Is Facebook Stealing Personhood?

Day’s Verse:
Calling the crowd to join his disciples, [Jesus] said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”
Mark 8:34-37

Here’s a philosophical question for you. Let’s say that you could map all your neural connections and processes into a computer so that the computer exactly, identically duplicated the way your brain works. It’s a perfect copy of your neural network. It will respond exactly the same way you would in any given situation. The question is: Is the computer copy you? If it’s not you, is it still a person? Would erasing it be murder? Does it have a soul? Is it alive?

At first blush, I’d say no, it’s not a person; it’s just a clever copy made possible with some amazing technology. It’s just 1s and 0s floating around. But giving this a little more thought gets into some pretty hairy philosophy pretty quickly. It really asks a deeper question: What makes a person a person? How do you define personhood?

This is a particularly interesting question because so much of our lives — what we do as people — is mediated by technology these days. In his book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier argues that we’re actually losing what it means to be a person because of our increasing reliance on computers, and particularly websites like Facebook, for mediating human interactions. Essentially, by fitting ourselves into simple categories, as required by social networking sites like Facebook, we’re sacrificing the depth and breadth of what it means to be a person. This one reason why it’s important to know what makes a person a person: So that we don’t inadvertently lose some key element without even realizing it, and later find that we aren’t as human as we used to be.

Lanier’s concern is that no database can accurately capture the nuances of a person’s individuality. Drop-down menus and multiple choices can’t really capture what makes you you. For example, on Facebook I’m listed as Deborah Ferguson’s daughter, even though I’m her daughter-in-law, because there’s no daughter-in-law option. This loss may not seem particularly important, but cumulatively, these compromises in nuance add up. Lanier argues that we’re losing culture because people are less individual and more cookie-cutter than they were. This blog, in fact, would almost certainly draw his scorn because it’s template-based, and not as truly reflective of me as if I’d created the entire thing from scratch.

I’m not on board with all of what Lanier says in You Are Not a Gadget, but I have to agree that by moving relationships online, we have sacrificed depth for breadth. Instead of having 10 good friends, we can now have 200 Facebook friends, whose status updates we follow religiously. It lets us feel involved without actually being involved. I’ll take in-person or even just voice any day.

Now, Facebook does have its place. It’s a nice way to “keep track” (I use quotes because that’s the phrase I most often hear in this context) of people you wouldn’t regularly communicate with. Those old high school or college friends who might in the past have just faded from your life in years past now play more of a role in your life, if you want. I’m frankly ambivalent about even that “benefit”: Is there real value in keeping track of people from previous phases of your life?

Anyway, I’m not sure about Carmel’s personhood, but she’s our house guest for the next three days while Mom and Dad are out of town. She sheds more than other house guests, but she also fetches tennis balls, which most people don’t do very well.
Carmel, April 13, 2011

Digital to Physical

Day’s Verse:
Lots of people claim to be loyal and loving,
but where on earth can you find one?

Proverbs 20:6

Ian and I are approaching our one-year anniversary as homeowners. Oddly, one of the things that’s been the most galling for me is a small thing: We haven’t had a printer this entire time. While I worked at the Bike Alliance that was OK, but in November when my internship ended, I suddenly found myself unable to print Google map directions! We’ve made do (don’t ask how), but it’s proven quite the planning challenge. I had to know all my printing needs a day ahead.

At long last, after much discussion and research, this device landed (with a thump; it weighs over 40 lbs) on our porch.

A laserjet printer costs more than an inkjet, and the cartridges tend to be more expensive, but over time they end up costing about the same amount. Working as a contractor, I’m having to print work-related stuff more frequently than I expected. Also, after years of having to cajole a cheap inkjet printer into please, please, please putting some ink on the page in a meaningful pattern, we were ready for something a bit more reliable. I say “a bit” because no matter how high-end, printers all seem to jam and have inexplicable problems. Even the $250,000 printer Charles River bought for the Reporting Department, which could print a little 102 pages per minute, had all the same problems our home inkjet had, just on a larger scale.

Now we can convert digital bits into physical media! Of course, I could probably have bought a smartphone and paid for the accompanying data plan for the cost of the printer, and had interactive, paper-free Google maps at my fingertips all the time. And while we’re talking about printers, if it’s the future, why don’t we have a good 3D printer for everybody?

Scoliosis X-Ray

Day’s Verse:
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

Psalm 139:14

Technology is SO COOL! Yesterday I got an X-ray of my back; today, I have a CD with digital files of the X-rays (not pictures; some medical file thing. I took a screen shot and flipped the image. You can see the backwards R in the corner). Neat!
My Spine!
A little bit less neat is the report that came with the CD. It said:

Frontal view of the thoracic and lumbar spine shows an S-shaped thoracolumbar scoliosis. The upper curve extends from T4 through T11, is convex to the right and measures 48 degrees. The lower cure extends from T11 through L4, is convex to the left and measures 37 degrees.

One of the interesting thing about this type of report is it’s so very factual. Just reporting the facts, right? Somehow a 48 degree curve sounds like an awful lot, but what do I know? What I do know is where my back hurts, and it’s right where my back curves. Funny how that works.

A report like this really just raises more questions than it answers. Where does this fall in the scoliosis range? At what point does this start to become a real problem? Is back surgery in my future? I imagine not, since I’m not growing any more so it shouldn’t be curving any more, right? I’m already seeking palliative care to deal with mild back pain. Should I worry about getting pregnant and the impact of carrying a baby around in my stomach (and then in my arms)?

Really, though, this doesn’t change my everyday life. Yesterday I didn’t have the report or pictures. Today I do. Does that mean I’ll change how I live — avoiding picking up heavy stuff, or giving up backpacking, or switching to a less aggressive position on my bike, or anything else? Nope. What this boils down to is a very cool exercise in technology. In less than 24 hours, I was X-rayed and received the results on a CD, and am now posting the pictures here. The future is now! Now, where’s my flying car?

Self Portrait - March 2011

Accidental Poetry

Day’s Verse:
Better a bread crust shared in love
than a slab of prime rib served in hate.

Proverbs 15:17

Back story: My co-LCI on the Bike Alliance trainings* said she always brings an extra wheel to classes. I asked if it was necessary for our trainings, since the schedule was so tight and we didn’t have time for fix-a-flat. When I received her reply, I couldn’t help but read it as poetry. She wrote, with this exact formatting,

I will bring one or two along. My usual way of handling
It is to leave it to the end for those who want
To stay and learn. Sometimes a few want it,
sometimes not.

I can’t help but read this the same way I’d read a haiku. And frankly, although I gave you the background, it really stands alone.

And, in other literary news, Ian and I received our copy of A Wise Man’s Fear. To forestall the inevitable fights over who gets to read it first (I hate having to beat Ian up; it’s so bad for our marriage’s morale), we’re reading it aloud. We did this successfully with the final Harry Potter book back in 2007, taking a total of 19 hours over 2 days to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows aloud in its entirety. Unfortunately these days we have other claims on our time, so we haven’t blazed through A Wise Man’s Fear at quite that blistering pace. We’re making respectable headway, though, enough to give Patrick Rothfuss credit for writing a sequel that lives up to the first book. Most sequels don’t.

Speaking of books that don’t live up to my expectations, I just received Revelation Space from the library. I got it on the recommendation of a bookstore employee, and I waited a while for it. Now, frankly, I’m disappointed. It’s hard sci-fi and the blot is complex, to say the least, both of which are OK. Unfortunately the book lacks anything to help the reader bond with the characters, and the author heavy-handedly conceals important plot points from the readers until it’s time for the astonishing reveal. But since the reader generally knows as much as the characters do, those omissions feel kludgy. Actually, it’s like an exceptionally complicated Isaac Asimov book in many respects. I’ll finish it because I want to know what happens, but I probably won’t pick up another book by the author.

Finally, I have You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto waiting in the wings. More on that when I finish Revelation Space.

*The first of which is coming up next week in Lynden. This time I made a list and am much calmer.

Historical Novel, Circa 1994

Day’s Verse:
When you’re kind to others, you help yourself; when you’re cruel to others, you hurt yourself.
Proverbs 11:17

Back in college I took a history class called US History through the Novel. In it, we read such cheerful novels as McTeague, House of Mirth, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets, and (if I recall correctly) Frankenstein; we read with an eye towards what the books told us about the culture and history of the time, rather than for literary analysis. This way of approaching history by looking at what novelists capture in their verbal snapshots of a time continues to interest me.

Recently I started reading Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland. You can read the first chapter or so at the Wired archive, where it was originally published as a short story. The interesting thing about this book is that it, like McTeague or House of Mirth, captures a historical moment. Written in 1994, this epistolary story follows a group of Microsoft programmers as they try to start up their own company in Silicon Valley. Because technology permeates the book completely, it has become historical in well under a generation. Technology has advanced so far since this book was written in 1994 that it’s hard to wrap my head around it.

Remember 1994? (Read the link. It’s Dave Barry’s year in review for 1994*. So worth it. I’d totally forgotten Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding/the Norway Winter Olympics, OJ Simpson, and the Shumacher-Levy asteroid, but it’s all coming back to me.) That’s 17 years ago, although when I hear the date I don’t think of it as that long ago. It was before the prevalent Internet, before the .com bubble, before most people even had computers. The “information superhighway” was going to be really cool. “Multimedia” was the bandwagon to jump on. Use of the terms “nerd” and “geek” began expanding dramatically. The average age of tech people hardly ever exceeded 32 years. It was before even this phenomenon.

So I’m enjoying the in-depth reminder of what the tech world used to be. Despite its historicality (?), Microserfs covers some pretty thought-provoking territory. For example, at one point he says:

“I wonder if I’ve missed the boat on CD-ROM interactive — if I’m too old. The big companies are zeroing in on the 10-year-olds**. I think you only ever truly feel comfortable with the level of digitization that was normal for you from the age of five to fifteen. I mean sure, I can make new games workable, but it won’t be a kick the way Tetris was. Or will it?” (143)

Thought-provoking for me. Am I already 10 years past my technology-assimilation prime?

Check back in 17 more years. The future is never what we expect.

Edited @ 6:35 pm, 01Mar2011, to add a few more thought-provoking quotes. Microserfs, far from being about technology, is really a philosophy book thinly disguised as a nerd book. Part of its appeal as a historical novel is its predictive nature, too. The characters are future-focused and constantly speculate about the future — which is happening now. They never got close to iPhones. Quotes:

1. Theory that one of the characters suggests and I find interesting: We store memories in our bodies, not just our brains. The character says it’s actual memories; I’d say we seem to store something in our physical bodies. Why else do we need a massage after a long, stressful day?

2. “I’m coming to the conclusion about the human subconscious… that, no matter how you look at it, machines really are our subconscious. I mean, people from outer space didn’t come down to earth and make machines for us… we made them ourselves. So machines can only be products of our being, and as such, windows into our souls… by monitoring the machines we build, and the sorts of things we put into them, we have this amazingly direct litmus as to how we are evolving.” (228)

3. “Identity. I go by the Tootsie theory: that if you concoct a convincing on-line meta-personality on the Net, then that personality really IS you. With so few things around nowadays to loan a person identity, the palette of identities you create for yourself in the vacuum of the Net — your menu of alternative ‘you’s’ — actually IS you. Or an isotope of you. Or a photocopy of you.” (327) About this: I heard a fascinating segment on KUOW about Second Life addicts, and another segment a while ago about peoples’ behavior online (this may’ve been it and I just internalized it inaccurately, or it could be that amalgamated with this spot). What I took away was that people often tend to let out the worst of themselves online, or tend to be more unrestrained. In-person interactions you have the expectations and responses of actual people to gauge your behavior, and you tend to behave according to some kind of group norm. Online, those restrictions tend to be stripped away, even in places like Facebook where the real you is connected to other people you know in real life. The Second Life people took this to an extreme: They had affairs with other people in Second Life, or played characters who were the opposite gender and child-aged.

4. “‘…what does all this stuff tell us about ourselves as humans? What have we gained by externalizing our essence through these consumable electronic units of luxury, comfort, and freedom?'” (356)

* They should make a Dave Barry history book that’s a compilation of his year-in-review articles.
** That was ME!

Numbers I’ve Never Seen Before

Day’s Verse:
Live wisely and wisdom will permeate your life;
mock life and life will mock you.

Proverbs 9:12

…at least not when I’m standing on a bathroom scale. Here’s me on the scale in regular clothes before the backpack:
112 lbs

Here’s what Ian described as “heavy reading,” my backpacking backpack crammed full of 85 Traffic Skills 101 student manuals to deliver to the Bicycle Alliance:
Heavy reading

And here’s me on the scale wearing the backpack:

Gosh, I’ve never been anywhere near 150 lbs before! Ian was right, this is heavy reading! A little quick math indicated I was carrying just under 40% of my weight in that backpack. I mentally patted myself on the back at my clever solution for how to get 40 lbs of books to BAW without driving downtown. A backpacking backpack, I reasoned, is designed to carry heavy loads. Granted, this wasn’t food, water, clothes, tents, sleeping bags, etc., but what does the bag care?

Then I realized that carrying 40 lbs on my back really wasn’t a big deal at all. Parents carry their children in backpacks all the time, and don’t think of it as some extraordinary feat. But since I don’t have kids, I’ll just count it a success having eventually gotten the Traffic Skills 101 manuals to the Bike Alliance on a snowy day sans car or even bike. ‘Course, I spent 3.5 hours traveling for 2 hours at the Bike Alliance, thanks to the snow and buses with chains on that could, as a result, travel up to only 30 mph.

My gosh, the first class is THIS MONDAY. …It’s gonna be OK. It is. It is.

What I Wanted to Say

Day’s Verse:
Good friend, take to heart what I’m telling you; collect my counsels and guard them with your life.
Tune your ears to the world of Wisdom;
set your heart on a life of Understanding.

Proverbs 2:1

Dear Dan Druckhammer, PT, OMT, etc.,

This is what I wanted to tell you today at my physical therapy appointment, but I didn’t have the words. Now I have them. Here’s what I wanted to say.

I feel disappointed with the overall outcome of PT, but it’s not anything about the PT itself, the job you did, your skill or diligence. It’s not like I was hit by a car and have to re-learn how to walk again, and once I can do that, your job is clearly done.

I’m in this nebulous space where I’m young, fit, healthy — but not perfect. I sit down to watch a movie and can’t sit on the couch for the whole two hours; I lay down in bed on my back to read and there it is. I can’t curl up in our fluffy chair without feeling this pull, this ache that just won’t go away but isn’t enough to bother with, really. Occasionally I lift my bike onto the stand or shake out a blanket or vacuum and again, zing, there it is. I stand up from working at my computer and there it is again. I get off my bike after a long ride and laying down on the floor is agony. I can’t comfortably lay on my stomach propped on my elbows at any angle.

My back feels 20 years older than the rest of me, maybe… In July, Eric Moen told me, “Your back isn’t as young as it used to be,” and I haven’t forgotten that. What’s it going to be like in 10, 15, 20 years if even now I’m having to feeling it?

Most of the time, though, I feel physically great. I’m not injured. I can do whatever I need to; my scoliosis is not holding me back. And if my back feels stiff and in places achy, like it wants me to stretch some way I just can’t bend — like if I found the right stretch, or if I could massage it right, it’d finally feel relaxed and comfortable — if that’s the case, is it worth spending time, money, and effort to fix something that’s not so much broken as bent? Am I in pursuit of an impossibility?

Because I’m starting to understand from our conversation today that there is no magic bullet, no touch or exercise or stretch to fix this. Nothing will make my back straight. There is only accommodation, adaptation, and “pretty good.” I’m at “pretty good” right now. The reality is that I will always be bent, never able to put my back flat against the wall, never have a symmetrical figure, never have flat shoulders or even-length legs. So I get to do all the right things, the stretches and exercises you gave me, indefinitely, for “pretty good.” And that, although disappointing, is life.

Now I get to choose what to do going forward, how to move on. I choose health, strength, and life — even imperfect as those may be.