you and a brain in a vat

The idea that you are your brain has fascinated intellectuals at least since Descartes. Francis Crick, a co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA and a Nobel Laureate, described the “astonishing hypothesis”:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”

That’s obviously true. The whole of you by weight is mainly water, but you also include some hot air. You might leak out some tainted water, and subsequently be slightly lighter and happier. But lose your brain, and you’re dead.

Neurons evocatively named “mirron neurons” have generated considerable excitement recently in neuroscience. Mirror neurons have the same pattern of discharge when an animal sees an action performed, and when the animal performs the action. V.S. Ramachandran, a leading neuroscientist and an important contributor to the controversial field of neuroesthetics, has declared that “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.

The film The Matrix popularized the idea of a person as a “brain in a vat”. William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer popularized the idea of “jacking in” — connecting one’s brain directly to an alternative reality. I’ve argued that these ideas obscures much of how a living body makes sense in interacting with things of the world, especially other persons. In a recent essay, Ramachandran seems to take a “brain in a vat” and “jacking in” quite seriously.

Well, at least for awhile. Towards the end of his essay, Ramachandran emphasizes relations between persons:

We are all merely many reflections in a hall of mirrors of a single cosmic reality (Brahman or “paramatman”). If you find all this too much to swallow just consider the that as you grow older and memories start to fade you may have less in common with, and be less “informationally coupled”, to your own youthful self, the chap you once were, than with someone who is now your close personal friend.

So much for simulating a person with a brain in a vat. We’re all in this vat together. Either simulate us all, or forget about it.

oh no, not that modern!

Studying my unsolicited email, I came across this information:

Here are the 10 Most Read Articles on NYTimes.com from 2005.

1) Maureen Dowd: What’s a Modern Girl to Do?
Published: October 30, 2005
Burning your bra or padding it. Demanding “Ms.” or flaunting “Mrs.” Splitting the check or letting him pay. …

Another financial possibility occurred to this modern boy. Can you imagine it?

Probably not. The Vagina Monologues, performed in many fine venues around the world. They’re no longer just for Valentine’s Day!

low-production-value narrative and presence

Consider the new Kodak Photo Voice service. As described in a press release:

KODAK Photo Voice is a brand new way to relive memories, empowering two people to simultaneously view a customized slideshow, and to reminisce and react to each picture. Imagine if Grandma could see pictures from her grandson’s first day at school while he narrates every moment of the experience over Skype. Perhaps an old roommate could share detailed photos and recount stories of his new life in London, as his friend back home in California reacts to each picture.

Much of the value in communication comes from sense of presence. The human body naturally combines images and sound in making sense of presence. An external combination of images and sound reduces the bodily cost of making sense of presence.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Kodak Photo Voice is a auspicious type of service for the production of presence. It supports low-production-value, pre-produced visual content (a narrative skeleton) that one person places at the other’s attention. Offering to share one’s photographs of a vacation, relatives, a holiday gathering, etc., is a delicate relational move. Being subject to another’s narrative of their photographs can make one feel virtually non-existent. It can be a tedious, numbing experience where you feel that you are being simply controlled by the obligations of friendship or kin relation.

An auspicious “show-and-tell” communication device would put immediately into the stream of communication images that any participant spontaneously generates while moving about the world and interacting with things of the world. “Camera phones” don’t do this. Neither does Kodak Photo Voice.

Update: For more business insight, see Carnival of Business #4 at Techie Day.

media bias

About Oct. 20, 2005, U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations broadcast a documentary entitled Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories. Reviewing the documentary, the ombudsman for PBS and the ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) both expressed concern that the documentary did not fairly document the problem it addressed.

In response to numerous complaints of bias, on Dec. 21 PBS issued a statement that declared, “The producers approached the topic with the open mindedness and commitment to fairness that we require of our journalists.” Enjoy your holiday! No problem here. We hope that you’ll forget about this little documentary and troublemakers like these before the time comes to celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.

A subsequent letter (pdf) from a media watchdog group to the Inspector General of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting suggests that at least some observers consider the PBS review for bias to have been highly biased. The PBS institutional review also seemed to fail to impress the CPB ombudsman. He subsequently declared, “I found the program to be so totally unbalanced as to fall outside the boundaries of PBS editorial standards on fairness and balance.”

Bias has been a perennial concern with respect to traditional media. Recently, a study of media bias (pdf draft) , forthcoming in a leading economics journal, found empirical evidence of media bias. Some blogs, which make no claim to be unbiased, have sharply criticized the study.

Evaluating media bias is difficult discursively and institutionally. New video distribution networks, along with cheap, powerful, video cameras and desktop video editing software, give everyone a chance to be a video producer. That might help educate persons to evaluate bias more reasonably. I encourage you to consider this unbiased news video reporting on the Galbi brothers’ 800 meter challenge!

radio regulation in low-income countries

About the year 2001, 40% of persons in the world lived in countries where there was less than one fixed-line telephone per hundred persons. Good radio regulation can help to foster rapid development of communication capabilities for many persons around the world.

Björn Wellenius and Isabel Neto of the World Bank recently posted a paper, The Radio Spectrum: Opportunities and Challenges for the Developing World. I hope this important topic gets more attention in development economics.

Update: Check out this very impressive website and book on Wireless Networking in the Developing World.

warrantless searches: the banal and the newsworthy

With the aid of high-tech equipment not in general public use, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) monitors radiation emanating from a variety of sities, including homes. In addition, the FCC claims legal authority to enter a home without a search warrant, find a device of concern, and collect information about it (“inspect radio equipment”).

Under such regulation, Benjamin Franklin might have gotten into trouble with the law for messing with spark-gap radiators (Leyden jars) within his home. Perhaps to avoid that danger he might have invented an effective cloaking technology.

Why is government monitoring of radiation associated with illegal home-based radio stations less controversial than government monitoring of radiation associated with a potentially catastrophic “dirty bomb”?

Why is inspection, without a specific warrant, of radio devices within homes less controversial than inspection, without a specific warrent, of suspected communication about terrorists acts?

Perhaps because spy agencies and terrorism provide an exciting framework for grave scholarly discussion and heated political hyperbole. Radio regulation, in contrast, is, well, boring. You don’t even need leaked classified documents to find out about government monitoring of (radio) radiation!

between neuroscience and social psychology

Sense of presence has not been the central focus of much scientific study. The neuroscience of a single body cannot adequately understand sense of presence. Social psychology that does not recognize the biological constraints of separate human bodies cannot either.

Scientific interest in the connection between biological hardware and relations between organisms appears to be growing. Oxford University Press has just announced a new journal entitled Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. This area of research points to better understanding of sense of presence.

regulatory affairs departments

A friend working for an incumbent telco in a country moving to a more competitive environment asked me for thoughts about the organization of regulatory affiars departments. Some thoughts:

The personality of senior management, by natural selection, tends to be competitive. Regulatory affairs departments tend to emphasize regulatory competition to get support from senior management. Regulatory affairs departments can easily form their own objectives that have little relationship to the company’s long-term profitability (in economic jargon, the principal-agent problem). Doing well in regulatory lobbying is not the same as doing well as a company. Winning regulatory battles is not the same as making money.

In countries in which many companies have participated in the telecommunications industry for a number of years, companies’ regulatory affairs departments typically interact extensively with various industry associations and lobbying groups. The organization of a company’s regulatory affairs department should be considered in relation to other extra-company regulatory affairs resources.