stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Opinion

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 4

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.

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Having covered consciousness not being a factor of computing power, the impossibility of extracting or linking to parts of consciousness, and the impossibility of uploading or downloading into new bodies, I want to cover a final aspect of SF speculation – the impossibility of creating sentient virtual minds or copies of minds.

This is a staple of much SF, including for instance certain books by Julian May in which Jon Remillard experiences an evolutionary jump, discards his physical form and metamorphoses into his final state as a disembodied brain. But a brain/mind without a body is effectively nothing. Early episodes of Dr Who did a similar thing with the species known as morpho, and the concept is regularly used in much cinema SF. Consciousness however is founded on sensory input, as shown by Nicholas Humphrey (amongst others) in his books Seeing Red and A History Of The Mind. Without sensory input there is nothing supporting the mental model we all carry in our minds. We continually update our model of the world, mostly without being aware of it. Lacking such input there is nothing for consciousness to work with. Sensory deprivation experiments have shown how quick the mind begins to disintegrate if sensory input is missing. “What each species knows of reality is what its senses allow it to construct,” as Dorothy Rowe put it in The Construction Of Life & Death. In other words, any post-death disembodied existence is impossible.

Similarly, in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the AI known as Neuromancer attempts to trap Case inside a cyber-construct, where he finds the “consciousness” of his girlfriend from Chiba City, who was murdered by one of Case’s underworld contacts. But without a body Linda Lee is nothing. The intertwining of body and mind cannot be undone. Such undoing is a false belief, again founded on the religious notion of a separable spirit or soul; it is a mistake to think that consciousness could be extracted and live on after a body’s death. (We can blame Descartes for many modern misconceptions as well as all the modern religions.)

Of course, even though all private mental activity is forever beyond the boundary of external acquisition, public information about such activity is not – just as we have indirect access to other minds but no direct access. I used this point when creating the metaframes of my novel Muezzinland. Metaframes are complex entities of data, but they are not records of minds, rather they are records of the public activity, history and observed character of minds. So, for instance, there could be a metaframe of Mnada the Empress of Ghana, which would collect all her public utterances, her observed character, appearance and her entire life history. This could be animated in the virtual reality of the Aether to create the impression of a copy of the Empress. But such a copy would contain none of the Empress’ private thoughts, and it would not be conscious. It might appear to be conscious through sheer realism, but it never actually would be.

Similar creations exist in my new novel The Autist, where they are known as data shadows. A data shadow is an entity created from the online activity of an individual: personal records, medical records, gaming records, surveillance camera data and so on. As is observed during the novel, such entities can become complex, depending on the amount of data gathered. But a data shadow could never be conscious. It can only exist as an approximation of an individual built up over time from public data.

Conclusion

In The Autist, one of my intentions was to speculate on what might happen should the development of AI continue as it is presently. In this series of blogs I have tried to show that consciousness is a result of evolution by natural selection acting upon physically separate biological creatures living in intense, sophisticated social groups. SF speculation about minds, souls, spirits, software etc being separable and transferable is based on an antiquated, false, imaginary concept, which, because human cultural evolution is slow, still remains to trouble us today.

My speculation takes as its starting point the notion that the sensory channels of the brain and the perceptual channels are separate. Sensation is our creation. There is no chain of causation beginning with something out there in the real world and ending up in the mind with qualia: the redness of red, the pain-ness of pain, etc. This separation and associated processes have been shown to be the case by Nicholas Humphrey’s work on blindsight (as described in the novel by Lara Vine), and by Paul Bach-y-Rita’s work on neuroplasticity, for instance using the tactile sensory channel to bring visual perception (Wombo’s camera/shirt set-up, designed by Lara).

As Mary Vine points out in her summation, the Autist could never be conscious. It is one massive, heuristic, perceptual network. It entirely lacks senses, relying for input on data provided by AIs, and from an occasional human like the Master at Peng Cheng Wan Li, Mr Wú. It is, in other words, a vast, isolated model of the world with its roots forever locked in earlier social values, encoded into it by the male, narcissistic, capitalist programmers of our times. And because it cannot sense and has no body, it is utterly devoid of fundamental human values: feeling, empathy, insight, compassion.

Is this the kind of entity we wish to create?
The Autist front cover

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 3

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.

*

In Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon the possibility exists of uploading and downloading minds, sentience or consciousness into new or different bodies. In my opinion, this is impossible. As in Rudy Rucker’s Software and any number of other speculative novels, it is thought that consciousness – the mind – is a separable entity which can become detached from its body, move, be transferred and so on.

Such ideas couldn’t really work though. The mind and the brain are one, and we are the unique observers of our own mental activity. Such SF speculation ultimately comes from the false religious belief that individuals have a soul or spirit. In genre fiction it is common to think that there is “something” – a soul, a spirit, a mind, an essence – which can be separated from the physical body. But there is no such thing.

Why do I say this? Well, for a start there is absolutely no evidence in favour of spirit or soul. But that is a black & white stance to take, emphasising the negative – and lack of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of lack. I prefer to say that there is a much better description of why belief in separable mental entities exists, a description we owe to the scientific method, to Freud’s ground-breaking discovery of the unconscious, to many neuroscientists, and to Nicholas Humphrey’s widely accepted social intelligence theory. But in the previous eighty thousand years or so the false belief in spirit and soul explained aspects of the human condition otherwise mysterious.

The downloading/uploading trope in SF is everywhere. But in the West, where SF has for most of its existence been located as a genre, many cultures developed from a Christian beginning, and this is one reason we still believe parts of our minds might be transferable. It is an old religious notion. We imagine our minds as entities we could manipulate: our memories, for example. We wonder if we could transfer our minds or parts of our minds, as someone might transfer a letter or, electronically, an email. There is also the fact, widely remarked upon now, that many commentators use the computer as an analogy for the mind, in ways that are if nothing else wildly inappropriate. Using the analogy, people imagine that, like pieces of data, pieces of sentience can be transferred. The computer is a terrible analogy however. Not only are computers all electronically linked in a way no biological animal is, their functions exist as precise, limited algorithms, with “try to work out how another computer will behave using as a basis your own behaviour” not one of those algorithms.

This kind of SF speculation also applies to scenarios where conscious entities exist without bodies, the assumption being that parts of an ‘abstract being’ can be made sentient in some way. In the classic animé Ghost In The Shell an entity called the Pupper Master is evoked towards the end of the film, whereupon it eventually appears and describes itself: During my journeys through all the networks, I have grown aware of my existence. My programmers regarded me as a bug, and attempted to isolate me by confining me in a physical body. I entered this body because I was unable to overcome {electronic barriers}, but it was of my own free will that I tried to remain {at base}… I refer to myself as an intelligent life form, because I am sentient and am able to recognise my own existence.

Here, the Puppet Master describes how it became aware of its existence even though it was only a collection of memories and procedures. The standard metaphor of the free soul is wheeled out to explain an otherwise impossible scenario. But there never could be a Puppet Master, because it has no senses, no body; and anyway, because there was only ever one, it could not become sentient, since all it ever did was ‘journey’ and somehow, mystically, i.e. without explanation, realise it was sentient.

The big giveaway comes at the end of the film, when the Pupper Master reveals what it wants, which, unsurprisingly, bears a remarkable similarity to any random collection of computer programmes: The time has come to cast aside {our limitations} and elevate our consciousness to a higher plane. It is time to become a part of all things…

By which, also unsurprisingly, the Pupper Master means the internet.

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 2

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.

*

Extracting parts of consciousness or of the mind has long been a staple of SF, but I suspect such things are impossible. As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, consciousness exists in inviolate union with one biological individual. We have no direct access to the mind of any other person – only to our own. The mind and the brain are one, inseparable, with Dualism an illusion and fallacy.

A classic example of how this Dualist notion influences SF – so much SF! – is the ending of the film ‘Avatar.’ At the end, the character’s eyes open when a “mind” is “transferred” to the body. This concept of a separable mental entity – a loose mind – comes from the false belief in a spirit or soul. For tens of thousands of years (eighty thousand at least in my opinion, and perhaps more) human beings, presented with the evidence of their own selves, had to believe that their individuality and uniqueness must be a separable quality which could exist after death, and indeed before birth. I suspect the observation that children’s faces resemble those of their parents had something to do with this belief. But death was an impossible dilemma to resolve for those early societies, the only solution being the false belief in a spirit or soul. Such thinking went much further, however, after it appeared. The moment a society believed its members had a spirit they placed that imaginary thing into everything they experienced. Animism is the primitive belief that physical and environmental entities are the same as human beings, that is, invested with a spirit. This kind of thinking is rooted in profound narcissism (i.e. that everything in nature is the same as human beings) and in lack of knowledge of the world. All answers to the great human dilemmas were imaginary in those early societies. Human society only began falling from its pedestal with Copernicus and those few who went before him.

One of the classic explorations of the concept of consciousness and the apparent duality of mind and body comes in Rudy Rucker’s novel Software. In it, Cobb Anderson designs the first robots to ‘have free will,’ then retires to become an aged, Hendrix-loving hippy. In due course he is offered the chance to leave his ailing body and acquire a new one. The robots (now called boppers) make good their promise, leaving Cobb to reflect along the following lines: A robot, or a person, has two parts: hardware and software. The hardware is the actual physical material involved, and the software is the pattern in which the material is arranged. Your brain is hardware, but the information in the brain is software. The mind… memories, habits, opinions, skills… is all software. The boppers had extracted Cobb’s software and put it in control of this robot’s body.

Or had they? Is the boppers’ extraction a possible operation? Surely not. Cobb started out as a human being, physically separate from all other individuals. His conscious mind came into being in human society, then grew; it related to his experience of that society and of his own body. How then could this ‘information’ mean anything to any other organisation of parts such as another brain? Even an exact copy of his brain would not be enough. At the very least, an exact copy of his entire body would be required, at which point the problem of all the unavailable ‘information’ would rear its head – all Cobb’s private thoughts, for instance, which by their very existence are inaccessible to anyone else and which therefore could not by any conceivable process be identified in order to be transferred.

The mind is not extractable. It exists because of never-ending sensory input from the body. If a brain were to receive sensory input from non-human senses, as would be the case if the brain could be transferred into one of the boppers’ robot bodies, then the entire support of the mind would vanish, and you have no mind.

In my opinion this fantasy of transferrable minds/software/sentience in SF exists because of the persuasive but false cultural concept of the spirit or soul; as does the equally impossible fantasy of software made sentient without a body.

For the same reason extracting memories is also impossible. Memories exist as temporary electrical structures in the cerebellum (short-term memory) or as interconnected neuron structures in the cortex (long-term memory). They cannot be extracted for the same reason that there is no spirit – memories are not separable things. They exist for one individual, who alone has direct access to them. They are part of a mental model carried around by that individual.

Some people may now point to research where “mind-reading” has been achieved using high definition MRI scanning, but such experiments always use pre-existing images or other material, or, as in the case of recent research at Columbia University’s Zuckermann Institute, by asking epilepsy patients undergoing brain surgery to listen to sentences spoken by different people while patterns of brain activity are measured, then reproduced via heuristic algorithms. These algorithms train a vocoder to create a match with pre-existing material. In no case has an undisclosed, new private thought been imaged by anybody outside that person. Success is achieved by matching patterns too complex for human beings to perceive but which expert AI algorithms can work with. In fact, such “mind-reading” techniques are precisely the same as those we use to gain indirect access to other minds via language. The brain’s neural network is comparing observed symbols with a pre-existing set of symbols – the language – in order to work out meaning. There’s no direct “mind-reading” involved.

As for telepathy, that is impossible because it violates the founding circumstance of the evolution of consciousness. If there was such a thing as telepathy we would have direct access to one another’s minds, in which case consciousness would be unnecessary.

We are our own unique observers of our mental activity.
The Autist front cover

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 1

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.

*

Is human consciousness a consequence of processing power or other technical/biological power factors?

In his classic 1984 novel Neuromancer, William Gibson presents the reader with a plot that involves two AIs merging to create a conscious whole – a so-called superconsciousness: “… the sum total of the works, the whole show…” as it is put at the novel’s end. Almost universally SF has assumed that consciousness is a consequence of brain power, computing power, or some other variety of power, and most likely the fact that men have written the overwhelming majority of such SF accounts for some of this assumption. But that isn’t the whole reason. SF has dealt poorly with themes of AI and consciousness because of the difficulty of the topic, the weight of Descartes’ influence, and the spread of religion.

Since the beginning of the last century psychologists have used the most advanced technology they knew of as a metaphor for the conscious mind. In the 1920s for instance it was common for them to picture the mind as a telephone exchange. Our use of the computer metaphor – e.g. the notion that the brain is composed of modules all linking together – is just the latest in a long series of inappropriate metaphors.

Consciousness is not a consequence of any kind of power. Consciousness is a consequence of the evolution of physically separate primates living in highly complex social groups. Consciousness is an emergent property of such groups. It could not exist in any one brain nor could it ever exist as an isolated entity, such as the merged Wintermute/Neuromancer pair. Consciousness is the evolutionary response to the difficulty individuals have in grasping and understanding the behaviour of others who exhibit highly complex social behaviour. It employs a method of empathy, by allowing the conscious individual to use themselves as an exemplar. In other words, if you see somebody crying, you know they are likely to be sad because you have cried before when you were sad. This is the social intelligence theory of consciousness, first put forward by the brilliant Nicholas Humphrey.

Neither Wintermute nor Neuromancer could be conscious individuals. They were connected electronically – not separate – and they existed in isolation, not in social groups. Now, no human being has direct access to the private mental model of another person. We do have indirect access however, for example via language, and that led to consciousness during the period of human evolution. Neither Wintermute nor Neuromancer had, or needed, such indirect access. They may have been powerful intelligences in the way some AIs are today, but they were not and never could be conscious like us. (I deal with this theme in The Autist.)

Therefore, no amount of computer upgrades, changes from electronic to quantum computing, nor any other sort of power or intelligence changes in entities which exist outside a social group of equivalents could lead to artificial consciousness. Those two preconditions must be met: existence in a social group in which evolutionary change occurs, and indirect access to the private mental models – the minds – of others.

These ideas are the thematic material of my novels Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox. In them, Manfred Klee takes the Nicholas Humphrey route, electronically separating the nine BIs in his opening scene, when he realises that their connection is limiting them since they have no need to develop what these days we call a theory of mind. Once disconnected, they do have that need. Leonora Klee takes the AI route, attempting through computing power alone to develop a sentient machine. But she is doomed to fail. She creates an unstable entity with certain autistic characteristics.

In fact I found it quite difficult to judge the evolutionary development of the BIs, as I didn’t want to anthropomorphise them, a point made by certain characters during the novel. This leads me to another problem in SF, which is for authors to assume the equivalence of human and artificial consciousness. In earlier days I might have emphasised similarities and equivalences, but these days I do take a fuzzier line. Although we human beings faced during our evolutionary history a number of situations which led to the human condition – for instance the need for emotion to convey, to the self and to others, unmissable knowledge of high value experiences – those situations would not necessarily be faced by artificial beings. I think the chances are high that similar things would emerge – emotion and its equivalent, a sense of time and its equivalent, creativity and its equivalent – but I’m not sure they would definitely appear. It would depend on their artificial evolutionary histories.

I don’t know of any SF novels which takes the social intelligence/Nicholas Humphrey route. It would be good to see more realistic speculation in this area, as AIs are already a hot topic, and can only get hotter as their development proceeds.

The Autist front cover

To blame

For me, the most jaw-dropping news story of this week was the EVAW survey which showed how many people believe forced sex within marriage or a long-term relationship doesn’t count as rape. It amazes me that this myth still exists – and yet, I shouldn’t be surprised, because we still live in a world dominated by male ideas.

In 2003 I was a juror on a case of multiple rape. The experience was gruelling, and when I made my departure from the court building at the end of the trial I was in floods of tears. Later, as the experience sank in, I realised that I’d had a valuable experience, albeit one gained at quite a cost.

My feeling now is this. Because we still live in a world of male ideas, the physical side of rape is considered far more important and relevant than the emotional side. This is why discussions focus on the violence, the force, and all the other physical factors. Legalistic conversations are held about the various situations rape can happen in, and how they relate to the law.

Most people assume that rape is an act perpetrated by strangers. It is not. A woman is much more likely to be raped by a family member or by her partner than by a stranger, yet people persistently believe the opposite; and if a woman is raped by somebody known to her, it is often after a period of manipulation and coercion. Such coercion is itself a full assault, but how many men grasp that? Even if they are decent, nonviolent men?

Meanwhile, this year in Spain, five men who raped a teenager during the Pamplona bull festival were found guilty of the lesser offence of sexual abuse. The attack prompted a national outcry, as did the trial, which was widely criticised as a cross-examination of the teenager rather than of the men who attacked her. In other words, once again, the men got away with it because a distinction is made between physical violence and emotional violence, with the latter viewed as far less important.

But this is a specifically male idea, and one that is incredibly damaging. Men focus on the physical side of rape because emotionally they are boys, with little if any understanding of the psychological effects of rape. They see rape in terms of the events of the deed. They don’t grasp the emotional consequences and they struggle to empathise with the victim. Instead, following 5,000 years of form, they blame women, then indulge in all kinds of ludicrous reality-twisting in order to find excuses for their deeds.

Rape is a crime perpetrated by a rapist. Responsibility lies wholly there.

In the trial where I was a juror, we had a pretty cut-and dried case. There was evidence which could not be misinterpreted, and there was the heart-breaking testimony of the victim herself, which none of us twelve disbelieved. How brave that young woman was, standing up to her attacker, so that, less than one hour after the trial, we found her rapist guilty. He got a number of concurrent ten-year sentences.

The emotional devastation wreaked by this man will still affect his victim. Most men wouldn’t realise that – it was fifteen years ago, they might point out, and she’ll be alright now. But men lack insight. They are reared to lack insight. They remain boys. They don’t understand consequences, least of all emotional consequences.

No wonder women find it so difficult to come forward and report rape. The act of reporting is itself an emotional trial – another fact most men don’t understand. And because so many misogynist myths persist about men being men, the low prosecution rate will continue for a long time yet.

Hopefully not forever, though.

opinion3

 

Would You Rather Be Dominated By America Or China?

If You Had To Choose, Would You Rather Be Dominated By America Or China?

 

First of all, why am I asking this question?

Well, there are two main reasons. One is the environmental disaster we are facing, the greater part of the blame for which lies at the feet of international capitalist corporations. The other reason is the future of AI. We could have that future unregulated, as happens in America, or we could have it regulated, as happens in China. To most, if not all Westerners reading this, the answer seems obvious. Who would want to be dominated by the hard-line, dogmatic, secretive Chinese Communist Party? Wouldn’t it be better to accept the downside of American style political freedom, even though that ethic is presently laying the foundation for the destruction of the natural environment? If we had to make a choice between the world’s two major powers, surely it would be better to be dominated by America.

Or would it?

The inescapable downside of market-style economics – built on the exploitation of workers and of the environment, on advertising methods which use brutal psychological methods, and on an economic model that explicitly ignores the fact that all growth must have a natural limit – is that there is no political or social force, organisation or procedure which can bring human beings together in order to make the decisions that need to be made. For all the fantastic work of the NGO environmental organisations, of people such as the exceptional David Attenborough and Chris Packham, and of individuals doing their best to recycle plastic etc, there is no substitute for planned, deliberate, insightful, large-scale action. In other words, corporations that in effect are unregulated and destroying the planet can continue their despoliation in freedom. There is no way for Westerners to come together to stop them – or even to diminish them. Modern politics is useless. Even the Labour Party, as was shown by Blair when he stepped up to the mark, cannot change the fundamentals of capitalist economics. Labour under Blair was Tory-lite. They could not change the system. They did not want to. They didn’t see that the system was unfit for purpose.

If Jeremy Corbyn gets into power he will face exactly this problem. Our culture, both economic, social and media, works on a number of assumptions, all of which promote unregulated corporate activity. The moment Corbyn tries to do anything against that culture he will face a barrage of opposition, from his own party, from the media, and from people – including most of his supporters – generally. His hands will be tied. He is not conscience-lite, as Blair was; he will face conflict, and fail. People will say he is a PM out of touch, when in fact that comment should be applied to the entire political system.

And yet, America has it far worse. America is the main source of this modern corporate, capitalist ethic. The Western world is dominated by American values, to its considerable detriment. Am I then suggesting that the Chinese Politburo is better?

Well, the Chinese Communist Party has one notable advantage over Western democracies. Should they want to, they can act on behalf of the Chinese nation to ameliorate the damage presently being wreaked on the environment by the ‘Chinese economic miracle.’ Realisation has dawned in China that the consequences of massive economic growth are bad. Very bad. And the Chinese, lacking the absurd Christian notion that human beings are permitted to exploit the environment, and are even told to by their ‘god,’ have a different attitude to nature. Most Chinese are Taoists or Buddhists. Taoism and Buddhism have a profoundly different attitude to nature than Christianity. Although one of the innumerable mistakes made by Mao, and indeed by all Communists, was to believe the Leninist idea that atheism would take over from religion, in fact the human species is nowhere near mature enough to relinquish its reliance on religion and spirituality. Therefore, most Chinese practice their beliefs as a kind of ‘folk religion’ or similar spirituality, and the CCP does not mind that. Part of Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ in fact is to promote the ideas of Confucius and Han Fei. Chinese attitudes to nature live on, and are epitomised by aspects of their many cultures.

People in the West have assumed the ethical superiority of democracy because they are individualistic and because they are arrogant, i.e. narcissistic. In the East, society is envisaged as a whole, where that whole is more important than individuals. They lack our emphasis on individualism. Eastern societies are founded on profound narcissism – totalitarian or dictatorial, misogynistic, hierarchical – so in that respect East and West are equally bad. The West is careless and ignorant. The East is authoritarian and ignorant. But the Chinese could do something about the environmental crisis faced by the world, and that is my point. The Chinese do not see democracy as a natural end point in human social and political development. Perhaps we should not also. We presume the existence of the invisible hand of Adam Smith. The Chinese hand is visible.

Many commentators – including the outstanding Guardian columnist George Monbiot – link the fight for democracy with the urgency of the environmental crisis we are facing. In a recent piece he wrote: ‘Decades of institutional failure ensures that only “unrealistic” proposals – the repurposing of economic life, with immediate effect – now have a realistic chance of stopping the planetary death spiral. And only those who stand outside the failed institutions can lead this effort… Because we cannot save ourselves without contesting oligarchic control, the fight for democracy and justice and the fight against environmental breakdown are one and the same. Do not allow those who have caused this crisis to define the limits of political action. Do not allow those whose magical thinking got us into this mess to tell us what can and cannot be done.’ But if oligarchic control is contested, then removed, what institutions will organise people to the extent that is required? This is a fundamental problem of the West, which I think Monbiot avoids in his piece. I agree with him that change from inside political systems is either far too slow or a complete waste of time (the subject of my as yet unpublished work Woodland Revolution) but the question of what replaces them then appears. Could an Eastern kind of politics be the answer, however much that repulses Western democrats?

So, to return to my original question. We face global environmental disaster. In the West there is no process or organisation which can act quickly enough to combat it, because we live in a world of what are in effect unregulated corporations whose only interest is to exploit. Politics here is a complete waste of effort – decades behind the times. In the East, a method exists for determined, deliberate action, albeit at a cost to that individualism assumed by the West.

Therefore, when I ask myself, given the choice would I rather be dominated by America or by China, my answer is China.

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Raising Kora

As an addendum to the series I’ve posted this week about mental health and online living, I thought I’d write about some modern technological aspects that led me to create Kora Blackmore.

Readers of the Factory Girl trilogy will know that Kora and Roka are two identities within one body. I had the title of the first volume, The Girl With Two Souls, long before I put the scenario together, but one of the later inspirations was a brief mention of an extraordinary psychological effect. In India, there is a variety of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) where two personalities alternate on a day by day basis. I was so struck by this peculiarity that I made it the heart of Kora’s disorder.

But what was the origin of Kora’s illness? The Edwardians of her time, being Christians in a highly ordered, buttoned-down and judgemental society, considered her to have two souls, with Roka deemed the extra soul. But that was a false belief. Kora has DID. As more is learned about her childhood, and especially following the meeting with her mother in Africa, the reader becomes aware of the dreadful circumstances of her upbringing. Sir Tantalus Blackmore, desperate to find some way out of the dilemma he faces inside the Factory, attempted to alter Kora’s entire character by having her raised by automata. This shocking revelation, mediated earlier by the notes deciphered from Nurse Law’s automaton, shows that Kora lacked basic human contact from an early age. She lacked eye contact, touch, some aspects of speech, and more.

Could Kora’s upbringing have any relevance to some of our modern practices? Surely not. But what about the practice of giving infants screens to watch? What about toddlers? Children of school age, online?

There is in fact a strong correlation between the extraordinary inhumanity of what Sir Tantalus did to his child and what is presently happening to internet-age children.

A basic point, elaborated by Dr Mary Aiken in her startling book The Cyber Effect, will illustrate this. It is commonplace these days to see parents with their young children in situations where the parent concentrates only on their smartphone. Aiken relates an incident where a mother and infant sat on a train seat opposite her, and for half an hour the mother stared at her smartphone, never once making eye contact with the infant. Aiken was moved to ponder the consequences of that deed. In her opinion, the consequences will be catastrophic.

Infants need constant eye contact, face-to-face contact and skin-to-skin contact in order to survive, to grow, to develop. The modern practice of allowing children – under the guise of ‘interactive’ apps or ‘educational’ games – to spend hours each day attending to their screens is more damaging than has yet been realised. Aiken herself, an expert in this field, is aware of the paucity of research in this area, but she is clear on the dangers. Interactivity comes from other human beings, not from the vacuous, over-stimulating, quick-changing stuff online. To grow up with reduced intimate human parenting is to lack the absolute basics. To grow up in such a world is to face depression, anxiety and relentless stress later on. (This is seen a lot in Japan, and even more in Korea, as described in the third part of my blog series, but the epidemic is spreading across the globe.) We are turning potential human beings into something akin to AGIs.

Kora developed a deep-seated mental illness, DID, because of what she lacked in childhood. She separated parts of herself that she could not bear to feel, to experience, into an entire separate character, that she then lost contact with. To the outside observer it seemed as though she was two children. And she was. But she could have been one.

The cold, callous, empty hands of the internet will not raise the kind of children we would recognise. It will raise something else.

tgw2s

The Girl With Two Souls

Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 5/5

This week I’m going to post a series of five pieces about the connection between online life – and social media in particular – and poor mental health. In recent years the public perception of the damage social media is doing to our mental health, and to that of young people in particular, has become clear. My pieces explore some possible consequences of the way giant, unaccountable corporations are exploiting human foibles for their own gain. I’m far from being the only person to think that this sustained, relentless psychological attack is going to cause mental health crises in the not-too-distant future, but perhaps my thoughts on the issue come from a slightly different perspective.

In the previous four posts I’ve mentioned how social media and the internet is rewiring the brains of young people, and therefore changing their, and our minds too. Some might think that is too bold a claim.

Yet something similar has happened before – five thousand years ago. The inventions of reading and writing could only happen because of our forebears’ ability to make a myriad of new connections amongst already existing brain structures. Because we are conscious individuals, lacking animal instincts except those few required for us to survive as infants, our brains make a model of the world. That model does not exist when we are born. We have to learn. This is the great advantage of our extended childhood, those many years of vulnerability and weakness during which we learn so much about the world. Brain plasticity is at the heart of the brilliance and success of human beings.

This plasticity can be illustrated by studying how different cultures learn their own languages. For instance, at the level of brain neurons, those in China learning to speak, read and write Chinese use a different set of neuronal connections than those in Britain learning English. So, when a Chinese person learns English, they at first use Chinese-based neuronal pathways. They struggle. The process of learning to read Chinese characters has actually shaped their brains, so they are forced to use different processes when they encounter English. Similarly, if two people in 2018 live one with social media and the internet and one without, their fundamental brain connections will significantly differ.

Yet the brain’s plasticity is also a fundamental disadvantage in certain circumstances. A child who grows up in a cult knows nothing about the world except that which is promulgated by the cult. A child who grows up in a totalitarian state knows nothing of the world except that which their Great Leader tells them. Vulnerable and empty when we are born, we can so easily be shaped – by inhumane individuals, by cultures, by nationalist dogma. Similarly, if we allow ourselves to succumb to the addictive embrace of the internet, we fail to grasp reality. A failure to grasp reality is in my opinion tantamount to insanity.

So, when we read a book – especially fiction – we immerse ourselves in another world. This has parallels with how we can also immerse ourselves in the digital world, but there is a crucial difference. The act of reading allows us to grasp the viewpoints of others. Marcel Proust described this as a ‘sanctuary,’ in which readers gain access to many other realities – many other viewpoints. Via such differing viewpoints comes emotional and ethical growth. While reading we are enriched. We grow, we expand, we mentally sophisticate. We grasp something of the commonality and union of humanity.

If through our use of the virtual world, which is skewed towards visual, disconnected tropes, and which is fast-moving and anonymous, we lose our ability to put ourselves into the positions of other human beings, then we lose empathy; we effectively lose the very thing that allows us to become conscious. Consciousness depends for its effect on the ability of human beings to place themselves into the worlds of others – to see through their eyes. If through the agency of online life we find that we cannot do that, we effectively strip humanity from our own brains. We become the cold, isolated AGIs which at the moment we are so keen to build.

In summary…

• Exposure to social media and the internet in general is rewiring human brains at the neuronal level, as, from infancy, they grow.

• This rewiring has profound negative implications for how the minds of young people are developing.

• The change in mental development of the young leads to mental health crises when they are older, including anxiety, depression, dependency and narcissism. These eventually become epidemics.

• Social change also comes about because of these mental effects, including the phenomenon of cyber-migration, in which extreme behaviour manifesting online transfers to the real world.

• All these effects lead to the polarisation of the world, the increase in narcissism and all the behaviours associated with it, the reduction in empathy, and, in the long term, damage to the fundamentals of consciousness itself, which relies for its effect on our ability to place ourselves into the positions of others.

 

 

Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 4/5

This week I’m going to post a series of five pieces about the connection between online life – and social media in particular – and poor mental health. In recent years the public perception of the damage social media is doing to our mental health, and to that of young people in particular, has become clear. My pieces explore some possible consequences of the way giant, unaccountable corporations are exploiting human foibles for their own gain. I’m far from being the only person to think that this sustained, relentless psychological attack is going to cause mental health crises in the not-too-distant future, but perhaps my thoughts on the issue come from a slightly different perspective.

The online world may not be a physical place – an environment – but it is perceived and experienced as a place by human beings. This is a crucial fact to take account of. For all the internet’s dazzling virtual tricks, we humans, who evolved in social environments on a rock hard planet, can only imagine and perceive it as something similar. Thus, though it is not, we interact with it as though it is a real place. We are fooled, and that leads to some dangerous mental consequences.

In particular, we are fooled into believing that the internet is a safer place than it actually is. This illusion, called disinhibition, is rather like the disinhibition created by smoking pot or getting drunk. But because so much of human emotional communication is stripped away by online interaction, all the cues we normally use to make sense of others – gesture, facial expression, body language and tone of voice – are missing. This means we lack much of the information that we need to make fully informed decisions. We fall back on simpler things: instinct, irrationality, guesswork. This effect is then amplified by the internet, in the same way it amplifies everything else.

This juxtaposition of feeling connected yet actually being disconnected is what has led to some mental health issues spreading across the world. For millennia, men have lived in, promoted and exaggerated their hierarchical, reduced-emotion, duty and honour founded societies, but that has been at great cost to themselves. People rightly dissect the immense damage done to women by patriarchy, but men are damaged just as much. The difference is, they don’t talk about it. The modern epidemic of loneliness, of increasing suicide rates and of mental health issues amongst the young can in my opinion be traced back to the pernicious effects of the internet and social media in particular. I don’t think this is the whole story – urbanisation has much to be blamed for – but it is a modern curse.

Online behaviour does not remain online however. Cyber-migration is a term given to instances of behaviour generated by the internet – extreme behaviour, mostly – seeping out of the online environment to affect real people. An example of behaviour that has cyber-migrated might be the recent case of individuals burning a replica of Grenfell Tower on November 5. While it can’t be proved that this act was facilitated by social media norms, when I first heard about it I was immediately struck by the grotesque extremity of the deed. Yes, young people do idiotic things and will continue to. But the burning of the tower effigy seemed to me reminiscent of the extremes of trolling, a behaviour – stalking offline – which has been hypertrophied via the internet into one of the great social distortions of our time. This is one of Dr Mary Aiken’s main points in her excellent book The Cyber Effect. Once extreme behaviour is normalised online, it then migrates back into the real world. This is a very worrying trend, especially for young people.

The brain development of children and young adults is being altered. Therefore their minds are being altered. It is no accident that the leading quote on the front cover of Mary Aiken’s book is the one from The Times: ‘If you have children, stop what you are doing and pick up a copy.’ As for the author, her opening quote is from JFK: ‘Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.’ But Aiken shows in her book how much damage is being wreaked upon the young by the world they are born into. This is why we will face a generation of deep mental illness – anxiety, depression, inability to interact with the real world owing to narcissism and retarded emotional growth – in years to come.

There is still a chance to stop this (please see my book review of The Cyber Effect on Sunday) but I don’t think that will happen. Too many vested interests operating as if loosed into a playground have humanity caught and enslaved.

 

 

 

Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 3/5

This week I’m going to post a series of five pieces about the connection between online life – and social media in particular – and poor mental health. In recent years the public perception of the damage social media is doing to our mental health, and to that of young people in particular, has become clear. My pieces explore some possible consequences of the way giant, unaccountable corporations are exploiting human foibles for their own gain. I’m far from being the only person to think that this sustained, relentless psychological attack is going to cause mental health crises in the not-too-distant future, but perhaps my thoughts on the issue come from a slightly different perspective.

One of the early effects of communications technology usage was the phenomenon of text-speak. This effect first came to prominence when text messaging on pre-smartphones became popular, but it was massively amplified by social media and the arrival of smartphones.

Most people with smartphones check them 200+ times a day. In the last couple of years this has been recognised as a major problem. But smartphones are deliberately designed and marketed by the international technology corporations to be addictive. Yet they are not just addictive – they are massively addictive. This intense psychological addiction has been designed into the system so that the technology companies can do whatever they like, unencumbered by such things as morals or ethics – previously moderated by religion – or by laws, moderated by governments. It’s literally insanity. As the clinical psychologist Nicholas Seto said: “We are currently experiencing the largest unregulated social experiment in the history of humanity.”

And we are. We are sleepwalking into a future where the pace of technological change outstrips our mental ability to adapt to it. This has never before happened. All previous changes – the Agricultural Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution – took place on time scales that human beings could psychologically deal with, even though, on the scale of a single lifetime, there was huge change. So, for example, although British industrialisation changed the working conditions of individuals in their own lifetimes, they were able to mentally cope with that, however much they loathed it. But this is not the case with change now. It is increasingly being said that the feature most noticeable about technological change today is its rate. That is why its prime quality is that of appearing to be out of control.

This relentless drive is fuelled by capitalist, male-dominated social values, originating mostly in 20th century America, though it was recently taken up by Pacific Rim nations, especially China, which has brazenly declared that it wishes to be the dominant force in AI research in the 21st century. But you only have to watch adverts for computer games which “bring the family together” to see the kind of illusion these corporations want to promote. There is no coming together. It’s all vacuous, illusory. What was obvious in the texting explosion is more obvious now.

Communication mediated by the internet is divorced from all the subtle, complex, emotional factors that we take for granted because we are so exceptional at social communication. The great majority of communication between individuals is gestural, takes place through facial expression, through body language, or is conveyed by tone of voice or other ‘musical’ qualities. All these factors are stripped away by social media and general internet use. Even in situations such as skyping, where facial expression and voice tone are added, there remains a considerable reduction in non-verbal communication.

What is the result of this stripping away of human communicative subtlety? The result is depression.

As Dorothy Rowe observed in her trailblazing books, the main metaphor of depression is isolation, however that might be experienced by the sufferer. “Isolation is the number one precursor for depression and suicide,” Wataru Nishida, psychologist at Tokyo’s Temple University, observed recently. Depression is a condition of so-called ‘developed’ nations – the West most obviously, but elsewhere too. No indigenous society knows depression. That is because all the human factors of life, most especially in social communication, are present in such societies. Added to that is a profound sense of belonging and of environment experienced by members of indigenous societies. But communication via social media or the internet militates against these two things. The sense of belonging is shattered by the profound sense of remoteness created by internet interaction. Even if ameliorated by special-interest groups brought together over long distances, the interaction has the same base: technological. It is not human interaction. As for a sense of environment, that never had a chance on the global frontier of the internet.

Deliberate addictive design has now migrated into the field of television. A recent tv phenomenon is the rise of multi-episode drama series, which we are encouraged by production companies and by friends and family to ‘binge-watch.’ These series (cosily named box-sets) have been designed in the same way computer games are designed, with what are known as compulsion loops. This a method of using psychological conditioning which optimises gratification – exactly as gambling does – by the use of positive reinforcement and intermittent rewards. Such dramas, utilising our love of stories and our basic psychological make up, are deliberately addicting watchers to television. (Soap operas use vaguely similar techniques, but are founded on emotional voyeurism.)

The conspicuous increase in reported levels of loneliness is related to isolation. The more we live life online, without our usual supports of non-verbal and emotional communication, the more lonely we feel. Loneliness is not cured by internet contact – that only deals with the symptom. The cause is dealt with by human interaction in all its full complexity, and that can only be done in the real world.

Japan is a textbook example. The Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori, a kind of acute social withdrawal, used to be limited to that country, but now it is spreading elsewhere, including to Europe and America. The victims are usually male, emotionally isolated, and more prone to suicide than any other age group. That is the most extreme form of what is now an extraordinary and profoundly dangerous lack of direct face-to-face socialising amongst the young, but there are other worrying symptoms. A survey of attitudes to sex amongst the Japanese found 20% of young men had little or no interest in having a sexual relationship. Lacking experience of real life, these young men are almost unable to express human emotions, except anger. They have forgotten reality: touch, warmth, empathy. And when such young people do find themselves isolated and depressed, they have few places to turn to – especially in Japan, where speaking about mental health is taboo.

Our planet looks as though it is doomed in many ways. As a species we may be too isolated and too depressed to do anything about its despoliation, and about the damage online life is causing to ourselves.

We will believe ourselves to be connected, but belief is not reality.