On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

After William Burroughs experienced how pitifully he could be held in thrall by a small molecule, he developed a lifelong interest in telepathy and mind control. 

His own brain had been upended.  Suddenly, he found himself devoting the vast majority of his time and money toward a single cause: obtaining a day’s ration of opiate.  If he was delinquent in this task, he grew sick.  Agony would keep him focused.

If that drug was capable of re-sculpting a human personality, might there be other ways?  In Queer, the protagonist speculates:

“I know telepathy to be a fact, since I have experienced it myself.  I have no interest to prove it, or, in fact, to prove anything to anybody.  What interests me is, how can I use it?

“In South America at the headwaters of the Amazon grows a plant called Yage that is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity.  Medicine men use it in their work.  A Colombian scientist, whose name escapes me, isolated from Yage a drug he called Telepathine.  I read all this in a magazine article.

“Later I see another article: the Russians are using Yage in experiments on slave labor.  It seems they want to induce states of automatic obedience and ultimately, of course, ‘thought control.’  The basic con.  No buildup, no spiel, no routine, just move in on someone’s psyche and give orders.

“I have a theory that the Mayan priests developed a form of one-way telepathy to con the peasants into doing all the work.  The deal is certain to backfire eventually, because telepathy is not of its nature a one-way setup, nor a setup of sender and receiver at all.”

As it happens, psychedelic drugs are quite poor tools for potentiating mind control.  But there are other ways.  A precisely-localized magnetic pulse can cause prompt, unnoticeable alterations in a person’s behavior – researchers were able to change how their human study subjects responded to unfairness, all without those subjects realizing that they were acting differently from usual.

Because repeated behaviors give rise to our personality, it stands to reason that repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation could rewire a person’s identity.  Invisibly, and, with the right interference patterns, at a distance. 

You could be made other.

The more common form of mind control practiced in the United States is much less technologically advanced.  Rather than using a magnetic pulse to stimulate or suppress particular regions of the brain, we employ narrative control.

Here’s a simple story: a bell rings, then dinner is served.  If this story is integrated inside the brain as universally true, then the sound of the bell will trigger salivation.  This is the basic principle behind Pavlovian conditioning.  You can train a dog to associate dinnertime to the sound of a bell, or to have an aversion to a particular smell.

Humans can be similarly conditioned.  Companies like Facebook and Apple have incorporated a variety of sensory experiences into their designs, all intended to engender a sense of urgency about checking your telephone.  The alerts, the updates, the little pings – these are pushed to the forefront of the design because they compel engagement.  Likewise the little jingles of dropped loot in online fantasy games.

In a perfect world, corporations would not make their users’ brains worse in order to increase their own profits.  If those companies’ designs were less malicious, the makers wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about making sure that their own children don’t engage with their creations.

But those are little stories.  A few stray details added to the narrative of your day: if you see the dot, click to see the update!  More threatening is the prospect of mind control that totally rewrites an internalized narrative.  Take a person’s memories and supplant them.

In Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the doctor Benway describes his interrogation techniques:

“While in general I avoid the use of torture – torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance – the threat of torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it.  And torture can be employed to advantage as a penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept punishment as deserved.”

In an excellent article for Science magazine, journalist Douglas Starr describes research into false confessions, situations when people are subjected to such extreme narrative control that they temporarily lose grasp of their personal memories and accept instead an interrogator’s version of reality. 

A variety of techniques are employed – the threat of torture, as above; a questioning regime that is in itself torturous, giving the subject an incentive to play along just to make it stop; sleep deprivation to muddle the brain; ardently repeated falsehoods to supplant the subject’s own stories; deceitful cajoling to persuade the subject that there would be minimal consequences to accepting an alternate version of reality (by saying things like “Anyone would have done the same thing”).

And it works.  Innocent people can be made to believe that they’ve done horrible things.  With a variety of laboratory experiments, psychologist Saul Kassin has shown that these techniques can induce almost anyone to confess to things they haven’t done.

Your stories can be wrested from you.

Indeed, our entire legal system is a battleground for narrative control.  Two sides compete to determine what story will enter the legal record: this is typically set up as a test of wits between a well-trained, well-funded prosecutor and an indigent, incarcerated individual who might or might not receive a brief consultation with an overscheduled public defender.

Predictably, the prosecutor often wins.  Because prosecutors have absolute, unchecked power to determine what charges to levy against a defendant, they can threaten people with the risk of outlandish punishment … and they can force a defendant to suffer in jail simply by delaying trials.  So, eventually, when a prosecutor offers an alternative story that would allow the defendant’s torture to end, most people will renounce their own memories.  They plead guilty.  After all, you might spend another year in jail waiting for a trial, or you could just let the prosecutor re-write history and walk out today.

Of course, you might not walk out today.  Even if you were told that you would.  In this battle for narrative control, one side – the defendant – is required to be honest.  The other is not.

And so people lose their stories, the very narratives that make us who we are.

Featured image: neural pathways in the brain taken using diffusion tensor. Image by Thomas Schultz.

On two degrees and the worst year (yet) to be alive.

On two degrees and the worst year (yet) to be alive.

The United States is pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we were last year.

The amount of heat-trapping gas in our atmosphere is already too high – ideally, our net emissions should be negative.  Which is entirely feasible.  When we cultivate forests, trees pull carbon from the air.  But each tree can do only so much.  We also need to reduce the amount of energy we consume.

We don’t need to be less happy, though.  As the economy improved, people began flying more … but many flights aren’t producing happiness.  Most people look harried and sullen in airports.  If we all switched to taking trains, the cultural expectations for the rhythm of our lives would shift – instead of short bursts of misery, our travels could be pleasant spells of intermediate time. 

And the giant server farms needed to run websites like Facebook gobble energy.  Facebook, just like any other advertising company, profits by making people less happy.  Many people would be happier in a world where these servers used less energy.

We have a compelling reason to change our behaviors.  If we don’t, the global climate will rise by two degrees Celsius or more.  (Of course, any individual location could become much warmer or colder – a nearby warm ocean current keeps Europe’s climate mild, but if melting polar ice redirects this current, countries like England could become quite frigid.)

How different might life be if global temperatures changed by two degrees?

In the year 536, global temperatures were about two degrees lower than they are today.  (Which does prove, obviously, that the global climate can change for reasons that are not humanity’s fault.  But the current changes are caused by us.)

Historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick believes that this two degree change in temperature made our planet an utterly miserable place to live. A volcanic eruption had darkened the sky, preventing incoming sunlight from warming Earth.  “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick. Snow fell in summertime; crops failed; people starved.

And now we, in all our wisdom, are about to tug the needle just as far (if not farther!) in the other direction.

The Dark Ages were literally dark.  Ashen clouds lurked overhead.  Beset by such nightmarish conditions, people feared that God had forsaken them.  Europeans abandoned science and literacy partly as penance, hoping to appease the source of wrath that was killing them and their children.

Plants have evolved on Earth for many millions of years.  Many plant species will find a way to endure even if we change our planet’s climate.  But human food crops are quite young, in evolutionary terms, and exist in precarious swaths of monoculture. A two degree increase in global temperatures will cause these plants to die.  Famine will ensue.  Global violence and warfare will increase as hungry people fight to survive. 

A two degree change in temperature is totally sufficient to usher in a new worst year to be alive.

Sadly, nobody will be eating any Doritos made from these drought-scorched corn plants.

If we change the global climate by two degrees, there’s also no assurance that our planet won’t keep warming.  Weather is dictated by complex feedback loops that we don’t yet understand.  Our oceans soak up heat, which is changing their chemistry; warmer water takes up more space, flooding the coasts, and will melt the polar ice caps from underneath, which further accelerates warming because ice reflects sunlight, but bare ground or water absorbs it.

Venus may have been habitable, once. But climate change spiraled out of control after the atmosphere filled with too much heat-trapping carbon dioxide.  The oceans evaporated.  Now, searing sulfuric acid falls as rain from the sky.

If we tip over the precipice, every living creature on earth will be doomed.  No one understands enough about the feedback loops that dictate a planet’s climate to know how close to the precipice we are.

Although, really, a two degree change would be awful enough.

Which is worth reiterating … especially because the cohort of humans that has contributed most to climate change, and currently holds the wealth and political power needed to prevent catastrophe, is of an age that perhaps they want the world to be a little warmer.  Wealthy Americans in their fifties to seventies have long migrated south in pursuit of warmer climate.

The current generation of 50- to 70-year-olds was given the most of the Earth’s plenitude.  The world of their youth was very different from the world in which my children were born. While that generation was alive, insect populations plummeted by 90% or more.  The fecundity of other wildlife diminished in turn.  Forests were clearcut, and the environment – including the very air we breathe – was devastated to produce the world’s current wealth.

Perhaps some of the people in power now do want a warmer planet.  But it is not theirs.  As phrased by Wendell Berry,

the world is not given by [our parents], but borrowed from [our] children.”

We should feel horrifically embarrassed to return this world in worse condition than when we were lent it.

Featured image: Night Landscape with Ruined Monastery by Lluís Rigalt (1814 – 1894).

On empathizing with machines.

On empathizing with machines.

When I turn on my computer, I don’t consider what my computer wants.  It seems relatively empty of desire.  I click on an icon to open a text document and begin to type: letters appear on the screen.

If anything, the computer seems completely servile.  It wants to be of service!  I type, and it rearranges little magnets to mirror my desires.

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When our family travels and turns on the GPS, though, we discuss the system’s wants more readily.

“It wants you to turn left here,” K says.

“Pfft,” I say.  “That road looks bland.”  I keep driving straight and the machine starts flashing make the next available u-turn until eventually it gives in and calculates a new route to accommodate my whim.

The GPS wants our car to travel along the fastest available route.  I want to look at pretty leaves and avoid those hilly median-less highways where death seems imminent at every crest.  Sometimes the machine’s desires and mine align, sometimes they do not.

The GPS is relatively powerless, though.  It can only accomplish its goals by persuading me to follow its advice.  If it says turn left and I feel wary, we go straight.

facebook-257829_640Other machines get their way more often.  For instance, the program that chooses what to display on people’s Facebook pages.  This program wants to make money.  To do this, it must choose which advertisers receive screen time, and to curate an audience that will look at those screens often.  It wants for the people looking at advertisements to enjoy their experience.

Luckily for this program, it receives a huge amount of feedback on how well it’s doing.  When it makes a mistake, it will realize promptly and correct itself.  For instance, it gathers data on how much time the target audience spends looking at the site.  It knows how often advertisements are clicked on by someone curious to learn more about whatever is being shilled.  It knows how often those clicks lead to sales for the companies giving it money (which will make those companies more eager to give it money in the future).

Of course, this program’s desire for money doesn’t always coincide with my desires.  I want to live in a country with a broadly informed citizenry.  I want people to engage with nuanced political and philosophical discourse.  I want people to spend less time staring at their telephones and more time engaging with the world around them.  I want people to spend less money.

But we, as a people, have given this program more power than a GPS.  If you look at Facebook, it controls what you see – and few people seem upset enough to stop looking at Facebook.

With enough power, does a machine become a moral actor?  The program choosing what to display on Facebook doesn’t seem to consider the ethics of its decisions … but should it?

From Burt Helm’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “How Facebook’s Oracular Algorithm Determines the Fates of Start-Ups”:

Bad human actors don’t pose the only problem; a machine-learning algorithm, left unchecked, can misbehave and compound inequality on its own, no help from humans needed.  The same mechanism that decides that 30-something women who like yoga disproportionately buy Lululemon tights – and shows them ads for more yoga wear – would also show more junk-food ads to impoverished populations rife with diabetes and obesity.

If a machine designed to want money becomes sufficiently powerful, it will do things that we humans find unpleasant.  (This isn’t solely a problem with machines – consider the ethical decisions of the Koch brothers, for instance – but contemporary machines tend to be much more single-minded than any human.)

I would argue that even if a programmer tried to include ethical precepts into a machine’s goals, problems would arise.  If a sufficiently powerful machine had the mandate “end human suffering,” for instance, it might decide to simultaneously snuff all Homo sapiens from the planet.

Which is a problem that game designer Frank Lantz wanted to help us understand.

One virtue of video games over other art forms is how well games can create empathy.  It’s easy to read about Guantanamo prison guards torturing inmates and think, I would never do that.  The game Grand Theft Auto 5 does something more subtle.  It asks players – after they have sunk a significant time investment into the game – to torture.  You, the player, become like a prison guard, having put years of your life toward a career.  You’re asked to do something immoral.  Will you do it?

grand theft auto

Most players do.  Put into that position, we lapse.

In Frank Lantz’s game, Paperclips, players are helped to empathize with a machine.  Just like the program choosing what to display on people’s Facebook pages, players are given several controls to tweak in order to maximize a resource.  That program wanted money; you, in the game, want paperclips.  Click a button to cut some wire and, voila, you’ve made one!

But what if there were more?

Paperclip-01_(xndr)

A machine designed to make as many paperclips as possible (for which it needs money, which it gets by selling paperclips) would want more.  While playing the game (surprisingly compelling given that it’s a text-only window filled with flickering numbers), we become that machine.  And we slip into folly.  Oops.  Goodbye, Earth.

There are dangers inherent in giving too much power to anyone or anything with such clearly articulated wants.  A machine might destroy us.  But: we would probably do it, too.

On goals and Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Falling.”

On goals and Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Falling.”

It’s easy to get caught up in goal-oriented thinking.  Television commercials for the University of Phoenix tout how much better your life would be with a degree.  Romantic comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall end with the beginning of a relationship.  We strive for a big house, a beautiful family, a flush bank account.

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Adam Alter discusses some of the flaws in goal-oriented thinking in his recent Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.  Most humans are happiest while striving for a goal, but reaching goals can leave us feeling empty.

Consider the protagonist of Jack Vance’s The Demon Princes, who hunts down the villains who killed his family.  After defeating the last, he falls into melancholy.  He describes himself as feeling “Deflated, perhaps.  I have been deserted by my enemies. The affair is over.  I am done.

We will either fail to reach our goals … or succeed, only to find that our goals have failed us.

The advertising companies that Adam Alter discusses in Irresistible know that goal-oriented thinking will leave us feeling empty, but that is precisely why they nurture these thoughts.  Striving for ever more Facebook or Instagram “likes” keeps people logging in, which lets the company keep making money.  The corporation’s profit model relies on people feeling unfulfilled.

Most of the corporations shilling things through your telephone want you to feel unhappy.  Contented people spend less.

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41BPcuTxX-L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_We read Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying” in jail.  This poem is a gorgeous paean to process-oriented thinking, opening with the line:

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.

Gilbert then describes a “failed” marriage, one that ended in divorce.  But even though the eventual outcome was separation, he and his wife shared many happy years.  They had engaging conversations over lunch.  He would wake in the morning and marvel over her sleeping form in bed.

Each afternoon I watched her coming back

through the hot stony field after swimming,

the sea light behind her and the huge sky

on the other side of that.

Gilbert knows that he was blessed to have lived through so much beauty.  He thinks it’s absurd that other people will say his marriage failed.  It ended, yes.  He fell short of a goal.  But he (appropriately) enjoyed the process.  He has many years of happy memories, and he would be a fool to let the divorce poison his recollection of them all.

The men in jail have also lost many loved ones, either because they’ve drifted apart over time or, tragically often, because their partners have died.  They’ve loved Jack Gilbert’s poems: several dudes teared up at the image of Gilbert finding his second wife Michiko’s hair in a potted plant after she died.

And the men in jail are in jail.  From a goal-oriented perspective, their lives, so far, have been failures.  No one wants to end up there.  When we read Pattiann Rogers’s “The Greatest Grandeur,”  I suggested we write our perspective on the best of the world.  They looked at me confused.  I said, “Well, she’s writing about why nature makes her believe in God.  I’m an atheist, but I think the world can be beautiful.  So could you write about, I dunno, what makes you want to go on living?”

Three dudes tossed down their pencils.  “That’ll … I’ll need to think about that one for a week or two,” one said.  His brother died last year.  His son cussed him out and moved away.  Three weeks in jail, he’s still going through withdrawal.  He can’t sleep more than an hour at a time.  The highlight of his day is running in place in the cement-walled fourth-floor “rec yard” until he feels sufficiently sick & drained to still his brain, “but they haven’t taken us to daytime rec more than, what, two times a month?  There’s a good dude here at night, though.  We had night rec three times this week.”

Oops.  So maybe that wasn’t the best writing prompt.  But one man wrote a beautiful poem about linked cycles of growth – a tall tree starting from a small seed, his own son begun from an even smaller seed, and the poem itself originating as the seed of an idea inside his mind.  In his poem,

tree-220664_1280                                      the tree that withstood

The storm now given opportunity to transform mere

Feet into stories

Our growth – the process of transformation – is what matters.  We all die in the end.  Maybe this alone should be enough to persuade us against goal-oriented thinking.  We need to enjoy life as we live it.  Otherwise, we’re striving toward nothingness.

Gilbert ends “Failing and Falling” with the beauty of our struggle:

I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,

but just coming to the end of his triumph.

602px-Goltzius_Ikarus

On Facebook and fake news.

On Facebook and fake news.

With two credits left to finish his degree, a friend switched his major from philosophy to computer science.  One of his first assignments: build a website for a local business.  Rather than find someone needing this service, he decided to fabricate an empire.

I never knew whether he thought this would be easier.  In any case, he resolved to create the simulacrum of a small publishing company and asked me for help.  We wrote short biographies for approximately a dozen authors on the company’s roster, drafted excerpts from several books for each, designed book covers, and used Photoshop to paste our creations into conference halls, speaking at podiums and being applauded for their achievements.

This was in the fall of 2003, so we assumed that aspiring artists would also pursue a social media presence.  We created profiles for the authors on Myspace (the original incarnation of Facebook, loathe to admit fakery, would only let users register for an account using a university email address; the email accounts we’d made for our authors were all hosted through Hotmail and Yahoo).  My friend put profiles for several on dating websites.  He arranged trysts that the (imaginary) authors cancelled at the last minute.

My apologies to the men and women who were stood up by our creations.  I’d like to think that most real-world authors are less fickle.

Several years later, when my family began recording holiday albums in lieu of a photograph to mail to our friends and relatives, we named the project after the most successful of these authors… “success” here referring solely to popularity on the dating sites.  We figured that, because these entities were all constructs of our imaginations, this was the closest we’d ever come to a controlled experiment comparing the allure of different names.

a red one.jpg
It does still have a certain ring to it.

Eventually, my friend submitted his project.  By this time he’d kept up the profiles of our creations for about two months.  At first the authors were only friends with each other, but by then they’d begun to branch out, each participating in different online discussion groups, making a different set of connections to the world…

My friend received a failing grade.  None of the links to buy the authors’ books were functional.  He had thought this was a reasonable omission, since the full texts did not exist, but his professor was a stickler.

Still, I have to admit: faking is fun.

Profitable, too.  Not in my friend’s case, where he devoted prodigious quantities of effort toward a project that earned exceptionally low marks (he gave up on computer science at the end of that semester, and indeed changed his major thrice more before resigning himself to a philosophy degree and completing those last two credits).  But, for others?

From William Gaddis’s The Recognitions:

71ncmdhfzzlLong since, of course, in the spirit of that noblesse oblige which she personified, Paris had withdrawn from any legitimate connection with works of art, and directly increased her entourage of those living for Art’s sake.  One of these, finding himself on trial just two or three years ago, had made the reasonable point that a typical study of a Barbizon peasant signed with his own name brought but a few hundred francs, but signed Millet, ten thousand dollars; and the excellent defense that this subterfuge had not been practiced on Frenchmen, but on English and Americans “to whom you can sell anything” . . . here, in France, where everything was for sale.

Or, put more explicitly by Jean de la Bruyêre (& translated by Jean Stewart):

It is harder to make one’s name by means of a perfect work than to win praise for a second-rate one by means of a name one has already acquired.

Our world is saturated in information and art – to garner attention, it might seem necessary to pose as a trusted brand.

6641427981_0bc638f8e8_oOr, it seems, to peddle untruths so outlandish that they stand distinct from run-on-the-mill reality, which might be found anywhere.  This, it seems, was a profitable moneymaking scheme during the 2016 U.S. elections.  With a sufficiently catchy fabrication, anyone anywhere could dupe Facebook users and reap Google advertising dollars.

Which is frustrating, sure.  Networks created by ostensibly socially-conscious left-leaning Silicon Valley companies enabled a far-right political campaign built on lies.

But I would argue that the real problem with Facebook, in terms of distorting political discourse, isn’t the platform’s propensity for spreading lies.  The problem is Facebook itself, the working-as-properly attention waster.  Even when the material is real-ish – pointless lists, celebrity updates, and the like – it degrades the power to think.  The site is designed to be distracting.  After all, Facebook makes money through advertising.  Humans are most persuadable when harried & distracted – it’s while I’m in the grocery store holding a screaming toddler that I’m most likely to grab whatever item has a brightly-colored tag announcing its SALE! price instead of checking to see which offers the best value.  All the dopamine-releasing pings and pokes on Facebook keep users susceptible.

As described by computer scientist Cal Newport:

Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy.  Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive.  The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used – persistently throughout your waking hours – the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

Once this Pavlovian connection is solidified, it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, and your brain simply won’t tolerate such a long period without a fix.

Big ideas take time.  And so we have a conundrum: how, in our world, can we devote the time and energy necessary to gain deep understanding?

Ideas that matter won’t always fit into 140 characters or less.  If our time spent flitting through the internet has deluded us into imagining they will, that is how we destroy our country, becoming a place where we spray Brawndo onto crops because electrolytes are “what plants crave.”

Or becoming a place that elects Donald Trump.

Or becoming a place populated by people who hate Donald Trump but think that their hate alone – or, excuse me, their impassioned hate plus their ironic Twitter posts – without getting off their asses to actually do something about all the suffering in the world, is enough.  There are very clear actions you could take to push back against climate change and mass incarceration.

Kafka could look at fish.  Can we read Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” without shame? Here:

rilke