Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Lostness and Ghosts in the Machines

I've been thinking lately about two separate ideas, and though seemingly different I think they are closely related. First is the idea of the "Lost Generation". Though the phrase has come to designate the generation coming of age around the time of WWI, I think it's an extremely flexible concept. I think my generation is very much a "Lost Generation". We don't have the structure of WWII and the G.I. Bill and the old-school small-world connectedness of two generations ago. We don't have the hometown rebellion turned corporate assimilation and falling in line to raise families and to carry on the values of the prior generation like my parents. Our inheritance, and our world, seems to be one of drifting lostness. We'd like to have the resolve of our grandparents and the WWII generation, but we don't have the structure or the practice in sacrifice that they do. In many ways their world is totally foreign to us. And we'd like to have the attitude of our parents, of homestead building and intensely laboring so our children have better lives than they did, but our world is even different from our parents'. We're just not settling like they did; we're restless, listless, throwing ourselves into jobs and commitments only half-heartedly, always keeping our options open. But the most interesting point to all of this is that at least the original "Lost Generation" had the sense to self-identify as lost. We're too busy and too caffeinated and too distracted to even make such a declaration.
The second thought is the concept of "The Ghost in the Machine". The two thinkers who developed this concept, Gilbert Ryle, and his later critic Arthur Koestler, suggest a certain critique of Descartes' mind/body dualism and a proposal for an architecture of the brain that tends toward self-destruction. This "Ghost in the Machine" idea has also been applied to computers and the possibility of Artificial Intelligence becoming sentient (Think "I,Robot"). It seems to me that to a certain extent we ourselves have become the ghosts in the machine. Speaking for myself and many others I know, I spend so much time online and on my computer that to a certain extent it is an extension of my own intelligence. I rely on my computer as an external memory bank and as a primary means of interacting with the world. I'm wondering to what extent this is a self-destructive tendency - a form of "lostness", a disconnecting of the conscious self from the physical self with perhaps subconscious autocidal tendencies. I'm just not really sure where to draw the line between myself and my computer. I'm sure if it suddenly died I would panic as though a part of myself died. Perhaps I'm being overly dramatic, but how many people feel bitter remorse when they lose a cell phone or their computer crashes? I don't think I'm alone in this.
I think one possible connection between these two ideas is that we don't know what to do with our "lostness," and so we invent and perpetuate electronic forms of existence in which our lostness comes to make sense. This explains the utterly impersonal nature of computers (they are just electronic machines after all) and the intensely personal nature of our online virtual lives (facebook, twitter, blogging!). We need to quarantine our lostness before it infects us and drives us mad, and our computers are a great place to do that. Any thoughts on these phenomena? Does this resonate with you?


  1. the sad thing to me is while blogging allows for a large amount of text, facebook, and especially twitter and texting do not. so now we're lost and have only 160 characters to get found. essentially, i believe we are all floating through this life waiting for some magician to come rescue us and take us to a magical land where we are hailed as the king, think narnia, or brad neely's the coffee line. beyond our computers being used as virtual memory banks we use the media to gain experience. we watch television or movies and gain experience based on what we watch, same goes with video games, which recent studies show improve cognitive develpments in children (probably why we rock so much as a generation). It comes down to our great divide being people who will assimilate into what has the norm for society, as in going to school for business and getting a job to pay bills, and the rest of us. You and i chose to study things we are actually interested in. when people ask me what i plan to do with my degree i generally say i don't know, because i truly don't know. i enjoy what i study and if i could make money doing that i would be happier than if i made more money in a field such as marketing. we have been raised by the postmodern community. the only reason to have norms is to break them. To close my comment, we are fucked because of our fuckedness, or aptitude to accept being fucked, here the word fucked has no sexual meaning whatsoever, but rather refers to our willingness to figuratively allow society (undefined) to ream us in, as a man, our most holiest of holes. oh well. at least we're not doing anything meaningless.
    also, check out the animated series and the movies of the ghost in the shell. that series delves into the idea of heightened AI and our migration to electronic brains and so on.

  2. Truly inspired- thanks for sharing!

  3. Okay, I'll bite.

    As a generation, we're not lost - we have a purpose, we face hardship, and we know it. Our purpose is the sisyphean challenge of correcting our predecessors' mistakes: global warming and the environment, inequalities and stigmas that still exist, wars and the economy, and so on. So far as I can tell, we as a generation are acutely aware of this - how many people our age do you know who believe that we can pay for social security; or that Don't Ask Don't Tell was a good policy; or that we should maintain our dependency on oil? These aren't exactly secrets. And just because we have fewer iconic moments to point to doesn't mean that we aren't working for change. To me the question isn't whether or not we have a purpose, but what we're doing about it.

    But therein lies the rub: we as a generation are unable to distinguish between "doing" and "accomplishing". Growing up we've been coddled. Remember elementary school, when every player on every soccer team received a trophy at the end of the season? It wasn't because we were the best, or because we distinguished ourselves from the other players in some way. We simple put in our worked hard and were lauded for it. "A for Effort," and so on. But nothing changed except our air of self-importance.

    Listen, I'm not trying to argue that effort isn't good - far from it. But to make a distinction, I think that effort is only worthwhile as a step along the path to greater accomplishment. We tolerate failure because we accept that there's a lesson in it; but if we reject the lesson, then what good is the failure?

    And so breeds this culture of complacency that we currently find ourselves in. I think we recognize what needs to be done, but are at a loss to determine how to get there. The feeling of "lostness" comes from our frustration at putting forth effort and seeing it for naught; despite our best efforts, we're not getting trophies nowadays, and we can't figure out why. How do we get there? How do we realize the change that we need?

    Good question....