Experience, Identity and Ideology

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Experience, Identity and Ideology

Sam Hill

29th June 2012

There is an integral relationship between personal experience, identity and ideology. This relationship was touched upon briefly by political philosopher Robert Nozick in the “Experience Machine” thought experiment, which he published as part of his seminal work Anarchy, State and Utopia in the mid-seventies. The relationship was also discussed in more detail about ten years ago by Harvard business academics James Gilmore and Joseph Pine in The Experience Economy.

What makes these two points of view particularly interesting is that they both attempt to place the value of experience within a greater context – spiritually, economically and philosophically. Nozick treats personal experiences, personal identity and the application of personal belief as parallel value sets (intrinsic multism), but does not necessarily assign them relative worth (only stating that experience is not the be-all and end-all). Gilmore and Pine however describe experience and transformation as progressive stepping stones towards the pursuit of something altogether more spiritual – a monistic eternality, religious imperative or transcendent value (did I mention theirs was a business book?).

Both of these arguments go some way to marginalising the value of experience. Nozick is more directly attacking hedonic utilitarianism than what might be called ‘experientialism’, but his arguments still appear (certainly at face value) to be valid by proxy. Gilmore and Pine believe experiences to be important (that is the main purpose of the book) but ultimately only as a means to an end. They don’t consider experiences to be intrinsically valuable.

Nozick’s Experience Machine

Here’s a heavily abridged version of Nozick’s Experience Machine thought experiment. I would highly recommend reading the whole chapter (… and the whole book) but this is all that is immediately relevant – Nozick is discussing the implications of a more-or-less permanent existence within a simulated reality:

“Suppose there were an experience machine [1]  that would give you any experience you desired… Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?… First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them. (But why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?) A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has long been in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there’s no way he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide… But should it be surprising that what we are is important to us? Why should we be concerned only with how our time is filled, but not with what we are?

…We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it. We can continue to imagine a sequence of machines each designed to fill lacks suggested for the earlier machines. For example, since the experience machine doesn’t meet our desire to be a certain way, imagine a transformation machine [2] which transforms us into whatever sort of person we’d like to be (compatible with our staying us). Surely one would not use the transformation machine to become as one would wish, and there-upon plug into the experience machine! So something matters in addition to one’s experiences and what one is like… Is it that we want to make a difference in the world? Consider then the result machine [3], which produces in the world any result you would produce and injects your vector input into any joint activity… What is most disturbing about [these machines] is their living of our lives for us… Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.)”

From his exploration we can summarise the values that Nozick’s thought-experiment reveals to be apparently important to us:

To live, he infers, is the combined product of many things – reducible to a number of core values. Nozick hints there may be more then he has mentioned here.

Gilmore and Pine’s Transcendence of Experiences to Transformations

Gilmore and Pine write:

“… Remember, in the nascent Transformation Economy, the customer is the product and the transformation is an aid in changing the traits of the individual who buys it… Certainly, competitors can duplicate specific diagnoses, experiences, and follow-through devices, but no one can commoditize the most important aspect of a transformation: the unique relationship formed between the guided and the guide. It is the tie that binds.

An offering of a higher order can supersede lower-echelon relationships. But the only offering that can displace a transformation is yet another transformation – one aimed at another dimension of self, or at the same dimension but from a different world-view. By world-view, we mean a particular way – often religious or philosophical – of interpreting one’s own existence. In the years ahead, we think that companies and their customers will increasingly acknowledge rival world-views – ideologies, if you will – as the legitimate domain of business and as differentiators of competing offerings… Consider the fundamental nature of each offering:

  • Commodities are only raw materials for the goods they make
  • Goods are only physical embodiments of the services they deliver
  • Services are only intangible operations for the experiences they stage
  • Experiences are only memorable events for the transformations they guide

Then reflect on our personal belief that:

  • Transformations are only temporal states for the eternalities they glorify.

All economic offerings do more than effect an exchange of value in the present; they also, implicitly or explicitly, promote a certain world-view. In the full-fledged Transformation Economy, we believe buyers will purchase transformations according to the set of eternal principles the seller seeks to embrace – what together they believe will last.”

Now, when we compare Nozick’s derived values with Gilmore and Pine’s Progression of Economic Value we can see (assuming of course that one can agree firstly that ‘transformations’ equate to a matter of identity and secondly that any legacy we set out to achieve aligns with our life stance) the same three values are presented, but this time in a hierarchy based upon the economic principal of mass customisation. This can be shown as such:

Criticism of these approaches

Nozick, Gilmore and Pine are prolific thinkers, and I massively respect their work. For the most part these are both compelling theories (and it’s interesting to observe the parallels) but in each case I feel their ideas should be scrutinized further – mostly Nozick, who’s hypothetical experiment – brilliant as it is – was built seemingly tangentially on the way to another argument.

Nozick states: “We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it”. This seems unduly dismissive. To begin with, people already do embrace fore-runners of the experience machine – the ever-growing computer game market already provides us the capacity for continuous, uninterrupted synthetic experience. Condonable or not, people have dedicated years to their MMO accounts, RTS ladders and Xbox Live scores and at the extreme this has had the predicted detrimental effects to their real-world development and activity.

One might argue then that Nozick is really saying “…we should not use it”. Well, in this case, we’d need to rule out the possibility our reservations are irrational, or poorly founded. Perhaps, for example, the association we have with the word “machine” is too strong; we can’t fathom the idea of a truly authentic digital experience – even with all the caveats in the world – if the uncanny valley has left us irreparably prejudiced.

There seems to be a disparity, for example, between what constitutes an ‘authentic’ orchestrated experience, depending on whether it is positive or negative. An individual recounting the value of a positive digital experience might be scoffed at for buying into something synthetic, but would anyone doubt the sincerity of any trauma derived from an artificial nightmare?

An important clarification should be made of how the ‘experience machine’ really functions. Does any free will still exist within the system? Would free will matter if the system still compensated accordingly to produce the same outcome? Is the individual obliged (unknowingly) into an unwavering destiny – as if tied to the front of a train – or can they exercise even a modicum of choice – like an oarsman travelling along a river? The latter still allows an individual to be something other than an “indeterminate blob”. Perhaps identity is found in choice, and the broader the scope for choice, the better one’s identity is defined.

Who we are and what we do are very difficult things to untangle. In the same way that cinema uses frames to create the illusion of a moving image, consecutive experiences might create the illusion that there is a consistency in our identity. We’re so dependent on the contexts we find ourselves in when deciding what choices to make. But does identity exist in a vacuum?  Are we really so immutable, or is this illusion a consequence of story-telling – the ubiquitous myth that we are like the characters we learn from in narratives – predictable, serialised and defined. Are we all that different from how everyone else would be, if obliged to wear our shoes?

The nature of ‘transformation’ – an effort to change one’s identity – further compounds this abstraction. How can someone will themselves to be different? How can they will themselves in the future to make a different decision to one they’d currently make? What voluntary procedure helps an individual do this?  As Nozick says: “imagine a transformation machine which transforms us into whatever sort of person we’d like to be (compatible with our staying us)”. The idea is nonsensical; the caveat is too open-ended. If identity really is a constant, then to be a different person – by definition – would stop one remaining oneself. The best we can hope for is to change our context.

This is what really happens when individuals use the closest equivalents to transformation machines – they visit therapists to re-frame the perceived consequences of their behaviour; they pay plastic surgeons to make cosmetic differences to their appearances; they take drugs to alter their perceptions and they enter lotteries to change their wealth.

Defining Transformations

It’s useful to understand personal transformation by thinking of the industries that deliver changes to ourselves. Many of these industries are more typically associated with bringing traits of inadequacy up to a median standard, but some are concerned with the improvement of oneself above and beyond what is considered ‘normal’.

We have, for example:

  • Medicine, dentistry and healthcare
  • Personal (physical) trainers and gymnasiums
  • Mental health care – psychiatry, therapy
  • Self-help literature, courses and life coaches
  • NLP and hypnotherapy
  • Skills training and further education – tutors, teachers, mentors
  • Dietary specialists
  • Libraries, wikis and learning/ information resources
  • Beauticians – plastic surgeons, cosmetologists and fashionistas
  • Bionics, mobility devices and sensory augmentation (including eye wear and hearing aids)

(it’s important to note that these are self-initiated transformations. Not included here are the coercive transformations applied to individuals by others, groups, states or organisations – such as advertisement and compulsory education)

When compared with what are considered to be established and accepted experiential industries we notice something quite interesting. For example consider:

  • Performing arts – cinema, theatre, dance, music
  • Sport – played and spectated
  • Literature – poetry and prose
  • Fine arts
  • Events and installations
  • The gaming industries
  • Leisure and tourism
  • Cuisine

What is the difference between these two groups of industry? Moreover, what’s the difference between a diet and a feast? What’s the difference between an hour on a treadmill and an hour at a theme park?

The distinction is not that one is emotionally positive whilst the other is negative, because that is not necessarily important for experiential richness. The distinction is instead that one is stimulating and novel, whist the other is more commonly drudgerous and repetitive. The very purpose of the transformative industries is to assist people in making changes about themselves, and the reason people have not already made these changes independently (and thus demand the ‘service’) is commonly a matter of motivation.

There are a couple of points to conclude with here. First of all, how can a transformation be considered a transcendence of an experience, as Gilmore and Pine describe? How can a calorie controlled diet be the transcendence of the food consumption experience? Secondly, what happens when Nozick’s derived values conflict – i.e. between what we want to do and what we want to be? I might want to be as healthy as an athlete, but I still want to experience sedentary pursuits and eat chocolate cake.

Sensory Augmentation: Vision (pt. 1)

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Sensory Augmentation: Vision (pt. 1)

Sam Hill

30th August 2011


The above diagram illustrates the full breadth of the electro-magnetic spectrum, from tiny sub-atomic gamma rays to radio waves larger than the earth (there are in fact, no theoretical limits in either direction). That thin technicoloured band of ‘visible light’ is the only bit our human eyes can detect. That’s it. Our visual faculties are blinkered to a 400-800 Terahertz range. And from within these parameters we try as best we can to make sense of our universe.

There is no escaping the fact that our experience of the environment is limited by the capacity of our senses. Our visual, aural, haptic and olfactory systems respond to stimuli – they read “clues” from our environment – from which we piece together a limited interpretation of reality.

So says xkcd:

This limited faculty has suited us fine, to date. But it follows that if we can augment our senses, we can also increase our capacity for experience.

Seeing beyond visible light

Devices do already exist that can process EM sources into data that we can interpret: X-ray machines, UV filters, cargo scanners, black-lights, radar, MRI scanners, night-vision goggles and satellites all exploit EM waves of various frequencies to extend our perceptions. As do infrared thermographic cameras, as made popular by the Predator (1987).

What are the implications of para-light vision?

Let’s for one second ignore a canonical issue with the Predator films – that the aliens sort of had natural thermal vision anyway and pretend they can normally see visible light. Let’s also ignore the technical fact that the shots weren’t captured with a thermal imaging camera (they don’t work well in the rainforest, apparently). Let’s assume instead that we have a boxfresh false-colour infra-red system integrated into a headset, and that human eyes could use it. How effective would it be?

First of all, we’re talking about optical apparatus, something worn passively rather than a tool used actively (such as a camera, or scanner). The design needs special consideration. An x-ray scanner at an airport is an unwieldy piece of kit, but it can feed data to a monitor all day without diminishing the sensory capacity of the airport security staff that use it. They can always look away. If predator vision goggles were in use today, they would be burdened with a problem similar to military-grade “night-vision” goggles.

Predator Vision is not a true sensory augmentation in that it does not *actually* show radiating heat. Instead it piggy-backs off the visible-light capability of the eye and codifies heat emissions into an analogical form that can be made sense of: i.e. false-colour. In order to do so, a whole new competing layer of data must replace or lie above – and so interfere with – any visible light that is already being received.

Predator Vision in the home

For example, let’s task The Predator with a household chore. He must wash the dishes. The predator doesn’t have a dishwasher. There are two perceivable hazards: the first is scolding oneself with hot water, which Predator Vision can detect; the second is cutting oneself on a submerged kitchen knife, which only visible light can identify (assuming the washing up liquid isn’t too bubbly). Infra-red radiation cannot permeate the water’s surface. What is The Predator to do?

He would probably have to toggle between the two – viewing in IR first to get the correct water temperature, then visible light afterwards. But a user-experience specialist will tell you this is not ideal – switching between modes is jarring and inconvenient, and it also means the secondary sense can’t be used in anticipation. A careless Predator in the kitchen might still accidentally burn himself on a forgotten electric cooker ring. The two ideally want to be used in tandem.

What’s the solution?

It’s a tricky one. How can we augment our perception if any attempt to do so is going to compromise what we already have? Trying to relay too much information optically is going to cause too much noise to be decipherable (remember our ultimate goal is to have as much of the EM spectrum perceptible as possible, not just IR). This old TNG clip illustrates the point quite nicely:

Here Geordi claims that he has learned how to “select what I want and disregard the rest”. Given the masking effect of layering information, the ability to “learn” such a skill seems improbable. It seems as likely as, say, someone learning to read all the values from dozens of spreadsheets, overprinted onto one page. However, the idea of ‘selectivity’ is otherwise believable – we already have such a capacity of sorts. Our eyes are not like scanners, nor cameras. We don’t give equal worth to everything we see at once, but rather the brain focuses on what is likely to be salient. This is demonstrable with the following test:

It’s also worth noting the unconscious efforts our optical system makes to enhance visibility. Our irides contract or expand to control the amount of light entering our eyes, and the rod-cells in the retina adjust in low-light conditions to give us that certain degree of night-vision we notice after several minutes in the dark. The lenses of our eyes can be compressed to change their focal length. In other words the eye can calibrate itself autonomously, to an extent, and this should be remembered from a biomimetric perspective.

Option one:

The most immediate answer to para-light vision is a wearable, relatively non-invasive piece of headgear that works through the eye. In order to compensate for an all visible-light output, the headgear would need to work intelligently, with a sympathetic on-board computer. The full scope of this might be difficult to foresee here. Different frequencies of EM radiation might need to be weighted for likely importance – perhaps by default visible light would occupy 60% of total sight, 10% each for IR and UV, and 20% for the remaining wavelengths. A smart system could help make pre-emptive decisions for the viewer on what they might want to know, e.g. maybe only objects radiating heat above 55ºC would be shown to give off infra-red light (our temperature pain threshold). Or maybe different frequencies take over if primary sight is failing. Eye tracking could be used to help the intelligent system make sense of what the viewer is trying to see and respond accordingly. This might fix the toggling-between-modes issue raised earlier.

It’s interesting to wonder what it would mean to perceive radio-bands such as for wi-fi or RFID – obviously, it would be fascinating to observe them in effect, but might their pervasion be over-bearing? Perhaps the data could be presented non-literally, but processed and shown graphically/diagrammatically?

Option Two:

The second, more outlandish option is a cybernetic one. Imagine if new perceptions could be ported directly to the brain, without relying on pre-formed synaptic systems. Completely new senses. Perhaps existing parts of the brain could accept these ported senses. The phenomenon of synesthesia comes to mind, where stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Is it possible that in a similar vein the visual cortex could read non-optic information, and would that help us to see several types of information simultaneously but allow us to selectively choose which parts to focus on? If such a segue weren’t possible, would a neural implant bridge the gap?

In Summary

I’ve intentionally only discussed the EM scale here, but of course there are many other forms of data that can be visualised. There might be potential for augmenting vision with sonar, for example, or miscroscopy. Human-centric metadata deserves a whole post in it’s own right.

It’s difficult to predict how the potential for sensory augmentation will change, but whatever opportunities pioneering science unlocks can be followed up with tactical design consideration to make sure applications are appropriately effective and adoptable. It’s an exciting prospect to think that we may be on the threshold of viewing the world in new, never-before seen ways – and with this new vision there will be, inevitably, new points of inspiration and new ways of thinking.