Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Replacement Of Heroes By Robots

            Heroes are a very important part of every society.  They act as a focal point for the members of a society to be inspired to do special good things with their lives.  Most of the time, heroes are thought of as individuals who save other people from danger.  Wartime generals and wartime civilians, as well as ordinary people who go out of their way and sometimes risk their lives in order to save others from danger.  Some real-life heroes are heroes, not because of feats of physical protection, but because of their work in some special peacetime activity: sports, the arts, the sciences, the intellectual world in general, government, law, community activism, social work, and business.  These are all areas where those who excel can act as an inspiration for other people, and thus become their heroes.  There are also mythological heroes: imaginary people who, in the stories of polytheistic religions, interact with gods and frequently perform amazing fantastic feats.  There are folk heroes who are real people that have performed important feats in their real lives, but who frequently have their life stories stretched and amplified into legendary proportions.  Then there are fantasy heroes that aren’t real people and aren’t attached to any community religious beliefs.  Fantasy heroes are entirely fabricated by one or more writers and frequently have unusual superhuman abilities.

            The one thing that all these heroes have in common is that they are, at core, human.  Of course, one may say, they are human.  What else would they be?  Actually, it is true that we sometimes ascribe the term hero to dogs who save their masters from different catastrophic situations.  Mostly though, the term hero has been reserved for humans.  Nevertheless, in our modern age, other complex behavioral entities are being developed to do some beneficial, even heroic tasks, for humans.  In the online magazine, New Atlas (Gizmag), there is an article about some very interesting robots that are being developed to improve human health.  In the article, “World’s first ciliary micro-robots could change the way we take medicine” (9/19/16) by Lynda Delacey, we learn that some South Korean scientists have developed some super fast-moving micro-robots that move directly through the blood stream to bring medicine to those organs for which the medicine has been designated.  No more concerns about an overdose.  No more concerns about systemic reactions to the medicine like nausea or like debilitating the immune systems.  These micro-robots eliminate the protective reactions of the body in dealing with foreign chemicals being introduced inside it.  These micro-robots, that are the size of paramecium and that have methods of transportation similar to paramecium, are carrying out the heroic task of configuring the delivery of medicine to a patient in such a way as to eliminate harmful side effects.

            The micro-robot discussed in this article is an improvement over previous micro-robots because of its speed, its range of movement, and its potential to carry payloads that weigh more to the organs targeted.  After the micro-robots have completed their mission, South Korean scientists plan for them to simply dissolve.  Self-immolation after they have carried out their noble cause.

            What these micro-robots are doing is taking a difficult journey in a human body in order to improve that human’s health.  Preventing a secondary reaction in the body, which reaction can sometimes be as bad as the original health issue.  Preventing the body from turning against itself.  But the journey of the micro-robot has an element of a soldier carrying out a mission behind enemy lines during a war or a relief convoy bringing supplies to civilians during a war.  Perhaps, soon we will have robots that can perform tasks like this.  Robots that carry out secret missions for armies where most or all of the soldiers are robots.  Robots that lead relief convoys of self-driving trucks to bring supplies to civilians that are trapped behind enemy lines.  Tasks that have traditional elicited great admiration in bystanders who have observed them.  Tasks that have frequently led the people who carry out these tasks to be called heroes.  Performing extraordinary tasks for the benefit of people.

            But robots tend to routinize tasks.  And in so doing, robots tend to trivialize tasks.  All the glory will leave a heroic task when robots do it, precisely because they are simply programmed to do it.  They have no choice.  They lack a coherent sense of self to help them to make and refine decisions that are unique to their particular life situation.  A heroic task is considered heroic precisely because a person chooses to do something that is unusually good, often at great risk to himself.

            A decision to perform a heroic task is not simply based on defined discrete signals in a brain telling a person that a certain task is the appropriate task to perform under certain circumstances.  This is because a person is not a machine, and there are flowing blendable continual intangible elements that have to be present in his nature to perform a heroic task, and, if they are present, they have to be primed for action.  This is why, in real life, there aren’t many heroes.  And because there aren’t many, this is why heroes are so valued and cherished.

            Heroes are always putting some aspects of their being at risk.  If not their lives, their reputations.  Cultural heroes put their reputation at risk.  Many artists, composers and writers were laughed at and berated until later on in their lives or after they died, and only then were they appreciated.  Many inventors were laughed at in the initial trials of their inventions, until the inventions became convincingly successful.

            A robot does not have the kind of coherent sense of self to maintain a consciousness that can make heroic decisions.  But as modern technology puts order in the world and makes life more frictionless, there seem to be fewer and fewer situations where heroic decisions are required.  More and more conflict situations either occur anonymously with suicide bombers or remotely with air strikes and drones.  And most people today are too numb and jaded as a result of the sensory distortion from modern technology to either make significant cultural innovations or to be impacted by them.

            But robots are not heroes.  Micro-robots may soon be able to get rid of a lot of human discomfort by regularly getting rid of the side effects that the medicines that they carry to their target organs normally bring.  But by bypassing the global defenses of the human body, they are, in effect, shutting down the integrity of a body’s response to protect itself against foreign invasion.  If an immune system is debilitated, it is because it is in the process of defending a body’s integrity.  And ultimately the integrity, the coherence of a person’s sense of self.  The immune system may become debilitated from the delivery of certain medicines, but the sense of self may become strengthened.  In effect, a person becomes his own hero.

            Probably, there are many readers who feel that temporarily losing control of one’s body and not becoming a hero is a small price to pay for getting rid of the discomfort produced by many modern medicines.  And in today’s world, anything that helps to relieve a person of the terrible side effects of these medicines is considered a real plus.  I am only trying to point out that a very important if subtle price will be paid by people who resort to micro-robots to relieve themselves of the discomfort that comes with certain medical treatments.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Friday, October 14, 2016

When Things Start To Happen In Life

              Causation is an area of thought about which there has been much discussion in philosophy.  It has been sliced up into different sets of categories for different philosophical approaches.  I am interested in causation, because the way we implicitly approach it today determines a lot about the way we view humans and the way we treat them.  So, for our purposes, a new set of categories will be presented here hopefully to shed some new light on human interaction in modern technological society.

            Something is a defined discrete cause when a causal agent neatly impacts the recipient of the effects.  When a bunch of kids are playing baseball in someone’s backyard, and one of the boys accidentally throws a ball through a neighbor’s window, that is an example of defined discrete causation.  The kid who threw the ball is the causal agent of the broken window.  The neighbor is the recipient of the effect.  He is the one who has to deal with the broken glass and with replacing the window.  The causal action is one way.  That is, there is no reciprocal causal action going from recipient to agent that overlaps with the initial causal action.  The neighbor may come outside and scold the kid for being careless, and the neighbor may even try to collect damages from the kid’s father.  But these would be two separate processes that occur after the kid threw the ball through the window.  We are dealing with distinct processes, each of which leaves its own distinct impact on someone.  And within this causal process itself, one person is definitely the agent, and one is definitely the recipient.  And, within this causal process, only the agent is a maker of imprints.  He makes an imprint on the recipient of the causal action, but he also makes an imprint on himself.  Such an imprint, even from an embarrassing action like breaking a neighbor’s window, helps the boy to feel alive.  It becomes a part of the narrative of his life.

            A defined discrete cause is what is usually thought of when experimental scientists are looking at the human field of experience.  The idea that most of what happens in the human field of experience is determined by defined discrete causes is appealing, because it means that human actions can be more easily controlled and manipulated.  And by extension, if the human field of experience can be reconfigured such that most of the human actions in society are defined discrete cause actions, then humans themselves become more susceptible to control and manipulation.

            A flowing blendable continual cause is much more difficult to control and manipulate.  In this causal situation, an agent triggers a response in a recipient or recipients, before he, the agent, is finished completing his causal action.  The response of the recipient impinges on the agent in such a way that it shifts the direction or quality of the agent’s action.  Which, in turn, can affect the direction and quality of the recipient’s response and so on until both the agent’s action and the recipient’s response are completed.  This action and response system accounts for most of the social encounters that people have in everyday life.  It also accounts for many automobile accidents, which is why it is often so difficult to ascribe the degree of blame of each of the parties involved.  In situations like this, the lawyer of each party will try to make the accident appear to be a defined discrete cause accident caused by the other party.

            In flowing blendable continual cause actions, both persons are in truth agents and both are recipients.  Each person is making an imprint or imprints and each person is receiving an imprint or imprints.  There is a blurriness, an imprecision to a flowing blendable continual cause action system, because both the agent and the recipient are initiating flowing, blendable, continual actions that tend to intermingle with and blur into each other.  At the same time, this kind of action is the foundation both of strong bonded relationships between individual humans as well as sustained conflict relationships.  Without these flowing blendable continual cause action systems, there would be no friendship, no romance, no family, no community, no society.  There would also be no disputes, no feuds, no rivals, no enemies. In short, there would be no meaningful life narratives.

            Finally there is an infinite continuous vacuum cause which is when a causal agent ceases to impact in anyway on a recipient with whom he was previously interacting, and this leaves the recipient in a social vacuum with regard to this causal agent.  Indirectly, the causal agent does make an imprint on the recipient by not making an imprint.  It is a generic imprint of numbness that ultimately affects the agent as well as the recipient.  As people increasingly start to unconsciously configure their life activities in terms of defined discrete causal actions, they lose the capacity for the bondedness with others that comes in the interactions stemming from more flowing blendable continual cause action systems.  In general, connecting with others for defined discrete purposes like taking a course at college, working at a job or having casual sex is simply not enough to allow a person to sustain bonded relationships with others, and people start to slide away into psychological vacuum states, withdrawing from others into numbness.  Defined discrete cause activities create relationships that are contingent and instrumental and these are ultimately very fragile relationships that, when they are a person’s almost exclusive connection to the social world, lead to a feeling of emptiness.  And when this is primarily the kind of connection people have to offer one another, people contribute to leaving each other in a psychological vacuum, even when they are not purposely sliding away from and ceasing their connection with each other.

            A world of increasing defined discrete cause behavior is certainly one that reinforces the ideas of many social scientists today.  But it is not so much that their ideas and beliefs are true for human nature in general.  And yet social scientists today frequently assume that the behavior of human beings living in modern technological society is somehow true for all human beings throughout human history and in all human societies including preliterate and more traditional ones.  Except for cultural anthropologists, they do frequently seem to operate on the assumption that the results they come up with in their experiments and observations are true for humans regardless of period or place.  And if defined discrete cause behavior is assumed to be the universal dominant behavior, then it gives these social scientists the right to break down behavior into its component parts: into the causal behavior of human agents and the distinct response behavior of human recipients.  And then, clearly understanding these defined discrete human interactions that they have helped to configure, social scientists can control and manipulate human behavior, in schools, in work and in large social institutions like community groups, clubs and churches.  And people in marketing and advertising can control and manipulate people in terms of the purchases they make.

            This belief that all human behavior can be found to be fundamentally defined discrete  behavior ultimately stems from the mirroring and modeling created by modern complex machines, computers, and, of course, robots.  And this is because the behavior of these modern advanced machines is primarily defined discrete cause behavior.  Yes, some modern machines are created for complex interactions with people. But however complex the interactive behavior, modern machines still operate on the basis of defined discrete shifts in responding to humans and to external world situations rather than more flowing blendable continual shifts.  However small it may be, there is always a period of time separating one shifted piece of behavior from another when dealing with machines.

            Seeing human behavior from the perspective of defined discrete cause actions is just one more way to understand how modern humans have been influenced by an increasingly complex and pervasive modern technology.  Yes, understanding defined discrete causation has helped us to solve many important problems that have faced humanity in the external world.  But not everything operates primarily on the basis of defined discrete causation.  Including the human mind and human relationships.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow                                               

Smart Devices, Dumber People

            The word “smart” has taken on a whole new meaning in the age of digital technology.  It used to refer to a quality of intelligence exercised primarily by humans, but also by higher-level animals in general.  Now it is being applied to certain higher-level machines.  The machine with which smart has been most commonly associated is a modern phone.  In this context, it means the ability of these phones to perform multiple narrowly defined discrete functions and, in so doing, eliminate the necessity to carry around multiple devices, each of which would be performing a separate function.  A smart device denotes competence, but it also implies convenience.

            Getting back to a premise that has remained pretty constant throughout the existence of this column, people gradually become what they use when it relates to complex behavioral entities.  And there is definitely a danger of people beginning to unconsciously model themselves after the smart devices that they increasingly can’t live without.

            An important thing to emphasize about smartphones is that the many different functions that it can perform are distinct from one another and are only grouped together for purposes of convenience.  This idea of creating a grouping of different functions is now to be found in a smart bottle.  In SmartBrief, an online business newsletter, there is a discussion of the Hydra Smartbottle (“Hydra Smartbottle supplies water, music and light” [8/15/2016]), which, as the title partly indicates, not only provides water, but is also “a music device, charger, bottle opener, storage unit and light source”  What makes the device smart is not that it does any single task that indicates complexity or profundity, but that it does several different tasks that one does not normally think of as being able to be performed by one single machine.  Nevertheless, these different tasks can be used in the same life situation.  One can imagine a situation where one is sitting outdoors at night.  One is drinking water, listening to music and lighting up one’s surroundings.  In doing this, one is using a device that is temporarily transformational to one’s field of experience.  A smart device like a Smartbottle is experientially transformational rather than simply task transformational.  It not only changes the way we achieve goals through  defined discrete activities, but it also changes the very way we experience our grounded connections to our external living environment.  The device tears apart our grounded field of experience, which we normally experience as a unified whole, and turns it into a bundle of defined discrete processes, each of which can be acted upon separately and manipulated for our individual purposes.  Our sense of personal agency over different life processes becomes more unified even as our experience of our field of experience becomes more broken up.

            From another perspective, having many tasks tied up in one device means that there are no experiential spaces between the carrying out of these different life processes.  It’s not like one has to put down one device appropriate for one life task and pick up another.  It is having momentary spaces between the use of different devices that allows a person to unconsciously recognize that his own personal agency from his own coherent sense of self is what holds together these life tasks.  No matter how advanced and sophisticated some of these tasks are, when they are carried out by separate devices with separate functions, a user still becomes aware that his consciousness and his will are what generate the fulfillment of these tasks for his purposes.  His consciousness and his will are the unifying forces behind the activation and the completion of the tasks that correspond to these different devices.

            So what will happen if we start making other collections or bundles of solutions for life need and desires and put them in other smart devices.  This is different from the internet of things where truly complementary tasks are made to coordinate together through the exchange of data.  The tasks in a smartphone or SmartBottle, although bundled together, do not necessarily complement each other in the same way.  The tasks from smart devices are juxtaposed together, but do not necessarily coordinate with one another.  They are bundled together, but they do not form a coherent task grouping.  There is no exchange of data to help them to perform together.

            One can say that rather than participating in a task pattern in the way that devices do in the internet of things, the processes in a smart device participate in a life rhythm pattern.  These functions, although not intrinsically connected, are functions that can smooth out the friction during the course of a day and add comfort and pleasure.  With all of these functions in one device, a person can be tempted to say, “Let the smart device take over many of my needs and desires.  I don’t have to spend much time thinking about strategies for satisfying myself, because much of it is here in one device.”

            One no longer even has to deal with the traditional life friction that used to exist of finding, setting up, and using different devices for different needs.  A traditional moral perspective would say that these devices make us lazy.  I would rather focus on how these smart devices encourage us to give up our sense of control, our sense of personal agency in our daily lives.  Smart devices are one more step in our giving up the opportunity to make decisions that lead to our feeling fully and vibrantly alive, to our making, preserving and receiving imprints, and to our preparing for death through a surrogate immortality of our making.

            Perhaps, one might say, that we have had something similar to smart devices in the Swiss Army knives and their imitators that have been on the market for a long time.  But a Swiss Army knife is used in situations where one is doing things, producing things, making imprints. Even though it bundles tools, this is offset by the fact that it facilitates active participation in the external world.  It facilitates stimulating our senses of self to create strategies using the tools in the Swiss Army knife to solve practical problems in the external world.  With a Swiss Army knife, we are acting on our living environment.  A smart device, on the other hand, deals primarily with consumption, makes us more passive, creates its own mediated living environment.  A Swiss Army knife helps us to be in the external world, while a smart device helps us to withdraw from it by creating new mediated fields of experience (smartphone apps) or by taking friction out of normal consumption life activities through the bundling of activities and thus weakening our connection to the external world.

            Making life too frictionless definitely has its downside.  Is it possible that eventually, everything will be done for humans either through the complementary tasking of the internet of things or through the bundling of all sorts of life tasks through smart devices?  On one level, that might sound like a life in paradise.  People could sit around all day watching their technology take care of all their needs.  But people need to make and preserve imprints to truly feel alive and to prepare for death.  Lacking the opportunity to do this because technology does so much, and feeling too numb to change things, eventually the expanding out of the influence of this consumer technology could lead to people experiencing modern life as a life in hell, a living death from which there is no easy escape.
© 2016 Laurence Mesirow 

Becoming A Ghost Of Oneself Through Technology

            One of the newest technological rages today is Pokemon-Go.  Young people use the GPS on their smartphones to go out into the external world to find virtual creatures called Pokemon that they capture, train and then send to battle the Pokemon of other trainers.  It would appear that it is the modern world’s answer to an exciting adventure in a living environment that is making life increasingly routinized for the vast majority of people.   Routine from pre-kindergarten to college and graduate school is primarily what gets people good jobs.  Yes, it is nice for a student to have an unusual hobby or a year abroad in college, as long as the hobby and the time abroad don’t represent too significant a chunk of the student’s time, energy, or state of mind.

            A Pokemon represents adventure without risk.  The trainer himself is not in battle nor is an animal he cherishes.  Rather, it is a virtual entity that exists but doesn’t really exist.  There is no possible organic perishability if something happens that the Pokemon loses in battle.  There is no organic perishability, and, by the same token, there are no organic imprints made and preserved on the surfaces of the person’s field of experience in the external world.  The whole narrative of the Pokemon adventure is a ghostly vacuumized adventure that numbs the person as he participates, because he is immersed in virtual reality.  This is different from a true adventure in external world reality, which causes a person to feel vibrantly alive and leads to meaningful organic imprints which can be preserved in the memories of the people that surround the adventurer or even sometimes in artifacts like documents and books.

            To the extent that a person gets pulled into a vacuumized adventure with Pokemon, to that extent the person gradually and subtly becomes vacuumized himself.  There is already another technology-generated situation where a person becomes a vacuumized entity.  This is when a person translates himself into an avatar for purposes of getting involved with computer games or Internet forums.  The avatar is the computer user’s virtual representation for purposes of his participation in different cyber-processes.  But as the computer user uses his avatar, he subtly becomes influence by it as he would by any complex behavioral entity.  The avatar mirrors him and becomes a model for him, and slowly but surely the person becomes avatarized.   He becomes vacuumized, which means he becomes very susceptible to the influence of entropic disintegration, which, in turn, is a natural force that exists in a vacuum.

            Even though the user is operating openly without an avatar when he plays Pokemon-Go, an avatar-like presence becomes more and more implicit in his persona, as he starts getting more and more involved with the capturing and training of Pokemon and with the battles that come afterwards.

            So here is another symbolic model of technological transformation that is somewhat distinct from that of robotic transformation.  Experientially, a robot is an overly defined figure made of hard unyielding metal or synthetic materials that definitely has a strong critical mass in external world reality.  As a machine, a robot is incapable of bonding with other robots or with humans, for that matter.  It behaves by following a series of defined discrete processes, but these processes are not directed by a coherent sense of self or a coherent consciousness.  A robot does not make, receive, or preserve organic imprints that are recorded as meaningful impresses on the external world in such a way that they become a part of other people’s memories.  It does however leave discrete marks on the world, marks that are not recorded in memories as purposeful preserved imprints, because they are not the products of coherent senses of self or coherent consciousnesses.  The only possible exception here is the meaningful impress of a robot or a machine winning a sophisticated game like chess against a human.  And here, the robot does not receive an imprint of winning the game as something to be happy about.  It is more like the victory of the robot or machine winning is something that disrupts the flow of meaningful imprints among humans.

            Now an avatar is also a defined discrete figure, but one that not only lacks grounding, but also substance and mass as well.  An avatar is a vacuumized figure that exists in screen reality and virtual reality but has no existence in the external world reality in which humans normally inhabit.  To the extent that a human becomes avatarized, he psychologically begins to lose his connection to external world reality.  It is as if he starts to die to external world reality.

            Becoming avatarized does not require actually using an avatar in screen reality on the computer or in virtual reality.  One can become psychologically a vacuumized figure, by simply dwelling in screen reality or virtual reality for too much of one’s waking time.

            So how does avatarization manifest itself in human behavior.  In general, it means being pulled more and more into a vacuum state psychologically and being subject to the entropic forces that are an essential part of any vacuum.  In the physical world, entropy means the random distribution of atoms in a vacuum.  In the mental world, entropy means the disintegration of one’s sense of self.  It means crumbling apart into nothingness.  There are many different ways that this entropy-influenced behavior displays itself.  It is not uncommon today for a worker in a wage-based job to suddenly not come into his job and to disappear.  Actually, people disappear from many different situations today.  Two people have been dating for a while, and suddenly one of them disappears from the relationship.  Or one day, a husband or wife, father or mother leaves the house and doesn’t come home.  In spite of family responsibilities, the person simply vanishes.  Some entropy-influenced behavior can result in the people around the agent of the behavior being affected more directly by the entropy as well.  The victims of the modern mass murderers. These murderers commit their crimes out of their numbness and usually die at the hands of police or soldiers, assuming that they don’t die from suicide bombs.

            People try to control their numbness, their disappearing into nothingness, by smoking pot and doing yoga and meditation.  All these are activities that cause a temporary but controlled diminishing of one’s sense of self.  By doing this, people are basically using a means to control the rate of crumbling from entropy, when one feels oneself blurring into the images of screen reality and increasingly now virtual reality and becoming what would now be described as an avatar.

            In general, to develop the lightness of being that comes with becoming an avatar leads to floating away from connection to situations through commitments.  It is as if a person literally loses touch with the world, as he becomes vacuumized and numb.  The person loses his sense of substance, of mass, of gravity.  This isn’t something that happens all at once.  But the situations I described are indicators of the changes that are taking place as a result of gradual human identification with a mass-less, substance-less entity.  This is why interacting so much with Pokemon is such a stealthily dangerous enterprise.  We gradually become avatar-like in order to truly enter the world of Pokemon and to take them seriously.  And this is so relatively easy, because the boundaries between virtual reality and external world reality are so totally blurred in dealing with Pokemon.  In developing an avatar mentality, we practically slide into virtual reality from our external world reality.  And then we become like the entities that we use and manipulate.  And, in the process, we lose some of our humanity.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow