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Social media as virtual temple

by Carlo Pizzati

Is the rapidly rising trend of talking to the dead online the millennial way of seeing the Internet as god?

There are at least 30 million dead people on Facebook right now. Every day, 8,000 Facebook members die. By 2060, there could be more deceased people on Facebook than those who are alive. By then, we may be communicating in completely new ways and social networks might exist only as anachronistic testaments of a bygone technological phase — a digital graveyard of a forgotten past.

As we head into this possible future, it’s evident that a growing number of people are already talking to the dead on social media. And the way in which they communicate with the deceased is altering how we relate to the ideas of loss of our loved ones and to the idea of an afterlife. More importantly, this behaviour increasingly identifies the Internet with the notion of what is divine, sacred and holy.

This phenomenon re-emerged distinctly with the recent deaths of writer V.S. Naipaul and singer Aretha Franklin. Hundreds of authors, intellectuals and admirers gushed their grief all over their timelines, invoking the great lessons of the master and the powerful voice of the singer, often addressing the deceased stars in the second person. “You who taught us so much…”, “You who sang so heavenly…”, and so on.

It’s nothing more than an understandable variation of public mourning, one might say. But there are more serious implications in this common behaviour.16SM-P1-CARLOGTR4M2II61jpgjpg.jpg

The necromancers

Talking to the dead must have been a strong need since the early days of humanity. According to psychologist Julian Jaynes, the very first concept of god originated when an ancient tribe began to worship the decaying corpses of a king and queen. The royals were buried in their hut, sitting upright as they decomposed. At some point, someone heard their voices still imparting orders from a great beyond. And began to worship the inanimate bodies as deities.

All religions, to varying degrees, claim different ways of communicating with the afterlife. Orpheus is always descending into some inferno; Lila is always hoping to be reunited with her dead king, as narrated by Vasishta.

This may be motivated by the need to express love, or the attempt to accept loss. To varying degrees of gullibility or believability, through the centuries, clairvoyants, necromancers, channellers, diviners, crystal gazers and mediums with Ouija boards on seances have offered promises of connectivity.

The industrial revolution brought innovative technologies and new methods to supposedly communicate with the alleged souls of the departed. In the post-WWII period, spiritualists across Europe thought they heard “psychophonic” voices of the dead emerging from radio waves.

Today, in our relationship with the inexplicable, we witness a mixture of events on social media. There is the comprehensible attempt to keep the idea of the deceased person alive, reaffirming a spiritual belief in the existence of an afterlife. And the need to reawaken a functioning mourning ritual, lost with modernisation.

However, it is one thing to share admiration for dead artists, scientists and leaders, and another to inadvertently equate the Internet with the sacred enclosure of the temple, the traditional location for our dialogue with the invisible.

The annus horribilis that brought this phenomenon to the foreground is undoubtedly 2016. David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, Umberto Eco, Jayalalithaa, Harper Lee, George Michael, Elie Wiesel, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, Katherine Dunn, Gene Wilder — these disappearances unleashed waves of comments that allowed people to externalise the public discourse on death. #RIP, which can be interpreted as the classical ‘Rest in Peace’ or the more likely ‘Rest in Pixels’, reached record levels.

The Internet has clearly changed the way we relate to celebrities. It has also changed how we talk about them after they’re gone. In turn, this has affected how we talk about our own dead. People now readily externalise what is called “competitive mourning,” a race of comments like “only the good die young,” “I knew her so well,” and similar banalities.

Elaine Kasket (real name, nomen omen ) is a psychologist at Regent’s University London, currently on sabbatical to finish writing All the Ghosts in the Machine: How the Digital Age is Transforming Death in the 21st Century . She’s been trying to determine if it is healthy to talk to dead people online. “For digital natives born after the mid-80s,” she writes, “to put something on the Internet is to trust it will be received by someone, somewhere in the ether.”

Kasket says that since Facebook is a place many associate with their loved ones, after their departure “it’s natural to reach out to them in the same ‘place’ where you interacted, talked and joked,” when they were alive. The issue, the psychologist points out, is that online, the problem of “legacy hierarchy,” meaning who is entitled to represent the deceased, who can decide how they are remembered, who has “chief mourner status,” becomes a public problem.

Which is also why removing the social network profile of a deceased can be publicly traumatising. Basically, Kasket affirms, keeping a dead person’s profile online is the equivalent of preserving a bedroom, continuing to lay a place at the dinner table for someone who will never show up again. But posting on their Facebook wall has a twist: this was the place where often you had the most interactions with the deceased person, so the expectation of an impossible reply can be higher.

Pixellating death

How does this affect our integration of spirituality within our daily use of technology? We can assume it enhances it. However, there is a fundamental difference between talking to the dead in your own head (or out loud in the silence of your room) and posting your dialogue on a public platform, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Virtualising the experience of our loved ones, while they are still alive, and getting accustomed to mistaking their pixellated avatar for our tangible reality, makes us want to hang on more to their Internet version, allowing us to continue experiencing a form of mediated presence.

A compulsive behaviour that has been observed in mourners is that of repeatedly returning to visit the page of a departed loved one. It is equivalent, in a previous technological phase, to calling an answering machine in order to hear the voice of someone who died — initially useful, yet if repeated it might slow down the process of mourning.

There’s also the problem of self-censorship while posting online. As Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other , has explained: “We have come to believe that our experiences are not validated unless we have shared them. What we do online tends to make us look good. When we attempt to grieve or commemorate a lost loved one in a public forum, we censor what we want and need to say. We lose certain ways of talking, experiencing things because we don’t practise them.”

For example, we may need to insult, in our own internal dialogue, a friend or relative who died. It might be exactly what’s needed to gain closure and face grief. But most of us would not do that online.

Onscreen temple

If the Internet is being associated with a virtual temple, a sacred place of dialogue with the invisible, what are the implications on atheist and agnostic minds who may be engaging in spiritual behaviour without realising it? Or on believers who are beginning to divert their focus of worship from a real church or temple to a screen? In other words, is the Internet becoming the new temple for many millennials and Generation X web surfers?

If you listen to musician Alexander Bard (again, nomen omen ), the answer would be “yes.” Six years ago, this Internet activist became a spiritual leader by founding a new religion claiming that “the Internet is God”. He called it Syntheism.

The word means “together with god,” to indicate that humanity creates god as opposed to god creating humanity.

Of course, at the moment, Syntheism seems more of an artistic provocation rather than a real religion. Yet, Bard might have a point when he says: “I firmly believe Syntheism is already being practised — we are just formulating it.”

And, of course, Syntheism already has serious competition in the ‘Church of Google’, a website first taken down, but revived as ‘The Reformed Church of Google’ — their belief is that the search engine is the closest thing to god because it is omni-present, omniscient, omni-benevolent, as it professes (officially) no evil.

Artificial nirvana

These trends, some facetious, some more serious, are not alone. Extropians are a group of young scientists, looking at technological promises made by the pioneers of artificial intelligence like Marvin Minsky, or of nanotechnology like K. Eric Drexler, who predict a world where both body and mind will become obsolete, and where a combination of technologies and genetic engineering could lead to our capacity to download our conscience in a web server and reach artificial nirvana in a new post-human world.

It’s a popular trend in Silicon Valley, with its promises of doubling life spans with special diets or deep-freezing bodies with cryogenics. It is, more than science, a new form of utopian religion looking at a trans-human who can control nature and the universe.

Some traditional religions see this as the antichrist, or a Satanic endeavour to end humanity. Optimists see the birth of a connected world-brain through artificial intelligence as the realisation of what philosopher Hegel had predicted about society as a whole.

Computer as god

All traditional symbology is in place to understand why it is possible to experience technological communication in spiritual terms. Biblical Armageddon, or the “Technocalypse,” is envisioned as a sizeable solar flare that could wipe out all the hard drives in the world. The Dark Net is a metaphor of a hell ruled by a concealed, immoral, and murderous underworld. The Heavens could be the download of our conscience in a server, resulting in eternal body-less nirvana.

As with life itself, most people experience electronic networks as entities evolving from a force they do not really understand, and that certainly they cannot control — a self-organised, decentralised and distributed system, which is also how many experience the concept of the divine.

To allow the identification of a faceless abstraction like the Internet with an all-powerful god-like force, there’s also the fact that the traditional monotheistic idea of god in a human form, often that of an older, wise man, has been suffering a slow erosion.

In the West, there has been a crisis of the patriarchal symbology of god in the aftermath of the bloody World Wars of the 20th century which involved (negative) father figures like Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin, along with positive (for some) father figures like Woodrow Wilson or the Kennedys. Of course, the need for an older man with a white beard sitting on the highest throne of the land lives on in a place like India, for example. But the iconography of patriarchy is suffering as the interdependence of humanity with the natural world brings everything on a similar level.

The more we use the Internet, the more we experience existence as an interconnected network of dependencies, leading to a possible weakening for the need of traditional religious symbols.

This could mean a return to an animistic approach, as is the case with some New Age beliefs in which mountains, rivers and oceans, along with plants and animals, are seen not as objects and lives created by god, but as an integral part of a larger interconnected whole, components of a web of creation.

People of the PC

In an era of democracy, the hierarchical structure of some theological liturgies might suffer, as believers feel equally important in the face of the divine, just as they are in the face of Internet. It is not so far-fetched to see that, in our age, a God-like presence could be perceived in the network which connects us more frequently and deeply every day.

For centuries, monotheistic religions have identified themselves with a technological object which transmitted the religious experience far and wide thanks to a machine: the printing press.

Theology does come with technology. So it is not such a leap of faith, pardon the pun, to see that from “the people of the book,” we may soon be seeing the “people of the computer” becoming the strongest religion of the millenium, seeking salvation in the algorithm.

The writer is the author of Technoshamans. Mappillai,a memoir, will be published this month.

(Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine September 16th,2 2018)

Promises of anti-globalisation, realities of fiscal revenge

Today’s so-called crisis of globalisation is nothing more than a new variable of the old battle between protectionism and free trade. On the one hand it is the tribalists while on the other it is the globalists. On one side there are the anti-Amazon, pro-retailers, losers of a global challenge, while on the other, there are the pro-Amazon, e-commerce winners.

Nothing more, really. The opening of trade walls has accelerated industrial evolution in such a way that workers have had to learn to adapt to almost every generation. The difference, today, is that the evolution didn’t happen within a lifetime, but a few times within that lifetime. This is why the Indian farmer, who initially moved to the city to work in a call centre, had to reinvent himself as an Uber driver and is now worried about driverless cars — all within one lifetime.

 Cause of discontent

Technological innovations are what accelerate the rhythm of change. The medium is the message all over again. It is the transformation of technology that affects society, not whatever that technology delivers (news, electricity, TV series). And this is why in the United States and the United Kingdom and in some parts of Europe, so many 50-somethings, unemployed, disgruntled voters who found it hard to reinvent themselves ended up voting for someone who promised to bring back an impossible past — a greater America, a more British Britain, whatever that may mean.

Up until 20 to 30 years ago, you could reach your pension age before a new radical evolution in the job market, which created its winners and losers. Today, the challenge is that evolutionary shifts happen not just once before reaching pensionable age, but often.

This is what causes globalisation’s discontent. Blue collar workers from the mid-West cannot move to Silicon Valley; it’s a totally different skill set, and only few can manage it.

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 A sort of revenge

U.S. President Donald Trump’s and Brexit’s victories can be seen as a sort of “revenge of the losers”. The victims of the system described above decided to vote for someone who promised to protect them. Ludicrous. And, in fact, little has been done by Mr. Trump or British Prime Minister Theresa May to help those workers. And little is being done. Their standards of living have not improved. Or have certainly not returned to previous levels. Nor is there any policy in motion indicating that the previous levels will return.

There won’t be any promised return to the past. Which doesn’t mean the economy will not thrive. It just won’t bring back the same old jobs to the unskilled.

For example, the latest U.S. tax reform promises to lower corporate taxes, rehashing the ancient myth job, the “trickle down” theory, will not impact the lower middle classes who voted for Mr. Trump. At the dangerous cost of increasing the deficit and widening the hole, Mr. Trump is lowering too high corporate taxes to bring them down to European levels.

It would seem to make sense even though the impact on total taxation will be marginal. Lowering tax on capital may increase wages for those skilled workers whose productivity will be positively affected by increased demand for capital intensive work, but while engineers might see an increase in their wages, the unskilled won’t benefit directly from it.

 

In other words, instead of fighting the ills of globalisation, Mr. Trump has found a way to economically hit the coastal electorate who mocked and railed against him — the Hillary Clinton voters. By lowering the maximal for family deductions and real estate taxes, he has hit those middle to upper middle classes in the east and west coasts who hate him. They are the ones who will not benefit from this reform. This is what he’ll obtain with this tax reform. Brilliant from his point of view because the reform dips into the pockets of people who never have and never will vote for him.

How will this impact free trade globally? U.S. manufacturing is down to 11.7% of U.S. GDP (2016), while farming agriculture is only 1% (2015). America produces services such as Amazon, Google and Facebook; these are the richest corporations. Their expansion is thriving globally. And so is the expansion of other multinational corporations.

Even though the discontent of globalisation is a leftover of the crisis of 2008, today we don’t see that it will really impact globalisation seriously. At least, so far, we don’t see the results of this desire to raise barriers. Globalisation is here to stay.

Carlo Pizzati is an author and professor of communication theory

this editorial appeared in the daily national newspaper The Hindu on Dec. 18th 2017 also readable at this link.

“The spiritual android within us” chapter 27 of “Technoshamans” (2010)

The creative evolution

The initial interest in the investigation on the relationship between man and machine was  stimulated by a French philosopher, a Nobel Prize winner for literature who inspired Marcel Proust and Deleuze.  In his “Creative evolution,” philosopher Henri Bergson outlines the “vital force” in the surprising way in which life acts. Bergson looks at the first spring of life on the planet as an impulse received at the source and still present in every form of life.

This spark is at the root of the tree of Evolution in whose trunk three different branches are hidden – vegetative torpor, instinct and reason. On one side plants, on the other insects, and still on the other, mammals. We know well who sits on the evolutionary step right below us, in the branch pursuing reason – it is those animals like monkeys and elephants, who can in certain contexts use an artificial instrument. In other words, they understand and are able to utilize technology. And right below, there are those who are at least able to recognize a man-made object – like a fox, who knows full well that a trap is a trap. But who is on the step right above us? There’s no step yet, maybe, but if up there, high up, in the darkness, there’s the light of intelligence which Evolution follows and chases, what will the next step be like and who will sit on it?

I mean, whose monkeys will we humans be? What man is building with technology, isn’t it maybe the next step of evolution?

It’s conscience, says Bergson, “the principal engine of evolution.” But if machines will be one day be able to download the “software of conscience,” reaching computational powers similar if not superior to the those of humans, how will the much-feared victory of machines over human kind not take place?

The day in which machines learn intuition from humans, and it’s not inconceivable this could happen soon, the countdown for us humans, if it hasn’t started already, will begin.

TECHNOSHAMANS NEW COVERAbout 160 years ago Samuel Butler was already writing that “it appears clear that we are creating our own successors…that we are providing them with powers superior to ours and that we are designing them, with ingenuous machineries of all types, with a power of self-regulation and automation which will be for them what intellect is for the human race.”

We humans, then, are not the owners of machines any more than we own fire or the wheel. Our new virtual setting, which we are creating on the other side of the screen is not controllable any longer from the natural world. 

One of the greatest programmers in history, Bill Joy, known as the “Thomas Edison of Internet” confirms it in an opinion piece in Wired magazine: “But now, with the prospect of human-level computing power in about 30 years, a new idea suggests itself: that I may be working to create tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species. How do I feel about this? Very uncomfortable.”

Since Kubrick’s “2001: Odyssey into Space” with the sentient computer Hal until the conflict of humans and the “computer soul” in “Matrix,” from the legend of the Golem, automaton programmed to work on the sacred Sabbath, until the legend of Frankenstein, the very human fear that the instrument substitutes his inventor is becoming more and more pressing, as the instrument begins to look more and more like its inventor.

Our metamorphosis

In my journey to the end of the world, until that finis terrae in Argentina and that India that borders on the Absolute, I’ve always observed the constant confrontation of man with his own animal instincts. Demons, obsessors, challenges to my brahmacharya period, the fights with Salome and having to face the most tedious aspects of life in all its difficulties were nothing but the unchecked expression of the animal nature within me.

Often, religions are just an attempt to calm that beast in order for us to become something higher – the famous transcendence. But instead, there are those who are convinced we are experiencing a return to bestiality. And this is what makes Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” a key-tale of modernity.

you are here smokeyScience also provides us with the illusion of being able to transcend the animal instincts that pervade us. As John Gray wrote in “Straw Dogs,” the imminent possibility of choosing a human being’s DNA, aspiring to immortality through hibernation or abandoning our body in order to enter virtual reality are all testament to the constant aspiration to control one’s self and the world – two fatal illusions, rooted in the even greater illusion of being, us humans, different from animals.

We are bestial sorcerer apprentices: “When technology enters in human life, be it fire, the wheel, the car, the radio, TV or Internet, it changes it in a way we will never fully comprehend,” Gray writes. Technology does not belong to humans: it is as old as the earth. The work done by ants is very similar to human agriculture: ant colonies are colonies just like the ones we humans have, and our cities are no less artificial than bee-hives, the shape of the Internet is no “less natural” than a spider-web. What remains to be established is who is the spider and who is the fly?

Are we are ourselves “technological mechanisms” invented by a primordial community of bacteria as a means to survival, as biologists Margulis and Sagan say? Or, as Richard Dawkins writes in “The Selfish Gene,” are we just instruments who pass on genetic software from one generation to the next?

We think we are at the center of the universe but instead we are only organic robots at the service of an end whose meaning escapes us because, maybe, we are only its slaves. Our own capacity for using rationality is exaggerated – Benjamin Libet has shown that the electrical impulse that stimulates action happens a half second before our conscious decision to act. At most, reason has the power of veto, since it can block an action.

So, who operates the software inducing to action? Nobody? God? The Techno-Moloch that Jacques Ellul talks about in “Technological Society”? A society invented by engineers who have lost all control and in which the Machine dictates rules and regulations as if it already had a mysterious identity?

Sex with robots

But if it were so, if we were only dangerous beasts who are using science to create the next generation of “Masters of the Earth,” in what way will this happen?

David Levy’s “Love + Sex with Robots” predicts the imminent development of a generation of robots who’ll become our life companions – after so many fights, finally the ideal husband and wife!

In our collective imagination, the first robots are born in the Czech Republic with the 1920’s theater work “Rossums Universal Robots” of Karel Capek – it’s the story of the automatons robota  (“forced labor” in Czech) who rebel against and decide to kill all human beings. A century before, in Japan, the karakuri dolls had already been invented. They were automated tea-carrying dolls. Since then we have cohabitated with robotics, knowing we are destined to cross our destiny with that of android objects that are more and more useful and more and more similar to us.

In “Robotherapy,” for example, psychological software is being developed to use automatons as therapists and “friends” for people with psychological problems aside from being helpful to those who have physical, emotional or cognitive handicaps. It’s about providing these “techno-nurses of the future” with the capacity to observe our daily life, studying what makes us happier and grateful, “feeling” our desires and satisfying them. It is not impossible. Because, as marvelous as it can seem, the human brain is a biological machine that can be analyzed and imitated.

Robot psychology is a highly complex minefield, but it cannot be stopped.

tigre

What about love?

The robot-nurse may be acceptable by now, with some big reservations, but the robot-husband or the android-wife. How can one fall in love with an object? But this happens everyday, in the wildest technological consumerist era in human history.  And it is true that falling in love with the latest car model or computer is different from falling in love with a bed partner or a companion (not always, truth be told), but for how long still, in human evolution, will it be so?

Romantic attractions activate those “pockets” of our brain where you find a high concentration of dopamine receptors, that chemical substance associated with euphoria, cravings and addiction. A robot – writes Levy – could carry out a subtle fMRI scan on us while, for example, it compliments us on our haircut. According to our reaction, the robot will know if it is up the right alley in the direction of seduction and from there he will proceed until we fall in love with it. Don’t think of the robots you see in movies, with all that sharp and shining metal, we are talking about machines that not only have believable skin, but in whom an essence has been injected with normal pheromones, which our organoleptic receptors can find exciting without understanding why.

Their hands can massage us skillfully with a program designed for our specific preferences.

After all, aren’t we already – in the millions – falling in love with people we meet through a screen? That person on the other side of the chat is already so unreal and robotic since it “is” only words on a screen, or at most a low definition image seen through a webcam.

According to a statistic quoted by Levy, 45 per cent of English adolescents interviewed in a survey said they consider their computer a friend, while 60 percent love their computers, and16 per cent of adults and 13 per cent of children often speak to their computer. Thirty-four per cent of adults and 37 per cent of children say that by 2020 computers will be just as important to them as their family or friends.

A mechanical partner can be programmed to be what we need, with the skills to perform half that healthy little fight once in a while that can stimulate the game of making-up afterwards.

Are we facing a future where men will marry exclusively with a brand-name robot wife, furnished with a special receptacle to freeze the husband’s seed and send it to a sperm bank, where the same sperm can also be used by robot husbands to impregnate their human wives? Confusing, yet plausible.

WellAdjustedSwallowed by a the phantomat

The biological man can find himself naturally pushed out of existence since, according to the logics of evolution, a species rarely survives in a hostile space where there is a superior stage of evolution. How long, then, till the first generation of intelligent machines learns to self-reproduce in more and more advanced models?

Paul Virilio in “Ce qui arrive” theorizes that from Utopia we will transition into Ucronia, the end of human time. Maybe we have already exited time and meaning, our attention distracted and lost in that cobweb called “the media” thanks to whom – as Karl Kraus reminds us – a short circuit is generated, “leading the masses into believing that facts are told even before they happen –thus making them possible.”

“The immediacy, ubiquity and omniscience of video monitors and domestic computer terminals,” says Virilio, “take on the job of reinstating the equivocal methods that everyone employs in order to affirm his or her own dependency from what can make him or her escape him or herself – thing that, for a few brief instants, makes bodies inconsistent: dream, trance, hypnosis, orgasm, alcohol, drugs…” It is, he says, “the world marked of disappearance, in which the telepresence is substituted by not only the real presence of the artistic object, but also that of it’s buyer and seller.”

In “The perfect crime: has television killed reality?,” Jean-Baudrillard takes on the theme of the role that technology has in transforming our sense of the real: “…technique becomes a marvelous adventure […] it becomes the art of disappearance. Its finality would consist, more than in the transformation of the world, in an autonomous world, fully realized, from which we will finally be able to retire.”

The cyberspace offers a promise of eternity. Having overcome time and transcended the body, all that is left is our conscience, free to roam from server to server.

After all, Nietzshce also declared that “man is something which should be exceeded.” But not by the über-mensch, but rather by the über-computer.

Already in 1964, in its “Summa Technologiae,” Stanislaw Lem (also author of “Solaris”) imagined the advent of a “Phantomat,” a “fantasmatic generator” that allows humans to penetrate into simulated worlds. Lem imagined in advance the virtual reality now taking shape in avatar, social networks and videogames: “The fantasmatic offers a kind of experience that, because of its intimate character, is comparable only to dreams.”

And while shamans get lost in their trance or in their dances of a “separate reality,” which transcends spirituality, technology pushes our imagination in a generator of perfect illusions, a world made for us, mirror of a solitary hell which becomes more and more boring in the unpredictable reality with which we have to confront our selves today.

The spiritual machine

We are already a bit cyborg. We will mate with robots perfectly like us and, in certain aspects, better than us, and then we will lose our conscience in the Phantomat, in the virtual world where all that matters is conscience not the body.

But it is not necessarily true that androids should be seen as a species who overpower and crush us. There are those who, with a more trans-humanistic vision that borders on biopolitics – in tune with the tradition of Enlightenment – foresee instead that androids will only be our children, the evolutionary step borne from our ribs, literally. Or rather: we are the androids.

In “The Age of Spiritual Machines – When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence,” Ray Kurzweil for the first time maps – data in hand – the timing for what he calls “singularity,” when computers will reach the calculation capacity equal to that of a human. Calculating the exponential speed of technological progress, and the speed of growth of microprocessors, Kurzweil predicts the precise date of when that overtaking will happen. Measuring the growth of the capacity of calculation of a microchip from 1972 until today, Kurzweil says that every three years this capacity doubles and the rate of speed could accelerate – by 2045 computers will have a brain with the calculation capacity of humans. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll have a conscience, which is impossible according to the Catholic religion.

The copyright of conscience

It is difficult to understand what conscience is, first of all because the word “conscience” has many meanings, all of which are unclear. It is not demonstrated that machines will have one. But the contrary isn’t proven either. Actually, after years of studies no one has been able to prove whether there is a barrier which makes the “invention” of a programmable conscience for machines impossible. There are those who believe that conscience cannot be measured, but this is also a theory.

What science is trying to do is to study different phenomena where the word “conscience” is used. And from there we will also obtain something useful for humans. By programming an “embryo of conscience” in robots and observing how it evolves when it comes into contact with external agents, many more things could be learned about the development of our own conscience.

Domenico Parisi, robotics researcher for CNR, theorizes that since robots’ behavior is guided by a neuronal system very similar to ours, to plan an “insert of conscience” can be plausible. Robots can be programmed to surprise themselves to learn and register the difference between the tactile reaction of their “hand” when they touch an external object compared to when they caress a part of the robot itself – technically then, we can already talk of a primordial “sense of self” in the android.

The materialist’s approach believing that “mind is what mind does” brings us to an obvious conclusion – if we are capable of reproducing in minute detail the human brain into a “head” of a robot, this robot will have a conscience. It is a matter of time: who will copyright the first artificial conscience?

But if robots achieve a conscience, this does not necessarily mean they will want to immediately wipe us away from the face of the earth. Things could go differently, in a much more organic manner. Here’s how.

A possible solution to my back ache

Is a person wearing a pace-maker, a robot heart, still the same person? Of course, even more, he or she is actually stronger and will live longer, right?

Let’s imagine a man with hearing problems just like me, the way Kurzweil does in his book. A diagnostic test says I should have a transplant in my cochlea. With this chip inserted in my auditory channel I would be able to hear a whole range of sounds I had lost, from low to high frequencies. Am I still the same person? Of course.

Now let’s suppose that with a simple wire transfer I can ask the activation of an upgrade already inserted in the chip and thanks to which I can use the circuits of phonic recognitions that will allow me to hear two people whisper half a mile away from me, or more.

Meanwhile, I’m also offered something similar for my retina. Thanks to neural transplant technology I get installed in my corneas some retinal visualization screens to see virtual reality via wi-fi and I decide to try new transplants to make perception much sharper than normal. Am I still Carlo to my friends? Well, yeah.

3908779_aborigeno_nero

But now I realize I’m loosing my memory a bit, I don’t really remember all the names and details of things I’ve done. I’m offered a transplant of memory systems. Recollections that had become out of focus with time, are now clear again. Unfortunately, the scary and embarrassing moments I was trying to forget are clear too. But am I still Carlo? Obviously.

Well, I’ve gone through a few changes, but nothing shocking to my friends who may actually be impressed. So why stop here? I’m offered the possibility to scan my entire brain and neural system and to substitute it with electronic circuits that are much more capable, rapid and reliable. Furthermore, I can make a back up copy of everything, in case something happens to my body.

Now, Kurzweil says, let’s suppose that instead of gradually substituting every part of the body we do everything in one single operation. Does it change anything? The new Carlo is still the old Carlo, right?

Maybe, but now there are two Carlos, one is a back-up, the other the original body. But if my original organic body were eliminated with its backache and only the copy remained, my back-up, with all human functions substituted by an artificial body, then my conscience, the essence of Carlo, would still be the same, right? It behaves the same way, it thinks the same way, it acts the same way, it smells the same way and has the same consistency (duly recreated with nanotechnologies). And so, what would be wrong with it?

Let’s imagine that the operation would mandatorily eliminate and destroy my body in order to have a durable and we could say eternal copy. How many would dare turn it down? With an android body my damn back would not hurt any more, nor all the nuisances I’ve narrated in these pages.

The spark born millions of years ago, that Bergsonian “vital force,” which has been passed on through cells, plants, fish, amphibious beings, mammals until humans, thrown in chase of rational development, would suddenly transform itself in the last electric shock that turns on the Carlo android for whom, after all human bodies have disappeared, the antropic shape of the body would not have any meaning, him (me?) having become only conscience and thus able to join all the other consciences under a grand advaitic Self, a network of spiritual servers maybe comparable only to a technological Nirvana.

Demonstrating, thus, that Technology and Spirituality integrate all too well and can easily do without our carnal Humanity.

(This is a chapter from “Technoshamans: Between spirituality and technology – A journey to the end of the world to cure a chronic back ache” which can be purchased clicking here).

The revival of deep reading online. by Carlo Pizzati

Nietzsche? Huh.

No, wait, the most senior student in the class shyly raises her hand.

“German philosopher? 19th century? Nihilists?”

Yes, I say, trying to thread on more recent cultural grounds:

“Anyone remember the Big Lebowski? ‘We are nihilists, we believe in nothing…’ ?”

Empty stares, absolute zero among these millennials. The average age in my postgraduate class is 22 years old. Here in India, universities ends sooner and graduate work stars earlier, and also here at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.

medium is the message cake

In this class we have tried to develop an “Independent Gaze,” the title of this series of lessons on the relationship between information and internet. The subtitle is so long that someone thought it was in and of itself the first lesson: “The metastasis of communication and the anorexia of information.” This last eating disorder metaphor is borrowed from Slavoj Zizek.

Slavoj what?

We stuffed our heads with new names – new to these minds not necessarily  informed by the Western model. From “Information Anxiety” of Richard S. Wurman to the most recent “The invention of the news” by Andrew Pettegree, by way of Marshall McLuhan, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson’s visions at the foundations of American journalism with its constant conflicts, to then study pissed off French intellectuals like Pierre Bourdieau, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, and move onto recent arguments developed by Lee Siegel in “Against the machine” and the topic’s milestone book by Nicholas Carr, “The Shallows,” on how our brain is allegedly transforming with the use of Internet, whilst not forgetting Morozov’s j’accuse on the presumed impact of the internet in contemporary history.

Sontag, Barthes, Berger and Camille Paglia made us understand how images win over text, just when Facebook announces that in a few years it will become predominantly a video channel. These are important themes, here, when in the past weeks the Indian capitals of Information Technology, just like our very own Chennai, have been visited by the likes of Zuckerberg form FB, Bezos for Amazon and Microsoft’s Nadella.

Thus we have arrived to the present and to understand what this famous New Intelligence is. The hate of originality, the hymn in favor of plagiarism, the cut and paste creativity glorified by Jonathan Lethem and Co. There’s even an “Uncreative writing” class being taught in an American university, naturally. Originality is off limits, and it is mandatory to copy everything from Internet.

At first, these millennials admitted having serious problems concentrating while reading online even short texts, even a few paragraphs, confirming what good old usability guru Jakob Nielsen used to say. Then they were obligated to do their homework on a blog. They were free to answer even with a poem or an image, or a tweet, if they wished to – as long as it was possible to relate it to a comment on the text for the assignment. Instead, they all articulated with words, their reactions and comments getting better and better with time, sometimes adding an image, or a chart with numbers and tables (meta-data is a global trend).

Now, at the end of the course, they seem to be realizing that they are able to read longer and longer texts online. They can reflect upon the text and use it in their school work for the required assignment. Of course, at the same time, they are snapping pictures with their phones to photograph the written slides projected on the wall behind me. It’s the e-learning age, they got tired of transcribing with a pen, after a while. No matter how much I insisted on the importance of focusing your thoughts through the continuous motion of your hand on paper. Quoting what Nietzsche said about his first impression of how using a typewriter affected his writing didn’t seem to help much.

A young student admitted that he goes online mostly looking for opinions about cricket, so that he can formulate better his own commentaries and analysis of this sport. Then he lets himself float away on the buzz of internet surfing which feels more pointless, lost in what maybe is also an informative and relaxing world of social media. But it became apparent to everyone that it is possible to read long texts online, drawing a true and serious intellectual growth from it, and at the same time using internet for pure fun on Twitter or Facebook.

This brought us to what is being explained by David Dowling from the University of Iowa, in the extremely long analysis that was the last reading assignment: “Escaping the Shallows – deep reading’s revival in the digital age.” As the paper explains, there is a clear contemporary tendency in exploring, comprehending and reading long texts; ebooks; analysis; long editorials; reportage; investigations; essays. Even if they are online.

The medium is the message, sure. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that a specific phase in the relationship between society and a new mean of communication is the only message of the very same medium.

Translated: if during an adjustment period we feel incapable of reading long texts in a new medium because of distractions, it doesn’t necessarily follow that our plastic brain won’t adapt and recover the necessary focus in order to enjoy long narrative or complex and extended reasoning, even if read online.

Naturally, if you have read this online, until here, you are also part of this “new” category. Congratulations.

There are phases of adjustment, well documented by academics in the field with graphs, proving that what appears as a landing point in our relationship with a mean of communication rarely is so. This does not mean we should abandon ourselves to an unchecked optimism leading us to believe in the best of all possible outcomes for humanity, always and no matter what. It certainly is not the case.

But the result improves also thanks to luddites and Cassandras like Nicholas Carr who actually  warn us on the worst and most stultifying aspects of our relationship with the new medium.

It is also thanks to them that this relationship grows and, as seems to be the case now, finds a system that is more useful to power up our intelligence instead of eroding it.