Urban Angst, Social Conviviality, and the Looming SingularitySeptember 25, 2019
The pace of the world we live in accelerates at rate with which our evolutionary endowment cannot compete.
Think of yourself as a contraption that natural selection has sculpted to keep abreast a changing habitat, albeit one with certain invariable features.
Some of these invariable features consist of the dynamics of the social world. The dynamics that have persisted over millions of years are a type of tribal social configuration wherein social bonds depend on the degree of a group’s genetic relatedness.
Even the rise of complex social structures such as the polity and the state, conjectured to be concomitant with the agricultural revolution during the Neolithic age, relied strongly on the persistence of such ties. Larger groups depended for their unity not only on a strong ruler or tyrant, but also a shared linguistic and narrative culture. The narrative culture refers to the beliefs and myths that groups held abreast conjointly.
The individual thrived in a psychic sphere, that is to say a world of certain invisible rewards, that arose from the dynamic of proximity to one’s kin.
This psychic sphere furnished the sense of belonging, affiliation with, and above all, approbation of one’s role and actions in the overall scheme, which incentivized the individual to favourably contribute to that scheme. I do not mean to idealize this particular social configuration. One cannot understate the abuse and lack of freedom that the individual endured on account of the obligatory ties to the group, which in many cases were tyrannical and not subject to alteration even if those alterations would, in the long run, benefit the whole.
Today, the individual proceeds shorn of these nurturing ties, in part because the urban environment does not favour a configuration of physical proximity to one’s kin group on a consistent basis. Not to mention that urban configurations that have encouraged the dilution of the larger kin-group through voluntary migration, make it so that people relate to one another, more often than not, under a regime predicated purely on contractural-transactional bases. People come into contact with one another under the arbitrary regime of the workplace, or to buy, sell, or cooperate for status or monetary gain. The upshot is that despite the cooperative advantages that this scheme yields, people come out of it dejected or discontent. Especially for those who were not successful in generating a nuclear family, the cooperative advantages of contractural-transactional social intercourse seem hollow. Not merely hollow, but completely and utterly devoid of the juice that gives life meaning, and supplies the motivation not only to continue the routine, but to delve in it with joy and a promise of crescendoing conviviality amongst the group, founded in the goods borne out of the social ties that the group confers on the individual. One is reminded of the domestic scenes in the first half of Fanny and Alexander, in which, fraught though they be with petty conflicts and indiscretions, merriment and heartedness prevail.
The isolation of the individual from organic social ties is only one of the jarring elements of mismatch that characterize the current environment. All organisms are informational beings, fundamentally speaking, in the sense that they transduce environmental signals into favourable and unfavourable perturbations, and adjust their behaviour to maximize the former and avoid the latter. Humans are such beings in a compounded sense. The layers of informational transduction are diverse and stratified, some of which are hosted and transmitted in a combinatorial infrastructure we call language. Language is a conduit for a diverse set of signals, some of which include giving expression to the compounded emotional rhythms distributed across circuits of motivational salience and retention that continually displace that motivational salience toward more probable outcomes. That displacement, that belittling by the external and imposing world-totality of the individual, results in the reduction of their estimated worth, or rather a realistic reassessment of themselves in the grand context of the scheme, but does not entirely cull their desire to increase it. And so, wearied and forlorn, the individual varies his or her strategies of lifting their heads above the swarm, all the while trying to save face, and not ostracize themselves from what little they have. They are, after all, taken care of materially by the surrounding culture, which at once nourishes and admonishes them for not being enough, while also coercing them, not without mockery, to fulfill all their obligations.
(I bring up language because I wanted to explore the theme of the importance and role of fiction, which I now realize I should explore in a separate blog post. Some of the thoughts expressed there will counteract the gloomy diagnosis I’ve made above. Fiction, I will argue, forms an imaginative space that augments the possible in virtue of extending simulated experience, and in doing so, contributes to the richness of the world by extending its ontology, re-imagining its boundaries and influencing real-world outcomes.)
One glaring problem with the above picture that, as evolved organisms, humans have adapted certain heuristics to respond to the environment favourably and unfavourable basically in automatic terms. Sugar is readily available and you have a hard time resisting it. This is because its desirability arose in context of its scarcity. Yet the adaptational systems could not have foreseen that the human ecological niche would evolve to nurse complex social structures we call corporations. Corporations render the competitive landscape tricky because they form a type of interested actor in nature that comprises of humans, yet whose interests come into conflict with the body politic conceived as a whole. When the interests of individuals come into conflict with the interests of corporations, the former cannot compete with the rational resources of the latter. The corporation makes decisions through processes that enlist many rational agents problem-solving at very specific areas, and whose collective efforts dwarf the rational resources of a single person. Against some such machinery, people are disadvantaged in pursuing the good because they are weighed down by an environment populated by actors that are constantly trying to exploit their cognitive biases for their own benefit (as several commentators have pointed out recently in popular psychology and philosophy books).
On the whole these mismatches stem from the pace of cultural evolution, which takes place at an inter-generational scale, in contrast to natural selection which takes place across hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. At the same time, the accelerating material culture cannot veer too far from the centre of gravity of dispositions that natural selection has already fashioned, which means that our technological extensions become exploited through the prism of our evolutionary biases, e.g. using media to affirm our self-worth etc. On the other hand, certain technological thresholds are conceivable that could completely shift the evolution of the entire system, humans and technologies together, toward a direction that does away with evolutionary centres of gravity that humans cannot escape, such as their emotional volatility, slow learning curves, and low levels of informational retention, to name just a few. That conceivable threshold is artificial general intelligence. It is not merely conceivable, but entirely probable that artificial general intelligence would not rely on something like the limbic system to orient itself in the world. Shorn of these ancient apparatuses, AGI could evolve in ways presently inconceivable, both in terms of material culture and forms of social structure and cooperation (or lack thereof).
Then perhaps in light of where the totality might be headed, our atavistic dissatisfactions against the eddying current of cultural evolution and the resultant human misery it lays in its wake, seem like small potatoes, or a case of missing the forest for the trees. The glaring issue with the progress of technology is either that technological determinism makes our lamentations of the loss of social conviviality infantile, or that, dissenting from the thesis of technological determinism, humanity is faced with some serious choices about its future. Without getting into the intricacies and labyrinths of the sample space of possible outcomes, it is inevitably the case that the future holds heterogeneous promises, with disparate initial conditions leaping towards their preferred cozy outcomes.