AI Mind-Reading and the End of Privacy

A recent article concerning artificial intelligence written by Adam Jezard and published on the World Economic Forum website delineates how scientists working in the field of AI are developing technology linked to functional magnetic resonance machines which measure brain activity that can be linked to deep neural networks in the brain – those which can actually replicate human brain functions. Although, in relation to this recent rather astounding development, newspaper headlines around the world began to scream out that AI can now read minds, this is not entirely the case. In fact, a better description of what is taking place, according to Jezards’ reporting, would be a “reconstruction of a visual field algorithm,”

This means that although computers cannot yet able to anticipate what we are going to think, feel, and desire, by using the program referred to in the article, they can actually decipher images of what objects people may be looking at or in certain limited circumstances reveal what they are thinking. However, in one recent report from Japan’s ATR Computational Science Laboratory and Kyoto University, there was a program developed that not only recognizes images, such as artificial shapes, but likewise reconstructs new images from brain activity. That is, not simply images that have been previously fed into a computer program, but images that it had not yet been trained to recognize.

At the same time, according to Jezard’s article, scientists as Carnegie Mellon University in the US. claim to have gotten a step closer to actual “mind reading” by using algorithms to decode brain signals that can identify deeper thoughts and even whole phrases of words that they have not been previously trained to recognize. In addition researchers who are familiar with this technology say that it is able to understand complex events expressed as sentences and based on a certain understanding of people, places, and actions, can predict what types of thoughts may be contemplated by certain people in relation to them.

For those of us who value not only our privacy, but also the integrity of our individual selves, this particular technology might appear to be especially troubling. Already, with the intrusion of the Internet and social media into all our lives, we have lost an extraordinary amount of privacy related to the integrity of our individual selves. That is, the particulars of our lives, even those which are the result of complicated social dynamics that might not be so easily understood by those who don’t know us, are now on full display for nearly everyone to see. Yet, at the same time, the one place which is still our private domain, that which is a significant part of our personal integrity, is that which exists in the privacy of our thoughts.

Yet if that begins to disappear amidst the possible mind-reading technologies of AI, it seems possible that that sacred space within us, that in which our private thoughts and feelings exist, will likewise begin to disappear. The late, great social critic Neil Postman said many times that when some new technology comes into the world, we need to ask ourselves two prescient questions: What current problems does it solve, and what new problems does it create? It would appear, more than ever now in an age in which reality itself is becoming increasingly virtual, that in relation to A.I. we seriously consider these two important questions.

The Dangerous False Self Inherent in Reality TV

The current show Vanderpump Rules, appearing now on the Bravo network, has been getting a significant amount of attention lately in the mainstream press due to one of its significant stars cheating on his long-time girlfriend with a certain younger member of the cast who ala Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, has been seemingly running after one male cast member after another. The fact that a show such as this, particularly the ones that appear on the Bravo and the E networks, is receiving such a degree of attention is a disturbing trend in our society for a number of reasons; not the least of which is how these shows greatly facilitate the sort of superficial, dumbed down culture which is now so prevalent in our society, as well as encouraging the sort of bullying behavior which, if the truth be known, is a major reason why many people become so enamored of these shows – to watch their least favorite character be subjected to other people’s animosity.

However, there is another deleterious dynamic inherent in the web of reality television, possibly one that is even more dangerous simply because it is not so obvious. This is how they regularly encourage the facilitation of a false self in those who are regular cast members. Of course, as everyone knows, the people who inhabit these shows are not playing a character similar to how one might do so if they were appearing in an edgy drama written by the likes of Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill. Yet, at the same time, as the great Italian filmmaker Frederico Fellini said years ago, whenever you turn the camera on somebody to film them, it inevitably changes their behavior.

Therefore, in a very real sense, although the people who show up on reality television shows like Vanderpump Rules are still being filmed as themselves, still it seems rather obvious that many of them will tend to change their behavior, even if only slightly, when the camera is on them. Consequently, they are in effect creating a caricature, if you will, of their true selves; something that becomes rather obvious when they appear on Bravo to discuss their role in the show when they are not actually appearing in one of its episodes. For example, situations that appear on the show to be extremely dramatic, and at times even heart wrenching, are simply laughed off when those who have been filmed as being part of them appear on Andy Cohen’s gossip-driven show Watch What Happens Live, and it becomes rather obvious to anyone watching that what they are often seeing on Vanderpump Rules are disingenuous performances of sorts.

In 1959 radical British psychotherapist R.D. Laing published his visionary book The Divided Self, in which he so brilliantly explained how people might create a false self around themselves in in order to protect themselves from a reality which was too frightening to deal if one confronted it fully exposed as the person which one actually was. However, as this process of self-protection further evolves, a person becomes eventually trapped inside the false self which he or she has created around him or herself. And as a result, one’s relations with the world and with other people grow increasingly less authentic until at last one is trapped inside a false persona in which authentic connections with others become increasingly if not entirely impossible to achieve.

The real danger of this trend in our culture relative to reality television is of course that many of the young people watching these shows on reality television might begin to believe that it is alright for them to begin adopting the same sort of false persona which they see their favorite reality show participants adopt until eventually it begins to swallows their more authentic selves. Yes, reality television shows have introduced some dangerous trends into our society (e.g. encouraging the sort of bullying behavior in a society in which the next person who has been continually bullied might pick up a gun as retribution). Yet the encouragement of the adoption of an inauthentic self is likewise one of the unhealthy trends that are part of the popular explosion of reality television into our culture.

A Movie from the Past and Our Current Border Crisis

Watching the crisis at our southern border these days, with tens of thousands of people almost certainly headed for what will be nearly impossible conditions in which they might exist, flooding into a country whose government and whose people are both logistically and emotionally incapable of dealing with the entire influx of migrants, one searches for answers to a situation with which it is seemingly impossible to deal, with no clear vision seeming to be anywhere in sight. In addition, so far at least the only potential answers that have been proposed have tended to emanate from potential responses which originate exclusively at the level of policy decisions, rather than stemming from what might be occurring within people at the personal level.

It might certainly be possible that the answer to this seemingly impossible situation might indeed be found deep inside the psyches of those who are trapped within it, not within the sort of policy issues which seek to curtail it. Just about twenty years ago the movie Maria Full of Grace was released to a public which didn’t see anything this raw and elemental coming at their local movie theaters. Starring a young Catalina Sandino Moreno, it told the story of young women, among them seventeen-year old Maria, who, in order to escape the stifling poverty of their native Columbia were willing to swallow up to fifty or more balloon pellets full of cocaine in order to transport them vis-a-vis riding on an airplane from Columbia to the United States, where the cocaine would be eventually sold, and the girls paid well for their part in the enterprise.

In several terrifying, riveting scenes, the extent of the girls’ desperation, and what they are willing to do in order to leave behind their impoverished lives in Columbia is on full display. Particularly harrowing is one scene where the girls are in effect trapped inside the cabin of the plane, with no possible escape route, with the drugs inside them while one of them is starting to feel extremely ill. In another extremely tense scene, Maria is stopped at the baggage carousel by immigration agents who are convinced that she is carrying drugs in her stomach. Then, just as they are getting ready to x-ray her to prove the existence of the pellets inside her, a urine test proves she’s pregnant, the agents know that they can’ t x-ray pregnant women, and to her great relief she is suddenly released.

This is obviously a movie about young women who amidst their desperation are willing to risk everything in order to improve the circumstances of their lives under the most harrowing of conditions. Therefore, amidst the talk and discussions of policy as well as the political conversation concerning immigration which tends to dominate the nightly news on cable television, it seems particularly relevant that we keep in mind the extreme desperation of people who are willing to endure the near impossible circumstance depicted in Maria Full of Grace, a movie which almost certainly evolved from true life stories of young people acting as drug mules, in addition to those who are now walking hundreds of miles through rough terrain and extremely dangerous circumstances in order to come to this country. That is, their desperation and their will power will continue to become impossible forces to impede.

If this country seriously wants to stem the influx of migrants at our southern border, we must begin by recognizing the degree of desperation which has caused so many to come here seeking asylum and the possibility of a better life; and that begins with working with those countries from which the current crop of migrants are fleeing to improve living conditions there. Unless we begin doing that, nothing is ever going to change, with the huge influx of migrants, that which we can’t possibly fully control, continuing to exist. That is, it is now very much our business and our responsibility to work with the governments of those countries from which so many are fleeing to work to improve the lot of their citizens, even if certain economic or political pressures need to be applied in order to make this occur. A movie about young women swallowing balloons full of cocaine in order to flee intolerable conditions is really only a glimpse into the reality of what we are now facing.

Proving Empirically that a Larger Consciousness Exists

Recently, an article appeared in Popular Mechanics magazine, one which made mention of a report written some 40 years ago which involved the strange possibility of converting our minds and bodies into a laser beam of sorts that could transcend spacetime, and in doing so, provide us with intuitive knowledge about our universe; in addition to allowing us to somehow connect to multiple energy fields. The project of which these seemingly obscure ideas were a part, The Gateway Project, was originally one that was the brainchild of Robert Monroe, a radio producer who had previously studied the effect of certain sound patterns on human consciousness.

As esoteric and possibly downright strange as such a study might be, still it at least may tangentially involve a question which has seemingly hung over both materialistic science and experiential consciousness, as well as their possible unification for some time now. That is, how to potentially unify empirical science with the possibility of a transcendent consciousness? Or to stand the question on its head, how might one in fact use rational thought and empiricism to prove the existence of a consciousness that is somehow otherworldly in nature? Or to put an even finer point on the matter, is such a thing even possible or necessary?

Mentioned in the article were several techniques and practices, adopted over the years, by which people might control their minds and their bodies; among them being biofeedback, transcendental meditation, kundalini yoga, and hypnosis, all of them being concerned with simultaneously controlling one’s mental energy in conjunction with one’s bodily processes. In addition, nearly all of them claim to assist someone in achieving a larger awareness or state of consciousness. However, at the same time, with none of these, it would seem, has someone been actually able to prove to others, through an account of their personal experience, that that transcendent experience is indeed real, and not simply a product of their imagination; which means of course that that missing link between empirical science and experiential consciousness still does not exist.

More than anything, what most likely stands in the way of that occurring is that the expansive, transcendent consciousness alluded to in the article can’t possibly exist on the other side of cognitive, logical proof. That is, it must be experienced through the depth of one’s impressionistic life simply because by definition it exists beyond thoughts, words, ideas, or any attempt to describe it. So if this is so, how might someone demonstrate to another person, beyond any sort of empirical proof that the expansive consciousness which they have experienced is real? That is to say, can actual consciousness effectively pass from one person to another as validation of the larger consciousness which one has experienced?

Ironically, a potential key to answering this question may actually exist in the midst of an experiment conducted in the late 1700s by a British physician and physicist. Thomas Young decided to study what would happen to a beam of light if it was observed passing through a double-slit barrier. Would it change its behavior so to speak if it was observed doing so compared to it not being observed? What Young found was that if it was observed passing through the barrier, the light beam would choose one of the slits to pass through, while if it was not observed passing through the barrier it passed through all possible slits simultaneously. In other words, mere observation of the light beam in effect changed its behavior.

Therefore, it terms of human beings, it would appear that the question which needs to be asked here is if it might be possible for a mental state of full creative absorption and heightened attention, one which is devoid of any further action, to not only change the reality in which one lives, but likewise be passed on to another person through a consciousness which is fluid. If it is indeed possible for this to occur, then it also seems possible that a larger, transcendent consciousness which one person is experiencing might then be shared with someone else as confirmation that this larger awareness actually exists.

Furthermore, if this fluid consciousness could actually be passed from one person to another, then this type of confirmation, it would seem, might in fact abrogate the need for the sort of empirical validation of a transcendent consciousness discussed here previously. Consequently, it might likewise mean that the proof that certain mental, emotive, or larger expansive states of consciousness actually exist could in fact become real in a whole new way. This would appear to be something that we all should consider in lieu of contemporary discussions of a consciousness or intelligence that some believe can be proved to exist through A.I. or other virtual approaches to reality which are increasingly becoming part of all our lives.

Why Tar is an Important Film

The brilliant film Tar, directed by Todd Field and starring Cate Blanchet, is now receiving its share of accolades during the traditional awards month which takes place every year, particularly Blanchet’s performance as the brilliant but manipulative symphony orchestra conductor Lydia Tar. However, there are some critics who are ostracizing the film for being a representation of a lesbian woman in a position of power who is acting badly, as if due to our present cultural ethos, one does not have the right to criticize someone for their behavior in certain professions if they happen to be gay.

The movie is a tense, brilliant depiction of a powerful woman wandering within a shadowy hall of mirrors of her own making due to her past insensitive behavior toward others, including members of her own orchestra. What is so important about the film is that it allows us all to look inside the contemporary world of cancel culture so that we might more completely come to terms with its inner dynamics. That is, if one allows oneself to become fully immersed in the film, one is almost able to experience oneself rapidly disintegrating as one’s life and career go suddenly off the rails in a manner similar to Tar’s. As a result, it is an extremely personal, inside look at the forces inherent in a culture determined to destroy anyone whose behavior they find offensive.

Of course there is the issue of Tar behaving manipulatively with others in a sometimes cruel way in order to get what she wants. When she decides that there will be a cello concerto by Elgar played at an upcoming concert, she arranges for a young cellist with whom she is infatuated to be given the performance over a more experienced long-time member of the orchestra. When a former member of the orchestra whom Tar had unsuccessfully pursued romantically begs for recommendations so she can be employed at another orchestra, Tar refuses to help. And she mercilessly bullies a young violin student at the college where she teaches for not agreeing with her about the value of the music of Bach.

Yet at the same time it seems hard to hate Tar because of the intense passion she brings to the music for which she is responsible; this being something that is almost inevitably part of a talented person who our present day cancel culture criticizes for their past indiscretions. Often what seems troubling about these situations is that a person’s past bad behavior is inevitably conflated with whatever talents they might bring to contemporary culture, as if the first inevitably diminishes the second. That is, one can think of any number of musicians, actors, writers and directors who have had their particular talents disparaged simply because of the previous difficult behavior of which they are accused.

If there is indeed an indirect message among others in Tar about the terrifying retribution inherent within contemporary cancel culture. as one is able to experience firsthand in Todd Field’s film, it may well be that the punishment for some high-profile person wh0 has acted badly is in danger of now becoming implicit in the world of their particular art or talent. Yes, of course, if one has somehow damaged other people, there should most definitely be a consequence for that, possibly even a legal one. However, that particular consequence should not necessarily extend into the particular art or talent which they have given to the world. For if somebody’s particular artistic creation can be somehow diminished by their bad behavior, then all artistic expressions are at risk of becoming entirely subjective.

Lydia Tar’s punishment in the film is a psychological one as she experiences the laudatory world which she has always known begin to collapse around her due to her insensitive behavior. However, does that mean that she’s not the same great conductor with the same love of classical music? Of course not. In fact, there is a dramatic scene toward the end of the film in which she watches with tears in her eyes Leonard Bernstein, one of her favorite conductors, lead a discussion with young people about the meaning and beauty of classical music. You can punish someone for their bad behavior, which we all have a certain right to do, but you can’t ever take away the right they have to love their art.

The Danger of Linking A.I. Machines to Consciousness

In The New York Times recently, an article appeared delineating how Dr. Hod Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University and an Israeli-born roboticist sat behind a table in his lab, explaining the potential adaptability of robots and other A.I. machines, something which he argued would become more important as people became more reliant on machines. Likewise, he discussed how as robots become more significant in our lives in terms of such areas of endeavor as surgical procedures, food, manufacturing, and transportation, any error in their functions could be disastrous for us.

As Dr. Lipton said, if we’re literally going to surrender more and more of our lives to robots, we want the machines to be resilient. In order to make this occur, Lipton recommended that we take our inspiration from both animals and humans, both of whom are good at adapting to change. Yes, of course both humans and animals are good at adapting to change, as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has proved time and again. Yet at the same time, there is a quality that only humans and possibly some members of the animal kingdom possess which A.I machines will never possess; this being the possibility of a consciousness rooted in their sensorial and emotive lives, onr upon which they can reflect.

In fact, during a period of time in which our working memories, our attention spans, and the stream of our thoughts are under attack from the digital age and the devices which we all now so obsessively use, it seems now more important than ever that we seek the possibility of a larger consciousness which exists on the other side of thought, memory, and even knowledge. That is, one which is less anchored in our cognitive lives and increasingly anchored in the sort of direct insight into the dynamics of both our world and ourselves which stems from an enriched sensorial life and likewise a deeper emotive one.

On the other hand, if we succumb to making A.I machines an increasing part of our intelligence, this larger, more expansive consciousness born of direct insight will never occur as people continue to focus more and more on the sort of purely cognitive activities, particularly memory, that A.I. machines are so good at, just as so many people have become fascinated and obsessed by the Internet and digital devices since both came into our lives a number of years ago. More than anything, it seems imperative that we realize that intelligence itself is certainly much more than thought and memory. As much as anything, it has significantly to do with insight, and with the potential strength of one’s emotive and sensorial life, something at which a machine, even one that can accomplish highly complex tasks, is not so adept.

A New Education for the Digital Age

As many people now know, our compulsive use of the Internet and corresponding digital devices are creating difficulties for many people not just within the field of their personal relationships, but likewise within the domain of their cognitive capacities. As a result of the effects of our current digital age on people’s attention spans and working memories, there is increasing evidence that the jumpy, fragmented awareness that is being inculcated in people by the great interruption machine that is the Internet is having a profound effect on the stream of people’s thoughts, and their capacity to follow those thoughts to a point of completion.

Likewise, the effects that the challenge of information overload brought about by the Internet is having on people’s short-term memories, their capacity to turn those short-term memories into long-term ones, and the manner in which large search engines such Google are in effect becoming our brain’s external hard drive in significantly replacing our once natural ability to follow the path of organic networks in our brain to retrieve relevant information and knowledge are both having profoundly negative effects on the capacity of our working memories to clearly and quickly digest important elements of ourselves and our world.

Consequently, to minimize the potential negative effects which the digital world may be having on our cognitive lives, there would appear to be two potential paths that we might take. Either we can somehow try to limit the extent to which we use the exciting but potentially hazardous Internet-related devices which have become our new reality, or we can seek to explore the possibility of the growth of a different type of intelligence, one that is beyond the reach of the Internet and its resulting technologies, and that is fundamentally anchored in not only our sensorial and emotive lives, but  likewise in our capacity for direct, intuitive insight.

The first, it would seem, might not be realistic simply because the digital world has now become so thoroughly embedded in all our lives. While the second, although being part of a serious exploration into the unknown, might allow us to potentially develop the sort of expansive awareness that the Internet and our current digital age might won’t be able to negatively affect simply because it exists beyond the intersection of digital technologies with our cognitive development in a world that is necessarily beyond the exclusive realm of thought and memory.

All of this would appear to necessarily speak to the possibility of a different sort of education to which young people in their formative years might be introduced; one in which their impressionistic lives become just as important as their cognitive development. One in which it becomes extremely important that young learners be allowed to remain with strong emotive and sensorial reactions to subject matter until those have reached a point of full fruition. Otherwise, the strength of their impressions will inevitably become dissipated to a significant degree. Consequently, it becomes extremely important that young students often begin the process of cognitive learning only after their impressionistic lives have become fully energized.

This also would appear to necessarily mean eliminating many of the results-driven approaches to learning that now so entirely dominate contemporary learning environments, ones in which exclusively cognitive learning has become predominate in order to produce certain scores on standardized tests. Instead, if accountability for learning became more fully tied to student initiative, students would not need to be so thoroughly manipulated, as they are now, by empirical results of learning. Rather, if the new benchmark for successful learning became one of how involved students became in creating their own paths toward particular subject matter, their impressionistic lives might be energized exponentially.

Lyn Lesch’s current book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.

The Pursuit of Wonder in the Digital Age

During the period of the late 1970s and early 1980s the scientist Jacob Bronowski launched his brilliant series The Ascent of Man on public television, the series encapsulating how human knowledge has provided us with such a miraculous understanding of ourselves, our world, and our universe. And of course, this is absolutely true. The continuous pursuit of truth through human knowledge has produced the discoveries of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, and other great scientists and thinkers which of course have led toward an ever-increasing sense of wonder concerning the world in which we live.

Yet if one might be bold enough to suggest, there still appears to be something inherently missing from this important assessment of the potential power of human knowledge. This is simply that by focusing too exclusively on the acquisition of knowledge as the primary means by which people can ascend, to use Jacob Bronowski’s term, one can easily ignore the whole person; and in so doing, ignore other aspects of their being such as the power of their sensorial and emotive lives.

If people are to develop a greater fascination with the details and dynamics of the world in which they live, certainly they must allow their impressions to become as vivid as possible; at a place at which their senses and feelings can come to full fruition, free from the potential dulling effects of thought and memory; using the latter only when these are needed.

Indeed, it is this capacity to become fully absorbed in the potential depth of one’s impressions which, as much as anything, might create moments of wonder in which a person’s inner life is fused with the observations of their world until the psychological distance between the two things begins to shrink, potentially even disappear completely. Yet how exactly might that kind of transformation of one’s being actually occur?

In his iconic book The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley, during his experience with the consciousness expanding drug mescaline, described some flowers in a vase which shone with what he called a stunning inner light; the stoical serenity inherent in some window drapes which revealed them as not just another household item, but as a true silken wilderness; and the folds in his trousers as being not just part of a necessary article of clothing, but as a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity.

Such a state of complete absorption in the world’s details, that in which there is little or no psychological distance between the observer and the observed, would appear to present the best opportunity for fusing our emotive and sensorial live into such a deeper, more wondrous awareness simply because it is a state in which there is little or no separation between one’s inner life and the details of one’s world, what Huxley described as the non-existence of a self which in a very real sense inwardly becomes many of the things with which one is in contact. Yet how to achieve this state of wondrous awareness during one’s normal, everyday state of mind, without the use of consciousness expanding drugs such as mescaline?

If we are to pursue this new type of consciousness on the other side of thought and memory, one which is firmly anchored in our sensorial and emotive lives, it would appear to be of the utmost importance that we begin to understand more completely the exact limitations of both thought and memory so that we might begin to comprehend how each of these might on occasion become an impediment to the full growth of our emotions and our senses.

Yet at the same time, if certain of our cognitive capacities, such as our ability to attend and the stream of our thoughts, which have been adversely affected by the jumpy, fragmented nature of the Internet, and the dulling of our working memories by large search engines such as Google, which have in effect become our brain’s external hard drive as we search for information, then the endeavor to comprehend the dynamics and validity of our thoughts and memories so that these won’t necessarily impede our sensorial and emotive reactions from coming to full fruition is going to inevitably become exponentially more difficult to achieve. And so this this is something that might necessarily require our increasing attention as our current digital age proceeds into the future.

Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.



Our Diminishing Freedom in the Digital Age

This week’s New York Times highlighted a 2018 film, The Feeling of Being Watched, a documentary by young Muslim filmmaker Assia Boundaoui, which told the story of how the residents of the Muslim community in the suburban Chicago community of Bridgeview came to believe that they were the victims of an unjustified surveillance by the FBI over a number of years; the film effectively telling the story of how such a surveillance can become an end in itself simply because the fear of being watched can lead to a fear of speaking out, regardless of whether anyone is actually watching. As Ms. Boundaoui says in the film in voice-over, “That grey area between paranoia and the truth is a dangerous place.”

In similar fashion, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre’s lifelong friend the lover, wrote of how modern women face a certain similar existential bind in having to develop their own viewpoint toward their life and the world at the same time that they have become the viewpoint of others, in particular men, where they become both observer and observed, something which necessarily has a profound effect on their personal freedom.

Now, with the coming of our present digital age, it seems that we are all up against the same existential crisis as the Muslim community of Bridgeview and Simone de Beauvoir faced, one in which we are made to feel that we are being perpetually watched even as we attempt to make sense of our world. That is, any statement we make online, however seemingly innocuous it might seem, becomes immediate fodder for someone who might choose to misinterpret it. In similar fashion, the digital memories inside powerful search engines inside our phones and computers often know where we’ll navigating next in cyberspace even before we do.

In fact, the algorithms of Google and other search engines are now not only able to feed us information that they have already gathered about us, but also direct us to where we should travel next on the Web even before we have decided to do so ourselves by simply catching our eye with what they already know we may want to see next based on where we have already traveled. Anyone who has ever searched Amazon or begun receiving spam e-mails from out of the blue based on their personal search history knows this eventuality all too well.

Except the real difference between what Assia Boundaoui and Simone de Beauvoir endured and our present plight in the digital age is that their freedom was being controlled and impeded externally, so to speak, while for those of us who are potential victims in cyberspace, the impediment to our freedom is entirely internal. That is whereas before, the plight of those two women is part of their long-term memories and personal experience, albeit the result of difficult dynamics in their lives, now the very neural pathways inside out brains, simply because we are in effect outsourcing our memories and the pattern of our thoughts to large search engines, are being controlled and directed from the outside.

Consequently, our loss of personal freedom has now become a dynamic that resides inside the same patterns of thought and memory that we might use to combat such a development in the way Ms. Boundaoui and Ms. Beauvoir combatted their particular predicaments that were keeping them less free. That is, our mental freedom, in a very real sense, faces a much more serious challenge to its continued development simply because the very things we have always used to envision and maintain such a freedom, our patterns of thought and memory, are being conditioned in a manner in which they are becoming increasingly less clear to us in such a pursuit.

Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.

It’s Not the Technology

During the recent HBO television show The Newsroom, intrepid studio producer Jim Harper, played by John Gallagher, Jr., has an intense conversation with his girlfriend Hallie Shea, played by Grace Gummer, who has just taken a job at a news network which is requiring her to write stories concerning her life as a single woman in New York City and then post them on their site as significant news stories. After Harper admonishes her for caving into the more superficial reality TV culture that is rapidly becoming increasingly relevant, she tells him that his problem is that he’s afraid of the new Internet technology; his response being that it’s not the new technology, rather it’s the superficiality of social media.

In point of fact, as one who is critical of the increasingly superficial, shallow culture that social media has spawned, one tends to hear this argument a lot; that people who make a point of condemning social media for spawning a more superficial, dishonest culture are really just afraid of the growth of digital technology, and how we are being left behind because of it. No doubt, those of us who are alarmed by the possibility of Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse causing people to accept a shallower reality, the veracity of which can’t be trusted, will hear this same argument made with us over and over; that we’re really just afraid of a technology that we don’t understand how to properly use.

The late Neil Postman, author of such great books as The Disappearance of Childhood and The End of Education often spoke of two relevant questions which need to be asked whenever any new form of technology comes into existence: What present problem does it solve, and what new problems does it create? That is, in terms of the Metaverse, does this new technology in which people are able to inhabit a different or alternative reality really solve any of our pressing problems, or does it simply cause us to become shallower inwardly as we experience the real world less and less without really solving any pressing problems related to humans communicating with each other?

Likewise, does a kindle e-reader solve any problems related to human literacy at the same time that it potentially causes those to use it to connect in shallower fashion with what they are reading when they don’t have the advantage of a direct physical connection with it, as they do whenever they hold a book in their hand? Or does the new Apple watch facilitate faster, easier connection with others when everyone who could afford the watch can also easily afford an iPhone, while at the same time, it might easily cause Internet addiction to become more prevalent simply because it is something that is literally on someone’s arm?

Obviously, new technologies appear all the time that everyone must get used to because that is simply the new world in which they live. Examples being things like the electric light, the automobile, or even the personal computer. However, these are also things which made everyone’s lives substantially easier, even if they did create a newer set of problems. However, if things like the Metaverse, the e-reader, or the Apple watch come into existence without solving any pressing problems, and even though at the at the time of their appearance they seem cool or trendy, they present a new set of problems related to potentially shallower inner lives and shortened attention spans, then it seems one has to indeed ask if they are worth the trade-off.

When Jim Harper told Hallie Shea during their breakup on the Newsroom that “It’s not the technology” what he meant was that she was conflating the issue of people not being adept at using certain Internet-related devices with their concern with an increasingly shallower culture that those same devices may be helping to foster. Unfortunately, by conflating the two, the second issue, the more important of the two, might never be discussed or properly addressed. Let’s hope that this doesn’t continue to occur.

Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier, published by Rowman & Littlefield, is now available from booksellers.