Life as a Sack of Potatoes

potato sack

Reality is a difficult concept to grasp, partly because it has been used in several confusing and even conflicting ways. Difficult or not, reality is one of the most important concepts to keep clear because it is a metaphor for the media, the soup, in which life takes place. Pieces of that reality enter our consciousness through our senses where they become transformed onto meaningful images or processes in the brain. I use a couple of metaphors here because no one knows yet exactly how the brain makes this wondrous move to add meaning to the meaningless objects that enter our consciousness. Without being able to make that step, humans would not be able to engage in intentional actions. We would be just like almost all other life, limited to responses built into our evolutionary cognitive wiring.

But we are different and have employed our unique ability to make meaningful interpretations of reality and, then, to construct ways of living together far more elaborate and richer than any other living species. The actual outcome of whatever we eventually intend and enact is determined by the forces at play in the real world, not by their surrogates in our minds. The closer the mind does mirror that reality, the more likely our plans will be realized. In order to do that, the mind has to put the immediate sensory inputs back in to the context of the real world. This is another way of saying the brain has to add back images (My metaphor for whatever or however the brain keeps things in its neural networks.) from the past. Those images provide a temporal context that identifies the objects and ascribes meaning to them. Spatial context is provided by the senses that capture images beyond those that are held in the attention spotlight. When either of these two aspects of context is missing, the focal object becomes diffuse and one- or two-dimensional.

Does this really matter? Yes, indeed. Our lives are becoming diminished by the dominance of technology and by the pace at which we live. Several articles I have read recently inspire this blog post, but it is a subject about which I have been writing for some years. Andrew Sullivan whose wonderful blog was a regular feature of my day disappeared from the scene some months ago. He reappeared for me in a recent article in the New York Magazine, titled, “I Used to Be a Human Being.” The title tells much of his story in which he recounted how his addiction to the Internet broke his physical and mental health.

If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

Davis Brooks penned a column with a similar theme, the power of social media and related devices to “change the very nature of the self.” The optimistic prognostications of the early days of social media could be attributed mainly due to a change of the tools used in relationships. This appears to be changing, as he writes:

But recently, people’s views of social media have grown a bit darker. That’s because we seem to be hitting some sort of saturation level. Being online isn’t just something we do. It has become who we are, transforming the very nature of the self.

Earlier this year, Jacob Weisberg had a fine essay in The New York Review of Books reporting that, according to a British study, we check our phones on average 221 times a day — about every 4.3 minutes.

A decade ago almost no one had a smartphone. Now the average American spends five and half hours a day with digital media, and the young spend far more time. A study of female students at Baylor University found that they spent 10 hours a day on their phones.

No one should be surprised at what is happening. Sherry Turkle wrote in 1995 that the computer was becoming our “Second Self”, the title of her important book. Much earlier, the philosopher, Albert Borgmann, warned against technology’s power to appropriate our humanity. In Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (1984), Borgmann argued that the ubiquitous and transparent use of technology hides context and, thus, meaning from the humans employing it. This process turns the objects being manipulated by technology into commodities: objects with little or no context. While writing before the advent of social media and the devices that enable them, his theory fits the findings of more recent scholars. I haven’t used his work in this context before, but I find his use of the word, commodification, describes quite well my arguments about the impact of Facebook and related media on otherwise meaningful relationships. Sullivan’s personal experience might also be described as the conversion of a meaningful human being into a meaningless or meaning-poor commodity.

A related, but different aspect of technology was discussed in an article concerned about the effects of replacing humans with computers. “Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster” tells the story of a disastrous airplane tragedy caused, according to the authors, by the deskilling of human pilots by the pervasive use of autopilots. In this case, the human agents were unable to correct deviations in the flight path of an Air France Airbus that crashed into the sea with the loss of 228 lives.

The cockpit record was recovered enabling investigators to reconstruct the events leading up to the tragedy. Autopilots hide the complexity of devices like airplanes and eventually change the mindset and response mechanisms of the human operators. One “solution” offered after the crash was to require pilots to turn off the autopilots from time to time to maintain their skills and appreciation of the complexity of the situation. This same issue will apply to the auto-driving cars now being tried out. Cars are not quite the complex machines as are airplanes, but real situations on crowded roads will surely produce situations as daunting to the human drivers as those for airplanes.

Human life may appear to becoming easier, as what used to be tasks we had to perform are increasingly being done by machines. These stories and others like it tell us that this may be so, but there may also be a kind of Faustian bargain involved without knowing that it is being made for us. Experiencing one’s Being, that is, flourishing, requires removing the filters between the authentic self and the world. The result may not be a pretty sight according to current cultural values and norms, but seeing oneself as a mortal being with all the warts we carry may be just the shock we need to recover and hold on to our authentic self, a mundane equivalent to the ethereal soul of theology, poetry, and philosophy.