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The End of I
There is a story that sleeps deep within our minds, beneath the frantic currents of higher consciousness. The I-myth, the first and greatest of man’s innumerable social lies; it has persisted for so long that the very shape of thought has been recast in its explicit terms. Whatever nameless prophet or prehuman savant first dreamed this mad projection that so changed us, the hallucination of selfhood has forever marked our species; wrenching the natural order apart into the enduring tension between human and nonhuman.
It is in such a state that mankind has reached the modern age; driven by a vision of selfhood that separates each individual from the rest of reality, projecting the strict bounds of ego upon the boundless acting networks of causality. With this move, man sections himself off from the natural, and re-centers the universe about this newly defined self. This may be madness, of sorts; certainly it is flagrant misrepresentation, but it is anything but stupid. The individual crafted around the cognitive ‘I’ gains much from this dreaming, and the human society constituted by these illusory selves has made bold use of its peculiar advantages in its reshaping of the natural world.
Since the philosophic outburst of the Western Renaissance it has been firmly established that such a self-defined actor gains a series of powerful advantages within a social network of similarly constructed selves. By projecting a holographic mental model of the world defined
exclusively from individual experience and memory, one is able to make a series of extremely efficient and highly practical assumptions about the other acting factors that exist that exist outside the bounded self. Moreover, by willfully casting faith and fate behind the power of this mode of action to accurately inform choices toward a desired state, one gains the courage to act within an often seemingly absurd framework. With this talisman charm of the self so excised from the natural fundament, each individual becomes a functional prophet; proceeding diligently with action according to the oracular predictions of the self’s bold simulation of reality.
It is similarly easy to note the stark drawbacks that result from this societal exercise in selfdefinition. Since a constructed individual can only access and utilize the modes of action that are collected in personal memory and synchronized by the acting computation of the ‘self’ projection, there is no way for an external factor to make a truly compelling argument against action. Because of this gap between the modeled decision tree developed by the self and the actual resonant consequence of reality, one is capable of (if not prone to) making decisions that negatively impact the very natural orders one seeks to predict and utilize.
Ironically, even as this polarization of the self against the other serves to buffer the actor from the immeasurability of consequence, the resulting system of social motivations (i.e. the rise of human society) has significantly impacted and profoundly changed the ‘natural’ world from which the self has been differentiated. Most of the issues that significantly impact human society—environmental, criminal, political, racial—all fundamentally stem from the same system of ‘human’ motivation; with the ‘person’ nicely isolated within the bounds of self, the
impulse toward self-benefit can very easily influence individual choice and action. Since all external factors must be referenced against the self at several points, to build up the symbolic toolset to analyze them and act accordingly, it becomes all too easy to execute a decision that imparts a small convenience to the self at the expense of some external status quo, whether that external system be as large as the global environment or as bounded as another human ‘self’.
As such, it is reasonable to posit that the Humanist individual is a functional array of lies that has allowed mankind to ignore consequence in favor of self-referenced progress. In many ways, it follows the model of a viral social meme that been firmly established in our cognitive firmament, reinforced by every societal interaction undertaken. This has achieved much in terms of the arbitrarily set terms for ‘human progress’, but poses profound risks to the larger ‘natural’ system from which humanity has removed itself. In addition, this choreography of thought requires that in order for the projected self to be sustained, each individual must be kept unaware of the virtuality of this construct. Should the self realize the full extent to which consequence is hidden and uninterpretable, the individual becomes caught up in the “ironic despair of Postmodernism,” (as Latour so succinctly puts it); the more one becomes aware of consequence, the harder it becomes to act at all.
As the hybrid networks of the modern age proliferate around and through the human species, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to maintain the calculated self-deception that has sustained their explosive growth. When, as such, one’s projected psychological identitybarriers begin to break down—abandoned for the promises of futurist connectivity, perpetual communication and free information— the mind is left to grapple helplessly for reference
amidst the terrifyingly immense, dynamic systems of the existent. Further complicating matters, it is clear that if the human and nonhuman were to be effectively dissolved back into the natural from whence they came, the ‘human’ could not survive unchanged. Where the Humanist ‘I’ is to be edited from the modern consciousness, the ex-individual is suddenly faced with the nauseating realization that any action has potential reverberations throughout reality; consequence, which had been buffered from the psyche by the boundaries of the self, here comes crashing back upon the helpless networked actor.
How, then, to go on? It is clear that one must be cautious. Rushing headlong into the alien aggregates of the posthuman would leave one paralyzed and incapable of action, a terrified slave to causality. For humankind to proceed in the age-old exploration of individual action within the real, and yet still continue to act in the face of the universal interconnectedness that unfolds upon inspection, it is obvious that a new model and language for cognition and interaction must be developed. It is only after an appropriate analytic toolset has been agreed upon that our species can fully assume the network benefits that beckon us, stumbling, toward our own outlandish future.
The most straightforward way to begin formulating such an appropriate spectra of analytic foci is with the detailed examination a specific instance of human/nonhuman interaction. Once the symbolic language of hybrid communication is established, it should be somewhat easier to determine how best to apply that toolset to the fullness of human hybridization efforts. A
particularly interesting, uniquely modern and easily deconstructed example of such a hybridization event is the virtualized computer graphical user interface (GUI), wherein the signs and modes of contact between the person and the computer are entirely abstracted from the realities of both the person’s intent and the computer’s mechanical functions.
The abrupt evolution and near-universal social integration of the GUI is a saga in its own right. The idea of a mechanical computation engine is hardly new, traceable to Babbage’s famous difference engine (never realized in its time) of 1822. Here, though, the computation was maintained as a completely transparent mechanical system of gears, seen as a perfunctory extension of the human mind’s computational ability. As this technology began to be realized more explicitly, and especially during the explosive growth of electronic crypto-intelligence networks during the Second World War, these machines rapidly became far too complex to interact with in a casual manner. Researchers and enthusiasts despaired as computers became huge, incredibly fragile data powerhouses, inaccessible to all but the excruciatingly welltrained.
It was clear that this line of progression could not be sustained. As computers began their manifestation into the nigh-unknowable tangle of logistical detail typical of the modern day, it was proposed that the technical elements be masked for practical reasons. If a proper, straightforward interface could be developed, the procedural minutia could be effectively sidelined (i.e. ‘blackboxed’ in the manner of Latour) from the individual knowledge base necessary for the individual to even consider engaging with the computer. The conceptual Memex (a portmanteau of "memory extender") was developed by Vannevar Bush, one of the
great technocrat-engineers of the Cold War era, in his 1945 Atlantic Monthly article As We May Think, sketched out just such an instantiated interface—based in hypertext, as graphic systems were as yet too primitive to support meaningful icons, but still a profound leap from hardcoding any task into the computer.
From this conceptual framework, as graphic display technologies caught up with theory, the GUI unfolded rapidly. With the release of the Macintosh OS in 1984, a fully realized twodimensional symbolic interface entered the public sector for the first time. Merely by being first on the market, Mac established a firm set of standard symbolic gestures and iconography with which to frame complex data restructuring commands; in deciding to whimsically represent discrete data packets with the visual icon of a paper file, for example, they ensured that the ‘file’ became a standard symbol and term for the computing movement ever since.
The GUI attempts to resolve a very basic problem of higher-order computing; a human mind is largely unable to stratify information in the rigidly algorithmic manner typical of computational data structures. To provide a symbolic visual placeholder for data to the human actor, the abstraction of ‘folders’ is introduced, allowing the human to interact with complex data systems in a mode of action requiring little depth of functional understanding. What is significant is that for both the computer and the human, the idea of the ‘folder’ is an untruth, bearing little to no relation to the actual structures involved for either party, yet it represents an untruth that allows the useful meshing of the computer’s mechanical effectiveness and the human’s ability to acquire and interact with data dynamically.
From this type of mechanism, it is interesting to note, arise useful formalizations that bear meaning exclusively in the context of the interface itself, with the ramifications accepted passively by either involved party. A good example of this is the ‘drag-and-drop’ concept. This bears analogical relation to human methodology, in that it standardizes a formal set of spatial relationships in a similar (albeit grossly simplified) graphical way to physical space, yet is obviously an artificial construct (i.e. no human would confuse physically moving items from one place to another with virtual drag-and-drop reallocation of data). The human, as such, must passively submit to the casual redefinition of physical and informational laws that is unique to this interface. Similarly, the computer must passively submit to the rules of data movement set by the interface, even though the binary operations involved are significantly more complex, and very differently structured than the graphical motion conducted by the actor-human.
It may seem that only the object-interactor (in this case, the computer) performs this passive submittal to the unique laws of the interface. Certainly it is the case that the computer has no choice or agency in this submittal. It must be noted, however, that it is a bidirectional action of compromise that allows this interface to function at all. Consider the abject bewilderment on the part of many who use a computer for the first time, or those who have grown up unaccustomed to the laws of the GUI. Asking an individual using a computer for the first time to ‘drag and drop’ something, ‘open’ a 'file', ‘double-click’ an ‘icon’… all these conventions are utterly confusing unless one has been trained in the ability to passively submit to them.
A key point of consideration is the fact that this formalized submittal to the interface is very distinct from any actual knowledge of the partner-interactor, other than the general, assumptive
knowledge of its existence. While most moderns regularly utilize the GUI, it is an extremely small minority that actually knows how the formalized interactions of the interface restructure the physical data on the other side. Moreover, nothing in the GUI is aimed at communicating or training the human participant in an understanding of digital data structures, nor educating the computer in how a human thinks, instead forcing the two distinct and complex entities to communicate in a highly ritualized virtual arena. Even as user interface systems begin to utilize adaptive learning, they still serve to provide a holographic environment for communication, albeit one tailored to the human component’s preferences and needs.
With this analytic mindset, cast in terms of human/nonhuman submission to a mutual interface ruleset, it is at once a small step and a profoundly premature leap to categorize all of human interaction in this way. The Humanist revolts at the thought; to remove the reverential adoration of the human self in favor of a vision of reality wherein action is constituted solely as the network projection of an extensively interfaced, hallucinogenic miasma of hybrids would seem ridiculous and obscene to many who prize and respect their particularized vesicles of being. Nevertheless, such an assay could, at the very worst result in the substitution of a novel myth for an ancient one, and at best it could well provide for an informed and effective solution to the ancient tension so firmly established between society and the natural world.
Rejoining the Real; the End of Objects
So let the thought experiment continue: it can easily be put forth that all interactions, human/nonhuman or otherwise, are functions of constructed symbolic interface. The human
mind is exceptionally well adapted to ignore the real in favor of the symbolic; a walk down the street in any city provides vivid illustration. From coded signals in colored traffic lights to highly stylized icons directing vehicular and pedestrian movement, to the architectural language encrypted into the buildings themselves, to the facial expressions and clothing of fellow citizens; all represent an inherited set of simple societal signals linked to complex organizational behaviors.
The individual, cast amidst this myriad constellation of symbols is forced to adopt distinct behavioral patterns— a different “I”, so to speak— in each unique context. Because action depends heavily upon the projected virtual decision sandbox of the holographic self, one is often forced to invoke a known set of convenient interface mechanisms, as opposed to formulating these de novo, for matters of sheer practicality. It is by carefully programmed reflex response to particular arrangement of known symbols that one knows how best to act, by informing the choice of a properly bounded, practical set of hybrid communication signals.
This sounds admittedly absurd in theory, and certainly cannot be said to be a truly accurate rendering of the human decision process, yet it does seem to provide an easier model for analysis of communication than does the standard Humanist model; by abandoning analysis in terms of discrete subject-object systems, one effectively avoids the pitfalls associated with that polarization. For some time, philosophers have struggled to reconcile man’s ease in symbolic communication with the immensity of the construed gulf between the ‘self’ and the ‘other.’ Practical discussion of individual interaction quickly bogs down in the semantic contradictions that result from restraining analysis to the classical limits of the self. It becomes surprisingly
easier to comprehend the subtleties of communication when one is willing to embrace a remarkably different principle of investigation: whereas the classic standpoint posits a ‘self’ and an ‘other’ acting as discrete and observably real components, now we are presented with a ‘self’ that never contacts an ‘other’. Instead, components submit to a consensual virtual interface; it is that interface that constitutes and defines the acting hybrid, and it is this hybrid that should replace the ‘self’, now redefined as one of many engaged elements within the acting system, as the focus of analytical interest.
In general, any input from the ‘other’ must be filtered and processed in a very precise way; first perceived, then interpreted symbolically, compared to a reference set of symbols, and interpreted as a hypothetical maxim (in the manner of Kant), which is applied to the projected model of causality maintained by the actor. Once the model is sufficiently well constructed, consequence and causality—and hence the individual’s choices toward action— are examined exclusively in terms of and within this model.
I. (3) (7) (8...) II. (2) (4) (6) (11) (1) (5) (10) (9)
For clarity’s sake, consider the toy, two-dimensional interaction schema diagrammed in Figure 1. This illustrates the utilization of a projected virtual decision model (I) toward decisive action, by an individual (II), when confronted with an object/person other than itself (III). Initially, crude observational queries are made of the other (1), the data from which, returned to the individual (2), is used to inform a more specialized representation of the other in the virtual (3). This refined model is used to compute a more efficient second set of queries (4), which are again projected toward the other (5); once more the data collected is organized by the individual (6) and used to hone the mental projection (7). From here, the process continues in such a manner (8) until it is recognized that further queries do little to improve the acting model, implying that a relatively high degree of accuracy has been achieved. The individual then consults this practically reliable model (9), conducting thought-experiments to predict the outcomes of particular actions. Once a desirable outcome has been successfully accomplished in this virtual environment, the specific commands associated with it are relayed to the physical individual (10), which is positioned to physically effect the ideal action toward the other (11). Moreover, if the ‘other’ is in fact another acting individual, then the virtual models constructed by each will become more and more similar; when a common model for communication is achieved, the term ‘interface’ becomes very appropriate. In terms of the example previously discussed, the GUI represents a visualized virtual interaction model that has been optimized to continuity for all involved parties, to the extent that it may be instantiated by reflex, without necessitation the formulation of a novel interface for each instance of the human/computer hybrid.
It is clear that there is a wealth of material for practical analysis in this way. For example, modern society is—perhaps more so than any other, at any point in history—a culture driven by the altered state. Between institutionalized alcohol and stimulants (caffeine, sugar, nicotine), a general savor for the pharmaceutical fruits of the high-tech chemical industries, and a wellconnected and pervasive illicit drug counterculture, much of the modern experience of the self involves a calculated skewing of perception. By utilizing this vast societal chemical knowledge base, an individual is provided with an array of methods for optimizing (for a very arguable value of ‘optimal’) the kinetics of interface communication. A shot of espresso before writing a paper, a glass of wine before a social engagement, a furtive joint on the beach with friends; the self, which is already being recast for deployment in each new context, is further massaged into a willing submission to the symbolic ruleset of the human/other barrier.
Of course, it is especially interesting to analytically engage language in terms of this notion of symbolic interface. The issue of how two individuals can use a simple vocal/textual instantiation of a particular ‘coded’ set of words to pass discrete information from one to the other in a meaningful way has drawn much frustrated analysis down the ages (i.e. Lacan). When examined in terms of two polarized selves, such study again tends to break down in the semantic fumbling of the self/other boundary. In abandoning these classical limits, it must be noted, the dissection of linguistic communication becomes much simpler.
Language, in fact, lends itself nicely to deconstruction as a largely virtual artifice. It has been very well described, the manner in which linguistic communication is effected through a vast, evolving set of coded symbols—words, grammatical construction, idiomatic style, inflection,
dialect—the appropriate subset of which are carefully chosen in each situation to accurately transmit particular data from party to party in manageable and interpretable forms. What is more, for language to be effective, all involved parties must make a conscious effort to utilize the same set of symbols, ‘lest meaning be lost, skewed or misinterpreted in translation. Noting this multidirectional effort to assume a common, bounded set of formal symbolic rules, it is almost impractical to avoid describing language as a virtual symbolic interface.
From even these meager essays into this mode of interface analysis, it is quite clear that the world of interfaced hybrid-actors is very easily engaged with, and that doing so manages to skirt many of the pitfalls typical of analysis cast in terms of the self/other barrier. Continuing in this fashion, it is a bold but relatively straightforward enterprise to begin redefining humanity entirely in these terms. So viewed, humans function as sophisticated group minds; a society of loosely bounded, dynamically interfacing human-human and human-nonhuman hybrids. Whether or not this presents a more accurate model for human behavior than does the classical self/other dichotomy is certainly arguable. What is obvious, though, is that as homo sapiens continues its reckless trajectory into the transcendent network density of the posthuman, it will become increasingly urgent to forcibly expand the classically limited notion of the acting self. Even if the arguments presented here amount to no more than a trivial thought-experiment, it is in such a spirit that we must be prepared to deconstruct the central tenants of the ‘human condition’, if indeed we are to be effectively prepared for the great leaps of consciousness our future will require of us.
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