15.21, Sunday 27 Jun 2004 Link to this post
Two things I've been interested in recently are the brain's visual processing, and the metabolic cycle.
Visual processing seems to me to have two mains tasks. One is to assemble a world that is easily abstracted (the root of the semiotcracy in action perhaps, as well as the spectacular). We create objects, textures on the objects - or rather, we create boundaries and surfaces - from condensations and potentials and locality and unfolding.
That's why I feel okay about reinscribing terms like distance and place in terms of the human understanding (is/was too). When we discuss the universe, we're discussing the whole organisation of human perception + society + the universe + tendencies and becomings. But we shouldn't forget that this means the universe is capable of a whole lot more than is visible to us, and therefore so are we as we shift our human-pov. Anyway. A lot of philosophy is collapsing into neuroscience for me, at the moment. Some cognitive neuroscience/psychology/the rest takes a position I'm very happy with, very reflexive. I like.
I mean, the thing is there are surfaces, surfaces exist in the human perception + universe world. "Ape" is a surface. A platform on which tiny tweaks create bonobos or Homo sapiens. All that going on underneath, and we're waves on the ocean. My laptop as a wavefront: Each key I press is a byte, but a huge number of Bits of Surprise (Moravec), surprise being based on pov. It's weaving a millions positions at once, knitting a stable fabric I can type on. A shockwave. But a platform anyway. (Will we get overtaken by the Unix-Ape? The apes are Long Now monks to our upstart monkey humanity.) Often deep isomorphism doesn't matter. Often it does.
The other task of visual processing is to throw information away.
What to do with too much information is the great riddle of our time. (Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity, p18) There are a lot of mechanisms to do that. Hard-wired heuristics about what matters and what doesn't. It happens on a small scale (movement). But then we can see imitation starting on a small scale too (people are influenced by the answers in crosswords, measurably; semantic priming too), and that scales up to being born into a society and baselining on VCRs, or the military-industrial complex. The mind filter (which implies direction, sorry, I don't mean that) scales up too, leads us to see nuance in moving lights that look like people, or what higher levels? Do we simply look past certain otherwise pathological social situations because we haven't evolved to see them? Posthumanity will be able to listen to social harmonics like the ocean, hearing a storm coming. Literature will be visceral, as synaesthesia is reaching towards already.
We can learn lessons about how to throw away information. The two perceptual jobs are combined, of course. Surfaces are a great way to throw away information to live around objects; seeing insides is a learned skill. Maybe after a million years of evolving to be carpenters or sculptors we'd see insides too. But mainly they're to throw away information so we can communicate. We all share the same public key of semantics (actually, we pick it up at birth, and perhaps that's what babies crying is. High-bandwidth communication before the public key exchange takes place. The last remnants of the umbilical cord, translating chemical communication into air vibration. Not noise, but utterly pure signal: Human telemetry, the last time we ever communicate so completely with another person for the rest of our lives). The brain's visual system is as "known" to language and cognition as the frequency window at which air is transparent is "known" to the eyes. The early visual system assumes light comes from the top of the visual field. Polarised sunglasses assume that the reflective surface is flat and pointing up from the lower half of the axis of the head. (Popper, expectations. Continuums of knowing, like Dennett's continuums of free will.) Landmarks exist in the real world, but only because perception assumes the landmark-hashing algorithm in the hippocampus is robust to environment changes and will respond reliably, and respond the same whichever brain it's in (so landmarks can be communicated, the hippocampus acts like a wrist-watch, giving time-knowledge to anyone who wears it). And our cities are unfolded instances of the hippocampus, as a game of Ludo or, rather, Stuck in the Mud is the first and second and n-order unfolding of the game rules + social behaviour + history. Surfaces, ha!
Intelligence is distributed over the environment because we throw information away. On the long scale (light from above), and the short scale (you know the time, but you haven't looked at your watch yet). Artificial objects, created interfaces that don't obey distance, or object-hood, or texture: they're either confusing, or, if used right, remarkably useful illusions (television).
I'm also interested in the metabolic cycle. It's an autopoietic system (self-creating, an evolved system that's reached this point), with allopoietic components (parts that can't exist on their own, but that are used for creating something other than the autopoietic system). An analogy: Human society (auto); cars (allo). Not an analogy: The metabolic cycle (auto); life-instances (allo).
You need the whole cycle for the cycle to exist. There is no beginning or end. It's like the puffer in Conway's Life. It exists, it continues, it cycles, it emits gliders (people) that go out to infinity, a side-effect of the cycle. (But not optional. Transformations are always conserved. If the plane of Life wasn't infinite, would the gliders pollute/inscribe, and would life in Life eventually emerge?)
The cycle is instantiated in life, and passes from one instance to another in the form of chemicals. Are these chemicals the cycle? No. They're just slices of the organisation, in the same way my laptop screen is a slice of the human-computer-internet-society-history-equation_solutions assemblage. They're both easy-to-refer to slices, with no real importance other than their semiotcratic affordance (in much the same way the selection mechanism 'attention' has high semiotcratic affordance but no actual reified existence in the brain).
Oh, anyway. An important one of these chemicals is citric acid. We've got a herb garden now, on the roof terrace. I still have a reflex to say "flat roof area" but it's registered now and legal and everything. Thanks to A. coming round with cuttings, we have some lemon herb stuff outside. You rub your fingers on the leaf and smell the citric acid. Wasted, of course, but the metabolic cycle's more robust than that (famous last words; ecological apocalypse coming soon). Smelling the cycle. Inside the cycle. Well, really it's a chemical. Another sense of the 2.5-dimensional spectacular surface. Making contact with another life. Lemon.
Hey, what is life anyway? A world with earthquakes, and soggy ground that keeps its shape when dry, and mudslides. There's a rock, with a shape such that it has a probability of being blown by the wind (it's shaped with a sail on it). It lies on the soggy ground.
There's high wind: The rock is blown away, and lies on the soggy ground again making another hollow. The original hollow, which has dried solid, fills with mud which dries and creates a rock shaped like the first. An earthquake nudges the new rock and it breaks free, going off to create its own hollows.
In this world, is that rock alive? In a world where hollows may form, rocks may form in those hollows... it's soon going to be dominated by self-replicating rock-hollows. Or rather, rock-hollow-earthquake-mudslide-wind assemblages. And I say soon as in billions of years.
But what are we? Carrying the proto-ocean in our cell sacks and blood stream, relying on sunlight and plants and animals and air and the whole of society and history now, too, the constructions previous instances have left behind (and coral reef islands are made from the sand that fish have shit, having chewed up the corals, and fertilised by the birds that pause on the sand dunes). What kind of assemblages are we? After billions of years, we arose.
Entropy is an inevitable bulk process of bulk properties, of multiplicities. There's a space limit there, entropy doesn't really function for tiny numbers. But is there a time limit too? Over even vaster numbers, vaster times, is there a new law that over-rules entropy? Perhaps it's inevitable that a reproducing thing always emerges out of random motion where history is inscribed and there is the possibility of time-binding. Out of oceans, sediment will always build up, discontinuities will always form, tides will always inscribe and time-bind, symmetries will break, and life will always form. If not cellular life, then maybe a population of nuclear volcanos that reproduce by exploding and China Syndroming through the crust. Whatever. Entropy++.
I would say, let's redefine life in terms of information. Hayles opens chapter 2 of How We Became Posthuman with a line from Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind:
We might regard patterning or predictability as the very essence and raison d'être of communication [...] communication is the creation of redundancy or patterning. [p412]
Which is just a wonderful way of talking about information. Or rather, communication which is successful transfer of information. Communication is anything that duplicates itself at different physical coordinates, possibly transformed. So a telephone is communication because the air-pressure ripple patterning is duplicated (more or less) from speaker's room to the listener's room. If you were to gzip the universe instantaneously before and after the call, it'd compress better afterwards.
What is life? Is it the medium-mechanism by which information is doubly-transformed, to an intermediate, temporary (and therefore matter-like) state, and back again? Information is a process, not a state. It's a becoming, but a becoming that folds back. Like a miniature metabolic cycle. And information puffs out matter-like states as it goes (people, eggs). Which is which, the rocks or the muddy holes?
But then, I feel we look at matter and information and we see the dichotomy because it's semiotcratic to do so. Just as we look at particles and see fermions (things that can't be in the same place at the same time) and bosons (things that can be so). Perhaps it's just an artefact of our measuring equipment. It's all string vibrations, further down. And rooms and corridors. Buildings and streets (tell that to those in Catalhoyuk!). And objects and textures, of course, animate/inanimate, background/attended. Mesh/tree, mesh-becoming/tree-becoming, branching/canalising, push/pull. But we've talked about that, or we will. We've created an arboreal world, we've also been created. We can't assign causality, only proximity. Does it makes sense to talk about any thing if everything is every thing?
Life is what life is. We need a correspondence principle for philosophy. Whatever you say, when you unfold it it must correspond with what we, as humans, are and see. No argument (although we can argue about timeframe and what it means to be human). And when we argue cybernetics, or the internet, or product design, it's worthless unless it corresponds and is coherent with both social politics and ethics. We're developing ethics and politics of the inhuman (well it is human of course, the physical and system analogues of extelligence) gradually, rooted in the fight again entropy.
Smell lemon. Exist not inside like whales, or outside like people, but as both like dogs. I didn't talk about urban planning or the time before streets. Or Go or stand-off (homeostasis, filamentary superclusters). This'll do as a start,