Terse Systems

The User Illusion

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Slides from the May 17th Five Minutes of Fame. This one is on consciousness and a book called The User Illusion. I read the book and thought it interesting, but it was only after reading Blindsight and following Peter Watts’s blog that it clicked as something that happened outside of science experiments.

That, and I’d really been hankering for a good science talk. There’s nothing quite like science; even when it comes to something as wishy-washy as consciousness, it can still give you surprising answers.

And video!

The short version of the slides:

When you see, you see what’s already been processed and filtered. Illusions are when the system doesn’t work; you don’t see when it does work. In other words, we see “car accident” as presented to our consciousness — we don’t consciously put it together from our visual input. I’ll spare you the customary link to the “You wouldn’t know if a Gorilla showed up” study, but it’s fairly clear the brain only passes on the Cliff Notes version to the executive layer.

Consciousness lags well behind. When scientists measure the movement of a finger, the electrical potential rises a full second before the finger moves. But we report making the decision to move half a second before the finger moves (Libet). We become aware of making the decision after it’s already happened.

Some scientists conjecture that consciousness may simply be unnecessary (Rosenthal). Others think that consciousness may be a result of conflicting subconscious systems (Morsella, Hofstader, Metzinger), and the Watts commentary points out that consciousness seems to be strongly associated with inner conflict and/or pain, although I’m not spoiling his punchline.

Despite what Heph says, I don’t think the talk is depressing. When you think about consciousness, you assume that it’s a good thing, but realistically we’re far happier and productive in flow, without that nagging voice inside our heads. Rather than life being suffering, suffering itself is the act of consciousness.

The talk itself went down well, with the coveted seal of approval. The 5MoF itself was surprisingly wide ranging — Eclair Bandersnatch showed up in a barbie mask and wig to talk about art, Danny O’Brien gave a talk on The Cosmopolitan Anarchist and recapped the news on Byron Sonne, Liz Henry read poetry from her new book, and Josh Juran presented FORGE, a GUI based on manipulating what appeared to be symbolic files on the filesystem — a programming paradigm that apparently came from Plan 9 and hurts my brain every time I think about it.

We’re doing the same thing next month, and I’ll probably be talking about Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (if I’m not, y’know, drooling in a corner). So! If you have a thought that’s been burning a hole in some mental sidepocket, you should sign up.

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