Monday, May 30, 2016

Becoming A Part Of The Internet of Dogs

            The main focus of this column has been the effects of modern technology on living environments and on humans and their behavior.  My purpose has been to show how increasingly people are no longer simply the masters of their technology, but are now gradually becoming a part of it, becoming more and more robotic.  This presupposes a superior complex human mental capacity and mental functioning that ongoing exposure to modern complex technology can subtly reconfigure.  The technology is created as an extension of humans, and humans end up increasingly becoming an extension of their technology.

            But now more and more effort is being put into creating technology that impacts the behavior of animals that are mentally not as complex, not as intelligent as humans.  Obviously, these animals have no say, no choice with regard to their interactions with this technology.  Humans make the choices for them.  And not being able to easily get into the head of a dog, for instance, that experiences some of the new technology, makes the need for speculation even greater than when dealing with humans.  Nevertheless, I think that much can be learned by trying to imagine how dogs, the beloved loyal pets of humans, experience some of the new technology being put in their life paths, and that much of what we can perceive in dogs can have an application to our explorations of the behavior of humans within their technological surroundings.

            In an article that appeared towards the beginning of this column, “Animals, Humans and Robots” (12/12/07), I discussed what I perceived as the operations of the minds of animals.  Basically, I postulated that their minds operated on the basis of “a relatively few instinctual determinate discrete stimuli and a lot of intermingled indeterminate continual stimuli that produce gross responses.”  I pointed out that “Domesticated animals operate on the basis of more discrete stimuli than their wild relatives as a result of human training” But here the emphasis has to be on human training with humans naturally being physically present to train the animals.  Also we are assuming that the animals are being trained either on a farm or ranch, on a lawn or in a home.  In other words, in a living environment where the animals feel somewhat sensorily grounded.  This is very different from the highly focused discrete stimuli that rats receive in a maze in a lab experiment, where the only grounding that the rats experience is the surrogate grounding that they experience from the treats they obtain as a result of performing certain discrete tasks in a proper way.

            Nowadays, there is a more subtle way of taking aspects of grounding away from a domesticated animal in the process of focusing his attention for training purposes.  The animal is kept grounded in his actual living environment, but the presence of his trainer, which usually means his owner, is mediated by modern technology.  A person is able to dispense treats through a device that is connected to a computer.  The person can watch his dog through a camera and communicate with him through two-way audio.  With one device, Furbo, the treats are randomly tossed to allow the dog to play a remote game of fetch.  Another product of this nature, iCPooch, has a way of connecting up a smartphone or tablet to the device so that the dog can see its owner in a video call.  Anyway, treats can be dispensed to reward good behavior in a special tray. iCPooch is still in a prototype stage, but it obviously represents an attempt to provide greater intimacy remotely to your dog.  Just as in their relationships with other humans, people are trying harder and harder to have a good remote connection with their animals.  The question is if animals will adjust as easily to spending so much time interacting with their owners in a phone reality or a screen reality.

            I would tend to think that it would be in the long run significantly more difficult for dogs than it is for humans.  Not that dogs won’t be able to adjust on some level.  But it would definitely represent a greater detachment from the configuration of stimuli to which they are accustomed and even built for.  Dogs tend to experience the world much more in terms of flowing blendable continual stimuli than do humans.  This means not only experiencing the world as a more coherent unit, but also being attuned to a form of sensation – smell – that is much more immediate and with a tendency to blur together with the organism experiencing the smell.  Yes, dogs have a much stronger sense of smell than humans.  Dogs have hundreds of millions of olfactory receptors in their noses compared to a few million for humans.  And one might say that because the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to smell is forty times larger than the equivalent part in humans, that the dog’s brain is able to turn smells into defined figures much easier than the human brain.  Think of the dogs that are trained to sniff out drugs at airports.  But because smells are based on chemicals that can mix with other chemicals in the air and that exist, to some extent, independent of solid bounded physical figures, smells make for much less stable figures than sights.  Smells dissipate into the world as flowing blendable continual stimuli unlike solid visible objects or landscapes.

            Furthermore, dogs tend to respond globally to the situations that they experience.  Happiness, fear, anger, sadness.  And they have a way of sensing the emotional states of people.  In general, it could be stated that although dogs experience many more different kinds of smells than humans, because odors and aromas are not sharply defined discrete stimuli the way visual stimuli are, the smells and the audio and visual stimuli all tend to blur at the borders to become a more coherent field of experience than humans would experience.  This is reinforced by the fact that dogs simply don’t perceive detail or color very well in their visual surroundings. It would be almost as if the whole world was one collage of overlapping sensory pieces that blur together.  In other words, compartmentalization of the sensory world would not be quite as easy for dogs as it is for humans who have a strong visual sense and a strong control exerted by their cognitive faculties.

            Now dogs do have a strong sense of hearing and can hear frequencies of sound that humans can’t.  From that point of view, a conversation over two-way audio and over Facebook would seemingly be an acceptable form of communication from a dog’s point of view.  And it also should make for a more adequate form of life experience for the dog.  But the problem is that two-way audio and Facebook are intrinsically compartmentalized disconnected ungrounded forms of life experience.  Of course, so is television, and some dogs do seem to remain hypnotized to the shifting moving images they see on the television screen.  But there is no emotional pressure on them to interpret what they see, because the narrative in front of them doesn’t involve the participation of their owner or owners.  Obviously, it is important for the dogs to be able to interpret and understand their owners, because in their way of thinking, understanding their owners’ behavior and communication is essential to smooth interaction and to their survival.

            And one thing that is definitely missing from both two-way audio and Facebook is, of course, a use of the sense of smell.  Dogs can pick up a lot about people by how they smell.  And that aspect of their owners’ sensory presence is eliminated with these technological devices.  In a sense, it means that the dogs can’t feel fully stimulated to life by the sensory presentation of their owners through these modern devices.  And this sensorily deficient presentation of their owners blurs together in the minds of dogs with the real life presence of their owners when the owners are around.  In this way, in a sense, somehow the owners are no longer going to seem as fully real to their dogs.  The technology mediates by shutting off smell and thus, a total sensory experience of owners, so that the owners will seem more ghostlike and less compelling in their direct impact when they are actually physically present..

            In truth, in order to preserve a strong compelling image of owners, it may be better for dogs to be left by themselves when they are by themselves, and to be able to preserve a memory of their owners from those times when the owners are actually fully present.  So that the dogs know that when their owners are present, they are fully sensorily present.  The technology that is supposed to make the dogs less lonely and more trainable from a distance may end up making the dogs more lonely and making the dogs feel a weaker total bond to their owners, and therefore, less likely to listen to their owners for training purposes.

            And although humans don’t rely so much on smell for connecting with other people (although more than most humans think), this situation with dogs and owners may have a parallel in the relationship of modern children with their parents.  The development of weaker connections between children and parents as a result of increasing connections built around phone calls, texting, and skyping can be considered a partial explanation of why children today are so rebellious and, in many cases, self-destructive and suicidal.  There is no substitute for organic grounding and for love, no substitute for a parent being fully physically present with his child.  And anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling himself.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Turning Poems And Plays Into Data

            The pervasive penetration of modern technology is now extending into areas of human life that one would never have associated with modern technology.  I have talked in the past of the importance of protecting the humanities both in school and in one’s daily life as a protection against the malign influences of technology that lead to people becoming robotized.  But perhaps I was wrong in my assessment of the protection that the humanities could offer.  There is a whole new area of study that has been developing for some time that I admit I was not aware of.  The area is called digital humanities and, although there are many different definitions that attempt to explain it, a simple description of it would be the intersection of computer processes with humanities subject matter.  Computers are used to sort out, to archive and to curate the humanities.

            It sounds harmless enough.  An attempt, if nothing else, to use digital connectedness to organize humanities scholarship and to perhaps find interesting statistical juxtapositions to help with new interpretations of different creative works.  But I believe that the input of computer processes on humanities material may have a dark side.  And this relates to how we will experience works in the humanities after they become configured to fit into computer processes and categories.

            So what is the nature of this subtle transformation of humanities works by digital computer processes?  Before I proceed with this analysis, it may be appropriate to review some of the categories for philosophical phenomena that have been developed in this column.  Something is a figure if it has defined boundaries and does not blend with the phenomena around it.  Any single thing like a hammer, a spoon, or a house can qualify as a figure.  Something is ground or grounding to the extent that it has more indeterminate boundaries and is, in fact, capable of blending or blurring together with the phenomena around it.  Bodies of water, forests and jungles are all examples of ground.  And something is a vacuum to the extent that it exists in the spaces between figure and figure, between figure and ground, and between ground and ground.  A dark room that is totally closed off from all light is an example of a visual vacuum.  So is outer space, even though it has figures like suns, planets, moons, asteroids and comets floating in it. A phenomenon can actually have different combinations of these three categories and, as a result, produce different configurations of stimuli.  Corresponding to the three basic categories of phenomena, there are three basic categories of stimuli that emanate from them.  Defined discrete stimuli emanate from figures or figure aspects of phenomena.  These are stimuli that have a bounded beginning and a bounded ending either temporally or spatially.  A flashing light and a staccato musical note are examples of this.  Flowing blendable continual stimuli emanate from grounding and ground aspects of phenomena.  These are stimuli that have a blurry beginning and a blurry ending.  A wave on an ocean and a legato musical note are examples of this.  Finally, infinite continuous stimuli emanate from vacuum or vacuum aspects of a phenomenon.  The darkness in a dark room with no light, or the hum in a room with total silence are examples of this.

            So how do we apply all these categories to our discussion of the subtle transformation of the humanities by digital technology?  We can start by saying that technology highlights some aspects of humanities works that weren’t as noticed before.  To the extent that digital technology helps us to look at patterns in, among other things, words, phrases or the mention of different subjects, it means we are more focused on different focused fragments of these works, different mini-figures with their defined discrete stimuli.  From these fragments or pieces that are examined, sharp abstracted structures of ideas are created that become separated from the grounding, the contexts of symbolic meanings in which the work under consideration exists.  Formal statistical analysis displaces creative intuitive understanding for apprehending and understanding the works.  It is as if the work turns into a ream of ideational data rather than remaining the organically created work that it was meant to be.

            To the extent that this happens, emotions, immediate sensations and deep intuitive meanings are diminished in their role for apprehending and understanding the work.  And this tendency is reinforced to the extent that a lot of time is spent on a work in its role as a file in an archive or more than one archive.  As a work in an archive, a work in the humanities becomes a large figure datum that gets shuffled in with other large data, other works in the humanities, all of which are subsumed under the larger rubric of reams of humanities data that become one more subject to be catalogued in the digital world.  What becomes a matter of concern is that in studying works in the humanities, the computer processes involved in archiving them or in deconstructing works in order to find patterns and comparisons of different pieces or pixels of the works, lead to the diminishing in importance of the intuitive understanding of the flowing blendable continual organic whole of each of the works.

            We no longer have mindsets that are easily predisposed to global understanding of phenomena, to the flow of symbols and icons, where parts are looked at in so far as how they represent or are bonded with the whole.  We have become trained to look at the phenomena in our world as defined discrete categories, as free floating figures, maybe sometimes connected to each other, but ultimately flowing in a vacuum.  There are so many categories like this in our world, and the way we find to most easily handle them is to sort them into archives and statistical patterns.  And what makes it so easy for us to deal with material as sorted categories is that we are becoming, in effect, sorted categories ourselves.  We are becoming hardened, overly defined, discrete, robotic creatures who are losing touch with the flowing coherence of our own organic senses of self.

            The fact that even an area of our mental life - the humanities - that would seem among the least susceptible to becoming mechanized is being organized into defined discrete logically connected categories says a great deal about the extent to which technology is impacting our lives.  The humanities were supposed to be one of the last bastions where a large dose of logical organization and statistical studies with data were going to be off limits.  The humanities were supposed to be a mental place where one engaged in creative intuitive symbolic thinking with lots of flowing blendable continual stimuli to shape our thought processes and our thought content.  But with computers, tablets and smartphones, more mechanical thinking filled with a lot of free-floating data is now penetrating areas of thought that deal with more creative humanistic concerns.

            It means that little is safe anymore from the expanding influence of modern technology and that modern technology, by permeating so many different areas of our lives, has the opportunity gradually, incrementally to transform our very essence as human beings.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Friday, May 13, 2016

When Technology Can Take Over Who We Are

            One of the major themes of this column has been how the boundaries between people and machines are disappearing.  People are becoming more and more like machines, and machines are beginning to resemble people more and more.  One of the major aspects of technological change which is contributing to this is the Internet of Things.  The Internet of Things is the increasingly calibrated interaction of machines with machines, machines with people and machines with objects as a result of sensors.  Sensors pick up on data and determine the best course of action in conjunction with programmed goals. The sensors can turn machines on and off and can guide the response of machines as when an automated self-driving car receives signals of traffic jams involving other cars ahead and takes an alternate route.  Sensors can be put into objects to send signals to the Internet that the objects are deteriorating in some way.  An example of this is when sensors are put in bridges to warn of possible damage and even collapse.  Sensors even guide the response of pacemakers in hearts.  All of this is done to make life frictionless and safe, to prevent surprises, many of which can hurt people.  So people get to live life in frictionless safe comfort.  The sensors act like mini-nervous systems which bring the world of devices, objects, things in general into the equivalent of an enslaved machine life.  Except the devices, objects, things aren’t really living beings.

            Humans are recipients of the benefits of all this machine connectivity through sensors.  It is like there is a digital spider web of relationships among a growing percentage of phenomena in the external world and a growing percentage of phenomena in the screen world.  And apparently this digital spider web is there to serve humans and to serve only humans.

            There are now many new different embeddable implants that directly connect humans to this spider web.  In an article on from April 9, 2014 by Keiron Monks, “Forget wearable tech, embeddable implants are already here”, there is a discussion of some of the implants that are available or will soon be available.  An internal compass, a mini-computer to transmit heat as well as sound, implants to maximize sexual pleasure, implanted RFID tags that would give off information just like clothing tags, electronic tattoos that can gather information about vital signs including those applied to the head to measure brain-waves, brain implants including silicon chips for people as diverse as Alzheimer patients and soldiers (although brain implants if rejected can kill a patient). 

            Up until now these embedded implants have been used to enhance function and sensation and to gather information.  But it is really just a short step to creating implants that actively guide people, even control people.

            Let us suppose that at some point in the future, as people start to live longer and longer,  health care costs are no longer sustainable because of the increased susceptibility of people to illness as they grow older, and neither private citizens nor the government have the funds to pay for the growing amount of care required.  Someone comes up with the idea of planting chips in people’s brains that would guide them to make healthy life choices, in diet, exercise, and rest.  The embedded chip would tell the patient what to eat and what not to eat, what kinds of exercise to do and for how long, and how much sleep to get at night.  People would no longer feel an urge to eat sweets, fatty foods, and salty foods.  They would no longer feel a desire to live such a totally sedentary life style. So people could live healthy lives not only for their own good but for the greater good of society.  And then in order to prevent overcrowding on this planet, the health chip could be turned off after a certain age, and then a person could rapidly deteriorate and then be quietly put to sleep…..permanently.  And then for the greater good of society, people could start being controlled in other areas of their lives to avoid unnecessary social friction.  They could become like androids or robots.

            Once the boundary between human and machine is sufficiently torn down, through embedded implants and prostheses, then our conception of what it means to be a human is bound to change as well.  Embedded implants do represent a much closer relationship between humans and machines than do wearable computers.

            The modern technology that is supposed to represent a kind of sophisticated array of tools that humans can control for what they perceive as their benefits can nevertheless be turned into an array of tools for controlling and shaping humans.  And, in effect, humans can end up becoming the tools of their supposed tools.  Perhaps it sounds far-fetched, but who is going to stop it when technological changes are occurring so incrementally that people are not able to fully realize the significance of these changes, until the changes have been around for a while and established themselves.  And by then, it might be too late to undo them.  The Internet of Things as an established force could end up creating a system that is practically indestructible and that moves along evolving and shaping itself with little or no human participation.  And to the extent that humans increasingly come under the influence of embedded implants, their will could be so influenced and ultimately suppressed, that they would put up no resistance to the growing power of this evolving modern technology.  Eventually, it will no longer be the Internet of Things (IoT).  It will have evolved into the Internet of Humans (IoH).  The boundary between machines and humans will have been torn down, and humans will become one with the technology that has evolved all the way from the flint tools of prehistoric humans.  And this is why we have to start becoming more careful now about our uses of modern technology and start having discussions about how we can draw the line between humans and machines. If we allow the Internet of Things to penetrate and control are innermost human essence, we will lose both our self-definition and our self-coherence.  And at that point we will have lost those aspects of our human nature that make it worthwhile for us to be human beings.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Pinpointing A Cause Of Student Problems Today

            My good friend, Martin Hardeman, Associate Professor of American History at Eastern Illinois University, was expressing frustration about his students during a telephone conversation we were having.  He was discussing how his students use their computers and smartphones to get knowledge in the form of pinpoint facts.  Do you want to learn about something?  You can go online and find it fairly quickly without having to go through extraneous information.  Obviously, this speeds up finding answers.  But in the process, knowledge becomes reduced to isolated defined discrete pinpoint facts.  When one had to go search for answers in the library in the old days, one had to read through a lot of related material in order to find an answer.  And, in the process, according to Professor Hardeman, one developed a “framework” for the material.  One developed a significant understanding of a subject matter.  One connected the dots to form a “pattern”.  One developed order and avoided chaos.

            Now Professor Hardeman did say that the very ease with which one can find answers on the Internet was something that stimulated some intellectual activity, which to him was good.  My only response would be to point out that there is not very much meaning in looking up lots of isolated facts.  Lots of isolated facts have no meaning which Professor Hardeman would translate as no framework.  I guess he was trying to find something positive about this new trend which has had such a great effect on the students he is teaching.

            For the most part, I am in agreement with my friend.  One of the earlier articles in this column dealt with how students were doing their school research entirely from their computers, and that they were no longer going to the library to do traditional library searches for material for their school papers.  There is one area, though, where perhaps I would question my friend’s assertions.  It is the idea that to have meaning, knowledge has to be put into a framework, a pattern, an order.  Professor Hardeman says that without, order, knowledge, in effect, sinks into chaos.  This notion of order plays a very important role in Chinese philosophy.  There has to be order in society, or else there will be chaos.  Which is one reason that mainland China has had such a difficult time tolerating individual freedom and democratic tendencies.

            But I am digressing.  Putting facts into a framework is a way of putting little figures together into a larger figure.  The connections that hold the little fact figures together are causal and logical connections.  Rational connections.  And certainly some of the connections that hold knowledge together are rational connections.  And this would be particularly true in math and the hard sciences.  But not all connections are rational, causal, logical or formal.  Some connections simply relate to facts bunching together into a common body of knowledge.  The facts complement one another in the description of phenomena rather than fitting into a chain of explanations of phenomena.  In this situation, facts are grounded together into a cohesive body of knowledge.  The relationship between the facts is organic rather than mechanical.

            But what this does give, which a framework relationship does not, at least by itself, is a real feel for the subject being considered.  One has an understanding which is greater than the bundle of facts upon which it is built.  It can almost be said that one feels alive within the subject.  In this kind of understanding, defined discrete facts blur together into flowing blendable continual insights.  And this gives one a sense of some intuitive control.

            This sense of intuitive control is what one gets when exploring a subject by looking at a series of books that are near each other at the library.  One is looking for one book for a report and finds books on either side of it that are on related themes.  These other books frequently supply a whole flow of facts and ideas that, together with the searched-for book, provide a flowing panorama of knowledge and understanding about the subject under question and, in particular, a greater sense of the significance of the subject under consideration.

            But the students of Professor Hardeman somehow got away with not having to use the library this way very much.  The result is pinpoints of knowledge, a lot of little disconnected facts that have little or no meaning by themselves.

            Can pinpoints of knowledge be really considered an education?  Professor Hardeman says that most of his students don’t know how to write well-crafted papers anymore.  If one sees the world as defined discrete pinpoints of knowledge, then it becomes hard to bring the pinpoints together into coherent ideas.  And if there aren’t any coherent ideas, then it becomes hard to bring some together to develop a thesis for a history paper.

            One might say that maybe a lot of students aren’t doing well writing academic papers anymore.  But what do academic papers have to do with solving the ongoing daily problems of real life?  Academic papers are theoretical and abstract, while daily life problems are practical and concrete.  A lot of people never had a college education at all and still are able to function quite well in the everyday world of work and family.  This may be true, but there are many areas of the corporate world where well-thought-out ideas and coherent writing are definitely a plus.  And it is not only that good thoughts produce good writing.  Good writing stimulates a person into good coherent thinking.

            And then, there is still another important level upon which being unable to put facts and data together into ideas and theses has an effect on students’ lives.  Filling one’s mind with endless facts and data from the Internet has a deleterious effect on developing a coherent sense of self that is capable of making good coherent decisions in one’s life.  Writing good papers can be looked on as a laboratory for well-directed living, developing a coherent life narrative that allows one to make and preserve meaningful imprints and to prepare for death with a strong surrogate immortality, creating a life that will be positively remembered by the people that surround the deceased.

            If students today are developing a defined discrete pinpoint approach to knowledge and if such an approach impedes the development of flowing blendable coherent thoughts and of a coherent sense of self, then where will modern society enlist the people to take the important managerial and professional jobs that will eventually have to be filled by members of this generation?  The pinpoint approach to knowledge not only leads to poorly written papers for today’s professors like my friend Professor Hardeman.  It leads to people with fragmented senses of self, people who have difficulty making good life judgments and formulating good life strategies.  Professor Hardeman’s concern is not just a concern about a problem connected only to academic performance.  Ultimately, an excessive focus on data from smartphones can have ramifications for performance in life, and for the proper functioning of society.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow