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"To think is to differ" Clarence Darrow "The free man is he who does not fear to go to the end of his thought" Leon Blum "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man" George Bernard Shaw
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    What is our humanity made of?
    Project: Polytopia
    In prefacing this question, I thought of beginning with a kind of disclaimer, stating that everything that follows is described from a layperson perspective and terms. However, when I considered this same disclaimer, I came to the understanding that posing the question and grappling with it (or taking pleasure in it), is the domain of every person.

    In this sense, there is no layperson, or perhaps better stated, the layperson perspective is in no way diminished in accessibility and responsibility in coming to play on the field most intimate to us. For ‘What is our humanity made of’ is an arena in which our very open nature performs the most fundamental act of reflection. In that we are true to ourselves and in that we measure and match our unique syntax of reflection.

    Of course there are many learned and distinct takes on the question what it means to be human. I have recently watched a video from World Science Festival 2008 titled What it Means to be Human, where a panel of leading scientists and thinkers present a compelling discussion on just that question. And there are many angles through which this question is approached and some excellent arguments have been accumulated in years and years of debate, reflection and representation through art, research and philosophy, tackling the territory of being human.

    My title question was formed while watching another video: “Golan Levin makes art that looks back at you” . There was a particular moment for me, while watching an image of one of the works by Golan Levin in which a giant tapeworm like flexible pipe, with an eye like form at its end is lodged on top of a building. As the name of Mr. Levin’s presentation suggests, the experience I had, while watching this constellation was indeed of being watched. Reflecting on that experience, I asked myself what in this image forms in me the impression of being watched? And further, how is it that a piece of pipe with a crude similitude of an eye, is impressing me in a manner that attributes the image something very near intelligence. Now, I realize there is a leap here, and I am aware (or assume in an aware fashion) that what I look at isn’t meeting any of the standard norms of possessing intelligence. Yet, what caught my interest is that it takes very little for something to be associated in my mind with (a) living form and (b) endowed with some form of intelligence.
    In my education I was taught that as humans we tend to personify forms. We easily accept cartoon images as representations of human beings, we have the abstract capacity to see a human being in the most simple drawing of a stick person. But what is it, I asked myself that renders these forms so not NOT like us?

    The thought I wish to pursue in this context is that our humanity is made of meaning.
    Not only do we have in us the innate capacity to endow meaning, that is to make something meaningful, but we have it in us to grant a ‘something’ the status of having meaning in itself. In that, we have a fantastic ability to create an interest that exceeds in a way our immediate investment (of meaning).
    Rather than attributing this tendency of granting this special status (having meaning in itself), so readily available to us, to some childish, naïve property, I view it as an advanced feature of our mindset and a great advantage.

    If that is the case, even given the ultimate subjectivity of this, our capacity, what is the advantage we derive of it?
    It seems at face value that the ability to grant something a status of having meaning in itself is populating our lives with lot’s more, in fact, infinitely more ‘interest objects’ then the world of both physical objects and abstract objects that we can conceive of, have. In other words, this trait breaks through any confines of finite nature. In yet other words, this ability of ours reflects on an open ended nature involved in the reflective nature of our mind.

    In one of the memorable scenes of “Cast Away”, the character played by Tom Hanks develops an intricate relationship with Wilson, the volleyball accidentally stained by his bloodied palm print. Perhaps his most sane act in the circumstances.

    Whether in times of great peril, or in our most daily circumstances, we engage, it seems, in an activity that allows us generation of meaning in an interactive manner, which brings into our limited resources existence a reality that is infinite.
    Not only that, but, it is in this infinity that our humanness thrives.

    In a most direct fashion, it thrives in the aspect of feeling the full expanse of emotions we are capable of, when we accompany Wall-E on his arduous journey, as we would any flash and blood representation of one of ‘our kind’. And so perhaps, Wall-E, and Wilson are one of our kind – the kind made of meaning;
    It thrives in its very openness which is manifested in impressionability or susceptibility to meaning;
    It thrives in coming to realize that we are never alone, and there is no limit to the extent we reach by our very reflective nature;
    It thrives in the fact that we cannot be afraid of anything, on the basis of being different than ourselves, since ourselves are a dynamic interactive meaning generators.

    The more we increase our capabilities via applications of technology and acceptance of our virtual life, the closer we come into unmediated touch with the reality of the vast expanse in which our humanness thrives while cracking historical boundaries.

    Taking a farther leap with my initial thought, I find that in staring back at myself, as Golan Levin’s eye-snout does, I come into close vicinity of such concepts as love, infinity and being of kind, with no great effort.
    The stuff our humanity is made of, whether it is dubbed meaning, interest, intelligence or love, is an interactive substance. Perhaps that is beyond all learned explanations, what it means to be human.

    Fri, Aug 21, 2009  Permanent link

    Sent to project: Polytopia
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    Ashalynd     Thu, Sep 3, 2009  Permanent link
    The humans are defined by their place in the society of other humans. No society, no human (real Mowglies are not). The question: can any sentient being that can communicate and share its ideas with the other sentient beings (and has something to share) be defined as human in all aspects? My answer: probably no: may be there will be time when we will have to make this distinction for real (if we encounter some other form of intelligent life than our own). All that we have now, all artifacts just serve the purpose to send the messages between humans. No other message source yet...

    ...though I can't help asking: will we be able to detect the "other" message as such? Will we ever be able to communicate with non-humans on different level, to think in the different way? (A little bit like when you learn a different language, but the leap will be much bigger).

    In this light, I don't really believe in the possibility of AI which will have a mindset radically different from the ours. What we have right now is just a media for communication. It is a "smart media" but it is less "smart" than a dog or a horse: it does not have any initiative of its own. Whereas when we personify a subject, we subconsciously expect that it will be equal to us, with a bunch of chaos generating desires, emotions and expectations without any logical explanation behind them. What we forget is that every artifact in this case is just a mirror. The light comes from humans alone. I wish we could see the light with other spectrum, though I am a bit afraid of it :)
    Fast T     Fri, Sep 4, 2009  Permanent link
    Thank you for an interesting comment Ashalynd.

    My entry point is that rather than being defined, we humans are dynamically formed and reformed (not in the moralistic / religious sense). We are, by the nature of our reflective capacities, in a process of becoming. That process is interactive, whether we are in a society in the most concrete sense of the word (e.g. a community of our peers) or in its most virtual sense (e.g. a reflective environment).

    My view of our humanness being made of meaning and all that it enfolds therefore does not aim to define a class of sentiency. It points at the nature of interaction embedded within our innate capability of recognizing and generating meaning.
    In this sense I would say that our very nature includes room for intelligence forms of all kinds already.
    The advantage I see in our closely knit a-priory relations with meaning, has in it the openness or the crack in the present form or in the image we traditionally carry of ourselves. This crack as I see it, is an evolutionary edge through and by which that which is not known at present may partake in us (and vice versa). Be it, a future human specie or a specie currently residing elsewhere in the galaxy, or right here in our midst in forms other than ourselves.

    I agree that we are “media for communication”, I think that is much rather than a ‘just’.

    Put a bit vulgarly, we are ‘suckers for meaning’:) we apply meaning to interest ourselves beyond the obvious confines of ‘ourselves’. We use our interest in meaning to make even ourselves stranger to ourselves, or, in other words, interesting. I believe that this holds in it the probability of radical change which will eventually wean us from our class system dependency where our self-description is involved.

    Humans think they are smarter than dolphins because we build cars and buildings and start wars etc., and all that dolphins do is swim in the water, eat fish and play around. Dolphins believe that they are smarter for exactly the same reasons. -Douglas Adams, writer, dramatist, and musician (1952-2001)
    Ashalynd     Fri, Sep 4, 2009  Permanent link
    This is indeed an interesting prospective. It will stop being academic as soon as somebody, somehow, will manage for real to transfer human consciousness as a whole into a different media. I guess it will be changed, then, because it will be receiving different signals from the outside and will react on the differently... it would be a very interesting experiment. (Reminds me of a little story I have read long time ago... this one - and of Alastair Reynolds works where he was contemplating the implicaitons of conscience transfer done on different "levels") .

    For now, by the way, art is the best available media to transfer _some_ of our consciousness further, may be into somebody other's mind, which can enable us to indirectly influence events 50, 200 or 2000 years after we are physically gone. May be that is why art appears to be so fascinating... putting the whole conscience onto the new media is, ultimately, also the work of art: creating a "smart" message...

    "Suckers for meaning", I like this term ;)
    Mariana Soffer     Thu, Mar 11, 2010  Permanent link
    Let me put an idea about humans and meaning in slightly esoteric words:
    The material and the spiritual are so closely entwined in the human mind that making meaning for us almost seems like an involuntary act. It is near impossible to dissociate the two while making our reality comprehensible to us which is to give it meaning. 'Meaning' verily is elicited by the brain by putting the material and spiritual within a unified lens to conjure an image within our minds that makes sense.
    Great post Fast T
    Fast T     Fri, Mar 12, 2010  Permanent link
    Interesting take Mariana, to which i would add off the tip of my tongue: for meaning erupts where lines of tension collide :)