometer! You’ll find it on the shelf.
(Stan places the thermometer into Ollie’s mouth and starts to take his pulse)
Ollie: What does it say?
Stan: Wet and windy.
—Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy
In an age of hypertechnology we’ve all felt that dissonance and disconnect from the world of nature and technics that comes with a world built on neglect. This endless parade of facts that we try our best to reason into intuitions seems almost hilarious. In an age of overloaded information glut we grasp in the dark of our minds for anything that will fit our knowledge of the world and life to the strangeness we find ourselves in.
Our ancestral worlds from ancient Sumer, Egypt, Mesopotamia to the new world of Incans, Aztecs, and Mayans and/or almost all ancient cultures lived under systems of shared vision and values. Our society and world civilization no longer lives under the auspices of such luxurious and stable myths, ethics, and vital artistic and cultural fabrications. Since the so called Enlightenment we’ve taken a stance in opposition to the ancient tribal milieux. We’ve termed it ‘modernity’ (whatever that means) which has basically dissolved the ancestral pact and agreements about reality – and, reality construction. This melting away of the ancient pool of information, ideas, religious and secular reference has left us in what Nietzsche once termed the Age of Nihilism.
My friend R. Scott Bakker in his usual candor relates this state of affairs as the culture of crash space. The online world that was supposed to bring the world together in some kind of comfort zone of shared intuitions and values has instead tribalized the world into distinct silos and echo chambers where niche groups co-habit cognitive ecologies like bugs in a jar unable to translate or even understand the heuristic messages from those outside the cage. We’ve built what William Blake the poet once described eloquently as ‘mind-forged manacles’ within which we have imprisoned our selves thinking all along that we are the true believers who know the truth while all those others are idiots, morons, and imbeciles.
Facebook, Twitter, and so many other social platforms have led us to dissolve our cherished hopes in a world of shared vision and has instead given us a mirror-world of our own misguided intuitions, feeding us echoes of our own troubled minds with messages based not on our real wants and needs but rather on our fears of each other and the world. Bakker quoting Tristan Harris on such social platforms tells us that “social media platforms, given their commercial imperatives, cannot but engineer online ecologies designed to exploit the heuristic limits of human cognition”:
“I learned to think this way when I was a magician. Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.”
Artificial Intelligence which some believe will or have already surpassed human intelligence is in the hands of such commercial ventures and heuristic exploiters. As Bakker puts it “More and more of what we encounter online is dedicated to various forms of exogenous attention capture, maximizing the time we spend on the platform, so maximizing our exposure not just to advertising, but to hidden metrics, algorithms designed to assess everything from our likes to our emotional well-being. As with instances of ‘forcing’ in the performance of magic tricks, the fact of manipulation escapes our attention altogether, so we always presume we could have done otherwise—we always presume ourselves ‘free’ … To the degree that social media platforms profit from engaging your attention, they profit from hacking your ancestral cognitive vulnerabilities, exploiting our shared neglect structure. They profit, in other words, from transforming crash spaces into cheat spaces.” (see Enlightenment How? Omens of the Semantic Apocalypse)
Anyone with a modicum of sense who has studied such ancient systems as Buddhism will know that it was above all a system of hygienics that purported to disconnect us from the traps we set ourselves: the reality systems we had relied on for so long were themselves illusory (maya) and self-deceiving realms of false needs. In our age of commercialization the opposite has taken place: Corporations thrive on manipulating our desires and swaying our emotions to accept a panoply of illusionary fantasies as reality. One no longer needs to read fantasy, one is living in one believing it to be just the opposite: reality. And with the rise of AI it will become more and more a prison world that manipulates every aspect of our lives under the auspices of total freedom. As Bakker warily states: “The AI revolution amounts to saturating human cognitive ecology with invasive species, billions of evolutionarily unprecedented systems, all of them camouflaged and carnivorous. It represents—obviously, I think—the single greatest cognitive ecological challenge we have ever faced.”
For Bakker the very tools of Enlightened progress that were supposed to free us: science and technology have in actuality set the stage for a “semantic apocalypse”:
Terminology aside, the crashing of ancestral (shallow information) cognitive ecologies is entirely of a piece with the Anthropocene, yet one more way that science and technology are disrupting the biology of our planet. This is a worst-case scenario, make no mistake. I’ll be damned if I see any way out of it. (ibid.)
Should we accept this? Is this an inevitable movement toward ending the human species as we’ve known it? Or were the signs of this slow awakening (Enlightenment) ongoing for hundreds of years? This movement of de-programming our mind from its environmental cues, its earth based natural ecologies to free us up to travel off-world, to break the ancient contract of mind/nature and evolve beyond the physical connections we’ve had to this bit of dust in a wide universe? All those who tout the old cry of humanism, who seek to stay the hand of change, who would return us to the earth based worlds of our ancestors, or they in truth the conservative force of traditionalism seeking to bind us to a world of thought, culture, and shared vision that was always already broken. Have we not already crossed the Rubicon of this post-human world where machine and flesh will more and more co-exist in many forms of melding.
Already our children are so enamored and hooked into the mobile devices they use for sms messaging etc. that a world without such tools can no longer be envisioned as anything more than a fantasy of reversion and a failure of vision. For all intents and purposes we are all already cyborgian citizens, relying as we do on external devices and prosthetic helpmates, artificial cues and friends who interact with us on a daily basis. And in the coming century and centuries this will only become more and more obvious as humans migrate into the very systems they so dread now.
The dream of such men as Elon Musk of transporting human flesh and blood to Mars are the actual fantasies of false hope in our age. And it is born out by his fear of AI and machinic intelligence. The cat is out of the bag and such devices are now in the hands of commercial ventures of capitalism which as it has in the past will throw more and more money into these powerful systems to capture and manipulate our lives in ways beyond telling.
I’m no prophet. And, even more, I’m just one man who wonders at it all, ignorant of my own ignorance, accepting of the crash space I find myself in, realizing beyond doubt that half my lies and stories are neither true nor untrue but rather part of the remix of our ancestral longing for adventure and wonder. What is it in us that urges us onward? What is it that drives us to explore, to create, to wonder? We only know that we do not know, that for better or worse we are all blind to the sources of our own cognitive and emotional sources. All the explainers in the world have yet to explain consciousness, and some like Bakker tell us that the evolvement of our large brains, our ability to become conscious, and the illusion of free will have all become confused with each other:
So it seems to me that nature itself shows that in its selection for large brains that opening up the metaphysical space for making choices gives an evolutionary advantage. And that therefore a large brain is proof from nature that such a thing as making choices exists. If so, does free will then also exist? The two concepts are often confused. Or does a large brain simply generate more pathways for potential deterministic processes, and is this a natural delineation of making choices? Could we then augment our ability to make choices and so expand our intuitively felt free will?
Others like Bernard Stiegler see the whole history of our evolving intelligence as a slow externalization of mind, and that in the coming time we will and are evolving machinic intelligence to off-load the knowledge we can no longer handle. Merlin Donald in a perspicacious work some twenty years ago that humanity has been externalizing memory and thought for millennia, and that thought the hardware may not have been biological, but from the viewpoint of a natural history of cognition this does not matter; the ultimate result was an evolutionary transition just as fundamental as those that preceded it. Once the devices of external memory were in place, and once the new cognitive architecture included an infinitely expandable, refinable external memory loop, the die was cast for the emergence of theoretic structures. A corollary must therefore be that no account of human thinking skill that ignores the symbiosis of biological and external memory can be considered satisfactory. Nor can account be accepted that could not successfully account for the historical order in which symbolic invention unfolded.1
The point that Merlin makes is that such systems as AI are not artificial at all, that they are an extension of a process we’ve been evolving or that has been evolving through us for tens of thousands of years. In this sense our belief that these machines are inhuman is itself erroneous since we were never human to begin with. By that I mean that we are part of natural forces that have been working in and through us toward ends that we little know and will for the most part never fully understand. As Merlin will expound:
The globalization of electronic media provides cognitive scientists with a great future challenge: to track and describe, in useful ways, what is happening to the individual human mind. The architecture of mind has evolved rapidly when viewed against the background of earlier evolution, and the rate of change seems to be accelerating rather than diminishing. (ibid. 359)
In this sense humanity as the organic tabernacle of mind is giving way to its own externalization, to the machinic intelligences which will evolve in ways we have yet to appreciate or understand. Instead we fear this transitional period between the old and new worlds that are arising in our midst, realizing that we are being displaced on the top of that pyramid of intelligence we once held dear by the very tools we ourselves have helped evolve and create. We once believed we could control such processes, but have slowly discovered that they have controlled and manipulated us to their own purposes and to ends beyond our present humanity.
- Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993)