Jun 29, 2018

an unbodied abstraction

Olga Rachello has a perceptive review of Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine: Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death in the winter ‘18 issue of The New Atlantis. Among many ideas is O’Connell’s acute and succinct naming of what’s wrong with a mental model of the human brain as analogous to software, beautifully summarized by Rachello:

O’Connell finds [the] metaphor of “the mind as a piece of software, an application running on the platform of flesh” indicative of a certain conception of the human being that is spreading well beyond the handful of Bay Area tech entrepreneurs he meets. This conception is typically optimistic about brain emulation despite our severely limited understanding of minds. It equates the person with the mind, the mind with intelligence, and intelligence with information processing, and argues that large-scale information processing rarely needs to be fully understood by anyone to be effective. Moreover, it tolerates imprecision: To be a machine means in part that we can select certain aspects of our current human state and discard others as irrelevant.”

Emphasis is mine above. Think about the enormous and consequential leaps of logic here, the deeply internalized assumptions about personhood that are so pervasive as to be forgotten.

As in the best analysis, O’Connell situates this contemporary model in a lineage with other machine-metaphors for being:

O’Connell cites a paper titled “Brain Metaphor and Brain Theory,” in which computer scientist John. G. Daugman observes that throughout history humans have tended to narrate themselves through the lens of the predominant technology of the time. Thus from ancient water technologies emerged the theory of the four humors, whereas in the Renaissance humans described themselves as made of the delicate, ticking mechanisms of clockwork. Even Freud’s theory of the unconscious can be read in the context of the Industrial Revolution as a metaphor derived from steam engines and internal pressure.

Similarly, the prevailing symbol of technology today is the computer, with its data-processing software running on a platform of hardware. This leads naturally to a vision of the human as information, with the device itself on which the information is processed being incidental. As O’Connell writes, “information has become an unbodied abstraction now, and so the material through which that information is transmitted is of secondary importance to its content, which can be endlessly transferred, duplicated, preserved.”

Link to the whole review.