Purple Magazine
— The Brain Issue #33

the online brain

Essay by JEFF RIAN 

jeff rian is an american writer and musician living in paris
he has been a purple contributor since 1992 and an editor at the magazine since 1995

How is it humanly possible to keep up with technology? Starting with rock hammers, 500,000 years ago, tools extended the hands, feet, eyes, and senses of the only creature on Earth to use language, to have an opposable thumb that grabs and grips, and a mind that can scrutinize, study, and process alternative media. Anthropologists have found chipped flint arrowheads by the thousands — chipped for the fun of it. Tool use created this group-chipping habit. Once nomads became settlers, tool use divided along domestic lines as new patterns of life, in commerce and trade, redefined human culture — the transmission of information via non-genetic means. Tools and technology — the practical application of knowledge — took over culture and geography. We see the effects as history.

Biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson nominated humans one of about 19 eusocial creatures that live “in a cooperative group” and that will make sacrifices for the group. Others include apes, ants, bees, termites, aphids, and some wasps and moles. Ants share an uncommon 75% of their DNA, so when one stops moving, they all do. Humans use culture as a group lever. Human settlers, starting 13,000 years ago, divided into castes and separated livestock from wild animals, flowers from weeds, insiders from outsiders, and rich from poor. These were the evolving manifestations of human consciousness.

Neuroscientists, such as Steven Pinker, remind us that consciousness is chemical and genetic, that none of the 100 trillion or so cells in our bodies is conscious, and that roughly 100 billion brain neurons create subjective experience out of physiological activity. So, consciousness is essentially an activity of the brain that generates an awareness of things, including the self and others. This description may sound mechanistic; generally, people don’t like to think of themselves as machines, as if
reactions to each other were like a thermostat’s registering warm or cold. But that appears to be the case.

Currently, about four billion of us use the Internet. Most people have a geographical address and possibly a social-security and telephone number — and if they don’t, they want one. Everyone else waits to be engaged in this new connection-based medium of social exchange, one that interacts with artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive science and directly influences consciousness. Access to this seemingly universal culture is unlocked via touch pads. Fingerprints, unique to each of us, are currently used as passcodes. Much of current world wealth is held by the owners of this ethereal macrocosm.

Social media offers a platform for anyone to peer into or to project themselves. AI’s developers identify patterns from vast arrays of complicated data and attempt to mimic or create analogues to brain function. AI needs only a few hundred neurons of the up-to-100 million a body uses to move a finger or arm to create an artificial limb with finger-like grip and dexterity. In the past decade, AI’s success has given computers the capacity to distinguish a head from a ball, to enable self-driving cars to identify pedestrians, to recognize and respond to human speech, and to beat anyone at chess or Go. Speech may soon replace keyboards. Smartphones may become eyeglasses. Everyone will participate. There are no requirements. But what are the effects on consciousness?

Social media is geared to get attention. Smartphones are a body part. Phantom vibration syndrome leads people to think the phone is calling them. Social media’s validation feedback induces a release into the bloodstream of the body’s own oxytocin and dopamine hormones. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide (it helps to stimulate childbirth, bonding, and breast-feeding). The type of release these hormones offer is physiologically related to orgasm and behaviorally related to social recognition, bonding, maternal feelings, and the anticipation of reward. Being “liked” can generate numerous dopamine fixes per hour, per day, which relate in self-sensation to watching porn, gambling, feeling proud, or feeling that you are positively — but also negatively — seen. Effects are positive and negative. Social media frames and divides biases and anxieties. Likes validate; dislikes distract and distort. Eyes and fingers reach for the connections that reinforce them. Where once a handshake was required, connections are now available in touch points on black glass.

Pro-social behavior, in sharing, cooperating, donating, and volunteering, benefits the group. Anti-social behavior disrupts the well-being of individuals and groups. The evolution of personal reward via social media builds relationships through a form of artifice that divides as well as unites, framing barriers of psychological difference that can be difficult to breech (as current politics reveals). Which makes social media seem more anti than pro. Which makes this era an interesting moment for the brain, and maybe even the end of something or the beginning
of something else.

[Table of contents]

The Brain Issue #33

Table of contents

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