Are We Turning into Commodities?

Slavoj Žižek, in a recent London Review of Books article, alleges that the capitalist mode of generating wealth has changed. Money can still be made through the production of material goods – but the big bucks are now being made by privatizing everyday life and leasing it back to consumers.  So, for example,

“…Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolising the field [of computational technology], as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms”

This example evinces what we can usefully think of as the capitalization in part of Wittgensteinian ‘forms of life’.  A ‘form of life’ is a useful heuristic for capturing a community’s shared biological and cultural background, in terms of traditional and entrenched patterns of behaviour, in a single phrase.  Žižek’s point is that these patterns of behaviour, which form the ‘general intellect’, are being exapted: parts are being adopted, built upon, and changed to create a new pattern of behaviour, which are then rented out or sold to consumers.

Continue reading “Are We Turning into Commodities?”


Machine Math?

Calculators are an often used example in the philosophy of mind.  Sometimes they’re used analogously, to show how computational algorithms can be implemented in a variety of mediums (say, the very different circuitries of the calculator and the human brain).  Other times, they’re used metaphorically, as objects that we can attribute intentional states: the calculator ‘knows’ how to add and ‘believes’ that 2+2=4.  But how appropriate are comparisons between calculators and humans?  Is it a matter of implementing the same (or nearly the same) algorithm?  Or is the comparison a mere metaphor?   Stanislas Dehaene is the champion of the surprising view that neither of these (caricatured) approaches can be right: calculation is neither a matter of merely attributing intentional states, nor do humans and calculators implement algorithms in the same way.

(Apologies if this topic seems old hat to any – if you are a person already familiar with Dehaene, ‘cultural re-mapping’, number sensing, and the like, the payoff to re-reading this extremely cool and interesting stuff about human mathematical capabilities, is some very exciting and interesting new advances in brain localization and machine-learning)

Dehaene’s view is that our mathematical abilities result from the mixture of two evolved mechanisms, and, importantly, a sprinkling of language.  The first of these evolved mechanisms is a capacity to distinguish a certain amount of discrete quantities, or numerosity: the ability to tell apart one, two, three, and maybe four and five.  Then, there is the capacity to distinguish differences in quantity: that six is bigger than one, or that twenty is less than sixty.  Both of these abilities can be found in animals, and, yes, human children.  And it’s easy to understand why such mechanisms might persist over time*:  as an organism, it is very handy to have a capacity to determine between alternatives; whether option (a) was better than (b) because more nutrients, or less competition, or what have you. Continue reading “Machine Math?”

Irritating ‘Philosophy’

I have a little bugbear.

A little pet peeve.

So there are a ton of different usages of the word ‘philosophy’.  Leaving aside its double-life as a verb, the OED lists nine noun entries for ‘philosophy’ – and one of them really grinds my gears.  I might be the only philosopher that gets the irritated, nails-on-chalkboard sensation when someone uses the term in this way, but I suspect not.  Not only are philosophers incredibly sensitive to their own use of language, splitting already split hairs, I find that they’re almost preternaturally attuned to the misuse of words in others.  Maybe we’re just all jerks.  Number six in the OED list is the spine-shivering offender, particularly, entry (b): “In extended use: a set of opinions or ideas held by an individual or group; a theory or attitude which acts as a guiding principle for behaviour; an outlook or world view.”

Maybe now you’re starting to sympathize with me. Continue reading “Irritating ‘Philosophy’”

Alien Intelligence and Plant Intelligence

 As NPR reports, planets are being discovered that might support life.  These new and exciting celestial spheres are more-or-less suitable for the emergence of life: the temperature, gravity, and elemental make-up of such planets can create selection pressures that range the gamut from mild to pretty-much-inhospitable.  One such discovery is especially noteworthy: Kepler 22-B (named after the telescope) is in the ‘goldilocks’ zone.  In this zone, the size of the planet and its proximity to its star create the right sort of conditions to support flowing water.

The BBC (picked up by Slate) go on to make the link between the discovery of such planets and astral systems, and SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.  With the discovery of more and more of these potentially-hospitable earth-twins, SETI gains a more plausible target to turn its arrays.  With the discovery of more and more of such planets, it is more likely (though I am hesitant to use this term here) that we may discover intelligent life.  Another variable in the Drake Equation starts its climb up in the cardinal numbers.

But wait! What is intelligent life?  The ability to broadcast galactic radio-waves?  Drake, at least, keeps that a separate variable, a tier that only a select group of intelligent critters will ever reach.  But that really seems to operationalize our search for intelligent life.  What if, being impatient, we send a probe (‘Make it so Number One’, etc.) to Kepler 22-B and discover strange, barely congealed bioluminescent areas – would we be right in attributing it with intelligence?  Might our current conceptions of it be too broad? – too exclusive?

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Time is Money!

Einstein's Clock

To me, the first of January is always a write-off.  Nothing productive ever happens.  It exists among the days of hangovers and jetlag.  But now it is the day after the first, and it is now (as it was yesterday) 2012, and that means it is the perfect time to discuss, well, time.  And there have been quite a few timely stories lately, from Samoa and Tokelau going back to the future, to the growing schism between international time and astronomical time.  Even the Royal Society has some choice words on tricky temporal travails. And, resolutions aside, I’m going to attempt to be timely myself, and make this a rather short post.  I want to share a few thoughts and links about the commercialization of time.

Of course, time is involved in many non-trivial ways in our daily life: the flow and change of seasons that signalled times of growth and harvest; the rotations of the sun that marked out the day’s working hours; the shivers of tide that allow for the gathering of molluscs, and so on.  There is a strain of philosophy, particular the early Phenomenologists, that assert that such relationships to time are primordial, originary.  These initial demarcations of time and change are what allow our mind to grasp a hold on the concept, to bring it to the rarefied reaches of reason, and to gain a measure of control over it.  This is a rich field of thought, but I want to make just a few remarks about one aspect of this control: when time becomes part of – a tool, even – of our commercial and economic spheres.

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Some News and Common Pitfalls On the Subject of Sex

In this post: some sexy news about the female brain, then, some careful caveats about brain claims in general.

First off, Time reports on the first three-dimensional movie of a female orgasm.  Captured by a team of researchers led by Barry Komisaruk at Rutgers University, the movie shows the brain activity correlated with the orgasm of a single subject.  Like most fMRI captures, the ‘heat’ of the colours is correlated with oxygenated blood movement, and thus brain activity – the more rufous the colour, the higher the activation.  In the case of an orgasm, the entire brain is dense with activity.  (By the way, if you are interested in what it is like to achieve an orgasm in an MRI – the guardian has the scoop here)

In his as-of-yet-unpublished findings, presented to the Society for Neuroscience conference, Komisaruk speculatively links the sequence of brain activation to (presumably, though not mentioned) first-person experiences of such orgasms, third-person observations, and previous literature on orgasm and brain circuitry.  This yields some pretty titillating conversation for a scientific finding, such as:

…facial expressions during orgasm (the “O face”) are often indistinguishable from those made in pain, and suggests this may be explained by activity in the insula.

Continue reading “Some News and Common Pitfalls On the Subject of Sex”

MIT Debuts New Brain-Based Chip

The Chip!A recent article on the BBC (and the highly recommended MIT news) breaks the news on an innovative silicone chip that models neuronal architecture and neuronal communication.  The chip’s 400 transistors mimic the head of a neuron: they summate the analog signals received from other chips.  When such signals reach an adjustable limit, they cascade into an action potential, just as in neurons.  Depending on their arrangement and organization, these action potentials can have an excitatory, or inhibitory effect on their neighbours, analogous to their biological counterparts.

This kind of modelling is exciting and interesting – for it is profoundly different from other contemporary methods of modelling brain activity.  While a great overgeneralization, most other programmes model the brain’s circuitry – the neurons, the synaptic connections, the action potentials – in a virtual space.  They exist as computer code, or interacting objects created by such code.  These coded objects, whatever existence they have, model the function of neurons.  These chips, in comparison, are an actual model of a neuron.  And this is the important difference between the two paradigms: that between modelling function and form.

Continue reading “MIT Debuts New Brain-Based Chip”