(this is my final paper for cybernetics class and for graduate school. it is a theoretical metalogue between myself and gregory bateson. many of his phrases and passages are pulled directly from the book Steps To An Ecology of Mind)
vm: i want to understand the ecology of mind, how it works. I want to understand how technology is accelerating intentional evolution, and what the Web is becoming… a collective intelligence? a global mind? a path to destruction? How do you propose i begin?
gb: You certainly are full of questions.
vm: Yeah, it’s a curse. I’m insatiable.
gb: Perhaps, but an exploration of mind and self is a worthy endeavor. To begin, we might say that in creative art man must experience himself – his total self – as a cybernetic model.
vm: Please explain.
gb: We are complex, self-corrective systems. As a simplified example, take a steam engine. It is simply a circular train of causal events, regulating itself to maintain some type of status quo. It is the same principle for processes of civilization, or human behavior, human organization, or any biological system. We check for irregularities, and correct against internal disturbance… keeping the system in balance.
vm: Yes, that makes sense. And this is why the obvious can be difficult for people to see. Our self-corrective mechanisms try to assimilate disturbances….. hide them, ignore them, shut out parts of our processes of perception to avoid acknowledging them. But if we remain ignorant of this occurring below the surface of our consciousness, then isn’t life partly a self-deception?
gb: Indeed. This is where wisdom comes into play. Wisdom I take to be the knowledge of the larger interactive system – that system which, if disturbed, is likely to generate exponential curves of change.
vm: Sounds like a holistic approach. Being able to see things at the meta level and extrapolate outcomes. When you say “exponential curves of change,” this could be for better or worse, right? For instance, meeting a person whose energy resonates with yours could catalyze change and psychological/spiritual growth. Alternately, the non-sustainable decisions that are made around the planet every day could lead to rapid environmental degradation and climate change.
gb: Well, the meaning of terms like “better” or “worse” are contingent upon whom you ask. Regardless, lack of systemic wisdom is always punished. Always. When trying to understand the self and the big picture, it is useful to think about three enormously complex systems operating in tandem.
vm: Which are?
gb: There is the human individual, with its physiology and neurology, chemistry and psychology, all these arrangements of conservative loops. These components exist in an uneasy balance of mutual dependency and competition, working to maintain an equilibrium and avoid the exponential curves that would be caused by a disturbance to the system.
vm: Right, like a giant program, maintaining homeostasis via its interrelated subroutines.
gb: Second, we have the society in which the individual lives. There are dependencies and competition among groups of people, just as there are in the individual body. Disrupt the societal balance, and the system will buck to preserve itself. If you think of important social change, you must assume there is in some degree a slipping of the system at some point along an exponential curve. The slippage may not go far, or it may go to disaster.
vm: Sounds dangerous.
gb: There is always danger in such slippage. It’s a matter of the system’s ability to be flexible and self-correct and adapt. Thirdly is the ecosystem, the natural biological surroundings of these human animals. We are, of course, destroying all the balanced natural systems in the world.
vm: Useful framework for understanding our place within the world. It sounds like we’re in trouble as a species though. What’s causing that?
gb: Conscious purpose.
vm: Wait…. what?
gb: Of crucial importance in man’s life is the “semipermeable” linkage between consciousness and the remainder of the total mind. We must understand that our conscious self is a construct. Call it the screen of consciousness, a systematic sampling of the greater whole of the mind. Filtered, and not random.
vm: Agreed. I know there is more to ‘me’ than what is in my immediate conscious awareness. I know that my conscious self, the one that interacts with the world, is merely an interface between the deeper more expansive me below the surface and the external world. That interface has a personality, a belief structure, a worldview, all of which were certainly developed through some combination of genetics and environment. I know that these constructs color my perception of reality, and that they are malleable. But how does the mind select which of my deeper unconscious patterns to project up to my conscious level of awareness?
gb: Well, it is clear that we are aware of only a fraction of the information coming in through our senses. It would be inefficient to notice everything, and would likely drive us mad. So what do I choose to notice? I, the conscious I, am guided in my perception by purposes.
vm: When you say purposes, I’m understanding that to mean intentions or desires. So conscious purpose is the aggregation of intentions that potentially lead to action. What’s wrong with that?
gb: Purpose is not wisdom. Consciousness is organized in terms of purpose as a short-cut device to enable you to get quickly at what you want: Dinner. Sex. Money. Power. It’s not set up to act with maximum wisdom in order to live, but to follow the shortest logical or causal path.
vm: Ah, I see. It is certainly not common practice to take the “long view,” that’s for sure. The world is filled with short-term thinking and greed and exploitation. And we’re seeing how that plays out.
gb: There are countless real situations going on right now where the systemic nature of the world has been ignored in favor of purpose or “common sense.” And the terrible thing about such situations is that inevitably they shorten the time span of all planning. Emergency is present or only just around the corner; and long-term wisdom must therefore be sacrificed to expediency, even though there is a dim awareness that expediency will never give a long-term solution.
vm: I’ve wondered if that kind of weak-mindedness will be further exacerbated by our activity on the Web. In our need for immediacy and “real-time” data, are we just becoming infinitely more distracted? We seem to want to know what’s going on NOW…. but without context, without stepping back and taking in the bigger picture, are we simply losing all sense of perspective? The other byproduct seems to be ultra-reactivity. No reflection, just reacting to stimulus. And these reactions tend to be based in fear, focused on near-term gain, and utterly negligent in playing out what these decisions mean within the larger system and over time.
gb: It’s a phenomenon which seems to be almost universal when man commits the error of purposive thinking and disregards the systemic nature of the world with which he must deal. The man, after all, has acted according to what he thought was common sense and now he finds himself in a mess. He does not quite know what caused the mess and he feels that what has happened is somehow unfair. He still does not see himself as part of the system in which the mess exists, and he either blames the rest of the system or he blames himself.
vm: That doesn’t sound very intelligent.
gb: No, it is not.
vm: A mix of hubris and ignorance, eh?
gb: Historically a fatal combination. The fundamental flaw is the belief that we are somehow separate from the systems in which we live, as if we controlled them. Even within the individual human being, control is limited. We can in some degree set ourselves to learn even such abstract characteristics as arrogance or humility, but we are not by any means the captains of our souls.
vm: So, what do we do to combat the arrogance of conscious purpose?
gb: Man must necessarily relax that arrogance in favor of a creative experience in which his conscious mind plays only a small part. Arts, poetry, music, humanities, contact between man and animals, man and the natural world – these all breed a kind of wisdom.
vm: I can relate to that. Finding outlets for creative expression has helped me grow tremendously. I’ve noticed that it helps me switch between multiple lenses of how I choose to perceive reality. When they say “think differently,” it’s really true. Instead of being trapped in a single rigid worldview, the ability to suspend disbelief and see the world from a different angle is almost magical. I get a flood of ideas, can link seemingly disparate information, and my creativity seems to soar. The trick is balance. Nonduality, even. Being able to link all these perspectives into something holistic. Also, being in tune with nature and the environment has been extremely helpful. It isn’t about being a hippie or treehugger, it’s a method for building intelligence and systemic awareness. The discussion about conscious purpose verse nature seems to be a crucial one. We are nested systems, after all…. organisms within larger organisms.
gb: That is what I refer to as “wisdom” – recognition of and guidance by a knowledge of the total systemic creature.
vm: Yes, integration of those different levels of self. Self as individual, self as an interconnected node within a society, and self as an interactive part of a greater ecosystem. And then sometimes I expand even further and simply feel like I am the universe. Do you know what I mean?
gb: Yes, I experimented with LSD briefly in the 60s.
vm: Ha ha. But seriously, that sense of being able to expand the sense of self opens the doors for some very creative thinking. It saddens me that many of the institutions in today’s society discourage fresh ideas in favor of maintaining status quo. Just as the institutions are soulless, so it seems the people who work within them are shaped to be.
gb: Yes, the social scene is nowadays characterized by the existence of a large number of self-maximizing entities which, in law, have something like the status of “persons” – trusts, companies, political parties, unions, commercial and financial agencies, nations, and the like. In biological fact, these entities are precisely not persons and are not even aggregates of whole persons. They are aggregates of parts of persons.
vm: Exactly! We are living in a world where we have created fictional entities to rule us. What’s worse, they have been designed so that no human is responsible for “its” actions, and accountability and responsibility are deferred. But to whom? If the organization itself has no ethical framework, what can we expect from the people who work there?
gb: Consider it this way: when Mr. Smith enters the board room of his company, he is expected to limit his thinking narrowly to the specific purposes of the company or to those of that part of the company which he “represents.” Mercifully it is not entirely possible for him to do this and some company decisions are influenced by considerations which spring from wider and wiser parts of the mind. But ideally, Mr. Smith is expected to act as a pure, uncorrected consciousness – a dehumanized creature.
vm: It seems absurd. Like an artifact from a much more primitive time. So what can be done now to pull us forward through this time of transition into a more advanced stage? Are we even capable? It seems the pressure is increasing and we are reaching systemic limits. We require flexibility now to take us to the next level as a global society. What is the role of consciousness in the ongoing process of human adaptation?
gb: I would say that an intelligent society is one which is designed to increase wisdom, and to give physical, aesthetic, and creative satisfaction to people.
vm: Ahh, a lovely vision. This is where I see the evolution of the Web coming in to play.
gb: How so?
vm: Well, everything we’ve just talked about, it’s all being simulated on the Web. Sure, you can go online and treat it as a destination for information gathering. But it’s also the outpouring of all the thoughts and emotions of humans everywhere. The Web is humanity’s mirror, in all its beauty and ugliness. The strength of our thinking is being reflected back to us. I see it as an opportunity to grow. Challenge us to exhibit more clarity in our thoughts and language, question our assumptions about “the way things work,” engage in generative dialogue on a massive scale, transmit and propogate memes virally. And definitely to cultivate long-term thinking and wisdom.
gb: And do you see this happening?
vm: Of course! All around me. It’s what makes me so passionate. It’s wonderful to have this multimedia communication platform, but it will become even more powerful when it’s infused with some futures thinking. It’s already happening. There are new initiatives and models all the time for increasing collaboration, resource sharing, and openness. The ideas are founded in principles like sustainability and long-term gain for all. It’s integrative. Not us vs them, but what can we accomplish together as a higher level society that understands what cooperation means.
gb: These ideas are still very fringe, you know. Borderline heretical to some.
vm: That is fine. Innovation happens at the edge. The most interesting thing for me is coming together in this online space, naked of age, race, location, or embodiment. It’s an infocology where minds connect. For those that are willing to open themselves to it and be flexible, there are an infinite number of possibilities. And by flexibility, I mean an uncommitted potentiality for change. If we can adapt this mentality within our own minds, I think it will carry itself out in all the other structures within society. It will allow us to adapt and evolve.
gb: Ambitious, indeed. And necessary for species survival at this point, I would say. All the current threats to man’s survival can be traced to three root causes: technological progress, population increase, and conventional thinking and weak-mindedness. A dangerous combination. I wonder if a critical mass will be reached in time to course-correct Spaceship Earth towards sustainability.
vm: Well, that is up to us to decide, isn’t it……