Sunday, November 23, 2008

Why iPods have emotions, and how we overvalue the human form

This is a more theoretical text, intended to explain mainly a fundamental way in which people need to change their inner selves in order to cope with the technological revolutions facing us. I will start off this article with a short anecdote that triggered the writing of this text, to become more analytical and abstract afterwards. Not too long ago I gave somebody I know quite well my iPod Nano of the second generation. It had in turn been a gift to me by my professor, but after a while I decided that I did not need it anymore. It had become sort of a habit to shut myself out from my direct outer, but also my inner world whenever I was outdoors by myself, and I realized it provided me with nothing but an easy and safe artificial rhythm to temporarily rely on which mainly distracted me from the things I really wanted to do, like thinking, meditating, reading, studying people or the environment, just being, writing, or appearing open to potentially interesting conversations with others. Thus when the opportunity announced itself that somebody else would be happy with the iPod, I didn’t hesitate and immediately gave it a one-way ticket for the airmail. The receiving end though after a while stated that it had trouble with the usability of the thing, as well as that its functionality was already present in the Playstation Portable she owned, so that I might as well have it back to sell it, which I accepted. But after a while I heard from this person that it had been a bit strange that I had taken it back so easily, giving me the idea that this action had somehow done harm to her concept of me. This puzzled me a bit, hence the reason why I write this all down; Lao-Tze was right when he stated that “they who write do not know, they who know do not write”.

To explain the difference of perspective between me and the other person that caused my puzzlement, I will first explain about my perspective and reason for acting. Then I will explain how this relates to eastern thought, and why this way of thinking should pervade us more and more if we want to sustainably live with more and more others, beit people or other entities such as products. Then I will take this way of thinking, while taking a pragmatist philosophical stance, to show why the perspective that we are the same as our products is a useful one as well, and that being able to hold such a perspective reinforces the adaptivity of us as humankind. I argue that this is the main unique aspect of us as entities that embody the highest form of intelligence we know of, and that in these complex times it should be of the highest priority to think and act for the sake of extropy; to take our evolution further.

I figured that the underlying reason for me taking back the iPod is that I did not think in social terms, but in holistic, evolutionary terms. From a social perspective, i.e. one where people seek mainly to interact with other people and derive happiness from that, it might seem that underlying this act was selfishness, and deriving satisfaction out of “owning” things. The perspective I took, however it might seem almost otherworldly to many, is that of treating humans and products equally, seeing no difference between them. I thought that the iPod would be the happiest when it would belong to somebody that would more fully incorporate it into his or her life. In this, I fully treated the iPod as a social actor as much as I would treat other people as social actors. It is more accurate to say that I saw the iPod more as a baby needing a good parent to make it grow and have it become able to root itself into the world, than that I saw it as an abstract product, to be used by humans like a servant. This also explains why I think “owning” is an awkward term to use also in the context of products; it implies a master-slave relationship between man and machine.

This term so widely being used is that society is about as far as nowhere in understanding and being able to sustainably manage this relationship, but instead is narrow-mindedly biased to value what they perceive as being similar to themselves over the rest of their perceptions. As such, society will be completely stunned if technology developers fill up the world with intelligent, highly dynamic and complex adaptive systems such as robots. As science fiction author Bruce Sterling predicts, what we see as the physical world could rapidly start to be augmented by a layer of data, as if it were a Platonic division between the idea and the material, so the entire world starts behaving like the internet. Then, the incomprehensible complexity will not be experienced as safely hidden behind our computer displays, but will pervade the entire space-time, up to the point that even what might seem to be trees or even clouds will be highly complex and self-evolving interactive information processors.

It is my deepest feeling that as we enter such a world, the master-slave relationship can not hold for long. When information circulates so quickly, feedback loops shrinking almost to instantaneous, it to me is evident that our stance will reverberate back on us in no time. I feel that the form of the system that we treat as a slave does not matter much, and that it is all about the stance taken by the individual human actor. It is evident from history that slavery does not work and that the patterns we create will strike back upon us. In fact, this stance has created enormous intercultural tensions that still keep lurking in the background today. How can our societies be ready for a widespread seemingly coming alive of machines if they are not even sure to be ready for a first black president of the USA, for example? How can people learn to project themselves into others and feel empathy for everything, not just humans, if already they have trouble doing this when only a minor variable such as the colour of the perceived entity is different from them? How can people and machines ever share a mutual universal love and compassion, without any prejudices or negative feelings being silently pushed away towards people’s collective unconscious?

Western societies are changing though, but not predominantly in the direction that will facilitate positive changes concerning the topic I am treating here. The main change now slowly working towards a critical mass is about the social interaction between people and ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’, where mostly the latter is treated as a mother that we need to respect, we being her children that need to keep an eye onto their own behaviour and not be too expressive. This environmentalist stance is of course much better than the consumerist stance that preceded it, but it changes not much in terms of our stance towards technology. If there is any change, I would only see it as negative in this respect, since technology is mostly viewed as extra spoilage of the environment. The environmentalist stance is quite like a neo-Confucianist stance, where strict rules need to keep us from disrupting the balance that is greater than us humble humans.

The problem with this, in psychological terms, is that we still use a concept to act as an ‘other’, namely the concept of ‘the environment’. This concept then works as a superego to keep us back from acting on our instincts. But this is not a holistic approach; it demands of all people to act not by nature, but by rules, which keeps people from fully expressing themselves and developing an own identity through interaction. In a reaction upon the negative results on the planet of the consumerist, materialist stance, this new stance is merely an antithesis, but as any antithesis it still allows the thesis to which it is antagonistic to exist, because of the very reason that it is a reaction to it and does not transcend the dualism it is part of. By punishing people socially because they do not conform to rules, one only reinforces the game they are playing, instead of saying nothing and making them realize their stupidity by themselves, because of the unresolved tension that keeps existing without a social reaction to the action. Laws create crime, and medicine creates disease. But when people can’t rely on artificial external constructions, they have to start thinking about the issues themselves, using the construction that is already present; their own body, their own brain, their own self. Wisdom can then grow from the inside instead of an abstract form of it being pasted only onto the outside layer of the organism, but never able to find its way to the core of the individual.

As the Taoists already knew, and Albert Hanken beautifully restates in his synthesis of eastern and western psychology [3], it is better to enforce the people with as little rules as possible, because if anything goes wrong in this case, a natural reaction will follow automatically and without intervention from a higher position, so matters are automatically resolved. We are all ‘unworked blocks’, as the Taoists called it, and need to keep on expressing ourselves spontaneously in order to refine ourselves towards perfection. This is the state of being I would promote to strive for, despite that it will take a long process with possibly many events we see as disastrous such as killings, when we gradually learn to live without rules. I would strongly argue though that this change must come slowly and naturally, and that some crucial developments first need to take place, like the increasing connectedness of every entity in an increasing global transparency, revealed to us by technology.

To identify with our products and see no separation between people and other objects, we need to overcome our narrow identification with things as our body, our culture, and our material ‘possessions’. In short, it means that we all have to completely transcend our ego – everything we identify with as opposed to things we do not identify with- by gradually expanding it so we don’t let our doors of perception block us any longer, in the end seeing that we are not necessarily separated from our perceptions, and destroying our ego concept for its obvious uselessness. But before we are able to do so, the ego concept is a very important one to hold. Before being able to throw it away, we need to be able to root our ego into our world of perception, so we know who we are and what our purpose is.

In pre-electronic times, this was rather easy compared to this seemingly impossible task in a highly networked global whole. One was largely given an identity, to which one had to progress in a rather straightforward way. The baker’s son became the new baker of the village, and was taught by his father until competent enough, and all to do next was just live out the identity, guided by a local consciousness. As such one was both connected to a whole and unique within this whole at the same time. Today, we are forced into a global network already at an early age, as we can make friends all across the globe, and buy products from everywhere we like. It is easy to connect, but extremely hard to comprehend and find one’s own value within the whole.

A solution directly stemming from eastern schools like Buddhism is to develop the self so it becomes able to identify with the whole, seeing that there are no separations. A known analogy that makes it very obvious in a literal way is that with air; the air I breathe out ceases to be ‘me’ and becomes part of an ‘other’ when that ‘other’ breathes the same air in, therefore there is no actual boundary between ‘me’ and the ‘other’. After this realization then, the way for the Buddhist is to detach himself and accept that he is the whole himself, which grows without active intervention. Then merely remains the task of bringing about this realization in others, before he is able to enter Nirvana, the divine realm.

Where this seems intriguing to many, it still is no holistic state of being to me. There is a difference between the imagined, metaphysical, divine whole of the Buddhists, and our new global technological whole that is here to interact with and to change quite directly. Being one with the global network is not enough; we actively transform it, and that is where we need to find our identity. The whole we can learn to identify with is not simply given to us, but is actively created by us. We are what we perceive and interact with, but we are also the transformative, valuative pattern underlying our interactions. Based on a vision of a perfect world, we should learn to selflessly shape our perceptions so they more and more start to match our perfect world and hence, we become the creators of the world. I will now take a step into pragmatist philosophy to in the end answer the starting question of this article, concerning why the iPod has emotions.

I would like to pose that the transformative pattern we are, may well be a fifth level in the metaphysics of quality or MoQ as posed by American pragmatist philosopher Robert Pirsig. He tried to synthesize eastern and western values into one single metaphysical system, based on the notion of quality, the indefinable “pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality” that grows dynamically by laying down static patterns on different levels [6]. Pirsig defined four levels, the inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual level. Each subsequent level tries to free itself from the level below it, an example being that becoming famous is a goal on the social level, which can take hold of entire cultures. But reaching it can require you to neglect or even act negatively according to biological values, e.g. taking drugs, drinking, overworking, over- or undereating, and smoking. Some people even have parts of their Jacobson's organ removed by cosmetic surgical procedures in order to look better, despite the loss of a sense of smell. Then the social level can be surpassed by the intellectual level; when one reflectively realizes that the social goal one was striving for is not a pattern worth striving for intellectually, the social pattern will be destroyed.

One might also draw a parallel of these patterns with the evolution of the brain, a notion that Pirsig does not make. We have quite distinct brains, namely the reptilian brain consisting mainly of the reticular formation, cerebellum and hypothalamus, the mammalian brain consisting of the limbic system and amygdala, and the neocortex [3]. The reptilian brain is mainly responsible for keeping us surviving on the biological level; i.e. finding food, fighting attackers, and mating. The mammalian brain has evolved so we can cooperate in groups, learn to recognize faces, and communicate emotions. The neocortex, finally, has evolved to reflect upon our actions, and speed up evolution by making it self-aware, being able to imagine new futures by connecting known things in order to produce new things, and make conscious choices as to what is most desirable.

Now the transformative pattern redefines us as creative entities, rooted into the world with our whole being, including what we call the body and the mind. It follows Pirsig’s metaphysics in that the transformative pattern rejects the intellectual pattern. It is a pattern about action in the here and now, and aims for a holistic transformation of the here and now that involves us with our whole being, instead of quality being only sought for on the intellectual level. The transformational pattern requires us to become enlightened so we can use our brains and the rest of our body in a synchrony with the world we interact with. Therefore, we obviously have to learn to master all preceding levels first; a person must learn how to derive food first, before learning that there is something beyond that state of being, which involves making friends and becoming part of a social group, that gives the person satisfaction beyond the biological for now he has an opportunity of seeing who he is in a richer way. Being involved in the social pattern one can learn, when one has gained enough self-confidence, that there is something beyond this level if one realizes that one can achieve more and become a unique intellectual pattern. One can then find out that intellectual satisfaction is even richer than social satisfaction, and choose to pursue this level, which is what many scientists and philosophers do.

Now the transformational level is to be reached when one realizes that concepts and intellectual achievements in themselves are quite meaningless, and an even richer mode of being can be attained. Knowledge then becomes something to be used for transformation; it leaves its status as the highest good, but becomes a mere inspiration for creative action. The highest good now becomes the very moment one is in, and the transformative pattern seeks to transform one’s moments into moments of more beauty by finding patterns of action that one can use immediately, instead of those stemming from conceptual structures that merely point at direct experience but are not rooted into it. The realization that intellectual concepts are tools that can impede transformative action when overvalued goes hand in hand with an evolution of our identity that we are not just what we think, but we are all that we do, perceive, think and feel in the current moment. This is in synchrony with the Buddhist notion that everything changes all the time, that for example the tree we think is the same tree in the next moment, actually is not the same tree anymore; that illusion is merely a concept we paste onto our perceptions. All that we really have is our current perceptions and how we act upon them; and this whole is what I call the Self. When acting from the Self, we act from intuition, i.e. a holistic synergy of all part of our being including our brains and rest of our body. We are fully aligned to evolution, and can finally accept just being, without having our consciousness clouded by concepts such as time, space, money, or the notion of others. In this state of being we realize that it does not matter what is real and what is not real; what matters is how we act and hence shape our universe. By seeing that everything is the Self we learn that all that matters is the perfection of the Self, our concepts being subordinate to the Self. Action and perception are not separated either; the beauty with which we act reverberates back onto us in our perceptions, which becomes evident after the realization that all is one. Holistic beauty becomes the highest good, which also has the implication that everything can be seen as art, everything being understood not only intellectually, but also aesthetically. In an enlightened world all disciplines, beit philosophy, science, design, engineering, politics, or plumbing, will be reclassified as arts, each having their own aesthetical pattern. But this is another story and however it may lead to further clarifications and insights, it is not relevant here.

Now I would like to argue that the reason why we see a distinction between ourselves and our technologies is stemming from the radicalness with which the world became technologized as a result of capitalist thought. In that world, and I am talking about mainly the 19th century, western society was mainly Victorian. Their culture was held together by social codes such as etiquette, and one’s goal in life was to climb up the social ladder. There had been a scientific revolution, but in society scientific truth was still mainly regarded as subordinate to social patterns. This allowed people to preserve their world of focusing on social, human aspects, and to mainly ignore the rest. But when production became industrialized and everyday technology became increasingly complex, people found themselves clueless, alienated and almost ridiculized by the otherness of technology. As Pirsig illustrates, “The mastery of all these new changes was no longer dominated by social skills. It required a technologically trained, analytic mind. A horse could be mastered if your resolve was firm, your disposition pleasant and fear absent. The skills required were biological and social. But handling the new technology was something different. Personal biological and social qualities didn't make any difference to machines. A whole population, cut loose physically by the new technology […], was also cut adrift morally and psychologically from the static social patterns of the Victorian past.” [6]

I think that we still have not coped with this shocking development, and have trouble transcending the Victorian mode of being, since we don’t directly see why this is necessary, and we must look for a more holistic mode of being. But in the meantime there are many globally concerning or at least interesting developments, such as economical crises, terrorism, a lurking environmental crisis, as well as psychological crises such as widespread depression. But humanity seems only to learn in a reactive way. Furthermore, I think that we are tricked by our brain to stay on the safe, social level. It cannot intuitively cope with all the information that we are bombarded with these days, so it has trouble deriving real meaning from that other than on a social level. Knowledge is so often used to impress others, or to feed into a discussion in order to see who wins and thus is socially the most evolved, the intellectual mind thus staying subordinate to the social mind. It is hard to transcend the identification purely with other humans of our own small culture, since the mammalian brain can still easier resonate with our perceptions than our neocortex can. The mammalian brain still feels more at home in this world and is thus given the most attention, it seems. We are hardwired to give attention to see everything that is human, such as faces – the fusiform gyrus is a specialized area in the brain that immediately recognizes anything resembling a face and can store hundreds if not thousands of them [1] – and movements that we can perform with our own body – mirror neurons fire more the more we can perform or imagine the movement we perceive with our own bodies.

If we are to live holistically, in symbiosis with what we call ‘nature’ and ‘technology’, we must slowly transcend the biases inherent to our brain. This can be done both by creating technology that interacts with us in ways that are more familiar to us socially, and by developing ourselves so we can learn to intuitively identify ourselves with and project ourselves into all of our perceptions instead of only that what seems human. By respecting that everything we see is alive and consists of the same as that what we consist of, all separations vanish, and everything becomes part of our evolving Self. Then, in this ultimate open-mindedness where concepts are merely tools to support our creative action, we also see that what we think of as our body is merely an illusion. Just because we have a lot of nerve endings in the outside of what we usually call our body does not mean that this is where we end and that we should mainly focus on action and perception from these areas. There are rich worlds we feel less directly connected to, such as other parts of the world, or our inner world of organs, but we can still learn to interact with and optimize. For example, we feel not very connected to our heart usually, but some yogis can control their heartbeat to the extent that they can even stop it. In a globally connected world, it is not enough to identify only with local processes that we become habituated to identifying with.

If we want to live sustainably with our technologies, we need to be able to take the perspective that they are the same as us. In the case of the iPod, it may seem alien for its inhuman, abstract form, invisible functional processes, and apparent deadness, but it is more useful to see everything we perceive as in a high state of flux. Within the iPod, a lot of processes are going on, electrons flow around, which also generates heat that in turn interacts with the dynamic structure of air surrounding the device. However it seems not to be so, the iPod in this sense is already very directly like an organism, a complex and dynamic system directly embedded in the world. If we learn to identify with everything, we will be able to project ourselves into anything and thus empathize with it, treat it as socially equal. This ability requires a high amount of selflessness, which I think is an absolutely necessary ability for humanity, but also for technology, to develop.

If we then are able to project ourselves into something as seemingly abstract as an iPod, it is easy to see that it would be happier when it would be highly active and do what its configuration allows best for; interacting with the human hand, and sending audio to the human ear. That would be the iPod’s Self; its destiny or mission would mostly be to change humans by providing them with sensory input. Then if we continue this projection, which still might seem a bit far-fetched to you, if the iPod is not allowed to fulfill its mission it can be esteemed to be unhappy.

In the same light, something having emotions depends on our ability to project our own emotional states into our perceptions. For practical matters, we say that humans have emotions, because we can easily read them from their faces and other bodily expressions, and if we cannot do so with products we say that they do not have emotions. For practical matters, if hypothetically a robot could display emotions as rich as humans and in the same convincing and believable way, it would have emotions. Also in humans, we do not know if they have emotions; it just seems so because we can project ourselves into them. There is no way whatsoever to know, and therefore the whole concept of knowledge becomes useless in this context; it is what we can achieve with emotional interaction in terms of transformative value that matters.

Where William James [4] thought that emotions are the result of body states, I think that this still suffers from Aristotelian causality reasoning, and we must discard the entire concept of time in the definition of emotion; the emotion is the body state. When you feel pleasure, you are more likely to display a smile, but the other way around it works as well; when you display a smile, you come in a more pleasurable emotional state. Also I would say that every body state is an emotion, it is only that we call it an emotion for practical purposes when this strikes us the most in a particular situation, for example a social one. As any construct, it is meant to serve practicality purposes and not to delineate what is true. Although I am not intending to make soundly constructed arguments here, it would follow from this that one can learn to choose one’s emotions as much as one can learn to choose one’s behaviour, and that one can learn to perceive emotions in everything.

My main point with this text is to point out that the social stance that contemporary culture is commonly attaining, treating only as socially equal what we can see as ourselves, is not enough for the immensely complex world we are about to enter. Technologies will come alive, and it is crucial that we start to see them as equal to us. Research into human-computer interaction has already shown that our interaction with machines is fundamentally social and interpersonal [5]; we only need to fully realize this and not trick ourselves with the notion that because products seem to be so different, they are different and should be treated as such. If we do not learn already to become less narrow-minded and pertain to an illusory rigid concept of who we are, we will face an incredible psychological shock when it becomes apparent that machines can be as convincingly human as we are. We need both to learn to destroy our attachment to the human form, however tempted we are to attain to it, and learn in the process to identify with everything we perceive and classify everything as human, and part of our Self.

This is not as hard as we think; we just need to become open to change and learn to let go of concepts we take for granted, such as our body, our knowledge, and our self-concept. In fact, the brain is plastic enough to cope with changes in these constructs, even transform its entire neural structure, in quite a short amount of time. As Andy Clark states, "our sense of self, place, and potential are all malleable constructs ready to expand, change, or contract at surprisingly short notice" [2]. It just takes openness, readiness, and insight as to why it would be practical in a new world to reconsider these constructs. Machines could soon become more sophisticated, both mentally as well as physically, as we are, so in evolutionary terms the human body, or “ancient biological skinbag” in Clark’s terms [2], in itself will be quite useless other than for the occupation of some minuscule and yet to be discovered functional niche, possibly only for the superficial sake of nostalgia.

To conclude with, if we are to successfully co-exist with technologies, we need to learn to identify fully with them so in the end, we have no troubles with having technologies enter our bodies if this has practical purposes for our transformative Self, or even separating our bodies, or becoming part of a larger technological body. It is only when we realize ourselves fully as a transformative pattern, that we can become fully transhuman and liberate ourselves in order to devote ourselves to our creative missions in a world of increasing holistic beauty, where separations only exist temporarily, whenever they are useful.

1. Bahrick, H.P., Bahrick, P.O., & Wittlinger, R.P. (1975). Fifty years of memory for names and faces: A cross-sectional approach. Journal of Experimental Psychology; General, 104, 54–75.
2. Clark, A.J. (2003). Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, technologies, and the future of human intelligence. USA: New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Hanken, A. (1994). Balanceren tussen Boeddha en Freud - een synthese. The Netherlands: Utrecht: Het Spectrum / Aula.
4. James, W. (1884). What is an emotion? Mind, 9, 188-205.
5. Nass, C., Moon, Y., Fogg, B.J., Reeves, B., and Dryer, C. (1995). Can Computer Personalities Be Human Personalities? Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 228-229.
6. Pirsig, R.M. (1991). Lila.

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