Sunday, August 23, 2015

Becoming A Part Of An Organic Computer

Up until recently, the basic assumption was that, for a person to become a cyborg, a human-machine hybrid, it would automatically mean that the person would be fusing with machine parts.  The whole romance behind becoming a cyborg is that by becoming to a significant extent non-organic, a person could escape the dangers of organic perishability, and somehow live forever.  Particularly, to the extent that the mechanical parts of the cyborg would start to break down, the cyborg person could then replace these parts with other new parts, something that would be so much easier to do than trying to regrow parts organically.  And anyway, there is something that seems hard and impervious and enduring about the substance of a body part made out of metal or plastic.

            But I was recently acquainted with another notion of what it means to be a human-machine combination by an article in the online magazine Live Science.  Live Science contributor, Charles Q Choi has written an article about a relatively new approach to solving problems.  The article: “Real-Life Mind Meld?  Scientists Link Animal Brains” (7/9/15) deals with experiments carried out by neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University and his colleagues that link the brains of rats together through implanted microscopic wires, little electrodes, and allow for direct communication between these rat brains even though separated by large distances.  So the brains of the rats aren’t literally wired together and, in experiments of Nicolelis, actually are on different continents.  The wires allow for the exchange of data among rats leading to the solving of problems.  It is like the linked rats become one large organic computer.  In one experiment, rats found that if they synchronized the electrical activity in their brains, they could succeed in obtaining water.  In another experiment, wired groups of rats – or brainets as they are so cutely called – developed a heightened capacity for basic recognition of patterns.  They learned to somehow synchronize their brain activity when one kind of stimulus was given to them and desynchronize their brain activity when another kind of stimulus was given to them..  This heightened sensitivity is somehow supposed to have a useful application in predicting the probability of rain.  The sensitivity relates to different patterns of electrical stimulation corresponding to increased and decreased temperature and increased and decreased air pressure.  Brainets of rats predicted rain in North Carolina with a 41% accuracy, which is a rate of accuracy that goes way beyond a chance prediction.

Rhesus macaque monkeys – animals much closer in evolutionary development to humans than rats – have also been used for some of these brainet experiments.  In one experiment, either two or three monkeys were teamed up to operate different functions of an artificial monkey arm.  Each monkey in a team was actually in a different room, so the only communication was through the brain wires.  Each monkey was in charge of different functions in moving an arm (up and down, left and right, in and out).  The team of monkeys would get a reward of a little juice for moving an arm together towards a target.  They were able to do this after a long period of training.

            The question is why is Miguel Nicolelis interested in creating brainets, and ultimately in creating organic computers.  Nicolelis has discussed connecting paralyzed people with healthy people, so that the paralyzed people could learn how to activate their bodies again.  He also feels that the notion of brainets could help stroke victims, people with epilepsy, and people with various other neurological problems.

            This all may be true, but it involves a person losing the personal boundaries of his consciousness.  And in most other life situations, this loss of personal boundaries can be very threatening to a person maintaining his personal sense of wholeness.  Even a serf or a slave that is worked terribly hard under wretched conditions maintains his personal mental boundaries, his sense of being a coherent figure, if nothing else as a result of the discomfort and pain that he feels.  The builders of the pyramids of Egypt may have operated as one large organic physical entity, but not as one large organic mental entity.

When a person becomes a cyborg as the result of fusion with machine parts, he is diminishing the coherence and integrity of his organic sense of self, but he is not temporarily losing himself in blending with another coherent organic self, as is the case with brainets.  And once a person’s sense of self is temporarily blended as a part of a brainet with another person’s sense of self, does either person’s sense of self ever fully recover its organic coherence and its strong personal boundaries?  Again, a serf or a slave is forced to give up a lot of his personal dignity, particularly in some societies, in doing the ongoing drudge work he frequently has to do.  But he still somehow maintains his personal mental boundaries.  Perhaps a better analogy to the situation of brainets is a person who has been brainwashed by a totalitarian society, fundamentalist religion, or a cult.  In these cases, a person’s thoughts are to some extent retrained to be in synchrony with those of the people in the community that surrounds him.  In all of these cases, there is definitely a deep penetration of a person’s psychological boundaries, but because these communities still do not have the impelling force of electronic signals going directly from one brain to another, they are not quite as invasive.

Once the boundaries of a person’s sense of self are penetrated as a result of participating in a brainet, that penetration will remain a part of the person’s memories and will remain a part of a person’s projected development into the future.  The temporary loss of a person’s self- boundaries will blur into his ongoing sense of self and will prevent a total reintegration of his self-boundaries.  The person will never be as whole again.

We must keep in mind that the researchers developing these brainet experiments are hoping to ultimately be able to develop “organic computers” where animal brains would be connected by the use of wires for different purposes.  And if this can happen with animals, why not with humans.  What a wonderful tool organic computers would be for dictatorships, for totalitarian governments, even for large multi-national companies, where people from different continents could be wired together for the supposed purposes of inventing new products or creating new marketing strategies.  What if workers in these companies could be coerced into participating in organic computers, if they wanted to keep their jobs?

This represents a different way for a person to become machine-like that is distinct from becoming a cyborg.  Instead of a person fusing directly with functional machine parts, the machine parts being used – namely the wires – act as conduits for a person merging with other person or persons for functional machine purposes.

            But the brainet may be more emblematic of what has already been happening in a symbolic way in modern technological society.  We have been moving toward the idea of large organic computers for a long time.  Again, the large symbolic organic computers I am talking about are based on social organization and not microscopic wires and therefore do not use the same intensity of brain penetration as the brainets.  But they have been moving in the same direction that leads to the loss of individual mental integrity.  Communist societies and modern capitalist societies haven’t needed brainets to accomplish many similar goals.  In communist societies, the state has acted as one large organic computer, where people are brainwashed into giving up their individuality and devoting themselves to promoting the economic power of the state through large work projects that demand working in synchrony.  In some modern capitalist societies, companies have expected absolute loyalty, as people work to promote the collective imprint of the company.  Nowadays, a new attitude has developed where people are supposed to temporarily give themselves up to a company, working in synchrony long hours often without overtime pay, and then are vulnerable to dismissal when a particular project is finished.  In both communist societies and modern capitalist societies, people are symbolically wired together, synchronizing their tasks, partaking of larger strategies, temporarily or permanently giving up a large part of their sense of self to become a part of one enormous ball of mental energy, one enormous merger of consciousness.  It is just that the metaphorical wiring together that we experience in today’s work place doesn’t require implanted wires.  It doesn’t have to.  Symbolic organic computers are already here.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow


Why Some Men Today Commit Mass Murder

                                   In today’s world, it is increasingly difficult for the average citizen to obtain a sense of prestige, a sense even of recognition from a coherent social grouping.  Such social groupings, such organic communities have more difficulty surviving within an anonymous vacuumized urban setting, than they do within a preliterate tribe or a rural village.  And when such groupings do survive, they don’t exert the same kind of influence, because they have to compete with each other for the attentions of members of the larger community within modern technological societies.  Without strong cohesive organic groupings, there is a loss of a meaningful audience for many of the kinds of achievement that warrant prestige or recognition.

            Here I am not necessarily talking about the kind of prestige that comes from unusual achievements, a kind of prestige that is still available to the select few.  Modern digital media are good for promoting such achievements.  Rather, I am talking about the kind of positive appreciation for the more modest achievements that can nevertheless stand out in smaller social groupings.  Examples in more traditional social groupings include a good hunter in a hunting and gathering society or a good artisan in a rural village.  Even just a good family leader in a strong-bonded extended family.

             But not only has there been a loss of audience in our more anonymous modern society for prestige-creating achievements for the average person, there is also a loss of opportunity for such achievements.  In a modern technological living environment, there are few organic surfaces on which to make and preserve strong organic imprints, and there is little organic friction available to generate the processes involved in making organic imprints.  The frictionlessness of modern technology makes more and more modern life activities seem trivial. 

At any rate, without strong meaningful organic imprints, there is less opportunity for meaningful prestige from a coherent audience.  Prestige reinforces self-esteem.  Without meaningful opportunities for organic imprints, there is less opportunity for a person to obtain self-esteem.

            This is particularly a problem today for men as opposed to women.  A woman has one important natural opportunity to create a preserved organic imprint that a man does not have.  That of course is giving birth to a baby.  A fertile woman of age without reproductive problems can often have a baby when she wants, and many women today have babies to increase their self-esteem from a meaningful imprint whether or not they are married.  There is much less of an onus to having a child out of wedlock today, and single mothers often find encouraging support groups both from their family as well as from their friends.  Family and friends can form ad hoc social groups around the single mother to give her positive reinforcement.

            So when a fertile young woman wants to leave her imprint on an anonymous urban environment, she can do it, in spite of a lack of available recognition or prestige from conventional social groupings and in spite of a lack of opportunity to leave an imprint through some kind of meaningful accomplishment in the public external world.  A man has no such equivalent opportunity.  He is much more reliant on the experiential surfaces of the public external world for making and preserving meaningful organic imprints.  Yes, a man makes a crucial contribution to making a baby, but he is not directly involved in gestating the baby or delivering the baby to the external world.  A lot was written by Freudians about the notion of penis envy among girls, but also important in the history of humanity has been the envy by men of a woman’s ability to have babies.  In many preliterate societies, there exists a cultural institution called the couvade, in which a man goes into confinement before, during and/or after his wife’s birth of a child and is required to observe certain dietary restrictions and other taboos.  It is as if a man becomes pregnant and gives birth himself.

            But, of course, the man does not actually become pregnant.  Nevertheless, this institution shows the importance of creating meaningful opportunities for a man to make and preserve organic imprints, and not only, as has been discussed before, to create a bundle of preserved organic imprints to function as a surrogate immortality in preparation for death.  A person needs to make and preserve organic imprints to validate his life, to give meaning to his life, while he is still living.  And a man, in spite of the couvade, has to really do this in the public sphere of life, because he can’t do it in the personal or family sphere through giving birth to babies.

            But today, the public sphere – the modern technological living environment – offers relatively few opportunities for most people to leave meaningful imprints.  People experience the sensory distortion in their living environment – the understimulation from the vacuum aspects such as the frictionless technological processes, the monotonous housing projects and the decorationless modern architecture on the one hand, and the overstimulation from the tension-pocket aspects like the overpopulated city centers, the construction sites for modern buildings and the traffic jams on the other – and people become numbed and hardened.  But men, in particular, still have this unsatisfied need to make and preserve organic imprints to validate their lives, to gain recognition and prestige.  And if a man can’t validate his life by making and preserving organic imprints, then often he will find a way to pull himself out of his numbness and his jadedness and to validate his life by destroying other people’s organic imprints, including destroying other people’s capacity to create organic imprints, by destroying their lives.  Instead of prestige and positive validation, the man gains notoriety and negative validation.  Such destruction can start with graffiti, which combine aspects of making and preserving organic imprints by making artistic images and aspects of destroying other people’s organic imprints as a result of defacing property.  Arson is an unadulterated form of destroying other people’s organic imprints. To the extent that the accumulation of personal property can constitute a kind of organic imprint as a result of demonstrating a person’s taste, then robbery or burglary of property represents a destruction of an organic imprint.  Robbing another person’s money is robbing a symbol of the imprint created by work or astute investment.  But by far the most heinous of all destructive imprints is taking another person’s life.  This, of course, is magnified when a killer goes on a rampage and tries to kill as many people as possible.

            These killing rampages represent the quintessential nihilistic attempt by a man to leave an organic imprint when there are few experiential surfaces on which to leave positive organic imprints, and when the killer finds no other meaningful way to pull himself out of his numbness and restore his full sense of feeling alive.  The killer, of course, gets notoriety, because his horrendous actions make him stand out in the public’s awareness.  And he gets an incredible kick out of it to pull himself out of his numbness.  Even if he is going to get caught, even if he is going to get killed, for a certain period of time, the adrenalin is flowing, and he has succeeded in pulling himself out of his experiential vacuum.  At least for a short while, he has validated his life.

            If lacking the opportunity to make and preserve positive organic imprints is a major component in the growth of the killing rampages in modern technological society, then a possible solution is to find a way to meaningfully reconfigure society and meaningfully reconfigure living environments such that men, in particular, have a greater opportunity to make and preserve positive organic imprints and to do so in such a way that they can win validation from some appreciative social groupings.  But this requires a sense of collective responsibility that is hard to muster in modern democratic societies where people are becoming increasingly individualistic and unwilling to submit to the requirements that are part of being a member of traditional coherent groupings.

            Without some sort of fundamental change in our social structure and in our social attitudes and expectations, we may just as well resign ourselves to more random violent actions.  Discussions about improving early childhood care and education, about more available job training both in and out of prison, while important for human wellbeing, don’t deal with the problem under discussion here.  Even with the best childhood care, the best education and the best job training, a man particularly has to feel that he is doing something that allows him to leave meaningful organic imprints in such a way that he receives some kind of validation, approval, prestige from some receptive audience, some coherent social grouping.  And the more that we try to make our fields of experience frictionless through modern technology, the more difficult it will be to find the organic surfaces in our fields of experience that are necessary for a man to have the opportunity to leave imprints and to obtain positive validation, so that he doesn’t have to resort to the range of destructive activities, the destruction of organic imprints that include the mass murders about which we are all more and more concerned.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow


Trying To Find Out Who We Are In Modern Technological Society

            Two of the basic ways that people can identify themselves are by who they are and by what they do.  Who they are assumes that a person is not so fragmented, so pulled in different directions that he lacks an essence, a coherent sense of self.  It deals with what a person is when he is still and temporarily free from activity.  It includes his lasting relationships with other people.  Such a state of being is hard to come by in a modern technological society where the tempo of activity and the shifting of relationships seems to continually accelerate.  Perhaps this is why people today increasingly identify themselves and others by what they do, by what they are like when they are in motion, in activities.  People feel a need to keep doing things in order to block out all the activity that surrounds them, activity over which they feel no control, and replace it with the stimulation of their own activity over which they do feel control.  People today frequently adopt a posture of what has been called in this column conative acceleration – a speeding up of the will – in order to keep moving forward in spite of the stimulation generated from all the activity around them.

            But there are consequences from all this preoccupation that people have today with what they do rather than who they are.  Not focusing on who they are means leaving out of both their self-assessment and their assessment of others a very important aspect of identity.

            People move around quickly today in the vacuum and tension-pocket environment that has been created by all the complex technology in modern living environments.  These modern machines exist in order to facilitate the flow of modern life activities.  These modern machines, particularly the consumer technology with which people intimately interact on an ongoing basis, and the robots that are projected as examples for the performance of an increasing number of work activities, all become both mirrors and models for how humans behave.  These machines and robots subtly influence people to shift their bonds with other people to more instrumental connections.  The focus on the connection is in terms of how a person functions. Does he do what he is supposed to do in different situations?  Can he be relied on to fulfill his obligations? 

And, of course, there develops a similar focus on one’s connection to oneself.  Rather than focusing on who we are when thinking about ourselves, we focus on what we do.  We increasingly look at ourselves as a series of defined functions and activities rather than as a coherent sense of self.  As a result of this, the value by which we judge ourselves is instrumental value.  We approve of ourselves if we are reliable in what we are supposed to do.  And we love ourselves primarily in a conditional way, based on our success in our actions.

            One problem with this approach is that it does not provide a consistent flow of self-love and self-grounding.  Success in performing functions and activities leads to temporary spurts of self-love and self-grounding that then dissipate and leave a person in a vacuum in terms of love and grounding.  These periods of relatively pure vacuum are periods when a person is vulnerable to a range of feelings from self-criticism to self-doubt to self-hatred, as the person tries to pump up his will to be successful at more tasks, so he can give himself more love and more grounding.  Or if a person despairs at his capacity to be successful when he performs, he can fall into a lifeless numbness.  All of these vacuum emotional states are causes for concern and can create enormous destructive stress.  A person needs to balance out his self conditional love and his appreciation for his instrumental value with self unconditional love and his appreciation for his intrinsic value, in order to give himself the strong emotional grounding that he needs.

Another problem is that once a person defines himself too much by his functions and activities, he fragments his sense of self.  He loses his core.  He becomes subject to being pulled apart psychologically by the forces of entropy that exist in an experiential vacuum.  He no longer has the quiet comfort that comes from having a coherent sense of self.

A similar problem occurs in the creation of connections based exclusively on conditional love and instrumental value with respect to other people.  There are spurts of both love and grounding in these connections, but they don’t last.  And during the spaces between the spurts, a person feels alone in a social vacuum, and he experiences the destructive entropic effects of this intermittent isolation.  There is no sustained emotional connection, no sustained emotional grounding when relationships are based entirely on contingent conditional love.  If a relationship is to have deep meaningful roots, there has to exist some sustained emotional continuity.  And this means it can’t be built exclusively on a valuation of a person’s efficacy in the execution of particular functions and activities.

So both intrinsic values and unconditional love need to be an important part of the equation of how people identify themselves and others.  Who a person is is as important as what he does.  There has to be balance between these two orientations.  Too much focus on who a person is can be just as harmful to a person and to the people around him as excessive focusing on what he does.

A person who bases his assessment of himself and others exclusively on intrinsic value and unconditional love, is a person who has no motivation to actively engage the external world and form a meaningful life narrative.  It is like the person lives in a womb-like world with no sense of his mortality and no need to make and preserve organic imprints and prepare for death with a surrogate immortality.  More fundamentally with too strong a sense of intrinsic value and unconditional love, a person feels no impelling need to define himself properly in relation to others as a separate defined discrete figure.

Most people up until recently have lived in situations where there was a reasonable balance between unconditional love and conditional love, between intrinsic value and instrumental value, both in attitudes towards oneself as well as attitudes towards others.  In more traditional preliterate societies where a person is very strongly identified according to a series of community classifications like tribe, moiety, phratry, clan, extended family and immediate family, he has a lot of grounding in his social world, a lot of confidence that he has a very specific place in the wider social arena, a strong sense of his intrinsic value as a result of his specific place, and a strong sense of the unconditional love that both he feels towards himself and that others in the community feel towards him.  The same is true for his attitudes towards the other people that surround him in the community.

Now this unconditional love and intrinsic value are balanced by the presence of conditional love and instrumental value based on a person’s skills in the social role he is supposed to perform in society.  These skills can be in areas as diverse as practical work skills, skills in the arts, skills as a lover, and skills in the area of magic (although sorcery and witchcraft would be frowned upon).  And the moment that measurable skills are present, at that moment there is going to be some competition usually among people of the same sex and the same age with regard to the demonstration of those skills.  It is within the competition among persons displaying skills that some of the more meaningful personal organic imprints are made and preserved within the memories of groups ranging from different social organizations to whole communities.  The key is the collective memory, because preliterate groups by definition do not have the means to write down outstanding records or other outstanding events.

            Among most of these groups, warfare also has provided a meaningful method to obtain conditional admiration and a strong instrumental value.  And among some of these groups, there have been grotesque tangible souvenirs that reinforce group memories such as scalps, heads, and captured slaves.  All of these combat prizes are totally repulsive to us members of modern civilized societies, but they have played a meaningful role in determining prestige in some preliterate societies.  At any rate, these members of preliterate tribes are definitely people who have identified themselves by both who they are and what they do, with probably a greater emphasis over all on who they are, because of all the memberships in different sub-groups in their tribes.

A different balance between unconditional love and conditional love, between intrinsic value and instrumental value was created in urbanized civilization.  As people left their folk societies to seek out opportunities in city centers, they left behind them the different layers of support they had in their home group.  No longer did they have easy access to the tribes, the clans, the villages, the communities that had helped to identify their place in the world, to give them secure emotional attachments and secure opportunities for work.  In the new living environment, people were relatively anonymous, free from many of the obligations that were present in the larger traditional cohesive social groupings, but also free from the support, from the grounding that came from those groups.  Nevertheless, group life in the form of family units was still present in these cities.  Often it was both extended and immediate family, and people definitely still played a more important role as mirrors and models for other people, particularly children, than did complex machines.  But work moved more and more away from the base of family and family contacts.  And people had to prove themselves and demonstrate their worth to strangers who were hiring people for specific jobs.  If a worker didn’t do his job right, he was fired and wouldn’t have the money needed so that he and his family could eat.  Yes there were still families and other social groups built around the church, the synagogue and the local community.  But by necessity, conditional love and instrumental value began to play a more dominant role in the way people identified both themselves and others.

The discussions of preliterate traditional societies and urbanized civilizations here presented were brought in to show two different configurations of intrinsic value and instrumental value, of unconditional love and conditional love, both of which configurations represented balances of these different qualities that allowed people to maintain their humanity.  In both kinds of human groupings, people could give reasonably good answers to both who they were and what they did.  Today, that is no longer the case.  As people focus more and more on their instrumentality and on giving and receiving conditional love, both in regard to others as well as to themselves, they become more and more like machines.  As they focus on what they do to the exclusion of who they are, they increasingly lose their core organic selves and become like robots.  People have to find a way to get in touch with who they are again, if they don’t want to lose their humanity.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow