Long Time Passing

Long-time-passing by jedypod

This is a piece of music written by family friend David Lamb in memorial of the death of my mother’s father. It is played by my grandmother (violin) and her brother Greg (piano), who is now also passed away.

Hearing it again reminds me that life is short. I have not been making the best use of my time. I moved to the Bay Area nearly 7 months ago. Since I’ve been living here, I have done a little timid exploring, very little extremely timid socializing, and a whole lot of keeping my cognitive tendrils embedded in the extended reality of my computer, with its vast, tempting, and marginalizing wealth of information and connectivity. While enabling great feats of externalized memory storage and access, and augmenting capabilities of information processing, storage, and organization, it seems at times that living life so absorbed in this abstracted processing tool results in an overwhelming reduction of critical thinking ability and other aspects of intelligent behavior.

I recently went to a ‘lecture’ by Gerry Fialka, as recommended to me by my friend Will Erokan. This consisted of a whimsical introduction of sorts to some of the theories of Marshall McLuhan, centered around his ideas about the tools humans use and how they affect us. “We shape our tools and they in turn shape us.” This approach of Technological Determinism is an interesting one. It posits that humans create inventions and spur on the growth of technology, and then this technology in turn affects humans in ways we cannot understand or predict. McLuhan urged the importance of studying the effects of our technological inventions. This is not an easy challenge, but an important one, if we are to maintain enough self-awareness and self-knowledge to remain respectably intelligent creatures.

I just finished reading Glasshouse by Charles Stross. This book and the prequel of sorts, Accelerando, took me by surprise and got me all excited. Strossian speculative fiction forms a remarkably imaginative post-cyberpunk vision of future technology, building on the work of Stephenson and Vinge, and also more obviously extrapolating from contemporary technological trends. He grapples with the idea of the technological singularity, and imagines a potential and compelling post-singularity environment. Extremely interesting concepts are explored such as the augmentation of human sensorium and cognitive ability by means of integrated ‘wetware’, the abstraction of self and consciousness from physical identity by means of matter compilers and scanners, as well as the abstracting of reality by means of artificial reality subsystems so sophisticated as to be indistinguishable from ‘real.’

In his theory of anamnesis, Plato posits that writing is a device of artificial memory, both in its storage of knowledge through written language, and its ability to cement information in the memory through the act of writing itself. If writing is a device of artificial memory, the computer could also be considered a device of external information storage. However a computer possesses much more generalized and powerful capabilities of information storage than simply written language. It can capture and store audio and video, pictures, documents, books, magazines. In addition to this, when connected to the internet, it can easily function as a universal device to quickly find information.

I spend a lot of time on my computer, searching for specific things, finding things accidentally by association with other things I happen to be looking at, and reading about new things. Increasingly, I find myself depending on my computer as an external information storage device instead of committing things to memory in my own brain. For example, I will try to remember the name of a particular movie I recently watched, and can’t remember what the name is, but I can remember exactly what folder it is in on my computer, and what letter the name begins with — I have a generalized sense of the data’s location in my own mind, but I don’t have the data itself.

If you can access information in external memory storage, then why commit it to memory? I think this will only become an increasingly relevant question as technology progresses. Or maybe it will become increasingly irrelevant. It seems relevant now because there is such a large distinction between external and internal memory storage, but 50 years from now, this distinction will likely be irrelevant.

Then again, maybe it’s just how I’m using the computer that is causing me to become cognitively impaired. In Anathem, Neal Stephenson lays out a clear distinction between syntactics and semantics. In the world he creates, there is a separation between the Mathic order, and the Saecular powers. The Mathic world has willingly abstained from technology, yet is devoted to “theorics” (academic study of math, sciences, philosophy, and other disciplines). The outside Saecular world is abundant with technology, yet the users of the technology are primarily unintelligent. The allegory is pretty clear. The interesting idea is that there is a clear separation between academic study and the effects of technological advancement on people. The ideas — the concept and the meaning are always more important than the technology. The technology provides tools to implement the ideas. A syntactic device running by itself will do nothing interesting. Only through input structured by ideas will it output meaningful information. The ideas are what is important.

How technology affects people, the way that they think and act, their ideologies, and their culture, is a very interesting and increasingly relevant question. I find that often while working at my computer I become overwhelmed, and begin to multitask and to split off into iterative threads of distractment, until my original focus on a task at hand is nearly forgotten about. I will literally stop the furious clicking and typing suddenly, realizing that I have forgotten what I was supposed to be doing. Maintaining self-awareness and direction and focus is a difficult thing to sustain in the virtual realm of endless information, minimized barriers, and infinite distraction. There is much to learn, but the brain can only absorb so much at one time; that is, until computing systems and cognitive systems are more closely integrated.

The act just completed of finishing a book was a refreshing one, and I think gave me new perspective on this problem. Reading on printed paper engages one’s brain in a different way than reading webpages on the internet, and I think it might just be possible to understand this difference in thought process, and control it to one’s own advantage.

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