LL15 ✺ Sliced to bits, squeezed to pixels

1st October, 2019 • 4 minutes

I’m stuck on ideas around knowledge creation—how we get ideas, how ideas grow, how we combine intuition and reason, and how knowledge becomes wisdom through failure, learning and sharing. “Wisdom systems” if you will. Because my medium is the web, I’m thinking about these things through the lens of this Information Age: we may have vast information at our fingertips, but we don’t yet have “fingertip feeling” for it.

For 50 million years our biggest problems were too few calories, too little information. For about 50 years our biggest problem has been too many calories, too much information. We have to adjust, and I believe we will really fast. I also believe it will be wicked ugly while we’re adjusting. — Penn Jillette

Our Gestell Glass devices have succeeded in overcoming physical space, including our physical being—indeed, it would appear to any other human in history not from the past 25 years that these devices enable magic—such that we don’t need our bodies to access information and services because we’ve recreated them entirely from bits. We can almost seem to just think it, and it happens. I think, therefore I can have.

As we continue to explore and make use of these (amazing) tools, we’re encountering something that Erik Hoel calls extrinsic drift, which is where:

…it gets harder to infer the intrinsic states of the people you are interacting with.

As we’ve become internet-connected, we become disconnected in another essential way: our empathy, our sense for others, our fingertip feeling for another’s mind (to reuse a favoured metaphor) can be easily and unnoticeably removed from these Glass interactions. Interacting with bits, we have to convert our thoughts into bits too. Reduced only to words, devoid of body language and all physical space pixelated (note that the same mechanisms we use to interpret space are also how we process ideas), our individual thinking capacities are literally constricted.

But how exactly does this happen? It probably starts when we mistake the words themselves for the things they refer to—after all, that’s all there is on the screen we’re interacting through—just as we might also mistake money for wealth:

Language functions like money. It is only an intermediary. But like money, it takes on some of the life of the things it represents. It begins in the world of experience and returns to the world of experience—and it does so via metaphor, which is a function of the right hemisphere, and is rooted in the body. To use a metaphor, language is the money of thought.

Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphor… Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system to signs of life itself. It is what links language to life. — Iain McGilchrist, The Master & His Emissary

Bodies, space and metaphor: from it and with it

If we begin to identify too closely with our Uploaded Self—sliced to bits, squeezed to pixels—we entrap and partition our ways of experiencing and thinking about the world. And yet it’s not a matter of individually “handling it better”, it is a matter of designing these Glass interfaces with a much broader understanding for who we are. We are after all, “the only kind of object capable of understanding that the cosmos is even there”. Bodies and machines fail for different reasons. So the metaphors we use matter.

What we take as intelligence, then, is not simply about using symbols to represent the world as it objectively is. Rather, we only have the world as it is revealed to us, which is rooted in our evolved, embodied needs as an organism.

Nature ‘has built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it’, wrote the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in Descartes’ Error (1994), his seminal book on cognition.

In other words, we think with our whole body, not just with the brain.
— 
Ben Medlock

Not trains of thoughts, bodies of thought.

Here are some ways I noticed that I think with my body:

  1. I have a thinking relationship with my skin. Every time I find that I've started unconsciously softly brushing my arm, I've also found myself stuck some in deep, wandering-off thought.

  2. Whenever I make myself a coffee, ideas come rushing into me at the same steady rate as the water pouring over the crushed coffee. The wondrous smell the heat creates as I pour it seems to habitually salivate my mind. I have to scurry back into the office for pen and paper to scribble down the ideas.

  3. I can only seem to listen to podcasts when walking. If I’m sitting still, I find I can’t justify the time spent and I quickly lose interest.

Status board

  • Reading. Cormac McCarthy on how to write to explain.

  • Music. James Brown was so upset that some white guys from Scotland had usurped his music that he did this. Hat tip to this fellow circa ‘02, when cool tips and trades where done by phone call.

  • Work: still in progress. I should have a multiple new projects live by this time next week to showcase.

Have a great week,

Callum


✺ The Littoral Line
An electronic letter from Callum Flack.
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