The Convivial Society, No. 7
"Please do not take me for a technophobe. I argue for detachment from artifacts, because only by abstaining from their use can I perceive the seductiveness of their whispers. Unlike the saintly models of yesterday, the one who begins walking now under the eyes of God must not just divest himself of bad habits that have become second nature; he must not only correct proclivities toward gold or flesh or vanity that have been ingrained in his hexis, obscuring his sight or crippling his glance. Today's convert must recognize how his senses are continuously shaped by the artifacts he uses. They are charged by design with intentional symbolic loads, something previously unknown. The things today with decisively new consequences are systems, and these are so built that they co-opt and integrate their user's hands, ears, and eyes."
— Ivan Illich, "Philosophy... Artifacts... Friendship" (1996)
I have two children: two under two, as I've frequently heard it put, at least for a few more days when the oldest will turn three. It's an exhausting affair, but that is the worst that I can say for it. Most days my exhaustion co-exists with gratitude, joy, and wonder. But you didn't sign up for a daddy blog, so I won't belabor my point. One of the truly wondrous things about this business of raising children is getting to witness the unfolding—over the course of days, weeks, and months—of the full range of human potentialities.
Recently, I've been taken by how my youngest, not yet two, is able to discern a common pattern within wildly divergent visual representations of the same reality. Take an elephant, for example. She knows when she sees an elephant whether she is looking at a photograph, a realistic illustration, a comical drawing, or a minimalist almost abstract sketch. At the very least she knows that the vocalization "elephant" belongs to a discernible pattern, which she can identify in various and quite different iterations. She can also sometimes identify an object or an image given only a small sliver of the whole. I've been impressed, too, by how both of them are able to recognize what they have not seen for several weeks or even a few months, and how this re-cognition, this knowing-again, has both affective and intellectual dimensions. In one sense, all of this is perfectly ordinary. I don't think there is anything unusual about my children; we all pass through this development. In fact, we take such capacities for granted. On the other hand, it's a stunning phenomenon, the development of mind and consciousness, which is as extraordinary a reality as we'll ever encounter. Or so it seems to me.
I've been noting these emerging capacities while also encountering one article after another about machine vision and facial recognition technology. The contrast between how a child sees and how our machines "see" is illuminating (as is the contrast between how a child sees and how an adult sees). I am not struck chiefly by the gaps between the two, although these are noteworthy, rather I'm propelled to consider the meaning of sight, its role in mediating our experience of the world, and how tools mediate our vision.
I take as a point of departure the truism that looking and seeing are not synonymous. One may look and yet not see. It happens all the time. How many times has it happened to us that suddenly some feature of a scene we have looked at countless times erupts into our awareness? It is then as if we had never really seen what we were looking at all that time, and, indeed, we had not. This may happen under mundane circumstances, or it may take the shape of a life-defining epiphany. How is it that this can happen? How do we manage to look without seeing?
It's odd that we put so much confidence in the act of looking, of perceiving the world through our vision, seeing is believing and all that. It is odd because it is equally true that believing is seeing—that, in other words, seeing is an act of interpretative perception conditioned by our experience, our assumptions, our imagination, and, yes, our biases. But we want to trust our untutored sense of sight. Its apparent immediacy fools us into assuming that it registers the visual truth of things faithfully and objectively. Perhaps we have read a kind of photographic ideal into our experience sight. We believe that, like a camera, our mind snaps an instantaneous picture of reality as it is. The intentionality of vision is forgotten. We forget that we see what we intend to see, meaning that to which we direct our attention and also that which we expect to see. The temporality of vision is set aside as well. The look may be an instantaneous action, but seeing is anything but instantaneous. As Jennifer Roberts writes in an essay linked below, "Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness .... What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience."
There is much more that could be said. About how re-cognition implies that we know something again, that it is an act of remembrance, that it is a deeply subjective act burdened with memory and emotion. That a face is a deep and often impenetrable reservoir of meaning that sometimes betrays itself. That our vision is also a moral sense, subject to corruption and manipulation. That to be seen and to be recognized can be both a fundamental desire and a terrible fear, depending, in large measure, on the one who sees. That we will err gravely in attributing to a machine's vision a god-like, objective omniscience capable of rendering impartial judgements. That our vision will be impoverished and distorted if we believe that our tools are neutral mediators of reality. All of this and more merits our careful consideration.
In Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, the protagonist, Father Latour explains to a friend, "I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you." So it always is, except it is not only through affection that we see.
News and Resources
"'Data,' Pasquinelli writes, 'are not numbers, but diagrams of surfaces, new landscapes of knowledge that inaugurated a vertiginous perspective over the world and society as a whole: The eye of the algorithm, or algorithmic vision.'" Adrian Lobe explaining Italian philosopher Matteo Pasquinelli's work on the emerging metadata society, a regime of predictive control based on the "algorithmic eye." More from Pasquinelli on the metadata society here.
"Deep Fakes: A Looming Challenge for Privacy, Democracy, and National Security" by Danielle Citron and Robert Chesney. "Our aim is to provide the first in-depth assessment of the causes and consequences of this disruptive technological change, and to explore the existing and potential tools for responding to it."
"The Facebook Eye." A 2012 piece from Nathan Jurgenson. May need some updating—The Instagram Eye?—and I believe Jurgenson's own views have changed somewhat, but still insightful. "... social media users have become always aware of the present as something we can post online that will be consumed by others."
The researchers found that remembering through photographs might eclipse other forms of understanding. When we watch reality unfold through the lens of a camera and on our screens, we're taking in just a fraction of the experience." Staphane Lavoie on how modern photography is changing how we remember.
"In the life of the planet, destruction of night is as important an issue as the poisoning of water and air." Richard Stevens on the unintended consequences of electric lighting.
Anatomy of an AI System by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler. A pretty remarkable attempt to visually map all that is involved in the making and use of an AI system—including labor, data, and planetary resources—taking the Amazon Echo as the specimen.
"The priests of Silicon Valley say, Let us give thanks to the Technium our God. And the response written for us in the prayer book is It is meet and right to do so." Alan Jacobs reviews an oral history of Silicon Valley.
"Just as the commons of space are vulnerable, and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic, so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modem means of communication." Ivan Illich, in a talk delivered in 1982, "Silence is a Commons."
"Christopher Lasch and the Digital Return of Memory" by James Poulos. This essay defies pithy summation and there is no short excerpt that does justice to the whole. It's been one of the more stimulating pieces I've read in a while, and I commend it to you. Lot's to think about here, provocative in the best sense.
"There's a reason that misleading claims of bias in search and social media enjoy such traction." Tarleton Gillespie unpacks recent charges of biases against Google search.
For your mild amusement: "The Medieval Castle that Pranked It's Visitors."
From Jennifer Roberts' "The Power fo Patience":
"What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.
The art historian David Joselit has described paintings as deep reservoirs of temporal experience—'time batteries'—'exorbitant stockpiles' of experience and information. I would suggest that the same holds true for anything a student might want to study at Harvard University—a star, a sonnet, a chromosome. There are infinite depths of information at any point in the students’ education. They just need to take the time to unlock that wealth. And that’s why, for me, this lesson about art, vision, and time goes far beyond art history. It serves as a master lesson in the value of critical attention, patient investigation, and skepticism about immediate surface appearances. I can think of few skills that are more important in academic or civic life in the twenty-first century."
Josef Pieper, "Learning How to See Again":
"Nobody has to observe and study the visible mystery of a human face more than the one who sets out to sculpt it in a tangible medium. And this holds true not only for a manually formed image. The verbal 'image' as well can thrive only when it springs from a higher level of visual perception. We sense the intensity of observation required simply to say, 'The girl's eyes were gleaming like wet currants' (Tolstoy).
Before you can express anything in tangible form, you first need eyes to see. The mere attempt,
therefore, to create an artistic form compels the artist to take a fresh look at the visible reality; it requires authentic and personal observation. Long before a creation is completed, the artist has gained for himself another and more intimate achievement: a deeper and more receptive vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and more discerning understanding, a more patient openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous, an eye for things previously overlooked. In short: the artist will be able to perceive with new eyes the abundant wealth of all visible reality, and, thus challenged, additionally acquires the inner capacity to absorb into his mind such an exceedingly rich harvest. The capacity to see increases."
Eric R. Kandell, writing about artist Chuck Close in his forthcoming book (h/t Alan Jacobs):
"Our ability to recognize faces resides in the right fusiform gyrus of the inferior medial temporal lobe of the brain. People with damage to the front of that region are face-blind, like Close. People with damage to the back of that region cannot see a face at all. Close is probably the only person in the history of Western art to paint portraits without being able to recognize individual people. Why, then, did he focus on being a portrait artist? Close says his art was an attempt to make sense of a world he didn’t understand. For him, it’s not so strange that he makes portraits. He was driven to make portraits because he was trying to understand the faces of people he knows and loves and commit them to memory. For him a face has to be flattened out. Once he flattens it, he can commit it to memory in a way that he cannot if he’s looking at it head-on. If he looks at you and you move your head half an inch, it’s a new head for him that he has never seen before. But if he takes a photograph of the face and flattens it out, he now can effect the translation from one flat medium to another."
Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances:
"I do not perceive any thing with my sense-organs alone, but with a great part of my whole human being. Thus, I may say, loosely, that I ‘hear a thrush singing’. But in strict truth all that I ever merely ‘hear’—all that I ever hear simply by virtue of having ears—is sound. When I ‘hear a thrush singing’, I am hearing, not with my ears alone, but with all sorts of other things like mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling and (to the extent at least that the act of attention involves it) will. Of a man who merely heard in the first sense, it could meaningfully be said that ‘having ears’ (i. e. not being deaf) ‘he heard not’.”
Recent posts on the blog:
Technopoly and Anti-Humanism
Social Media, Mass Society, and the Desire for Attention
Spectrum of Attention
From the archive:
Perception and Affection
From Memory Scarcity to Memory Abundance
Technology and Perception
I trust you all are well. Not much news to share this time around. I did spend some time putting together a new website for CSET. Take a look, pass along your thoughts if you're so inclined. The new website has a lot more to say about the sort of work we hope accomplish. If you're a real newsletter junkie, you can subscribe to the center's newsletter, which, like this one, will cover technology but with more of a focus on ethics and religion.
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