Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Who are you?

"`Who are YOU?' said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I--I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.'

`What do you mean by that?' said the Caterpillar sternly. `Explain yourself!'

`I can't explain MYSELF, I'm afraid, sir' said Alice, `because I'm not myself, you see.'

`I don't see,' said the Caterpillar.

`I'm afraid I can't put it more clearly,' Alice replied very politely, `for I can't understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.'

`It isn't,' said the Caterpillar.

`Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet,' said Alice; `but when you have to turn into a chrysalis--you will some day, you know--and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel it a little queer, won't you?'

`Not a bit,' said the Caterpillar.

`Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,' said Alice; `all I know is, it would feel very queer to ME.'

`You!' said the Caterpillar contemptuously. `Who are YOU?'

- Excerpt from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice magically entered a world where she discovered that some things, like drinking potion, or nibbling from a mushroom, could instantly transform her body. And with that, her concept of self. To me this is the most brilliant illustration of how humans have become estranged from nature, Alice representing in this fragment the ineptness of humans to cope with challenges to mental models they maintain. Challenges they are actually more and more imposing on themselves, for example by developing technologies like virtual reality.

What I will do here is explore the question of who we are and give some indications as to how I think about it, in the end giving some normative directions to a redefinition of who we are. A redefinition that is urgently needed in this new century.

Triggering this is the recent work of Stanford PhD researcher Nick Yee. It appears that our global identity lab, Second Life, has some interesting potential psychological effects. One of these is the Proteus effect, a term coined by Yee, which states that people conform to the stereotypes of their digital self-representation. In other words, you become more like your avatar since you start basing your behavior on others' expectations of that avatar. And this appears to be independent of how others actually perceive you.

He found that if your avatar is more attractive, you are more likely to be more open in a virtual conversation, and willing to move closer to the conversational partner. Also he found that in a negotiation task, subjects with a short avatar were more willing to accept an unfair deal. This then also works for a short while in the unsimulated world, i.e. people modelled their behaviour after that of their avatar, hence becoming more confident in face to face conversations. This gives me even more reason to believe that the potential of psychological or even spiritual self-transformation through manipulation of technologically created self-representations is enormous.

These developments trigger interesting fundamental questions too. Questions that people largely seem to ignore to answer for themselves, like the one the caterpillar was asking to Alice. Industrialization and automation, by producing tons of individually meaningless chunks of material and information, have so much estranged us from our core selves that we often spend our whole lives living according to externally imposed verbal concepts. As soon modern day children leave their preverbal phase, they are bombarded with corporate brands, loads of digital information, and socio-cultural norms. This makes them feel more and more confused. People are more likely to describe who they are in terms of what they like, or with some construct that is used by others to frame them. But these words are only vaguely pointing to what they really are. Most people forget how it felt before we started thinking like this; comfortable, secure, free, and always aware of the current moment. I'd say that although children are naive, this is the only truly satisfactory psychological human mode of being, and one to which we must ultimately revert, but instead of naive now with a continually evolving model of the world and behavioral maxims of our own instead of those hard-wired in our precognitive, reptilian brain.

Natural evolution made us fit for a natural environment, but since we now can create our own environments, our goal then is to extend the evolutionary process by making it individually controllable. Our new rational model-making brain allows us to be conscious on multiple levels, so we become free from our biological self or something like what Karl Marx called our 'species essence', and instead of being part of a collective where every individual is as complex as the group, and as the whole environment, to now develop truly individual patterns of behavior. This makes that the whole expands towards infinite complexity, since it consists of patterns that are all unique and able to expand themselves through continuous internal feedback loops, attuning themselves more and more towards the infinite complexity of the universe.

A major problem is that people aren't very good at finding their true selves, or developing technology that helps them in this process. All the confusion makes us numbed, almost apathetic, and in the end people become more like loose projectiles, attaching themselves to anything that merely appears to be desirable to attach themselves to, often mainly because our precognitive brains recognize in others what were desirable qualities in a primeval era: courage, confidence, charisma, and so on. As Carl Jung said in his essay 'The Undiscovered Self':

"Ultimately everything depends on the quality of the individual, but the fatally shortsighted habit or our age is to think only in terms of large numbers and mass organizations, though one would think that the world had seen more than enough of what a well-disciplined mob can do in the hands of a single madman."

Thus, people are easily tricked by their brains into believing that something can make them truly happy. A requirement imposed upon us by our instinctual brain is obviously that we want a world in which we can act instinctively, so we don't have to worry anymore since we figured out a satisfactory way of acting in the world. This is what you could call soul: feeling part of a holistic system, embodying its values and behaving according to its own inherent behavioural mechanisms. Being part of a system that has a coherent simplicity in it underlying everything at every level, hence creating the unique subliminal feeling that everything is beautiful as it is. When we lived in wild nature, we had this. Though now we started thinking rationally, we live in a world that is very incoherent, and unconsciously realize that we need the feeling of a soul again, as a result trying to invent systems that gives us this feeling. Examples of such systems of the twentieth century are Nazism and communism. People are tricked into believing that these systems will make them happy or at least uplift their being. But in the end, it always turns out to be the opposite way. Intentional thinking is in my view inherently short-sighted, a point to which I will get back.

I might sound as if I'm pessimistic about the fate of humanity. On the contrary, I am not. I cannot be, because this will only increase the chances of a negative outcome, too. The words I use shape my world, and I don't want to point out what's wrong, but instead build constructively and creatively on a way forward.

I think that people are inherently good, although this again might arouse superficial reactions of me being a typical optimist and idealist. Let me put it this way: I think what we call good behaviour is behaviour that is truly in tune with the working of our brain, and how it optimizes itself towards an integration of multiple selves, or of Freud's id, ego, and superego. I think that there is a neurobiological basis for what is good, and as long as our brain works in the way it does now, the way to behave well and become happy are basically the same for everybody who's behaviour is based upon such a brain. We have to transform our selves and our environment to match the dynamic qualities of the processes that happen within our whole bodies containing different brain parts that often work in contradictive ways. When put like this, the conditions for true happiness might seem as rare as the alignment of the planets of our solar system. But it is in fact quite easy; it just requires a switch in mindset, and this switch needs to come naturally, by going through transformative experiences. I hope to aid this switch on this blog by pointing to the need for a fundamental redefinition of what it means to be human.

So to come back to the caterpillar's question; who are we? Are we still defined by our biologically given bodies and minds, or are we already willing to see ourselves as open systems, completely reconfigurable and adaptable? In the context of Nick Yee's research; are we our avatars?

Before giving indications to my answer to this question, I must point out the limits of conceptual talk. It inherently is not able to explain it to you, as the real meaning is beyond the words. It must be reached by internal self-reflection, until you reach a state of subliminal understanding of the words. The brain needs to physically reconfigure itself for this, which takes time and effort. This is already part of my answer: a verbally constructed concept of self is always lacking. Another point about conceptual explorations is that they are time bound and directly coupled to physical behaviour. In my view there is no such thing as objective knowledge that is eternally and unconditionally true, free from boundaries like time and space. In my view, knowledge is always a collection of social constructs that is relevant for the mode of being humans are in in a certain moment in time, so they can expand and reach new modes of being that require higher forms of intelligence in thought and behaviour. And thus, our concepts of self are also very much bound to the world we live in at this moment, and to the most prevalent socio-cultural memes and technologies. We now still live in a very techno-scientific age, and humans are often metaphorically described as computers, consisting of hardware and software, just as in the time of mechanization and modernism biological phenomena were often explained as mechanical machines. The point is that I'm not proffering a universally true concept that describes who we are, but simply giving you a concept that helps you transform yourself into a behavioural mode with which you can develop yourself towards attuning yourself to the ever greater and exponentially increasing complexity of the world.

My view of what a human being is merges both Buddhist aims of self-transcendence, liberating one from one's self and being one with everything around you, with more contemporary Western ideas of uniqueness, self-expression, and identity development. In terms of Beck's theory of Spiral Dynamics, my view merges the yellow and turquoise value memes. The view is as follows: we are dynamic, active, ever-evolving self-organizing patterns within an infinitely complex larger pattern. This larger pattern is what we call the universe, which can be thought of as a dynamic fractal, such as in the movie below.

Where Leonardo Da Vinci wanted to show universal properties of man with his famous drawing of the Vitruvian man, he did this on a very static level, depicting man as an architectural body with definite proportions. My view could be seen as a continuation of this thought, but instead of with static properties man needs a redefinition as a dynamic entity. Therefore, there could not be a static image depicting this thought well, but although it's quite silly, I can still show one to at least make you forget about Vitruvian man:

Let's get back to the fractalic view. The concept is inspired by biological evolution, and instead of the mathemathical metaphor that we are patterns within a fractal you could also use the biological metaphor that we are like cells within a larger organism, that itself is again part of a larger organism, that itself is again part of a larger organism, and so on ad infinitum. We are biological fractals too, since we started out as one cell that divided itself and each subsequent cell started dividing and gradually differentiating and determining itself. The mathematical metaphor though is more elegant and simple to me, because it is more abstractly visualizable, and I'm posing an abstract concept anyway. Also, the biological metaphor can raise more confusion, since we should then first agree on questions like 'what is an organism?' and 'what is the relationship between nature and culture?'. Lastly, the biological metaphor has a lot of associations to the primeval world we used to live in thousands of years ago, while our technologized future world will have totally different dynamic properties. We have become rational, mathematical beings, and the goal now is to create a symbiosis between our rational thinking and the dynamics inherent in evolution, so we become like a fully technologized organism. This associates in my view much better with the mathematical metaphor of the dynamic fractal.

This view then, implies some seemingly contradictory things. For example: you are both unique and not unique. You are unique in that there is no pattern within the fractal that is exactly like you, although there maybe many that are a lot like you, and on different scales similar patterns could also be seen. But you are part of the whole as well, which aligns with what Buddhists thinkers say about oneness, e.g. 'One is all and all is One.' You are constantly shaped by all the patterns within the fractal. Using this concept as a metaphor for who you are after a while gets you in a transcendent state, where you are both a unique individual acting upon the world, and as well an intrinsic part of the whole that constantly changes you and redefines your borders. After having completely adopted this view, after a while it makes you both active and passive, actively passive, or passively active if you will, since you know it is not you who is doing things, it just happens, and you have only your consciousness to steer your attention and direct what happens based on underlying feelings and thoughts about what is good and what is beautiful. This is the pattern you emanate into the world, and your goal is to have the pattern self-replicate.

The fractalic view does not imply you are a meaningless pattern just because things 'just happen'; every one of your actions shape the pattern you are part of and naturally 'tries' to self-replicate. It is not the scale of the action that determines its success of self-replication; it is more the quality of the action, the value underlying it. An obvious example is that a strong leader with new ideas can quite easily gain a lot of followers, in the end tipping over entire social and cultural systems into modes of being based on entirely different values.

Now deriving from this is the idea that you continuously shape the entire pattern and it in return continuously shapes you; you are part of its evolution, as in a co-evolution. In that sense, we are our technologies too. But if we feel too alienated from them, we cannot feel like one, since the pattern of the technology does not match the pattern underlying ourselves. To give an example; a supermarket can easily be seen as a fractalic system based on linear organizing principles. It is based on simple intentional thought (e.g. 'product X should be transported to the stock of store A, and then to shelf number B when it is empty'), externally imposed onto the complexity of the whole world. It therefore has a hard time sustaining itself unless it is maintained all the time, and people conform to the underlying dynamics. Which is very much the case; simplistic, linear systems create simplistic, linear people. As a result we clash with the actual pattern underlying us; we compromise health and lose touch with our subliminal processes. But this is another story. The point is that our technology is still very different from us, and as it is more and more prevalent in our current day lifeworld we have a hard time seeing ourselves as an intrinsic part of this world. So then we rather escape it and try to live an abstracted life as a way to cope with this. But then we forget being part of the whole, while still this will always loop back into our lives, making us aware that we are ignoring something at at least some point.

Now for technology to make us feel as individual, unique patterns within a whole, it must be able to empathize with us as individuals, so together with our technologies we can evolve and become one with the pattern around us either by growing towards this pattern and having this pattern growing towards you. In the end this should lead to a world where people are always attuned to their full selves and the full world around them, conscious of the cosmic evolutionary process around them. In more artistic terms; we should feel as if we were all individual, creative musicians, one with our own instruments within a cosmic orchestra, and continuously have to improvise to create a symphony of ultimate beauty.

Now at least I hope to have given a hint as to why the question 'Who are you' is important for this blog to answer if we want to create an optimal future together with our technology. And for now I'll stop writing. But again, the concept I proposed is not an absolute one, and should not be taken as the truth as in an 'objective, scientific truth', but instead more as a concept to base your current actions in the current world on, and at the same time always keep questioning yourself things like:

Who am I?

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