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Weekly Commentary March 04, 2019

What color is your straitjacket?


In 1970, the well-known book What color is your parachute? was published for the first time. In it, Richard Nelson Bolles provided advice on how to look for and find a job. Half a century later, with all due respect to Bolles, the question has changed and now the book should be called What color is your straitjacket?

Even more, unlike what happens with the parachute, which you must prepare in advance to the moment you are planning to use it (otherwise, it would be too late), there is no previous preparation for the straitjacket: we are forced to use it and we gladly do it. In fact, we live in such a crazy time that we even choose the color of our straitjacket before using it, as if that were something normal and desirable.

Obviously, in the same way that Bolles didn’t talk about a “real” parachute, but used that image as a metaphor, I don’t speak of a “real” straitjacket, although that does not mean that we do not wear one, even voluntarily.

The straitjacket I'm talking about is the one we impose on ourselves by restricting reality, ideas and opportunities to what we already know or, even worse, to what they taught us and that we have adopted as an indisputable creed and as immovable doctrine.

“I can’t let you share those ideas with my group because those ideas could confuse the group participants and they will then ask questions about what they believe or should believe,” someone recently told me.

Translation: "I can’t allow you or anyone else to show the members of the group the straitjacket I imposed on them, because then they will take it off and they will leave me. And I myself will have to think about my own straitjacket, which I've been wearing for so long that I cann’t and will not take it off. "

In the time in which we live, as it has been tragically proven again and again (but also throughout history), closed minds and closed hearts are so strong that Procrustes himself would be envious to see how well we manage to reduce everything to our own narcissistic dimensions.

As Bernardette Roberts said in her book The Path to No-Self (1985), “Nothing is to be gained and a great deal is lost when we fit our experience to an acceptable framework and think no more about it”.

When we do that, when we proudly and unconsciously choose the color of the straitjacket that we will wear, we “don’t expand our knowledge,” we are “trapped in the illusion” and we don’t “progress internally”. Roberts emphasizes.

As Roberts says, if we do not leave “the door open”, that is, if we don’t move beyond a “rigid adherence” to our own ideas, not only we will not listen to the opinions of others, but we close ourselves to the “infinite possibilities” proper of being multidimensional humans. 

So, what color is your straitjacket and why are you still wearing it?

“I have a question for you: Which one is your spirituality?”

In the context of a recent and interesting conversation, my unexpected interlocutor asked this question without warning: “Which one is your spirituality?” He didn’t say “How is your spiritual life?” He said “which one”, suggesting that, in answering, I was expected to specify which, among many spiritual options, was the one I had selected for my life.

But actually, as it became immediately clear even before I answered (which, incidentally, I did not do), the question was not a question at all, but a kind of test or exam to see whether I would be accepted as a worthy person depending on my “spirituality”.

In other words, it was not a question at all, because it didn’t seek an answer that had been accepted and respected as such. It was questioning. I am sure I probably said or done something in the dialogue before I was asked the question mentioned that led my interlocutor to become restless, doubting of my spirituality.

The question moved me unexpectedly to the initial stage of my life when, in a cultural and social context very different from the current one, they continually analyzed, questioned, criticized. and corrected my childish beliefs (“childish” in the double sense of beliefs that I had in my childhood and beliefs that become unacceptable when one progresses in life.)

Being a child, I didn’t know what to do or how to respond when my parents, or the teachers, or some religious leaders questioned me about my spiritual beliefs by. And now, with more experience in life and more knowledge (not a lot more), I still don’t know what the best way is to respond.

Should I give a detailed answer about the philosophical, historical, and theological foundations of what I believe (assuming I knew them, which is not the case)? Should I pretend that I agree with the other person's approach to spirituality, not because I want to hide my true beliefs, but to avoid any unnecessary conflict?

Should I be direct and express to the other person that I know that he/she has already made the decision not to accept my spiritual life (whatever that may be) because it doesn’t exactly conform to what he/she thinks I must believe and practice?

Or, as a good friend of mine once suggested to me, should I just smile and feign insanity, calmly and politely ignoring the question?

All these options are valid and each of them offers its various advantages. But none of them seemed appropriate, because, as I said, the question was not a question in search of an answer, but a trap so that, no matter what I said, my answer would validate the doubts about the “orthodoxy” of my spirituality.

The whole situation bothered me because it revealed that some childish elements of my childhood are still present today, several decades later, being reenacted by those who believe they have the right to question others just for not believing exactly what they believe. Who, then, holds childish beliefs?

 

We all suffer from existential myopia, but we don’t recognize it

Sometime ago I read an interesting fact: up to a certain age, babies only see it up to 12 inches in front of their eyes. Anything located at a greater distance is simply out of their sight. For them, the world ends very close to their eyes. 

And not only that, because, at the same time, it takes some time for the baby's brain to process the images in the "correct" direction. In other words, when babies see something, they see it "inverted" compared to the way we adults see things.

In short, during a certain stage of their development, babies only see a short distance and what they see they see it “inverted”. But they, the babies, are not aware of either of those two limitations.

And although in the case of most babies these "limitations" will disappear during the normal development of the babies, in the case of many of us, already adults and, we might even say, with eyes and brains adequately developed, we still cling to limited and inverted visions.

For example, I recently met someone who told me that he was very pleased to have never changed his religious beliefs since his childhood and now, as an adult, he practiced them as he had always practiced them. But in this case, "adult" means having a family with several adult children and a company of respectable size.

I then asked him if, precisely because of the experiences he had accumulated in his life, those experiences had led him at the very least to question his beliefs, and, although not necessarily to abandon them, at least to deepen them or discover new dimensions in those beliefs. His response was that he didn’t understand the question.

And, in another case, I met a person who told me that she was raising her daughter to be a housewife, in the same way that her mother had raised her, based on how her grandmother had raised her mother, and so on for several generations.

I asked her how she applied that approach to a new generation when she was no longer in her native country, her daughter speaks a different language than she speaks, and the world changed profoundly from the time of her mother and grandmother. Her response was that she didn’t understand the question.

Examples like the two I just mentioned (and I could share many more similar examples) make me think that many of us suffer from a kind of existential myopia neither recognized or acknowledged by us. The existential myopia not only limits what we can see with our mind and heart, but also makes us believe that what we see (our limited world) is the complete reality (the whole world).

And, unlike babies, the passage of time for us is not accompanied by a healthy internal development to expand the field of our vision, to mentally rectify what comes to us through our senses and, ultimately, to become fully human (if that would be possible.)

We don’t know who we are, and we will probably never know it

This is the issue: artificial intelligence is changing our language and, therefore, changing our brain. And, in doing so, it makes us doubt about ourselves and, as a consequence, it generates an increasing uncertainty about what it means to be human and about our own future as humanity. Now, let's explain it.

According to a recent publication by Byron Reese, CEO of GigaOM (a global leader in researching new technologies), on the website of the London School, our language has begun to change to adapt to the new reality presented by the artificial intelligence.

It is not just about words we now use every day, such as "hashtag" or "chat", but new words representing new situations in which we humans find ourselves due to artificial intelligence.

For example, says Reese, the word aiporia (a mix of AI -artificial intelligence- and aporia. a contradictory situation with no apparent solution exit) is now being apply specifically to situations in which a human does not know if he/she is talking to another human or an AI, and he/she has no way of knowing or determining it.

I must confess that I have been in this situation several times recently, for example, when making hotel reservations and even something as simple as paying my monthly Internet service.

I personally know the case of a young man who was deeply disappointed to learn that the girl with whom she chatted every day online about how to recover from addictions was not a flesh and blood person, but an algorithm programmed to answer questions on that subject.

Reese proposed several other words, among them, ainigna (a mix of AI and enigma), to describe the fact that humans increasingly understand less and less the decisions made by AI, such as the ranking of websites in search engines or what we can or cannot see in our social networks.

But at the same time that happens and precisely because that happens, it is clear that artificial intelligence and the technoscience surrounding us have already greatly exceeded our ability to understand them and our ethical and moral parameters, to paraphrase Andy Stalman, considered as one of the global experts in branding.

In this context, says Stalman, we humans have begun to doubt about our own intelligence and, therefore, we focus on who is smarter, if we are or our phones. In doing so, we neglect key elements of being human, like kindness, generosity, empathy and creativity.

As Stalman explains in a recent column, the more we focus on who is more intelligent, the less we focus on helping each other in our daily lives. 

In short, I add, we are forgetting who we are or who we could be, and we are even forgetting that we are forgetting. We no longer believe ourselves to be irreplaceable because we no longer believe in anything.

And while some seek refuge in a non-existent nostalgic past or dream of a new utopia for the future, most of us have simply stopped thinking.

Existential paradoxes, yes. Narcissistic contradictions, no.

Existential paradoxes have been part of humanity since humans become humans precisely because we, humans, are not yet totally sure of what or who alone really, much less of what our purpose or destiny is, here or in the most there (if there is one).

For that reason, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus asked us two and half millennia ago, "to expect the unexpected", an obvious contradiction, because if something is unexpected it cannot be expected. But there precisely lies the validity of the invitation to refuse to see reality as it appears to be. For many, that’s totally unexpected. 

In the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition, these paradoxes frequently occur. One of the main promoters of Christianity in its initial stage, Paul, affirmed that he did what he did not want and that he did not do what he wanted. And the unknown writer (perhaps a woman) of the so-called Epistle to the Hebrews (11: 7) speaks of living as "seeing the invisible."

Seeing the invisible is as contradictory as expecting the unexpected. And Paul's lament over internal contradictions is transformed into a celebration by Walt Whitman when in his Song to Myself (part 51) he declares "Do I contradict myself? Very well. Then I contradict myself," adding, "I contain multitudes."

These existential paradoxes and those essential contradictions to the human being have been known and masterfully expressed throughout history by philosophers, theologians, artists, poets and writers, and obviously by countless "ordinary" human beings, so to speak.

Maybe that's why, as the German philosopher Richard David Precht said in the title of one of his books, the question "Who am I?" should be followed by "How many am I?"

But, as Herbert Marcuse had already warned us, this paradoxical multidimensionality of the human being has been reduced in our social and cultural context to a one-dimensional human being, a caricature of what we really are or can be, and, in fact, a monstrosity condemned to be forgotten, as Nietzsche and Kafka, in different ways, indicated.

Perhaps for this reason, existential paradoxes have been transformed into narcissistic whims, in which the age of the capricious person is irrelevant and in which the existential paradox is no longer seen as such (because that would require recognizing the other and the other in one). same), but each one only sees himself/herself, in the best style of Narcissus contemplating ceaselessly his own image.

The ancient Greeks had a word to describe those narcissistic contradictions, the belief of being more than one really is, that wanting to modify the universe by whim. They called it hybris, something like “exaggerated pride” or “insolence.” And it is not just a mere attitude without consequences, but a "monstrous and implausible incongruity", as the French philosopher Luc Ferry says.

And why are these narcissistic contradictions dangerous for the community as a whole, including the global community? Because while paradoxes keep our minds and hearts alert, narcissism always leads to self-destruction and alienation by keeping our hearts and minds closed. 

What can be done, if anything, when our own leaders are our own worst enemies?

The task seemed simple: to talk with a certain community leader to present her with a free long-term personal training project, focused on solidifying the financial foundations of the family. But neither the task was simple nor was there communication.

"I'll be clear, Francisco," this person -who oversees dozens of community programs in the city where I live- told me. "God brought us here to be poor and we should not help anyone to get out of poverty because it is not what God wants."

Neither statistics, nor reasoning, nor personal stories, nor even an appeal to common sense served at all to establish a dialogue with that person. For her, there was nothing to listen or to be debated. She remained as adamant about her opinions as Alexei Karenin with his own, both believing to fulfill what "God" wants for us.

But that was not the only case. Recently I was asked to speak with a well-known leader, supervisor of a massive community project northwest of my place of residence. He is a person of great influence in the region. And once again, the goal was to establish some cooperation to facilitate the community's access to the new future.

The response was immediate: "That (the future) doesn’t exist and the community doesn’t need it."  There was no dialogue in this case either and every attempt to speak was answered with an increase in the voice volume of the (supposed) leader, indicating that he had no intention of listening.

Although without appealing to any divinity, it was very clear that he would "close the door" to all attempts to communicate with "his" community.

And those are our leaders. They look like us, they talk like us, they eat what we eat, they go to the places we go, but they are against us. They keep us poor (like the first case) and isolated (like the second case).

We have not elected them. Nobody voted them. They put themselves in the places they now hold. And we let them stay there. We revere them when they pass. We applaud them. We take pictures with them. We listen to them with admiration and do not dare to question them. We treat as saviors, even if they are our worst enemies.

They are closed-minded. They have become accustomed to hearing a single voice (their own, which they consider to be "the" truth) and, even unconsciously, they manipulate others to accept that "truth", although that "truth" means for us to remain poor, isolated, ignorant, hopeless, and separated from the future.

These "leaders" fight against false threats, create nonexistent conflicts, fight against fictitious enemies. And they have no followers, only addicts who, for that very reason, remain blind to the true enemies of their lives.

And while those small minds and hearts "lead" us, artificial intelligence already reads the human mind, scientists seek another planet because this one may no longer last, and the new future is already a reality. Please, let's open our eyes!

We will soon be replaced by intelligent robots and they are already watching us

Francisco Miraval

I must confess that I don’t like it when I watch a TV series that it is presented as only fiction and then, later, I discover that the technology presented in that series was not fiction at all. It really upsets me when I see that years after the TV series ended the fictional technology is publicly presented as very real. 

That was the case, for example with Person of Interest (CBS, 2011 to 2016). In that series, you can see very often images (supposedly, just fiction) of a software created by a billionaire genius to identify people about to be involved in violent crimes, hopefully before they commit the crimes.

Now, three years after that series ended, Yoshua Bengio, a Canadian computer scientist who helped to develop the technology for artificial intelligence, published images from China showing (supposedly in real life) the use of an AI program similar to the one previously presented in Person of Interest. The similarities between the images are uncanny. 

Let me put it this way: what just a few years ago was presented as science fiction, now it is a reality. And, I am sure, not only in China. In fact, Bengio said during a recent interview with Bloomberg that the situation “it’s becoming more and more scary.”

According to information published by Bloomberg, the IA used in Chine is a neural network using simultaneously facial recognition and processing of natural language (including translations) to verify the identity of a person and to anticipate “antisocial behaviors”, from small things (jaywalking, being rude in public transportation) to major issues (not paying debts or speaking against the government.)

Bengio, together with some of his colleagues and some well-known global corporate leaders, said that the new technology, “as it gets more powerful, outside of other influences, just leads to more concentration of power and wealth”, adding that “That is bad for democracy, that is bad for social justice, and the general well-being of most people.”

How bad is for humans to live being constantly watched by AI? As bad as thinking than in 50 years or so that AI will replace us, according to scientist Luca De Ambroggi, the research and analysis lead for AI solutions at Transformative Technology, under HIS Markit in London. 

During a recent interview with Sunday Express (UK), Ambroggi said that AI and robotics have achieved such important advances during the past decade that it is possible that by 2070 or even earlier new superhuman AI robots will be able to displace and replace us (unless, I add, somebody comes from the future to save as – Terminator – or fights from outside the techno-simulacrum – The Matrix –).

We talk about this topic because highly respected scientists are also talking about this topic. Otherwise, it would be ridiculous. Yet, in the past, highly respected scientists thought the earth was flat and that we were the center of the universe. So, whom should we believe? The scientists?  A TV series? That’s another a very scary alternative. 

We have lost the ability to communicate rationally and intelligibly

This is the time of the year when I have to pay the municipal taxes for my business and, to do it, I went to the same municipal web site I have used for years, to pay online. Yet, to my surprise, the payment was not accepted. An automatic message said the information I entered was incorrect. 

I began the process again and this time I carefully checked every number, every detail, and every word. But the problem persisted. A new automatic message said the information was still incorrect, but it was not. 

I called the municipal help line and I asked for an explanation. I was told that there was probably a discrepancy in their records. They asked me to scan the documents of my business and email the documents to them. I sent the information requested and I got a message saying in 48 hours the issue would have been solved. 

Two days later, trusting the “48 hours” message was true, I went online to pay for taxes and, once again, an automatic message told me “Rejected”, indicating the information was incorrect. To avoid delays and potential fines, I went in person to the municipal building and I explained the problem. 

“Mr. Miraval”, an employee told me, “when our system asks you for tax number, please ignore the request for your federal number or your personal number. Please use the municipal tax number we gave to you”. 

“Very well. But, when did you give me that number and how can I access it?”, I asked. 

The employee then told me that, given the fact that all payments were now digital, the number I needed to use was sent in a message to the account I needed to access to pay my taxes. Of course, to access that account I needed the number that was inside the account. 

Let me be clear: there was a change in the way the local municipality handled tax payments. And the new number to pay taxes was inside the system to pay taxes. But without that number you can’t access the system to know the number. 

For some reason, perhaps looking at the expression of horror, unbelief, and frustration on my face, the employee checked something in his computer and then wrote down my tax number on a piece of paper. I went back to my office and went online to pay and… nothing. Still the same message about “incorrect information”. 

I called again the municipal help line and I explained the problem. “How many digits the number has?”, she asked me. I told her “14”. “That’s the problem. You only need to input the first 8 digits”. 

“And why nobody ever told me that before?”, I wanted to ask, but I didn’t, fearing that there were more secret and unknown codes to discover. 

I finally paid my taxes online, but something is now clear: we have lost, probably forever, the ability to communicate with each other in a reasonably and intelligibly manner. 

The government shutdown is, sadly, a reflection of the closing of our minds

Everybody in the United States is talking about the government shutdown, that is, the partial closing of the government for the last month. Few, if any, however, talk about the full closing of the American mind for the last three decades, as described by American philosopher Allan Bloom.

Even if we are not in agreement with everything Bloom said in The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 (and, by the way, we are not in agreement), we do agree, based on our own experience of several decades teaching at college level, that many people lack “points of reference” to develop critical thinking skills or to understand current events.

Or, to paraphrase what it is said Goethe once said, if you don’t know 3000 years of history, you are just walking around the world with no knowledge or understanding of what is really happening.

For Bloom, that lack of knowledge, that “traveling the world without critical thinking”, leads to an “American-style nihilism”, that is, people living with “strong, fanatical opinions”, and, for that same reason, without thinking.

In Paulo Coelho’s novel Adultery (published in 2012), the leading character, a female journalist, says 15 pages into the book that, “I fell asleep thinking. Perhaps I really do have a serious problem.”

I want to be clear I am not talking here about politics. This is just a superficial and ephemeral attempt to talk about philosophy. From that perspective, the government shutdown should lead us to move beyond the shutdown itself to think what is/was already closed, hidden, and forgotten before this shutdown took place.

For the government to be closed, something is had to close before. And whatever it is will remain closed, hidden, and forgotten, even after the federal government reopens. As vapor emanating from the Lethe river, an invisible and permanent cloud of forgetfulness and oblivion is already preparing the next shutdown, and the one after that, and the next one, until everything we know will be closed, hidden, and forgotten.

At that moment, nobody will talk about anything being closed or forgotten, because forgetting somethings implies you remember you forgot. And hidden something reveals that something is hidden. And closing something means it can be opened. Yet, if we forget who we are and who we were, and if nobody remembers us, our shutdown (closing) will be permanent.

Ancient Egyptians, in the context of their believe in eternal life, found a way to ruin the eternal life of already-deceased people. They simply erased from monuments and walls the names and faces of those whose afterlife they wanted to damage. With nobody left to remember those persons, the dead themselves will soon forget their own identities.

Today we are facing a similar situation, but, as philosopher Byung-Chul Han, we are imposing to ourselves our own loss of memory and identity. We look at the mirror and we don’t recognize ourselves or even remember our real names. Something important was completed shut down decades ago and we already forgot it.

What do we see when we can only see ourselves?

Anais Nin once said that we don’t see things as they are, but as we are. And in his book The Burnout Society, philosopher Byung-Chul Han said that we, postmodern humans, have lost the ability of “taking time” in front of objects, including, for example, works of art, which we simply ignore.

To that combination of not seeing things, but only seeing ourselves (according to the color of the glasses we wear) and not taking time with things, I would like to add a third element: hedonistic narcissism, that is, not only no recognizing things as such, but assuming reality is there to give us pleasure, even ephemeral one. 

A few weeks ago, during a visit to a well-known museum, I witnessed all those three elements in action. I arrived early enough to the museum to be among the first ones to enter. And, as soon as the doors were open, I unexpectedly found myself among a stampede of people chaotically running to see a certain work of art.

I didn’t run. Running is not one of my attributes and I will never run inside a museum. But I walked as fast as I could. Then, when I arrived at the masterpiece, I saw exactly what Han described: people were not taking time to see it.

Instead of looking at the art, most, if not all, of those in the stampede were spending just a couple of seconds to take a selfie, always making a “V” sign with their hands, in front of the work of art, even covering the art with their faces.

It was clearly an unspoken statement saying to the museum something like, “There nothing beautiful or important here except me, and I am the only one worthy of a picture”. Or, in other words, “If I am not in the picture, there is no reason to take the picture”. 

Only seconds after taking the selfie, many of those postmodern humans were already somewhere else, finding a different place – a bridge, painting, sculpture, church, monument, or something else – to repeat the ritual of inserting their images in front of the unseen thing, imposing their narcissism upon their reality. 

Perhaps they were all making the “V” sign, usually associated with victory, to show they were victorious over history, cultural, art, creativity, beauty, and spirituality. 

Or perhaps the “V” sign should be understood as an indication of peace, perhaps an internal peace achieved only for a few seconds when we pretend to cover reality with a selfie, that is, when we don’t see things (Nin) and we don’t take time with things (Han). Then, looking for more peace, we run to another place for a new selfie.  

That’s what people were doing: running from one place to another looking for “selfie spots”, never stopping and collecting images faster than a bee collecting pollen. But at least the bee is working for the benefit of the hive, without posting images in social media to calm and appease a fragile ego. 

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