The Internet and Disembodiment

From my article ‘Marriage Between Humans and Robots (Part 4): customized intimacy and social narcisism

In 1997, Douglas Groothuis warned that the internet’s ability to deny both the user’s body (by focusing only on the mind) and the user’s individual human identity (by facilitating anonymity) was creating a state of affairs in which social salvation was increasingly being conceived in “Gnostic” terms. Technology offers new ways to be freed from the constraints of real life, including the constraints built into the experience of being human. “The self seems especially protean and plastic” Groothuis observed, “when largely removed from the envelopments of real-life interaction with other human beings. It may feel more free.” But freeing our relationships from the constraints of embodiment comes at a cost: “There is a dimension of intimacy and accountability that comes from face-to-face, person-to-person encounter that is not available otherwise.”

When Groothuis wrote his book the majority of online interaction was still occurring through mechanisms such as websites, emails or clunky chat boards that you had to have the right software to operate. The social aspect was an important component within the overall matrix of online activity, but it wasn’t the whole picture. What has happened in the last three years is that the majority of online activity has now folded itself into the social aspect, to the point where Gary Vaynerchuk observed last year that “From now on, every platform should be treated as a social networking platform.” But not only is all of the internet folding itself into social platforms; as new hand-held devices have enabled the internet to become ubiquitous and seamlessly integrated into normal life, what we find is that ordinary life is becoming stamped with the imprint of our online habits. All social activity is starting to take on the set of assumptions and expectations appropriate to our digital addictions. In short, real life is becoming an adjunct of the cyber world.

In its most extreme form this can be seen in virtual worlds like “Second Life”, where users adopt the identity of an avatar and become residence in a simulated society that mirrors the real world. But even in less extreme forms, as our social lives continue to go digital we are finding the divide between intimacy and solitude is becoming blurred, orienting us to see the physical dimension of human contact as an unnecessary addition, rather than an essential part, to human encounters.

bigswitchcoverJust as physical goods like tickets, newspapers and greeting cards are increasingly shedding their materiality and being turned into pure information in “the cloud”, and just as physical places—banks, schools, libraries and stores—are becoming displaced by online venues offering the same services, so our social lives are also gradually shedding their physical integrity to become matters of pure information. This is why, in his 2008 book The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr could observe that “Second Life may be only a game, but its central conceit—that we can separate ourselves from our bodies and exist as avatars in a digitized landscape—is more than an amusement. It’s a metaphor for our future.” Carr backed up his concerns with a 2007 study conducted by the Annenberg School for Communication’s Center for the Digital Future which found that “nearly half of the people who have joined online communities ‘say they ‘feel as strongly’ about their virtual community as they do about their real-world communities.’”

the physical dimension of being human (i.e., our embodiment in time and space) plays an important role in our ability to empathize with other

The problem, of course, is that without physical human presence there can be no true empathy. Various writers have observed that there has been a radical decline in empathy and social attentiveness that has directly corresponded with our social lives migrating to infrastructures that are machine-mediated. This should come as no surprise. In real-time interaction with other human beings, the physical dimension of being human (i.e., our embodiment in time and space) plays an important role in our ability to empathize with others, to attend sympathetically to another and to see things from other people’s perspectives. This type of true attentiveness is only something that can occur with embodied beings. After all, it is in the body that our face can say what words cannot. It is in the body that we smile. It is in the body that we cry. It is in the body that we blush. It is in the body that we offer a reassuring touch. But it is also in the body that we are confronted with each others’ vulnerability and fragility.

Teenagers texting on mobile phones in a home settingThe lure of online relationships—or even real-world relationships in which the majority of communication occurs through texting—is that we can act as if we were disembodied and thereby suspend the vulnerability and fragility connected to our body. Through our digital devices we can act and respond to others as if we are not bounded by space. We can dispense with the physical element and still have our social cravings satisfied online.

Calvin vs. Leithart

As I’ve gradually been moving posts from my old blog over to this new platform, I revisited my reply to Leithart’s article on the end of Protestantism (which is now available on this blog here). In re-reading my response to Leithart, I was struck again by just how alien his views of reformed catholicity are to the ecclesiology of Calvin. This is problematic precisely because Leithart attempts to contextualize his ecclesiology within the tradition of historic Calvinism.

Read more in my post ‘Peter Leithart on the End of Protestantism.’

The Fittingness of Biblical Ethics

From my Colson Center article ‘The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars‘:

In talking about sexual morality, it is typical to find pastors, Christian spokespersons and lay people alike, operating as if there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that precedes and animates God’s commands: we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them.

Under such a scheme, all the ordering of our world is deliberate ordering and creation becomes radically contingent. It thus becomes difficult to speak of certain sexual patterns as being “rightly ordered” or “fitting” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.

Indeed, it is easy to slip into assuming that for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be wholly the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His commands, such as the fixities of His nature that find expression in the inherent patterns embedded in creation’s design.

Among evangelicals from legalistic backgrounds, this functional nominalism often finds expression in the notion that the only objective criteria for making decisions is sin-avoidance. In areas where the category of sin does not apply, the only criteria to influence our decisions is personal subjective choice. There are thus no categories with which to talk meaningfully about the telos of a thing, or the internal logic of nature’s ordering, independent of moral questions about right and wrong.

This type of abstraction from teleology turns creation into a playground for us to do with as we like provided we do not sin, while the criteria for determining what counts as sin is truncated to specific divine commands interpreted independently from the teleological-directedness of how creation is. (The recent flare-up in Moscow Idaho’s food debates hinge on this very problem, as do some of the modern music myths that have taken the church captive in recent years.)

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Robots and Social Narcissism

From my article ‘The New Couplings: Are Human & Robot Weddings Next?‘:

“Sociable robots promise to avoid the messiness of flesh-and-blood relationships through a kind of ‘customized intimacy.’ Imagine having a relationship with a humanoid that—perhaps by means of a wireless connection to your brain—knew exactly what you needed and when you needed it, knew just what to say and when to say it, and knew all your sexual desires and how to meet them. In this type of relationship, all your own needs and desires would be met, while the apparent ‘needs’ of your humanoid lover would simply be a projection of your own.

32phillips“We already have a hint of how such customized intimacy might work, derived from the way Google gives us search results. In 2007 Google imposed on the public something called the personalized search, which gives users the search results it thinks they want to see, based on all the information it has collected about them. As Nicholas Carr observes in his book The Big Switch (2008), ‘We welcome personalization tools and algorithms because they let us get precisely what we want when we want it, with a minimum of fuss.’ More recently, Google scientists have begun experimenting with something called ‘audio-fingerprinting,’ a technique that would enable Google to eavesdrop on the background sounds in your room, so it could collect even more data about you and compile a more detailed picture of your needs and desires.

“As more advances are made in machine learning, it is possible that similar algorithms could be developed to program humanoids (who may perhaps be wirelessly connected to our brains) to know exactly what we want and then instantly provide it. When that happens, will we welcome the machines that give us ‘precisely what we want when we want it, with a minimum of fuss’?

“Sherry Turkle asked numerous people that question while doing research for her book Alone Together. Her interviews suggest that some people may already possess an emotional and psychological proclivity for forming intimate relationships with machines. Turkle quotes a 64-year-old named Wesley, who reflected on the advantages of robots over real people: ‘I’d want from the robot a lot of what I want from a woman, but I think the robot would give me more in some ways. With a woman, there are her needs to consider. . . . That’s the trouble I get into. If someone loves me, they care about my ups and downs. And that’s so much pressure. . . . [With a robot] I could stay in my comfort zone.’


Neuroplasticity and East-West Brain Differences

I have written before about how the way we use our brain actually alters its neurocircuitry. But the same principle also applies to culture. We now know that cultural assumptions, norms and habits actually alter our brain structures in ways which then play back to reinforce those very patterns of thought. (See my Salvo Magazine article ‘The Neuro-Transformers: Culture & the Malleability of the Human Brain‘.)

East and west brain differences

Research shows that there are brain differences between Easterners and Westerners.

One primary way that culture influences our brain is through language. New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world. In particular, the way we relate to the world and to people is often the result of how we conjugate our verbs. (If you don’t believe me, see the Wall Street Journal article ‘Lost in Translation.’)

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We Have a Reading Problem

From my Colson Center article ‘Hollowing Out the Habits of Attention (Part 2)‘:

…the main reading problem we face as a society is not simply that people aren’t reading enough; rather, the real problem is how we read. Increasingly, we find that when people pick up a book, they often come to it with the same set of expectations they bring to the internet. Activities like Facebook and Twitter exert their dominion over our minds precisely because they condition us with a certain set of expectations that become ubiquitous and which remain with us even when our computer or i-phone is turned off.

More specifically, our constant saturation in digital distractions is training us to be satisfied with triviality, to be content with dialogue that is shallow, brief and disconnected. In short, we begin to expect books to give us the same buzz that an i-phone provides, and when it doesn’t, we quickly get bored.

Wisdom from Saint Porphyrios

In my earlier post on parenting teens, I quoted Saint Porphyrios in words that are worth sharing on their own:

r654What saves and makes for good children is the life of the parents in the home. The parents need to devote themselves to the love of God. They need to become saints in their relation to their children through their mildness, patience and love. They need to make a new start every day, with a fresh outlook, renewed enthusiasm and love for their children. And the joy that will come to them, the holiness that will visit them, will shower grace on their children.

Generally the parents are to blame for the bad behavior of the children. Their behvaior is not improved by reprimands, disciplining or strictness. If the parents do not pursue a life of holiness and if they don’t engage in spiritual struggle, they make great mistakes and transmit the faults they have within them. If the parents do not live a holy life and do not display love towards each other, the devil torments the parents with the reactions of the children. Love, harmony and understanding between the parents are what are required for the children. This provides a great sense of security and certainty.

The behavior of the children is directly related to the state of the parents. When the children are hurt by the bad behavior of the parents towards each other, they lose the strength and desire to progress in their lives. Their lives and constructed shoddily and the edifice of their soul is in constant danger of collapsing.


Alfred the Great’s England

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great

When I was writing my book Saints and Scoundrels, one of the most fulfilling chapters was my chapter on Alfred the Great. I have been fascinated by King Alfred (849-899) ever since I was a boy and read the famous story about him burning the honey cakes. But what impressed me the most when I was researching for my chapter was the extent to which King Alfred laid the foundation for modern England.

Although King Alfred is considered one of the early kings of England, in actual fact England did not exist in the ninth century. Alfred was the King of Wessex, which was one among a number of small Saxon Kingdoms at the time.

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