The Dim Future of Human Brilliance

by rsbakker

Moths to a flame

Humans are what might be called targeted shallow information consumers in otherwise unified deep information environments. We generally skim only what information we need—from our environments or ourselves—to effect reproduction, and nothing more. We neglect gamma radiation for good reason: ‘deep’ environmental information that makes no reproductive difference makes no cognitive difference. As the product of innumerable ancestral ecologies, human cognitive biology is ecological, adapted to specific, high-impact environments. As ecological, one might expect that human cognitive biology is every bit as vulnerable to ecological change as any other biological system.

Under the rubric of  the Semantic Apocalypse, the ecological vulnerability of human cognitive biology has been my focus here for quite some time at Three Pound Brain. Blind to deep structures, human cognition largely turns on cues, sensitivity to information differentially related to the systems cognized.  Sociocognition, where a mere handful of behavioural cues can trigger any number of predictive/explanatory assumptions, is paradigmatic of this. Think, for instance, how easy it was for Ashley Madison to convince its predominantly male customers that living women were checking their profiles.  This dependence on cues underscores a corresponding dependence on background invariance: sever the differential relations between the cues and systems to be cognized (the way Ashley Madison did) and what should be sociocognition, the solution of some fellow human, becomes confusion (we find ourselves in ‘crash space’) or worse, exploitation (we find ourselves in instrumentalized crash space, or ‘cheat space’).

So the questions I think we need to be asking are:

What effect does deep information have on our cognitive ecologies? The so-called ‘data deluge’ is nothing but an explosion in the availability of deep or ancestrally inaccessible information. What happens when targeted shallow information consumers suddenly find themselves awash in different kinds of deep information? A myriad of potential examples come to mind. Think of the way medicalization drives accommodation creep, how instructors are gradually losing the ability to judge character in the classroom. Think of the ‘fear of crime’ phenomena, how the assessment of ancestrally unavailable information against implicit, ancestral baselines skews general perceptions of criminal threat. For that matter, think of the free will debate, or the way mechanistic cognition scrambles intentional cognition more generally: these are paradigmatic instances of the way deep information, the primary deliverance of science, crashes the targeted and shallow cognitive capacities that comprise our evolutionary inheritance.

What effect does background variation have on targeted, shallow modes of cognition? What happens when cues become differentially detached, or ‘decoupled,’ from their ancestral targets? Where the first question deals with the way the availability of deep information (literally, not metaphorically) pollutes cognitive ecologies, the ways human cognition requires the absence of certain information, this question deals with the way human cognition requires the presence of certain environmental continuities. There’s actually been an enormous amount of research done on this question in a wide variety of topical guises. Nikolaas Tinbergen coined the term “supernormal stimuli” to designate ecologically variant cuing, particularly the way exaggerated stimuli can trigger misapplications of different heuristic regimes. He famously showed how gull chicks, for instance, could be fooled into pecking false “super beaks” for food given only a brighter-than-natural red spot. In point of fact, you see supernormal stimuli in dramatic action anytime you see artificial outdoor lighting surrounded by a haze of bugs: insects that use lunar transverse orientation to travel at night continually correct their course vis a vis streetlights, porch lights, and so on, causing them to spiral directly into them. What Tinbergen and subsequent ethology researchers have demonstrated is the ubiquity of cue-based cognition, the fact that all organisms are targeted, shallow information consumers in unified deep information environments.

Deirdre Barrett has recently applied the idea to modern society, but lacking any theory of meaning, she finds herself limited to pointing out suggestive speculative parallels between ecological readings and phenomena that are semantically overdetermined otherwise. For me this question calves into a wide variety of domain-specific forms, but there’s an important distinction to be made between the decoupling of cues generally and strategic decoupling, between ‘crash space’ and ‘cheat space.’ Where the former involves incidental cognitive incapacity, human versions of transverse orientation, the latter involves engineered cognitive incapacity. The Ashley Madison case I referenced above provides an excellent example of simply how little information is needed to cue our sociocognitive systems in online environments. In one sense, this facility evidences the remarkable efficiency of human sociocognition, the fact that it can do so much with so little. But, as with specialization in evolution more generally, this efficiency comes at the cost of ecological dependency: you can only neglect information in problem-solving so long as the systems ignored remain relatively constant.

And this is basically the foundational premise of the Semantic Apocalypse: intentional cognition, as a radically specialized system, is especially vulnerable to both crashing and cheating. The very power of our sociocognitive systems is what makes them so liable to be duped (think religious anthropomorphism), as well as so easy to dupe. When Sherry Turkle, for instance, bemoans the ease with which various human-computer interfaces, or ‘HCIs,’ push our ‘Darwinian buttons’ she is talking about the vulnerability of sociocognitive cues to various cheats (but since she, like Barrett, lacks any theory of meaning, she finds herself in similar explanatory straits). In a variety of experimental contexts, for instance, people have been found to trust artificial interlocutors over human ones. Simple tweaks in the voices and appearance of HCIs have a dramatic impact on our perceptions of those encounters—we are in fact easily manipulated, cued to draw erroneous conclusions, given what are quite literally cartoonish stimuli. So the so-called ‘internet of things,’ the distribution of intelligence throughout our artifactual ecologies, takes on a far more sinister cast when viewed through the lens of human sociocognitive specialization. Populating our ecologies with gadgets designed to cue our sociocognitive capacities ‘out of school’ will only degrade the overall utility of those capacities. Since those capacities underwrite what we call meaning or ‘intentionality,’ the collapse of our ancestral sociocognitive ecologies signals the ‘death of meaning.’

The future of human cognition looks dim. We can say this because we know human cognition is heuristic, and that specific forms of heuristic cognition turn on specific forms of ecological stability, the very forms that our ongoing technological revolution promises to sweep away. Blind Brain Theory, in other words, offers a theory of meaning that not only explains away the hard problem, but can also leverage predictions regarding the fate of our civilization. It makes me dizzy thinking about it, and suspicious—the empty can, as they say, rattles the loudest. But this preposterous scope is precisely what we should expect from a genuinely naturalistic account of intentional phenomena. The power of mechanistic cognition lies in the way it scales with complexity, allowing us to build hierarchies of components and subcomponents. To naturalize meaning is to understand the soul in terms continuous with the cosmos.

This is precisely what we should expect from a theory delivering the Holy Grail, the naturalization of meaning.

You could even argue that the unsettling, even horrifying consequences evidence its veracity, given there’s so many more ways for the world to contradict our parochial conceits than to appease them. We should expect things will end ugly.