iGuffins in an Ideal World

Earlier today I took part in a panel discussion at Watford Palace Theatre – where they serve illy coffee, I’m pleased to report – as part of the Ideal World season  for which the theatre worked with CRASSH – the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. The theatre commissioned three plays on technology and its impact on human life and we were there to discuss some of the wider implications.

You can still catch the plays – Perfect Match, Override and Virgin.

Perfect Macht

Perfect Match

I got there in time to watch the afternoon performance of Perfect Match, the plot of which hinges on the idea that an algorithm with full access to your entire social media profile could find your ‘perfect match’ and that this could be life-changing. I don’t want to review the play here but I will note that throughout the play there was no real questioning of the algorithm itself, perhaps making it more of a plot device than a fully-rounded examination of contemporary technology – an iGuffin, perhaps.

[an iGuffin, like a MacGuffin, is an object of power or desire used to propel a plot which in the end turns out to be either unimportant or simply an empty vessel. An iGuffin is a technology that serves as a MacGuffin]

Out of Body

As for the panel, the question posed was whether we are having ‘a collective out of body experience’ and we were asked to consider the role of the technologies as pulling us out of the moment and ask if it is important to live life increasingly in an embodied state.

Using the theatrical performance as the analogy, we ask if there needs to be co-presence to full engage with others, or in fact if it is possible to have social interactions with others in an increasingly disembodied way.

The organiser was Dr Kathleen Richardson and she asked specifically what we each felt the consequences are for these technologies/robots that seem to be pulling us out of the moment and locality and into the virtual world and encouraging us to have more interactions with machines.

These are my notes, which I suspect betray more about my views of those who believe that consciousness and the body can somehow be separated than the use of technology in theatre. I’ve tidied them up a little but as you read them you’ll get the right authorial tone of you imagine me coffee fuelled in an upstairs room behind a long table trying to be entertaining at 4pm on a wet Friday in Watford.

My Answer

I’m used to engaging with machines. Now the machines want to engage back.

I don’t think this is a good idea.

I never liked Furbies or electronic Barneys
I didn’t stroke my Tamagotchi so it died
My Aibo never got housetrained
And Eliza always struck me as ill-informed and over-inquisitive

I resist the temptation to see people inside the machines.

Of course, I try to resist the temptation to see people inside the heads of fellow humans, but keep failing and falling in love

But my heuristic is generally human-centred:
if there’s a person at the other end then I’ll engage
if it’s just code then I will try to remain cold

It’s like a nuclear warning system – I prefer to keep the human in the loop whether it’s about social engagement or thermonuclear devastation

But sometimes, of course, it’s easier to let it happen.

Like ordering a Filet of Fish in MacDonalds in a strange city.

We all crave meaning in this meaningless universe
We all try to pretend that there is more than the meaning each of us invents for ourselves
Sometimes only the well-known brand, the flabby fish and the plastic cheese will do.

We look for meaning in the patterns of life and the world.
We see patterns, are hardwired to observe patterns. Perhaps patterns are all we can see.

Look at this writing. Try to unsee it a letters and words, even if you don’t know the language

And once we have the patterns we tell stories.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live (Joan Didion, The White Album)

And those stories have actors and places and events located in time.

This is where theatre happens, but thanks to technology we can extend the scope of the stories.

We can be in other places or in many places or in the non-place where phone conversations and tweets exist.

Those places are shaped by the affordances of the technologies we use to access them, but it’s not fair to say that they take us away from the ‘real world’. So little of the world is ‘real’, after all – we have our sense data and the sense we try to make of that sense data.

And if so little of what we perceive is real, why should it matter if we add AIs and robots to the mix? Why should we not interact with phones or robots ‘as if’ they were human, allow our emotions to flow over and through them, give them our love and affection?

Well, mostly because we would then be lying to ourselves even more than we do when we engage with another human being.

It comes down to ideas of intention and agency.

Software never intends
Hardware has no agency
There is no mind in anything we have built
[I think it unlikely there ever will be but I leave the question open]

All there can therefore be is projection.

When I project my emotions onto my wife or children or therapist I overlay their inner life with mine. But a robot is an empty vessel. And so the impact and outcome are not the same.

I couldn’t check in for my flight at Amsterdam airport yesterday because the automatic passport reader failed to read my passport.

I had to queue for 20 mins.
I got frustrated but I waited to express it until there was a human in front of me.

After all, the machine did not make a choice
It certainly didn’t choose me.
If anyone ‘made a choice’ it was the programmer, or perhaps the person who wrote the specification.

Our interactions with other people are increasingly mediated by technology.

We also interact with the systems that increasingly shape our cognitive landscapes and daily lives.

Some people use the term ‘augmented reality’ to describe the sensation of experiencing a computer-mediated world.

I don’t
I find it very annoying.
It assumes we know what reality is or that there is some ‘reality’ that we can all agree we experience jointly.

Forget cyberspace. Reality is the consensual hallucination. Reality is constructed, and what we perceive through our senses and what we add from our associative memory is turned into a product as artificial as margarine or Grand Theft Auto.

We don’t augment ‘reality’ we augment the data that we use to construct reality.

What we construct might be better called a ‘managed’ reality because we use our technology to control its characteristics, to enhance our sense data with remote sensing or wider spectra or added data feeds.

And we’re still not very good at it.

As Daniel Dennett pointed out some years ago, if you want someone to have the experience of being in the room with a gorilla your best option is still to head to the fancy dress outfitters. Or the zoo.

So to address the question, what we get when we augment the sensorium whether via a smartphone or a laptop or Google Glass is not an ‘out of body’ experience.

Our experience is always of and through the body. It is only an experience of dissociation, and the result of the desperate desire of every consciousness to be fully embodied.

If this flesh is denied me, I’ll settle for the robot over there – a Filet of Metal instead of a Filet of Flesh, perhaps. But let’s not give it an aura of respectability – that way madness lies. Or worse, the Singularity.