Thursday, 30 July 2009

What a brain means:the deployment of expression

If you are a human mind, you already found yourself lots of time communicating, exchanging and creating content. This is pretty normal for a human mind; except we don’t really know what we are doing and what is the subject of this action (what is the meaning of meaning? ). I mean we all know for practical reason what we are doing, but tons of philosophy, linguistics and neuroscience still struggle to find an objective definition, a measurable expression, a normative way of defining what our brains mean with all this activity. Here I shall explain it. I’m kidding. But I’d like to address some points in the direction of the explanation.

Our neuronal architecture is build to exchange information amongst neurons; neurons are exchanging information about the external system but also about the internal systems: new configurations of the world triggers information exchange for neurons, but also new neurons configuration triggers information exchange amongst neurons themselves. This is called information re-entry and it’s a high level control of the system about itself; it’s pure old-school cybernetics (biology). The difference with humans is that we make a lot of noise, we produce an astonishing amount of higher and higher level of re-entry (we are dealing with configurations of the world plus new configurations of other brains plus the dynamic change this provokes on our own brains plus the new configuration this provokes on the world and other brains etc. etc.) . This is the source of stories. I see a man with a woman, I tell you. You hear of your woman with a man. You tell a stranger about his woman with me. Years afterwards I tell my grandchildren of a mad who chased me all my life to kill me. In decades there is a legend about a lost soul cursed to chase innocent guys.

Hang on a minute: we were speaking very seriously about neurons and now you started with tales and me and you and legends. That’s not neuroscience, this is not science at all probably! This smells like vested philosophy! Probably yes, but the story is still the same, so let me finish.
Cognitive systems are supposed to build representations of their environment (to some extent this starts very early in the hierarchy, basically at the unicellular level)(this is what I call a very early beginning for a story…). Human brains are not different. We build representations of our environments. Unfortunately (for a simplistic storytelling) the environments in which we are hosted are made of buildings, law of physics and also of previous stories, running stories and even stories we are telling in that precise moment. So our environments are changing our brains and our brains are changing our environments. This is the capacity of narrativity: the generative process of being manipulated by stories, of manipulating stories and of creating stories and being created by stories.

But for god’s sake, what is the reason of all this storytelling? It would be much simpler with a sound economics, a light state intervention, few dreams, more engineering departments, more hospitals. Why all this fuss about stories and tales? I guess: without stories, why we should build hospitals and societies at all?

Speaking more scientifically, the amount of informational re-entry of just one brain is such of an astronomical complexity; you need a control system as much as powerful. And you know a thing? Evolution already brought us a solution: our environment of tales supports this informational exchange. A brain to understand what’s happening must tell something: when a brain is telling something, is just scanning its environment. The deployment of expression is the way human brains represent their narrative environment.

In other words in order to be hosted in this narrative environment, a brain must be narrative; in order to represent the complexity of this expression, must express the complexity of this representation. In order to understand a story, you must be able to tell one.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

When chopping stones is an action on your brain

Our amazing brain has a lot of potential and it’s full of confused thoughts. The point is our brain has lots of resources and no idea how to use 'em. So it needs to try. The confusion of goals of our cognitive system is actually the reason of its success: because there is a very high degree of freedom (read: chaos), our brain is open. It's open to experiment; it's open to trial. But it's also open to be manipulated. Our brain architecture allows huge re-organization of cognitive functions from outside. Our brain is a junkie of stimuli and very promiscuous in re-combining its structures afterwards. That's a good thing, because if you start to dump in your surroundings things and actions, other human brains can be manipulated by them and start a re-configuration.
When our ancestors started to manipulate things, like chopping stones, they have been also manipulated by their actions. The first attempts were clumsy and pointless (why, for god's sake would you chop a stone at all????), but the effort, the pure pleasure of "doing" stuff, led to increase precision and shape prowess. A raw object becomes a tool, say, to cut. The tool has been sharpened and the mind as well.
Human brains started also to disseminate things like dolls, combs, flutes, legends, beliefs. Consequently the minds were sharpened even more. Sharping a brain doesn't make it more powerful, but it can make it smarter, given a certain environment. That's because in the manipulated environments you find stored intelligence. In dolls, combs, flutes and legends, human brains stored some intelligence, ready to manipulate other newcomer brains.
When we use tools, to some extent we are used by tools and led to some pattern of actions. Are we controlled by evil primitive big brothers, who planned from the very beginning how to encapsulate our lives in pre-determined jobs, societies, roles? Of course not! Our brains are too much confused to be led this way: it's only a suggestion, then our clumsiness will twist patterns in to something new. It's difficult to forecast the cognitive outcome of a brain when you sharpen it with chopping stones....

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Biotechnology of cognition:belt and pulley for a writing brain

When you start to write down your thoughts, you register what you're thinking and much more. It's the bio-technology of cognition. Writing is a sort of cognitive belt and pulley. Writing your thoughts, for example, gives you the possibility to build more articulate, even tortuous thoughts; you can re-use these more sophisticated buildings and add more functions to the structure. In short you develop a more powerful system of thoughts (it's not only a positive thing: ask the sabre-toothed tiger). How powerful is this device? Well, before writing, are you sure you have a stream of consciousness at all? You had a brain and a mind even before; true. Their activity produced conscious feedbacks; true. Your-self was deployed in stories; true. Then you had thoughts even before: of course. But it takes time (and steps in between) to evolve from bacteria to dinosaurs. Homo sapiens sapiens cognition stopped to evolve significantly in its biological features. The human brain is already at his maximum possible development (for anatomical sustainability).

Therefore biotechnology of cognition deployed
itself in different stages of augmentation. A very ancient release is language. If you can talk and not just communicate, you can develop stories. The amount of knowledge you can transfer is huge. You can leave to future generations tricks about chopping stones, dangerous places, ethics.

Returning to our written technology, it becomes more interesting the empowerment you reach writing down your thoughts (and dangerous: you keep track of all your misguided and mental reflections. Bad!). In western civilization we had two series of writing technology: "diary" personal and private, "literacy" talented and public. Social media is the improvement that gives humans an edge merging these previously separated disciplines. What's the big thing? Sharing more information? Well, yes you share more information, but as we've seen with the other release of the biotechnology of cognition, the augmentation of your capacity is not just "more", it's a new step. When you use cognitive belt and pulley, when you can lift enormous loads, you build bigger shelters and, say, pyramids. Pyramids are not just "more" loads you've been able to lift. The empowerment opens you new things to do. Mechanics brought us quantum. And though a quantum is not particularly heavy, it’s still quite an admirable empowerment.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The day we became whales

Even the most terrifying hell, can be called home, if you are comfortable living in. The struggle is to be confined in too poky places or abandoned in too large ones. If you can say that the world is your home, then you’re fine.
It’s sometimes tricky to define the world we are living in. We inhabit a physical world and we manipulate a meaningful universe (and of course meanings are not “things”). A good and simple way to say it, could be: our bodies live in our stories. We are constantly plugged in our stories, the community of our tales.
In the digital environment you’re plugged in a virtual universe. In social media, you’re plugged in a very rich, wide and empty environment. Virtual communities are niches. In contrast social media universe are huge, vast, enormous. You’re not just plugged in, you’re extended. The stories you expose, inhabits an environment that re-design yourself. You can reach more places, people and ideas. It’s not the availability of information, that’s just the web. In social media you’ve at hand the process of people thinking, you touch ideas, you stretch out your thoughts, and your mind lengthens. Did we become more intelligent? NO, it’s different. You found a new place, so rich, so stimulating. But it’s also mostly empty. You explore a lot, you talk a lot, before finding. You meet others through your stories.
Today you move nimbly in this new environment; you and your potential are huge; you locate your mates from great distance. Moreover you’re intelligent and you’re a mammal.

We our great surprise we became whales.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The sunny side of infection

If you're a crystal, you like order and logic, your growth is linear and you don't get sick. The plot of your existence also unsurprisingly lacks novelties (well of course this is not the case for a crystallographer).
On the contrary, if you are a living being, the plot of your existence is full of novelties. Actually, your purpose is to set up as much novelties as you can. Indeed we could say that a good chunk of definition for a living being lies on this: you're a living being if you're a thing that left behind (or throw ahead, it’s up to you) the biggest number of novelties in time and/or space.

Now, you can put it this way, viruses are the avant-garde of living being: they don't know why they are doing what they do, they don't care and they are "bohemienne" (a bit parasitic, but I guess it’s a sort of division of labour: in order to have artists, you need bankers and doctors keen to pay them).
Most of all viruses are exploring and their frontier is just what is possibile. They try to combine themselves (to some extent, they try to mate)with everithing. They are the more extreme living being (acutally under a strict definition, they are not living being at all, but I'll pass over this), the more radical experimentalist of possibilities; this activity comes as a provocation to the bourgeois living being left behind in the exploring race. And provocations cause infections in the self-righteous host.
But what you can’t miss is the heritage of infections. Sometimes they are quite nasty, I agree. Let's stay in the happy side and speak of the survivors. In some cases, the host survives implementing the infecting virus in its organism. You don’t believe it? Well think of the placenta: it’s pretty important if you’re a mammal and it’s the inheritance of an ancestral retroviral infection.
Now you can see infections with different eyes: you are on the edge to experiment new possibilities in your plot as a living being (it's just not you in the driving seat, but your virus friend).
The down is you could die, but literature (and nature) is plenty of good character who didn’t make it, so you’re in good company. And the up is you’re running to generate more novelties.
At the end viruses are good: they just try to generate more possibilities. And you’re invited.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The birth of digital narrativity: a call for technology

You are the story you're telling, humans are the tales they are telling each others. We tell stories, we always did. We started this way, when a bunch of ape-minded Homo sapiens sapiens found a way to tell stories, when they were prompted to tell stories by some features of their environment, effectively accelerating their ape-brains in to what we call modern humans: us.
We are biologically (almost) identical to our eldest ancestors. They behaved like apes, because they were apes (we are too), but at
a certain point these primates started to tell stories. Nothing changed in their bodies or brains, simply they found the way to tell themselves, they found a way to achieve the very first human technology. The differences we see in different ages concern the contingent media used to express that technology.
Ancient Greeks used oral storytelling;the media were
dialogues viva voce and who wasn't able to speak properly, who babbled, was a barbarian, a babbler. Greeks did know very well the writing technology; they left impressive works. But written stories weren't telling who they were (Socrates didn't write at all, Plato imitated the oral form and so on).
In other ages, other ways to tell stories came out:Christians developed the personhood, writing became more common to express the tortuous minds of modern humans and only very talented persons were able to left their storytelling, like Shakespeare, Kafka or Dostoevskj . Of course others told stories, they left myths and legends, maybe as pirates or lovers, but they didn't use the writing technology.

Recently we've been bombed by a massive distribution of content, constantly fed with news, fact, stories. We almost succumbed, overloaded by an unilateral invasion. Then, the reaction. The storytelling stream needed a new expression and the narrative flow searched a way to cure the unilateral overload of information. The “Zeitgeist” was scanning inventions to find solutions. That's the birth of social media, the reaction to the limitation of storytelling.

You, me and millions started to tell our stories
, digitally. We connect, we share, we tell. Digitally. Very quickly a new environment has been built but to the extent these environments are the product of their creators,they also will start to host their creators. They change the creators, because every environment designs the creatures it hosts. Creatures come out from the environment and they connect themselves to the environment. Now the digital environment is ready to design its creatures. The story that is beginning now is a chapter of the story of the accelerated brains in a new designing environment.