It was in Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus that I first became really aware of how much of an abstraction money is. Just to clarify what ‘abstraction’ is in this context, vegetables, meat, human labour etc all have clear, tangible value. Money is a transactional device with many advantages but it has no inherent value. Its common acceptance is its value. The exercise on 8th November 2016 is a great example to illustrate this – those pieces of paper we thought were valuable until a minute ago suddenly became worthless. In fact, at one point, there was a chance that after Dec 31st, they would even be harmful!
At some point, I started thinking of abstraction with respect to consciousness. At a very broad level, I think of consciousness as having three basic fluid forces at play – sensations, emotions, and thoughts. We tend to use the adjacent ones (sensation/emotion and emotion/thought) interchangeably but if you think about it, nuances separate them. They all have a role to play, but I also see them as a hierarchy with respect to their influence on consciousness – thoughts at the top.
So here’s an (arguable) line of thought. I view the written word, painting and other art forms all as an abstraction of thought. i.e. a way of expressing the thought, not the thought itself, because though we might agree on what your expression means/conveys, I really cannot get inside your head and confirm this. The oft used example for this is colour. When we both agree that something is red, are we really seeing the same red? Despite advances in all sorts of imaging, how can you really know?
With the advent of the social web, I view more and more abstractions of emotion appearing – FB Likes, emojis. It could be argued that these are also thoughts, but I think we’re just at the beginning of this and will see advances that can better bring out this nuance. Sensations, to me, were the last frontier, the most basic but tangible element of consciousness. And now, with VR and mixed reality (touch, smell) even sensations will start getting recreated/created in digital environments.
The reason I have for considering sensations, emotions, and thoughts as the building blocks of consciousness is that by various combinations, they create memories and narratives that form our consciousness at any given point. And with this, we create our own meanings for why we exist. Our subjective reality. (I am yet to be convinced whether any other – say, objective reality – exists) As I explained earlier, our dealings with thought are mostly as abstractions, and increasingly so are emotions and sensations. Our drivers of purpose – love, fame, money and so on are all built on a foundation of abstractions. It seems real to us and we call it reality, that’s all.
Thus, abstractions are only as real as we make them. Which brings me to the point where I began thinking of all this. (ICYMI) Though it might be an exaggeration to say that Google’s Machine Translation System created its own ‘interlingua’ to translate languages, it is quite an exciting step for machine learning. (read) To my untrained mind, this seems like the abstractions we began making when our species was young. Who’s to say that the abstractions that AI creates henceforth are not real even if they might be unintelligible to us? More importantly, it reminded me of this fantastic conversation from a show that I really, really liked – Westworld.
But yes, watching a species building abstractions that might define their consciousness and be the only reality in the future that matters – fascinating!