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Monthly Archives: October 2009

The technology of our wiser, wider, selves

At the end of this summer I gave a talk in the Treehouse Gallery about technology and thinking. In particular, I told three stories about three pieces of technology which, I argued, fundamentally affect the way we think.

First, I told a personal story about a few months last year when I was without a mobile phone. I found, like others, that this frustration had unexpected benefits (‘Life became slower, and slightly more rewarding‘). I paid attention to what I was doing and who I was with more. I committed to plans easily, both socially and psychically – when I was somewhere I knew I wasn’t going to dial my way out to another arrangement. I made the best of where I was. If I was at a loose end I looked in my immediate environment for things to do and people to talk to, rather than using it as an opportunity to catch up on my email and text message conversations. I don’t know if it was a particularly profound change, but I felt different and acted different because of the lack of a piece of technology (now, of course, I have jumped with both feet back into the world of mobile telephony and the same piece of technology is making me feel and act differently again – its presence rather than its absence is making me feel connected to the wider world, alive with a constant stream of opportunities and messages).

The second story I told was of written language, and in particular some research done by an early twentieth century psychologist called Luria. My point here was to widen the idea of technology. It is easy to forget that written language is a human invention, something that didn’t need to exist but does. Spoken language is a human universal, and will arise where ever humans can communicate in groups. Written language is a historical event, something that was separately created three or four times in human history and which followed a contingent trajectory. Elements of written language we take for granted are no more inevitable than writing as a whole. We invented silent reading – in the medieval period the norm was to read aloud. We invented punctuation and even gaps between the words – early documents reveal their absence. These things had to arise and become embedded in the culture of writing.

In my talk I mentioned Walter Ong’s fantastic “Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word” in which he talks about the particular habits of thought that are associated with cultures which rely on oral tradition and with those which rely on written language. Writing frees thought from the heavy constraints of memory. Ong details the characteristics that oral language will tend to have, in the service of being memorable; characters will tend to be vivid and extreme, of high emotion and grand actions (think myths and legendary heroes), oral knowledge will be expressed with rhyme, repetition and cliche. In contrast, written language can be nuanced, detailed and even boring. Written language can service lengthy analysis and unstructured lists. Furthermore, because written language is separated in time and space from its audience it will tend to be explicit and comprehensive in its explanations, rather than able to rely on immediate audience feedback and common reference (“like this!”) that spoken language can. Literacy has a tendency towards the abstract, the objectively distanced and the divisive, where as orality will have a tendency towards the concrete, subjectively immediate, the holistic and the conservative (since patterns are hard to establish in memory and fragile once there, the rule is ‘don’t innovate unless you have to’).

Ong discusses Luria’s investigations with literate and illiterate farm workers in the Ukraine in the 1930s. Luria’s investigations showed that questions that seem simple to those from literate cultures involve a whole bundle of learnt habits of thought and ‘unnatural’ assumptions that come along with the acquisition of literacy. Luria asked one illiterate to name the ‘odd one out’ from “a hammer, a saw, a log and a hatchet” and was told “If one has to go, I’d throw out the hatchet, it does the same job as the saw”. The individual questioned saw the objects in terms of activities, not in terms of the abstract category “tools” (the obvious division for a literate). Explained to that three of the objects are tools, the individual still doesn’t find the desired answer “Yes, but we still need the wood”. The mind patterned by orality seeks functional wholes, not division, claims Ong.

Another question of Luria’s is a logical syllogism: “In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Noraya Zembla is in the far north and there is always snow there. What colours are the bears there?”. A literate mind, which is used to answering such questions (indeed, used to being sat down and examined for hours at a time for no immediately apparent purpose) knows to seek the logical structure of the question and answer it within its own terms. Not so the illiterate mind. Luria receives answers such as “I don’t know, go and look” and “I’ve seen black bears, every locality has its own animals”. A question to give the definition of a tree receives similar replies: “Why should I? Everybody knows what a tree is”.

I offer this discussion of Ong and Luria to draw out how fundamental the changes brought about by literacy are for our thought, and how invisible they are in normal circumstances, how for-granted we take tendencies like the pretence of objectivity and abstraction from the immediate and concrete.

My third and final example continued the task of widening the idea of what technology is and can do. I told the story of a clinical case study of a man with memory loss known as S.S (I took this story from a chapter by Margaret O’Connor and colleagues in the book “Broken Memories” by Campbell and Conway). S.S. suffered from a form of brain damage that prevented him creating new memories for episodes in his life. Although he could remember who he was, and events from his pre-injury life, he had no memory for events that happened post-injury. The film Memento gives an extreme illustration of this condition, known as anterograde amnesia. I’ve told S.S’s story elsewhere, in a chapter I wrote for Christian Nold’s book ‘Emotional Cartography‘.

The question O’Connor and colleagues set out to investigate is that of S.S.’s emotional state. S.S. had a buoyant, upbeat, personality, and seemed friendly and cheerful, despite his injury. Conventional tests of mood, which are really formalised sets of direct questions (“Do you cry often?” etc), confirmed this impression. Indirect tests of personality and mental state sounded a warning though – they seemed to suggest that S.S. had profound underlying anxiety and a preoccupation with decay and his own helplessness. These wouldn’t be unusual feelings for someone to have in his position – a relatively young man reduced from being the president of a company and head of the family to being out of work and housebound. The authors ask “was S.S. really depressed or not?”. My interest in the case is around the way in which, it seems likely, S.S.’s deeper underlying anxieties failed to manifest in his moment to moment conscious. S.S., I argue, lacked a particular piece of cognitive technology which most of us take for granted – a reliable memory for the episodes of our life. We can use this episodic memory as a workspace to integrate weak or sometimes fleeting feelings, to store and work out thoughts which may be in contradiction to our momentary surroundings or immediate inclinations. S.S. didn’t have this memory, so his reasonable feelings of anxiety were prevented from ever getting a hold in his consciousness. As they arose they would be repeatedly swept away by his optimistic demeanour.

This example was offered, in part, to illustrate that technology isn’t just something we think about but something we think with (I am following the line of thought set out by Andy Clark in his Natural Born Cyborg‘s here).

So I ended my talk with a question for the audience: ‘If we could invent any technology to help society deal with the future, what would we invent?’. The subsequent discussion never really cohered, I think, in part, because I’d been too successful (!) in broadening our conception of what technology could be. In these terms religions and cultures are technologies of thought too and discussion circuled around the idea that perhaps inventions of these kind are what we need in the future.

I realised, following this discussion, that I was interested in the effect of technology on thinking in a very different sense. The appeal of technology, for me, is that technology embodies in a physical object particular tendencies for thought, and, moreover, that the spread of technology offers a participatory, bottom up, model of how a kind of thinking can spread through the population without government policies, laws or other top-down corporate decisions. Episodic memory, written language and mobile phones spread without centralised control and worked their particular effects on our thinking on one person at a time (but have now had profound societal effects).

One example of a simple piece of technology which affects behaviour is given in Howard Rachlin’s book ‘The Science of Self-Control’. He discusses an experiment in which smokers were divided into three groups. One group was sent away to smoke as normal. The second was given an educational class about the health effects of smoking and encouraged in a number of ways to cut down. The third group, and the one that interests me most, was not told to cut down at all, but simply to record how much they smoked using a system in which, with each cigarette, they tore a tab off of a piece of card. Amazingly, the group that cut down smoking the most was not the group trying to cut down, but the group which was given an effective way of recording and monitoring their smoking. Rachlin offers the convincing analysis that the problem a smoker faces is one common to many situations – that of ‘complex ambivalence’ between single actions which are desirable in isolation, and larger patterns of actions which are undesirable in aggregate. Each cigarette is individually tempting, and carries no particularly large marginal cost, but overall ‘being a smoker’ has a large financial and health cost. You can see that the same pattern of temptation applies to many situations: having a drink verses being drunk or being ‘a drunk’, taking a single flight for a particular reason and being a frequent flyer, for example. The power of the card system is that it provides a mechanism by which people can integrate individual choices into a larger pattern, so that they may make decisions based on their preferences within a larger temporal window. In effect, the card system allows or encourages us to prioritise our longer term interests over the short-termist within all of us. In contrast most new technologies seem to prioritise the opposite self in us – the short-termist over the self that practices delay of gratification.

Another example of a simple piece of technology that can affect our day to day living is an energy meter which displays the momentary electricity consumption of your house (like this one). In theory there is already a mechanism for reducing household energy consumption (known as “your electricity bill”), but these energy meters have been shown to reduce consumption by 30%. Because the feedback between your actions and energy use is immediate – turn on a light and see the meter reading jump by 120 watts – it becomes clear how to effectively cut down your electricity consumption. This will be obvious to all well trained cyberneticists – ‘How can you have control without feedback?’

After the talk, Vinay pointed out to me that the environmental movement has never got to grips with the implications of Amdahl’s Law, a principle in computer programming for optimising the speed of your code by improving the part which causes the largest hold-up. In other words, the principle is a guide to how you should direct your efforts in trying to save a limited resource, in this case time. Without similar guidence – proper context for our energy use – the environmental moment is tempted to fall back on generalised hair-shirt ludditism (build nothing, do nothing, everything is bad). Without feedback our choice is between total rejection of consumption and total indulgence.

In keeping with this latent ludditism, technology and technological solutions are often seen as the enemy of the environmental movement. This is an understandable defence against a techno-utopianism which can be a form of denial about the seriousness of climate change, offering false promise of business as usual for the consumer society. In my talk I wanted to focus on how technology could be part of the solution in a positive way, to help us deal with energy-descent and the move to a sustainable global society, to be part of dealing with change, not of denying it. I wanted to ask the question of what kinds of technology should we be encouraging; energy meters? lifetime guaranteed products? reusable containers? what else?. And what kind of technology should we be discouraging; everything ‘disposable’? things which titillate and encourage our most superficial, immediate and grossly consumptive personalities? what else?

Technologies can encourage and reinforce elements of our selves. Because technological objects are solid things they can be anchors for behaviour which won’t be easily swept away by changes in mood or fashion. We need to find technologies which constraint our worst instincts and encourage our best. I have a liberal’s faith in human nature that, given the opportunity, we can be rational social creatures who recognise their best long term interests rather than being enslaved to momentary passions and immediate rewards. We can find technologies that encourage this long-view. Technology can help us realise our wiser, wider, better selves rather than our greedy, selfish, myoptic selves.

What would you invent?

Quote #248: Hume’s Bundle


…I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change: nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different, whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place where these scenes are represented, or of the materials of which it is composed.

David Hume, in A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part 4, Section 6, ‘Of Personal Identity’