If we are logical we can’t really say what is “good” or “bad” with any degree of confidence. Most people think they can but this is because we have to have an idea of good and bad in order to navigate through life but, in fact, such notions are illusory and mainly without foundation because we don’t have an agreed upon conceptual framework for values. We imagine there is one but we are usually unable to articulate one. Yet, we live at a time when values and morality are changing very quickly, by historical standards, because we live in an increasingly multi-cultural world even when we don’t because of the media and the internet has given us access to dozens of competing world views and, while we will almost always stick to whatever world-view we were brought up in we have numerous examples of how fast views can change over time.
When I was growing up the idea of gay sex let alone gay marriage was almost unthinkable. Sex roles were fairly rigidly defined in our Western society for centuries. African-Americans were thought of as obviously inferior to European Americans both morally and intellectually. It was feared at one time that if white women associated with black men they would be corrupted; in fact, and important reason given for outlawing marijuana in the 1930’s was that it would loosen the morals of white women and tempt them to have sex with black men. But we have weathered these changes that opened up society quite a lot to non-white people, women, and those whose sexual orientation is fluid or non-homosexual. But all this has come at a cost of increased anxiety–it begs the question: is any value permanent or solid? If the answer is “no” when human cultures have always tended to function on the basis of some solid conceptual framework. Even those who cling to traditional values have a sense that there is a core of instability and variability but traditionalists know, intuitively that by wearing blinders, narrowing their vision and associating with people like them who share a belief system is a more mentally healthy way to live–yet, I believe a nagging feeling of self-deception lies at the back of minds of many who believe in traditional religions. At some level they know they are fooling themselves but the cost of facing that reality is too painful. This is also the case with those who accept the very narrow band of acceptable “reality” defined by the religion of “Scientism” that claims to use logic and scientific method until they are faced with evidence that expands the horizons of reality as in the paranormal and even “conspiracy theory” no matter how obvious the evidence.
In recent centuries it was thought that the more we knew about the world and ourselves the better off we would be but, as more people are beginning to understand, this is not true. The rapid growth of information and its availability to a degree not imagined a century ago has brought about a cocktail of confusion mixed with the social and technological progress we have achieved. This fact has made if very hard to fully comprehend the collective and individual problems we face where the technology and techniques we have already are sitting on shelves unused because the fear of change is now greater than the willingness to solve problems. While Americans embrace technology and change in our minds we are actually voting with our feet to, increasingly, reject rationality itself because that might force us to face our real situation Sadly, as we become more intertwined with technology, we also find ourselves drifting away from the methods and mental disciplines that created those technologies in the first place.
We need to start looking at how technology is changing the way we think and live and we need to see what all this implies. As Nicolas Carr pointed out some years back (The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains) the way we use our devices is changing the way we think and the actual form of our minds. First of all, we need to understand the “mind” is essentially our software package but it is a package that actually changes the nature of our physical brain structure. Thus the brain routes our thinking using organic rather than metallic methods that are much more complex than those in our e-devices with an almost countless way to access and act on nuances. Not only are there electrical exchanges in the brain that we tend to focus on but these “electric” exchanges are within a much, much larger framework of chemical interactions and the “ghost in the machine” or the intention we put towards that thought; or, to put more precisely there is no “thought” as such but an eco-system that is within us that is also known as “consciousness” which we are a long way from defining scientifically.
A key question we face from a scientific point of view right now involves that nature of thought and consciousness. The problem is that our culture tells us that “thought” is atomistic in the sense we thought about it in the 19th century, i.e., matter was divisible and built on the smallest building block, “atom” a single indivisible object. So discrete objects could be reduced to the ultimate discrete object. This went hand in hand with the idea that the universe was a series of discrete objects bound together by a set of inviolable rules which allowed for predictability. This is very deep because our society is built on the idea that we are each “individuals” who must act or must be made to act by a set of rules determined by cultural institutions and, increasingly, by the State. We now live a time when those assumptions have been questioned for decades yet, today, science is moving in the direction of viewing nature as a series of relationships and inter-relationships where consciousness and thought may be spread among all members in relationship. In addition the brain is seen as changeable or “plastic” and not bound by limitations that were once thought to be there. We are moving from and atomistic world-view to relationship or ecological world-view and there is a lot of resistance to that movement and has been for decades for a simple reason–if we live in a world of relationships, then caring about the whole web of relationships becomes critically important–and if that becomes important then those with arbitrary power over others who only seek their own benefit only or mainly are in danger of having to change.
We are moving from a society based on the individual being a discrete and separate being to one of networks and nodes where we are both unique and connected at the same time. We are fully who we are and part of other systems. What each of us does deeply affects others even if we can’t see it directly. If I walk through a street or a mall with a glum look on my face and my chemistry says “hostile” it does make a difference in other people passing me by. We know body language and pheromones influence us even if we are not aware of it (we can be aware of this level if we want). We are moving towards connectivity because that is what we want even more than just fulfilling our individual whims–I think most of us are finding self-indulgence a little boring.
The internet and our digital devices are filling our need to connect with others. It’s an easy way to reach out because, living in the culture of narcissism, has dulled our social skills more than we think–once we are in the habit of being isolated it is hard to break out of it. For example, if someone upsets us online we just unfried them or no longer visit that blog. If we do that in real life our ability to deal with conflict is dulled–we simply cut out friends who are inconvenient. Often we don’t realize that resolving conflict can lead us to expand our horizons and pursue growth. The positive side of conflict is called “dialectics” where two people disagree and instead of hitting each other or running away, engage in conversations with the intention of finding areas of agreement and perhaps learning something completely new that these people would never have been able to do on their own. In this way people around us can all become our teachers in some way. I’ve found, once you stop the aggressive/defensive postures most people are very agreeable to have real dialogue but it almost never gets to that point.
In terms of relying on digital devices we have to understand that our desire to reach out to a larger collective is mediated by a technology that has and “agenda” that is hidden in plain sight. The “agenda” is to reduce everything to technique and artificial intelligence. The more we rely on technical means the more we move away from human potential. Jacques Ellul claims in his book (The Technological Society) that this society that is based on technology and sees technological “progress” as an ends in itself are actually creating a sort of artificial being that incorporates that part of our brain that deals with practical needs and problem solving what is called in the I Ching the “Inferior Man” because it can only serve the interests and needs of the “Superior Man” that part of us that is where consciousness lies. This “person” we are creating that may come to be fully born when we approach the magical “Technological Singularity” point when artificial intelligence would reach a point when it would be able to upgrade itself forever achieving levels of “intelligence” way beyond human capacity. Of course this is bullshit and simple to refute because it depends on a view of “intelligence” as the ability to solve various problems and not to fill the more spiritual needs of the I Ching‘s Superior Man which is the direction cognitive science is taking. I have no doubt something like the Technological Singularity can happen in terms of the purposes we can program into the process–it need not dominate our lives if we can start working on developing a higher human consciousness.
Technology is changing who we are and making us more like itself. As Carr points out studies have shown that, for example, when people were asked (some years back when Email functioned much the same way as messaging and social media) how often they checked their Email account they would say two or three times an hour; however when their viewing habits were tracked they, in fact, they looked at their emails twenty to thirty times an hour which indicates our desire to stay connected and, more importantly, our inability to know or face up to what we are actually doing. So our reliance on technology is making us less self-aware. Why are we allowing this to happen? It is obvious that technology is making us less attentive, less able to concentrate and more in need of medication. For example, rather than focus on what is significant in our lives Carr concludes that we are training our brains to look at whatever is “new.” Since human beings did develop this focus on new information to help plan our next move, it was the ability to think deeply that enabled us to build civilization to explore new techniques and technology. Now that we have achieved these wonders we are allowing the technology to determine how we develop and to set our values. What happens with this cult of the new is that we end up amusing ourselves to death (Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neal Postman) not only with entertainments and “passing the time” looking at the new, but we live based on fashion not morality. Only our misuse of technology can do that.
Rather than connecting with life we are connecting with a metallic and un-alive core. Rather than solving problems we start to solve problems that problem solving causes. Rather than seeing and discerning we allow calculations to determine who we are. I’ve seen this difference in the hiring process going on almost everywhere. Companies are hiring resumes not people. The complex ability to judge what a person is made of often goes by the wayside because hires are made based on an electronic paper trail. Everything goes on our permanent record–there are no more “new starts” that once existed. I could fuck up in one town and move a few states away and start again because employers took a look at you and measured where you were at and acted accordingly. The problem is that it is so easy to just hire a recruiter who will narrow down my choices for me and cover my ass in case that employee does not turn out well–I can just show people the paper and say we made the right decision based on the data. Data is now becoming King and the ability to mine that data increasingly defines power. We are all seduced by the entertainments, the spectacles, the convenience, the cheap goods and trinkets engineered to entrap us. The finest minds, the most creative people in the world are at work trying to manipulate each of us into spending money and addicting us to various products. They data mine in order to mine our organism. We exist to feed the technological agenda which is to reduce everything to a “problem” to solve the deeper life is scheduled out of existence.
This is why we need to start looking at values and meaning. In order to do that we need to create a new conceptual framework because if we continue to drift we are going to be food for the mechanical not just in the external world but, more importantly, in our inner world. Machines are not the “monster” they are only that if we decide to drop out of the picture. The way human beings looked at the world, the stories and myths, the religions, spiritual traditions are inadequate for our situation. I wish that were not the case. I would like nothing more than focus on the Sacred Heart of Jesus and just forget about all the contradictions and insanity within the Christian religion. I would like nothing more than imagine that science has an answer to everything and the being from some other dimension I saw was just a hallucination (whatever that is) based on some chemical problem in my brain for those few moments. I wish my studies, conversations encounters with mystics, shamans, believers in various religions and so on had led me to some single conclusion easily encapsulated withing a simple conceptual framework. And, of course I wish I could figure all this out by myself like so many great philosophers tried to do and obviously failed. Why did they fail? Because they missed what we are discovering together–that we are parts of a network, that we are partners with all kinds of organisms, that we are enmeshed in the web of life. Clearly, we each have to establish a framework within which to operate that is more solid than the ones we are living in. That will be the subject of my next post.