Journeying Toward Wholeness

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“They Want Google to Tell Them What They Should be Doing”

September 6th, 2010 · 7 Comments · Carl Jung, decision, freedom, Individuation, Psychology and Suburban Life, Self

Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Google in a recent interview  said the following:

“I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. 

They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.”

Renowned science fiction writer William Gibson has tried to explore this idea in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Google’s Earth”.  Gibson takes a good hard look at the role that Google has assumed in our lives, and asks some tough questions about the implications for who we are becoming as people, at this point in time. 

In discussing the growing capacity of Google to assist, or even replace human decision-making, Gibson observes:

“We never imagined that artificial intelligence would be like this. We imagined discrete entities. Genies….  Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical. Making Google a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world. This is the sort of thing that empires and nation-states did, before. But empires and nation-states weren’t organs of global human perception. They had their many eyes, certainly, but they didn’t constitute a single multiplex eye for the entire human species.”

So Google is pervading more and more aspects of our lives.  But do we actually want Google to tell us what to do?  To take our previous behaviour, and to extrapolate from that, and so to indicate to us, on the basis of artificial intelligence and algorithms, what it is that we should do next, according to Google?

It seems apparent that the technology to do this is going to be more and more within reach for Google in the not-too-distant future.  Is it what we really want?

Perhaps we do want Google to make some choices for us.  For instance, Google might greatly assist me if it would simplify certain types of choices about acquiring consumer goods — the best new smartphone for me to acquire, perhaps.  But do we want Google to tell us what we should be doing when it comes to the fundamental choices of our lives?  Who we love, for instance?  Or what we really value and strive for in our lives?

How do we know that the choices which I have made in the past are really my authentic choices?  Perhaps the choice which is authentically mine — this time, now — is quite different from and quite inconsistent with the choices I might have made in the past?

This whole discussion is much bigger, really, than Google.  It takes us right into questions about what it is that makes us fundamentally human.  And into the question of whether, in the process of our making choices, there is something indefinable and indescribable that is fundamental to our unique identity.  Jung held that there was such a mystery at the heart of our human uniqueness, and that is the reality that he called the Self.  It is the process of coming into contact with that reality that forms the basis of Jungian analysis, and of any psychotherapy that is founded on principles of depth psychology.

I’d welcome your comments on this post, and on the importance of the subjective experience of free decision-making in relation to our identity.  Do you feel that it matters, is fundamental to your identity as a unique human, or not?

My best wishes for your unique personal journey towards wholeness,

Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

 

PHOTO CREDIT: © Aleksandar Nikolov | Dreamstime.com

© 2010 Brian Collinson

7 Comments so far ↓

  • jamenta

    I think there is nothing wrong with a “loving technology”. It is when technology is misused for the wrong reasons that it can be harmful.

    I also believe there is a great deal of variety not only now but potential variety that awaits us in the future – and Google and even computers are just the beginning of that variety.

    The psyche is unlimited and so is the potential of the physical universe and our capabilities. I think this is a good thing.

    I have loved technology ever since I was a kid and watched Star Trek everyday. I made a career out of programming computers and even had a short stint working for NASA at Cape Canaveral – the apex of my work life. And I don’t regret a moment of time spent trying to develop technology to widen the scope of my human life for myself and others.

    Google for me is a simple widening of scope. I do not think it can or ever will replace the human psyche.

  • Brian C

    Thanks very much for your comment, John. I think that there is nothing wrong at all with having a positive interest in technology, by which I’m assuming you’re referring to information technology, or with seeing it as offering potentially great benefits. The same thing would be true of other human institutions, such as, for instance, medicine, or banking. I think that the danger comes when people adopt an uncritical attitude toward technology, and simply assume that whatever it can do, it should do — simply because it can do it. That would be a very dangerous view to take of advanced technologies such as genetic engineering, for instance, which have the capacity to fundamentally alter the nature of being human, and not necessarily for the better. In my opinion, information technology has a similar potential not only to expand human freedom and capability, it also has the potential to dramatically reduce freedom in some very dehumanizing ways. That is something at which we need to have a very serious and sustained look, especially when dealing with a vast entity like Google, which seems in many respects not to be particularly accountable to anyone other than its shareholders. Google has brought many good things. It also has enormous power: a change in its policies on search rankings can make or break a small business, for instance. We can’t reject Google out of hand, of course, but I feel strongly that we should hold it to account. We should also all make choices around the use of technology, Google’s or anybody else’s, that enhance our humanity and individuality, rather than reducing it.

    Do you agree with me on these points, John? What are your thoughts? I’d very much welcome anyone else’s commentary as well. How should we be relating to Google? Clearly we need it and it’s part of our life now, but do we need to keep a somewhat critical outlook on “the next big thing” Google comes out with? Or am I unnecessarily concerned? What do you think?

  • W.Marlene Guymer

    I think we have reason to be concerned, because the warm embrace of technology and, especially the internet, is addictive. I’ve long felt that we are comforted by the surveillance that is the internet, as it provides us the cozy –as opposed to exposed– feeling of being watched. This is where the internet becomes like God, who “walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own.” (old hymn –sorry– I don’t know who the composer is!) Yes, I am referring to that biblical God who watches the sparrows fall and knows the number of hairs on my head. The internet gives us that same kind of comforting feeling.

    Media has become all-pervasive and sadly, I believe there’s a sense in our secular society that we are invisible or insignificant if we don’t exist on the internet. Myspace, and then Facebook, changed all that. Now, kids (as mentioned in the Times article) are posting ever-more exposing photos of themselves on-line. When Gibson suggests all this is a form of colonization, he’s absolutely right. There’s more pressure than ever for kids to look and act a particular way.

    But, it’s not just about kids and conformity. It’s about the distractions we’ve allowed into our lives that ultimately become our own “mind forg’d manacles.” As someone who places high value on the path of individuation, I recognize the amount of time, work and quiet reflection that is necessary in this pursuit. Only a very disciplined mind can resist the entangled web of the distracting internet. I waste enough time on internet tangents as it is; I certainly can do without Google’s suggestions of what I should be doing, because I know it’s only a (deliberate?) distraction, keeping me from the important questions (and what I really should be doing! Laundry, perhaps?)

    Let’s not forget that Google is neither maleficent nor benevolent; simply, it is a corporation, intent on keeping us consumers. Until such time as I’m proven otherwise, I will maintain this conviction and continue to *try* to discern the distracting, time-wasting temptations of cyberspace and all its “suggestions”.

  • Brian C

    Thanks very much for your comment, Marlene. I was struck in particular, by two remarks you made. Firstly, “I think we have reason to be concerned, because the warm embrace of technology and, especially the internet, is addictive.” I agree with this. I think it is reflective of the maternal aspect of the Internet, the unconscious image that we have of it as endlessly secure and nourishing. The danger is that it can become the smothering mother, the endless source of nourishment and stimulation that infantilizes us, and from whose grasp we never get away. There is little doubt that Internet addiction is a real, large and growing problem, and that it is rooted in this sense of security that the seemingly endless embrace of the Internet can provide. I think that we all need to be aware of this potential seduction in our Internet use.

    In saying this, I don’t wish to be taken as “anti-Internet”. If that is what I felt, I certainly wouldn’t have a website or a blog!

    However, I think that the key need, though, is for conscious awareness in Internet use. That the Internet not become, as you say, a set of “mind-forged manacles” filled with endlessly ensnaring distraction, but rather that we hold it — and ourselves — accountable, and that we use it as means of enhancing our individual, and perhaps even our collective, consciousness.

  • Brian C

    Thanks for your thoughts, Chris. I agree with you that two key elements in my original post are critical thinking and choice, and certainly those factors have a lot to do with the individual’s relationship to the Internet. Tied to those are two other interrelated elements, namely the individual’s consciousness of him- or herself, which is intimately related to his or her own most fundamental identity, and the related idea of the uniqueness and mystery that is inherent in the individual self. I wanted to suggest that what is of fundamental importance is that we keep our focus on our own lives and our own choices, and the way that information technologies in general, and Google in particular, interact with that. That we ensure that we interact with such technologies in a way that enhances freedom and conscious awareness, rather than “out-sourcing” our freedom and responsibility to Google or to anyone else. There is a continual temptation in life to to abdicate responsibility, and to let someone else make the choices, whether that “someone” be religious institutions, government, private corporations or social movements. Every human institution, including Google, has a shadow, just as does every human being.

    Years ago, German psychologist Erich Fromm wrote a very insightful book on the Nazi era, called “Escape from Freedom”. In it, he argued that one of the chief factors that led to the rise of Nazism was the strong desire on the part of the Germans of that era to simply off-load responsibility for their lives and the stress of individual choice onto a powerful, supposedly benevolent authority — to escape from freedom. In my opinion, it’s essential in our time that we not give into the temptation to make our lives less stressful by giving away responsibility for ourselves and our own individual lives in the areas that are fundamental to our identity and dignity as unique persons.

  • jamenta

    It is interesting. How do we judge the value of time spent on any activity? Who decides?

    If I spend my entire life in a monastary, never go further than a hundred yards outside, and day after day diligently copy manuscripts with feathers and black ink – is this considered a wasted life?

    If each day I live in caves somewhere in South America – myself and my tribe, and at sunset each day, we pray to the Sun that it will return to us in the Morning – and in the Morning we await it’s arrival – and this is all we ever do, for years – is this considered a life that is invaluable?

    Upon what criteria do we determine the value and the “good” of our activities each day? Suppose I am a porn star – and every day I went to be filmed in my sexual activities – and I found that a fulfilling activity – in fact, a movie was even made about me decades later … is this considered invaluable?

    Suppose – suppose I am a painter and I spend 20 years painting on the ceiling of some chapel – mythological creations, angels and devils and naked people. Is this the quintessential life?

    Or suppose I get married and raise two children – and work until I’m 70 years old?

    Or suppose – suppose I spend many years working with computers – googling for information, posting on Blogs and Forums. Playing games and/or posting videos? Is this a wasted life?

    My guess is this: that we do not need and are not required to justify our existence. We are blessed because we are alive. We are free to do what we will and to follow our own unique destiny.

  • Brian C

    Thanks for your comment, John. I think your essential point is right: no one can really be the judge or arbiter of what is a meaningful life for another human being. The only real yardstick that can be applied is whether a human being is living out their own deepest values, and ultimately, the only person who can really know this first hand is the individual her- or himself.

    However, it is essential, and is the basis of the whole of Jung’s psychology, that the individual live in accordance with his or her own true nature, and his or her deepest values. People can and do live in ways where they are alienated from their real selves in ways that can be either conscious or unconscious. When that happens, in Jungian terms, people end up living a provisional life, or are “split”, and they suffer, sometimes a great deal.

    None of this has anything to do with any external authority. It has everything to do with the individual being free to be who they really most fundamentally are. To live in the light of one’s nature in this way is to live out one’s real destiny.

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