Machine Consciousness & Organic Consciousness

There are sections of our country where no machines are allowed.  I know, that sounds like science fiction, but it’s true.  Only simple machines are allowed in the wilderness: levers, wheels, pulleys, inclined planes, screws, wedges.  Wheel barrow? Nope, that’s a lever and a wheel and therefore a complex machine.  Bike? All those gears and wheels and levers are way out of bounds!  My point is not to talk about the politics of the Wilderness Act (although it’s quite poetic and worth reading).  My point is that in these areas, an entirely different way of being exists.

Actually, it’s not different.  Quite the opposite, it’s the most ancient way of being; it’s an organic way of being.  I don’t mean “organic” like the label on food.  I mean “organic” like the process of a seed becoming a plant or the fall turning into winter.  I believe this way of being is fundamentally different than a mechanical way of being.

Of course, there is no strict separation of the two.  Is a wing a machine?  What about tools?  Am I talking some Daniel Quinn, glorified hunter-gatherer philosophy?  No.  I’m not a Luddite.  I love technology and am on board with Kevin Kelly when he talks about how technology itself is very organic.  He even goes so far as to name it the seventh kingdom of life!

I don’t think a mechanical way of being is “bad,” but I do think that parts of it are at odds with an organic way of being and that we run into trouble when we treat organic things as though they’re machines.

Machines are about control, efficiency, power.  These are great values.  But anyone who has a garden will tell you pretty quickly that control and efficiency are lost causes.  And power, well how do you compare the power to move heavy things long distances to the power that can turn a seed into a tomato?  Like predicting the weather, there are too many variables to guarantee a perfect tomato.  You can get pretty damn close, but you are never completely in control.  But if we treat that plant like a machine, then it becomes about either eliminating variables (pesticide) or controlling them (fertilizers, greenhouses…).  I’m not against greenhouses, but quite frankly winter tomatoes suck.

A tomato is not a machine.  When we try to control it as though it is, we devastate landscapes, poison our and produce shitty food.  That’s my environmental soapbox and I’ll get off it now, cause there’s a different soapbox I wish to stand on.

We are not machines.

Wendell Berry gave a lecture in Cambridge last fall where he said we are trying to turn our hearts into machines.  We must maintain our organic consciousness, nurture it daily with natural processes and remember that we are creatures, we have organic hearts.

We are an ecosystem.  Machines are not unlike ecosystems: both have intricately related parts, all necessary for the whole.  But in a machine you can replace a part.  An ecosystem is an intricate web where you pluck one strand and the whole thing shudders.  No part within a machine has autonomy.  Each part of an ecosystem has some degree of agency.  A part of a machine is only as valuable as its usefulness to the whole.  Do individuals in an ecosystem have value?  Machines are efficient and powerful, but they aren’t adaptable.  Machines have a distinct function.  Do ecosystems?  Do we?

Think about traffic jams.  Everyone has put themselves in giant, fast machines on a concrete grid interacting with other machines.  Once you get into the machine, you adopt the machine’s value of efficiency.  So when the machine jams up, what does everyone do? Get pissed. Compassion and empathy aren’t machine values.  It’s only once we get out of the machine that we feel bad about yelling at that old lady.

Think about our school system.  Are we creating adaptable, creative, compassionate beings or are we creating useful parts?  Think about our fluorescent cubes with conditioned air.  Think about the glowing rectangle in front of you right now.

I believe we adopt the values of the environment we inhabit.  Either consciously or unconsciously, the values of our community push on us.  Consciousness is mysterious but is intimately related to values and valuing.  I would even go so far as to say valuing is one of the first acts of consciousness.  So I don’t think it’s a reach to say that we inhabit different states of consciousness and being when we live immersed in machines.

Again, I don’t think machines are bad.  I lived in the woods of Montana for three summers and can wax eloquent about the glories that are refrigeration, computers, and bicycles with their many wonderful gears.  Of course the middle path between a machine consciousness and an organic consciousness is the most free.  I don’t always know what that path is.

But I do know that when I treat another person as a part of a machine, it prohibits any genuine relationship.  When I treat my mind and my body as machines, I don’t heal or grow as well.  When I envision my community as a machine it seems bleak and I get bitter.  When I’m in the sunshine, eating a summertime tomato, thinking about the wild, vibrant, chaotic movements of nature, well that’s when I’m the most happy.

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I'm a post-doc studying the psychology of meaning-making systems.

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