inanimate wrappers

9th November, 2006

Dr. Manfred Clynes, from Sentics (p10-11):


…our own genetic construction is such that it allows us to recognize natural forms in different ways from the inanimate.  The ear, for example, is more sensitive to animate sounds than inanimate. (The nervous system is built to recognize special types of frequency modulation characteristic of animate sounds.)  A mother will recognize the cries of an infant in sleep, and our visual system responds differently to living forms than inanimate ones.


…Recognition plays a key role in genetic processes: the shapes of molecules are recognized with high specificity.  The loose chemical bonds used in the processes of building instructions and of replication depend fundamentally on the recognition of specific molecular forms. More recently the importance of vibrational modes, introducing time, has been discovered.  Indeed, recognition implies time as well as space: the frequency of a photon is recognized by an electron – forms in time may be programmed by genetic instructions as well as forms in space alone.”

 I read this a few days ago, and while I have spent a good bit of time with Herbert Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial to be uncomfortable with some of the inanimate/animate rhetoric, I was nevertheless struck by the excerpt above.  After thinking about it a bit I went into the kitchen for something to eat.

 I took a bag of rice-cakes down from the cupboard and couldn’t tell, by sight, whether they were white or brown, so I consulted the wrapper.  It occurred to me that I could – and perhaps should, be able to tell what the stuff was made out of via my senses, without having to consult the symbols on the plastic bag – but the bag was between my senses and the food.  The bag required a body of acquired knowledge to decipher it, and is designed to emit only the faintest odor (this is significant as our nose is so important when selecting food), and survive conditions that the food inside wouldn’t.  The inanimate was wrapped around the animate.

 Packaged Food, in and from the grocery store, is packed to keep it from the elements.  As such we identify it, in the store, by decoding symbols usually on some impermeable membrane – like a plastic wrapper.  The recognition is one of symbols on the inanimate wrapping and not by direct contact with what is in the container.  We have to read, think, and consciously process in order to satisfy this primary need.

 In re: Clynes; once familiarizing ourselves with our parents, friends, children’s voices we maintain that experience of recognition for long, long periods of time, perhaps for life. This understanding is an aspect of an intuitive relationship we are born with – we don’t need to learn it, or to acquire it, it seems equally available to every human.  In our current system of object management, the contexts are often different enough (if we hear a recording of a familiar’s voice shifted by 1% we won’t apparently, recognize it.  Have you had the experience of trying to find something in an unfamiliar grocery store?) that we are required to continually maintain a database to satisfy an increasing number of our needs.  We are becoming, perhaps, overwhelmed by how many of our inborn abilities are being “enhanced” by living in environments that require ever increasing interaction with the inanimate, and by extension require a learned, acquired familiarity with the data necessary to know what the inanimate is as a first step towards the animate. The inanimate (a plastic bag, in my example above, but there are many, many examples seemingly entrenched in all aspects of our lives) is often used to coat the animate.

 It seems to me we’ve decided to prize the acquired and “other” the intuitive.  Our technological advancements have accelerated this process, yet our bodies are virtually the same as they were thousands of years ago.  Our technological development has outpaced our biological development and it is troublesome – no wonder we have begun to cyborg ourselves – we need to keep pace.  I remember a lyric to a song that went “only fools have needs.”  We seem to be becoming increasingly needy.

 Consider the Myspace phenomena: 1,000 friends (!) vs. the quite probable small, and perhaps even shrinking number of authentic, really close friends/family members that interact with deeply – meaning getting inside the wrapper, i.e., with the full complement of our being.


“…during the past few decades, modern technology, with radio, tv, air travel, and satellites, has woven a network of communication which puts each of the world in to almost instant contact with all the other parts.  Yet, in spite o this world-wide system of linkages, there is, at this very moment, a general feeling that communication is breaking down everywhere, on an unparalleled scale…”

                                     david bohm, on dialogue


 The inanimate wrapper phenomenon is simply making it harder, literally making it more work, to recognize someone.  Instead of a known voice it is an email, or sms – we have to go through some steps every time until we can say, “ok, that is xyz”.  We use caller id, custom ringtones, buddy lists, but the point is we have to consciously think, and check, and cross-reference, and factor data – and while it might take just second or two, this delay is significant because it suggests, to me, the colonization of the dynamic, animate, mammalian meta-consciousness (the integrated conscious/sub-conscious systems working together) by the explicit, by the conscious mind, the ego, in the form of the learned, the acquired, the index-able, repeatable: data.  If you had a look at the collective intellection entry you’ll know that I think there is a value – perhaps difficult to quantify – in the convergence of minds engaged in simply sharing associations together – in just talking, aimlessly, but listening, and cultivating empathy with each other.  This communal benefit and value is what gets left off when we privilege data.

 Bohm mentions that we are linked to each other on a world-wide level.  This linkage is not simply person-to-person, willful communication, I don’t think he’s referencing the potential to email millions of people (on dialogue was written prior to the internet boom), instead, I think his excerpt implies that more of us are linked within database tables somewhere in ways that are not always clear to us. While this is analogous to what I think is the related phenomenon of a sort of species connection we have, and need to explore, our current linkage is, at its root, a numerical representation of our performance and position within a severely limited index that takes into account only a few bits of our total experience – and inevitably seems to complicate our interactions via its limited, and inaccurate scope.

 I’m not making a “this way vs. that way” statement. I’m advocating for an integration of the “two” at the service of creating better working models to aid us in our collective development – a significant aspect of which is the social software elements of our cultural forms.  In other words, how effectively our stuff and our built environments enhance our ability to simply, and happily get together and continue to develop towards greater and more complex integration – analogous to the level of integration among the various elements of our bodies.

 Too often our tech seems to be at the service of creating a tiring, alienating, and limited daily experience. When we are so overtly and consciously managing our interactions so much of the time (our environments seem to demand increased, active, conscious processing) and when our exchange with our environments is based increasingly on symbols on inanimate wrappers, we are prone to ricochet from one surface to the next across the symbolic landscape, as our connection to what is external is often, literally, limited to information gleaned from our eye or ear to mind, as opposed to the complex arrangement of senses and systems including the “sub” conscious that seems natural to us – all this skating around the surface costs energy and is, frankly exhausting and unsatisfying – it leaves us always wanting, and needing more.

 In response to this common environment and experience, I wonder if our social interactions are becoming similar episodes of data categorization, exchange and management – facilitated by the tools many of us now use for socialization.  Are we genuinely close to fewer and perhaps fewer people because it is simply too much work for us to maintain multiple, and active deep interpersonal relationships?  Does the inanimate wrapper require us to be in constant analysis and upgrade mode, to be always learning, and always acquiring, and, when applied to what Clynes describes as our inborn, natural systems and patterns (our bodies haven’t changed much over the past several thousands of years) have we placed ourselves at odds with certain fundamental and utterly necessary aspects of our experience?

An irony of the www is that it provides opportunities for more and more people to be reachable by more and more people but the methods of connection are such that we spend significantly more energy fending off unwanted contact than happily integrating with an ever-expanding array of genuine friends.

 The development I’m interested in brings the various, currently disparate, elements of our experience into a relationship of mutual influence that produces greater and deeper environmental, personal, and collective integration.


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