Storytelling with AI and machine learning

photo: usatoday.com

In the 1970s, Marvin Minsky, father of frames, and some say neural nets, told a press conference that 50 years on, computers would read and understand Shakespeare.

Today, computers can indeed read Shakespeare but understanding, not really, not so much, even though they have looked at Shakespeare in a few ways:

  1. Computers are proving which bits Shakespeare didn’t write, apparently John Fletcher wrote some parts of Henry VIII. I’ve always loved this conversation about who wrote what, especially the Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare conspiracy theories. Was Marlowe really Shakespeare? Etc.
  2. Machine learning can categorise whether a Shakespeare play is comedy or tragedy based on the structure of how the characters interact. In a comedy simply put, characters come together a lot. In a tragedy, they don’t – and ain’t that the truth in real life?
  3. Anyone can generate their own Shakespearean play with machine learning.

No. 3 seems mind blowing, but to be honest, and I love me some Shakespeare, the results truly makes no sense. However, it is hard to see that at first, because, Shakespearean English is like another language. I have attended some brilliant performances from Shakespeare School over the last couple of years, watching my children on stage, but for the first time, I realised, it is only the context and the acting which, for me, gave the words their meaning, rather like when you watch a film on TV in a language you don’t quite understand, but often the story is universal. It has emotional resonance.

I learnt Macbeth’s first soliloquy in sixth form: Is this a dagger which I see before me? It is when Macbeth contemplates his wife’s horrifying idea of killing Duncan the king. I can still recite it. It is meaningful because I studied it in depth and ruminated on what Macbeth must have been feeling, filled with ambition, and excited but horrified, whilst feeling the this isn’t going to end well feels.

However, machine learning cannot understand what Macbeth is saying, it hasn’t semantically soaked up the words and felt the emotional horror of contemplating murder in the name of ambition. All it has done is read the words and categorised them, and then written more words using probability to infer statistically what is the most likely next word as it was constructing each sentence, rather like predictive text does. It’s good and works to a certain extent, but none of us think that our predictive text is thinking and understanding. It feels like almost guessing.

We can see this more easily when looking at Harry Potter. The text is much simpler than Shakespeare so when a computer reads all the books and writes a new one, which is what the cool people at Botnik did, it’s easier to see that the novel Harry Potter and the Portrait of what Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash is interesting for sure, but doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

“Leathery sheets of rain lashed at Harry’s ghost as he walked across the grounds towards the castle. Ron was standing there and doing a kind of frenzied tap dance. He saw Harry and immediately began to eat Hermione’s family.”

“Harry tore his eyes from his head and threw them into the forest.” 

Very dramatic – I love the leathery sheets of rain – but it doesn’t mean anything, well it does in a way, but it hasn’t been designed in the way a human would design a story, even unknowingly, and it doesn’t have the semantic layers which give text meaning. We need to encode each piece of data and link it to other pieces of data in order to enrich it and make it more meaningful. However, to make this a standard is very difficult, but the WWW consortium is working very hard on semantics in order to make data more useful, to create a web of data, especially when all our devices go online, not that I think it is a good idea, my boiler does not need to be online.

And this, my friends, is where we are with machine learning. The singularity, the moment when computers surpass human intelligence, is not coming anytime soon, I promise you. Currently, it is a big jumble of machines, data sets, and mathematics. We have lots of data but very little insight, and very little wisdom. And, that is what we are looking for. We are looking to light the fire, we are looking for wisdom.

The prospect of thinking machines has excited me since I first began studying artificial intelligence, or in my case l’ intelligence artificielle and heard that a guy from Stanford, one Doug Lenat, wrote a LISP program and had it discovering mathematical things. It started simply with 1+1 as a rule and went on to discover Goldbach’s conjecture, which asserts that every even counting number greater than two is equal to the sum of two prime numbers.

The way the story was told to me, was that Lenat would come in every morning and see what the computer had been learning over night. I was captivated. So, imagine my excitement the day I was in the EPFL main library researching my own PhD and I stumbled across Lenat’s thesis in the library. I read the whole thing on microfiche there and then. Enthralled I rushed back to the lab to look him up on the WWW – imagine that, I had to wait until I got to a computer – to see that after his PhD, he had gone off to create a universal reasoning machine: Cyc.

Lenat recently wrapped up the Cyc project after 35 years. It is an amazing accomplishment. It contain thousands of heuristics or rules of thumb which us humans have already learnt by three years old, and which computers need to have in order to emulate reason. This is because computers must reason in a closed-world, which means that if a fact or idea is not modelled explicitly in a computer, it doesn’t exist. There is so much knowledge we take for granted even before we begin to reason.

Interestingly, enough when asked about it, Marvin Minsky said that Cyc had had promise but had ultimately failed. Minsky said that we should be stereotyping problems and getting computers to recognise the stereotype or basically the generic pattern of a problem in order to apply a stereotypical solution. I disagree, archetypes potentially, maybe, with some instantiation, stereotypes no.

In this talk about Cyc, Lenat outlines how it uses both inductive (learns from data) and deductive (has heuristics or rules) learning. Lenat presents some interesting projects, especially problems where data is hard to find. Imagine that? Data is hard to find!

Someone said to me the other day that a neuroscientist told them that we have all the data we will ever need. I have thought about this and hope the neuroscientist meant: We have so much data we could never process it all because to say we have all the data we need is just wrong. A lot of the data we produce is biased, inaccurate and useless. So, why are we keeping it and still using it? Just read Invisible Women to see what I am talking about. Bin that data! Moreover as Lenat says, there are many difficult problems which don’t have good data with which to reason.

Cyc uses a universal approach to reasoning which is what we need robots to do in order to make them seem human which is what the Vicarious project funded by amongst others, Elon Musk (who on the cover of Wired magazine reminded me of Sheldon Cooper). I looked at the website which said that Vicarious is trying to discover the friction of intelligence, without using massive data sets, which is understandable because as I have said before, what we are really looking to do is how to encapsulate human experience, which is difficult to measure let alone to encapsulate because to each person, experience is different, and a lot goes on in our subconscious.

Usually, artificial intelligence learning methods take opposite approaches either the deductive rule-based, if x then do y, using lots of heuristics (like Cyc has programmed up) or an inductive approach, the look at something long enough and then find the pattern in it, a sort of, I’ve seen this 100 times now that if x, y follows and that is how machine learning (ML) works.

ML uses an empirical approach of induction. After all, that is how we learn as humans, we look for patterns – we look in the stars and the sky for astrology and astronomy, we look at patterns in nature when we are designing things and patterns in our towns, especially people’s behaviour especially online nowadays on social media.

Broadly speaking, ML takes lots of data, looks each data point and either decides yes or no, rather like the little nand and nor gates in a computer, and in fact replicates what the neurons in our brains do too. And, this is how we make sense in stories: day/night, good/bad as we are looking for transformation. Poor to rich is a success story, rich to poor is a tragedy. Neuroscience has proven that technology really is an extension of us which is so satisfying because it is, ultimately, logical.

In my last blog, I looked at how to get up and running as a data scientist using python and pulling data from Twitter, and in another blog, another time, I may look in detail at the various ML methods, under the two main categories of supervised and unsupervised, as well as deep learning, which uses rewards or reinforcement, that is a human steps in to,say yes this categorisation is correct or no, it is not, because ultimately, a computer cannot do it alone.

I don’t believe a computer can find something brand spanking new, off the chain, never discovered, seen or heard of before, without a human-being helping which is why I believe in human-computer interaction. I have said it so many times in the human-computer interaction series, in our love affair with big data, and all over this blog but honestly, I could be wrong. Machine learning is such an exciting field which is what I thought over 20 years ago and lucky me, I still think that today.

Myth making in machine learning

If you torture the data enough, it will confess to anything.

– Darrell Huff, How to Lie With Statistics (1954).

Depending on who you talk to: God is in the details or the Devil is in the details. When God is there, small details can lead to big rewards. When it’s the devil, there’s some catch which could lead to the job being more difficult than imagined.

For companies nowadays, the details is where it is at with their data scientists and machine learning departments, because it is a tantalising prospect for any business to take all the data that it stores and find something in those details which could create a new profit stream.

It also seems to be something of an urban myth – storytelling at its best – which many companies are happy to buy into as they invest millions into big data structures and machine learning. One person’s raw data is another person’s goldmine, or so the story goes. In the past whoever held the information held the power and whilst it seems we are making great advances technologically and otherwise, in truth, we are making very little progress. One example of this is Google’s censorship policy in China.

Before big data sets, we treasured artefacts and storytelling to record history and predict the future. However, it has for the most part focused on war and survival of the fittest in patriarchal power structures crushing those beneath them. Just take a look around any museum.

We are conditioned by society. We are amongst other things, gender socialised, and culture is created by nurture not nature. We don’t have raw experiences, we perceive our current experiences using our past history and we do the same thing with our raw data.

The irony is that the data is theoretically open to everyone, but it is, yet again, only a small subset of people who wield the power to tell us what it means. Are statisticians and data scientists the new cultural gatekeepers in the 21st century’s equivalent to the industrial revolution – our so called data driven revolution?

We are collecting data at an outstanding rate. However, call your linear regression what you will: long short-term memory, or whatever the latest buzz word within the buzz of the deep learning subset of neural nets (although AI the superset was so named in 1956) these techniques are statistically based and the algorithms already have the story that they are going to tell even if you train it from now until next Christmas. They are fitting new data to old stories and, they will make the data fit, so how can we find out anything new?

Algorithms throw out the outliers to make sense of the data they have. They are rarely looking to discover brand new patterns or story because unless it fits with what us humans already know and feel to be true it will be dismissed as rubbish, or called overfitting, i.e., it listened to the noise in the data which it should have thrown out. We have to trust the solutions before we use them but how can we if the solution came from a black box style application, and we don’t know how it arrived at that solution?Especially if it doesn’t resemble what we already know.

In storytelling we embrace the outliers – those mavericks make up the hero’s quest. But not in our data. In data we yearn for conformity.

There is much talk about deep learning, but it is not learning how we humans learn, it is just emulating human activities – not modelling consciousness – using statistics. We don’t know how consciousness works, or even what it is, so how can we model it? Each time we go back to the fundamental age old philosophical questions of what is it to be human and we only find this in stories, we can’t find it in the data, because ultimately, we don’t know what we are looking for.

It is worth remembering that behind each data point is a story in itself. However, there are so many stories that the data sets don’t include because it is not collected in the first place. Caroline Criado-Perez’s Invisible Women documents all the ways in which women are not represented in the data used to design our societal infrastructure – 50% of the data is missing and no one seems to care because that’s the way things have always been done. Women used to be possessions.

And, throughout history anyone with a different story to tell about how the world worked was not treated well, like Gallileo. And even if they did save their country but as people themselves, they didn’t fit with societal norms, they were not treated well either e.g., Joan of Arc, Alan Turing. And if they wanted to change the norm, they were neither listened to nor treated until society slowly realised that they were right and suppression is wrong: Rosa Parks, the Suffragettes, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela.

When it comes down to it, we are not good at new ideas, or new ways of thinking, and as technology is an extension of us, why would technology be any good at modelling new ideas? A human has chosen the training data, and coded the algorithm, and even if the algorithm did discover new and pertinent things, how could we recognise it as useful?

We know from history that masses of data can make new discoveries, both chemotherapy and dialysis were discovered when treating dying people during wars. There was nothing to lose, we just wanted to make people feel better, but the recovery rates were proof that something good was happening.

Nowadays we have access to so much data and we have so much technological power at our fingertips, but still, progress isn’t really happening at the rate it could be. And in terms of medical science, it’s just not that simple, life is uncertain and there are no guarantees which is what makes medicine so difficult. We can treat all people the same with all the latest treatments but it doesn’t mean that they will or won’t recover. We cannot predict their outcome. No one can. Statistics can only tell you what has happened in the past with the people on whom data has been collected.

But what is it we are after? In business it is the next big thing, the next new way to sell more stuff. Why is that? So we can make people feel better – usually the people doing the selling so that they can get rich. In health and social sciences we are looking for predictive models. And why is that? To make people feel better. To find new solutions.

We have a hankering for order and for a reduction in uncertainty and manage our age old fears. We don’t want to die. We don’t want to live with this level of uncertainty and chaos. We don’t want to live with this existential loneliness, we want it all to matter, to have some meaning, which brings me back to our needs which instead of quoting Maslow (as I have things to say about that pyramid in a future blog) I will just say instead that we just want to feel like we matter, and we want to feel better.

So perhaps we should start there in our search for deep learning. Instead of handing it over to a machine to nip and tuck the data into an unsatisfactory story we’ve heard before because it’s familiar and how things are done, why not start with a feeling? Feelings don’t tell stories, they change our state, let’s change it into a better state.

Perhaps stories are just data with a soul…

Brené Brown, The power of vulnerability

Which begs the question: What is a soul? How do we model that in a computer? And, why even bother?

How about we try and make everyone feel better instead? What data would we collect to that end? And what could we learn about ourselves in the process? Let’s stop telling the same old stories whilst collecting even more data to prove that they are true because I want you to trust me when I say that I have a very bad feeling about that.

2019: Top 10 blogs or the story in the stats

[ 1) ghosts, 2) robots, 3) big data, 4) stories,  5) stats]

I have a big box under my desk which is full of planners and journals and notebooks that I have dragged around forever and I am wondering, should I make a big bonfire out of them? I never look in them. I keep them, just in case.

I think my motivation is the same as Muriel Spark’s. I talk about it here in the Privacy blog (one of my personal favourites, just lately anyway), as Spark kept an archive as irrefutable proof of who she was and the experiences which had shaped her. She could use that archive to know the truth about herself. No one could tell her who she was.

I feel that. I want me to tell me who I am. It has always been my greatest fear to not know myself. Deepak Chopra says that the fear of death is just really the fear of not knowing who you are and once you know who you are, you are no longer afraid of death.

Having watched my mother withdraw from life, from herself, and from all the things which give life meaning, including who she was, I saw that not knowing who you are was quite different from the frightening thing I imagined it to be, to the point, that in some respects, it might be nice to not hold on so tight to everything, all those social labels, those constructed identities, the need to please, the desire to be seen as successful. That said, throughout my mother’s long journey on home, as it were, though she was my home, I wanted her so desperately to stay the same, be the her I had always known, and to still be here with me, so that I wouldn’t feel so lost and homeless.

After she died, I decided that I would use the money from her Estate to do something nice for me, so I applied to do a Creative Writing MA at my local university. At interview, I had to discuss one of the last five books I had read. I chose Elizabeth is missing (oh they are going making it into a BBC drama starring Glenda Jackson. Great joy).

The main protagonist has Alzheimer’s but she is never afraid of not knowing who she is or if someone is annoyed, perhaps even at her – it is what it is. She just carries on with her detective work, and the reader finds out what is going on from the other characters, which made me laugh out loud. I read it not long after my mum died and I was so comforted because I often worried about my mum’s distress and pain about not remembering even though she never seemed that bothered. One time I said to her: Oh there’s another Jean in here. And she nodded and then looked at me for a bit and nodded: Jean, Is that me? Am I Jean? Is that my name?

So, there I was in the interview, part way through explaining the book and comfort and experience and resonance – all the good stuff I blog about. And, I began to cry. I couldn’t speak so I cried for a good few minutes. The interviewer – white male middle class (patriarchal but thinks he’s not, bless him) – just looked at me expressionless and then offered me a tissue, and I cried into that until I finished off what I was saying and we carried on with the interview. It was very British. The only thing that was missing was a teapot. One lump or two? (I wish I hadn’t written that as it reminds me of discovering breast cancer.)

Sometimes, I think that it might be nice to retreat from the world, to choose to shave my head and go sit in a cave somewhere, with just a knotted hankie of my possessions and no social labels, just to connect with the divine. Although, I have just put a lovely blue rinse – wash in/wash out Pixie Lott promises me – on my fabulous long grey locks which have taken ages to grow, so no, not right now, perhaps I could take a mirror and a job lot of blue rinses: You look gorgeous.

The first time I had chemotherapy, I ended up in hospital with neutropenia. Lying in a hospital bed on a drip with the curtains closed feeling like death warmed up (as my mother used to say), which apparently I was, medically speaking, it wasn’t that bad. It really wasn’t that bad. I could barely remember my own name and couldn’t at all remember my date of birth, but that was ok, it was written on the tag on my wrist. I was detached from anything which had given me meaning and it wasn’t at all how I imagined it to be. It wasn’t frightening. It really was peaceful, nothing mattered, and if I had slipped away, it might, possibly, have been okay, selfishly, for me. Although, to be perfectly honest it has taken until now for me to come to terms with the reality that I had cancer.

Another time, in the chemotherapy room which made me nauseous – the stem cell treatment smelt like heated sweetcorn – a woman next to me was telling me that after a chemotherapy session she found it hard to care about anything including her beloved dogs, she said she literally threw food at them. I shared with her that it was the same with my babies, my longed for loved babies, the drugs were so strong as to disconnect us and life shrank down to the bed and the pains in my veins (she told me that she loved her central line and I was momentarily envious) from what had been injected in there. She looked better about it and I am glad we had that moment. I wonder how she is and I often think of her. I like to think of her walking her dogs, feeling happy, full of love.

Life is what it is in any given moment, and it’s easier, though nigh on, sometimes, impossible, to accept things as they are and remember even in the depths of despair, things change. Even when there is no hope, there’s always hope. At the very least, the hope that when the desperation passes there will be peace, even just briefly.

It’s odd to think that I got discharged so I can go about the world bombarded with adverts on every social media platform about shite that I have no interest in. It makes me want to look under the hood and tinker with the lazy algorithms, though the Match.com 30something handsome men who want a date with me ads aren’t so bad. You are as young as you feel ( I wouldn’t mind feeling me some 30, wink, wink – perverted old lady stereotype – nice, a new social label).

Offline, I have an immense amount of super boring transactional conversations about other people’s shite too. You know the type, when you have known people for years and seen them daily but still they never speak unless you make a big effort so that they notice you, they don’t reply to your email even though it’s about fun stuff our kids could do together, you have to go over and put your face in theirs and demand a yes or no because they are holding out on a better offer and don’t care if they hurt your kid’s feelings #wtf. They never remember your name, or your children’s until they find out that one of yours child goes to the school of their dreams and now they want to be your best friend and want information like you have some sort of insight. Oooh, perhaps they thought I tweaked an algorithm. An algorithm of life. A secret of life. Interesting. We often all think that, don’t we? That someone else knows something we don’t which is why they look like they are living on Easy St and we are stuck in the Five of Wands battling through life, our difficulties, our mental conflict.

Five of wands source: Tarotteachings

I love the Tarot, it has a card for every occasion.

So, I have deleted my stats plug-in, again, and today, I am thinking I might just write my own, as we can see, I like thinking about algorithms, and interpretations, I could do that. I have been pondering what to do and that I am done, stick a fork in me, I’m done. It might be nice to do something new within what I already know.

But, before I do, and before I deleted my stats counter- which reminds me of comedian Alan Carr’s very funny routine about his parents buying a shredder to prevent identity theft, if they carried on like that, they wouldn’t remember who they were themselves – I made a note of my ten top blogs of 2019 which now that this blog has gotten really long, I will analyse separately in: 2019 Top 10 Blogs the sequel.

In the meantime, I have to ask: Does it matter if we don’t remember who we are? Does it matter if I don’t drag around my past? Would I feel better if I made a lovely bonfire out of my journals and danced around it, naked as a new born, under the moonlight?

We are always changing, always experiencing new things. Perhaps, I could let go of the past, of the journals, of old ideas, old dreams, old goals, and with a big fire, I could create some space for dancing, dreaming, drumming and the odd quotation from ye auld Lao Tzu:

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.

– Lao Tzu

I have no idea what it means, I really don’t, but does it matter? It fills me up, it gives me hope.

Last winter I burnt all my old lecture notes and forgot I had and only remembered when I had turned the place upside-down looking for them. Turns out I got on just fine without them. I didn’t need them at all.

I’ve never needed my box of journals either but after I have emptied it, I may just leave it the box there as a den for the cats, and I will also leave a note, so that if I go looking for my journals and my past, I’ll find a cat and instructions:

Look inside your heart, Ruth, you’ll find everything you need.

– Is that me? Am I Ruth?

I used to be, my darling, I used to be.

[ Part 2: the list ]

Sociability amongst strangers

At school pick-up one day, I walked over to a mum whose kid plays with mine. She was staring at her mobile phone not typing or speaking so it didn’t feel like I was interrupting anything when I said Hi. She looked up at me and immediately looked back down at her phone. I stood awkwardly wondering what to do next. Then another mum came over and said: Hi. Mobile phone mum looked up, immediately put her phone in her pocket, and began an animated conversation with the new mum.

Sociologist Sherry Turkle says that even a silent phone disconnects us, it indicates that any conversation can be interrupted at anytime as the phone has an equality with the now. In this way, Turkle believes that mobile technologies erode our empathy for other people.

I find this an old-fashioned view. Turkle and others are basically saying that technology is a thing outside of us, an unstoppable force over which we have no control and which carries us away to places we don’t want to go.

I beg to differ. Like Marshall McLuhan, I believe that technology is an extension of us and how we behave. And, more importantly, we can choose how to use it and we just must take responsibility for our actions. Mobile phone mum is a perfect example. She knew exactly what she was doing when she wordlessly wielded her phone at me and then put it away for the next mum.

The smartphone in and of itself is an amazing invention. It is a mini-computer which is all people could talk about wanting back in 2007 during some usability research I did for Orange. It thrills me everyday, I kid you not, to hold so powerful a device in my hand (see Augmenting Humans and Travels without my phone).

I think this is because I was fifteen years old when my parents first got a phone in our house and I’d barely gotten used to the excitement of it ringing when I went off to university to not have a phone number to give to people. I would go to the phone box if I wanted to phone someone. As a student in France I could only make a phone call if I had money and if I had remembered to go to the tabac to buy a phone card. I wonder how different life would have been, and indeed how different life is for students today, with a mobile phone and instant access to anyone.

Back then, I wandered around the world unreachable. Unless you knew my address and wrote me a letter, or you came to visit, you couldn’t contact me. Sometimes I was lonely. I spent all my time in shared spaces indoors and out, private and public (like parks and cafes, flats and universities) alone and with people, friends and strangers. In fact one time I was sat in the park in Chambéry and a friend I hadn’t seen in weeks who had moved to the Dordogne, wandered across and said: Thank God, you’re here. I was running out of places to look and was worried you’d gone away. I’ve nowhere else to stay tonight.

Feeling at home in shared spaces can be difficult and so designing public spaces to make them seem more friendly and safe and accessible remains a fascinating area of research. In Jane Jacobs’s classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Bill Hillier’s Space Syntax, the question often is: How do we make the public more sociable?

Many people think that the mobile phone is an invasion of the public by the private. Dom Joly’s I’m on the phone sketch is as funny today as it was when mobile phones were new. Similarly, last summer in the Louvre, I couldn’t get near the Mona Lisa because it had a billion people in front of it taking selfies.

Today, as I write this I think, well why not? Why not have a Mona Lisa selfie? Why not talk really loudly on your phone in public? Why not take up space and behave like you belong?

It can be hard to feel like somewhere public is familiar and friendly, but with easy connection to the Internet anywhere and anytime, people can use their phones to engage with their location by reading restaurant reviews, historical information, the locations of other people nearby, and of course by taking a selfie. There is much research into how we can redefine public spaces with mobile technology so everyone can feel familiar in a new or intimidating place but already the phone helps.

In my time as a student, wandering about Europe, I didn’t have such a luxury and as such was always at the mercy of strangers and exhausted by trying to figure out how things worked. Strange men would come and talk to me and give me their addresses if I sat in the park or on trains or when I wandered down the street. I have fond memories of the French farmer who used to jump out when I cycled past on my way to or from Bourget du Lac. He wanted me to come to his farm and meet his son: Venez, venez, madamoiselle. My mother always warned me about strange men, she was worried I would end up behind someone’s wallpaper. (Funnily enough strange women never approached me with their pockets full of written addresses. Would I have responded differently if they had?)

My first day in France, I cried on the bus. I didn’t have the right ticket because the bus worked differently to what I had expected. The driver let me on free and the next day when I was on another bus going the other way he stopped his bus when he saw me, beeped his horn and waved at me. It never occurred to me he was waving at me so half a dozen people on the bus tapped me on the shoulder to let me know it was me. Mortified, I waved back and cried again and a couple of old ladies comforted me whilst saying Oooh-la-la as I remembered how I had gotten off at the wrong stop, gotten lost, and gave up, at which point I let some random bloke take me to my home in his car. With a phone, I would have known how the ticket system worked, where to go exactly, which stop and so on, and I would have cried a lot less. Without a phone, I saw just how kind people can be to a lost and lonely girl.

In the book Mobile interfaces in Public Spaces, the authors consider the social and spatial changes in our society which have come about with mobiles phones by comparing it to the book, the Walkman and the iPod. These are all things we have used in the past to feel more at home say on a train, in a cafe, or in the park. They allows us to be present and yet go elsewhere as I have pondered in the blog Where do we go when we go online? That said, when I used to read the English paper in the park in Chambéry, it was always a day old, a male Jehovah’s Witness would regularly appear. He wanted to check the football scores in the Premier League.

There is the worry that phones are disconnecting us from the world and people around us because these interactions will no longer happen if we are too busy staring into our screens and everyone has access to the same information. But the authors above argue that mobile devices work as interfaces to public spaces and strengthen our connections to locations.

But what about our connection to people? Well! There are times when you just don’t want to be sociable or you require a different sociability, that of strangers, say who are enduring a long commute and need to carve out a space of their own whilst in a public space.

In July, I went to a talk given by Alastair Horne aka @pressfuturist at the British Library on ambient literature, in particular Keitai shousetsu, the first mobile phone fictions or Japanese cell phone novels in the noughties. They were written by young women, in the same way that they were read, on a small screen using text language, in serial form, during a commute. It was an intimate form of storytelling which led readers to give suggestions as to how the story should continue. The phone was often an integral part of the story because the writer and reader were both writing and reading in similar circumstances, exploring the story as it unfolded, and their commute became an exciting shared experience.

Interactive fiction and text adventures are not new, but their transfer to a mobile phone was and the immediacy it offers. Ten years later with better connectivity, ambient fiction is the next step. Stories are heard in a particular place and location and the phone again becomes part of the story, the shared experience and the connection.

Shared experiences and connection give our lives meaning. But, sometimes the reality of a moment or a person in a public space – like mobile mum – can really let us down, which is why I love the power of the mobile phone in my hand. It can interrupt my reality and get me through a difficult moment and onto the next. Not all strangers are kind, but from experience, especially the ones which I have shared here with you today, I can definitely tell you, the unkind phone wielding ones are absolutely in the minority – an amazing thought which will make me cry with gratitude every time. My mother always told me that I would never get through life if I cried like that all that time. I am pleased to report I have gotten through life exactly like that, yes, crying all the time. And can say, I have been shown many kindnesses and I am  immensely grateful.

Virtual Presence: Where do we go when we go online?

Steve Mann, Augmented Reality Man

I spent most of Sunday morning staring into the eyes of spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle. I was in my garden in London and he was at home in Vancouver giving a SoundsTrue webinar on The Power of Presence. Tolle was demonstrating to me and the other 100,000+ people on the webinar that it can be useful to connect with another human being who is free of mind, even on a screen.

Tolle’s demonstration of thought-less presence was a continuation of The Power of Now in which he discusses that we only have the now. Nothing happens in the past or future, our senses, perceptions, feelings and thoughts all make up the now. He extended this on Sunday by defining presence as being aware of ourselves as a perceiving consciousness deep in the essence of now.

And this, reminded me of a question I have been pondering for some time now: Where do we go when we go online?

As Tolle talked about the surface of now whilst I was staring into the screen at him, I was conscious of the external world outside of me and my focus on him on a screen, that is to say I was peripherally aware of the garden I was in, I could hear the birds tweet, the traffic go by and what he was saying all at once. Then, when he was telling me to feel my breath and my inner body aliveness I focused completely on my presence whilst Tolle said that I was entering the now, the external or surface now, and then the internal or deep now of my unseen thoughts and feelings.

And, this was all working until I began to wonder about presence, our physical presence like mine in the garden, and our virtual presence when we are connecting to the Internet at which point I missed what he was saying, I was off wondering:

Where do we go in the space? Is it a connection to our own thoughts and inner fire as I discussed in Lighting the Fire and The Space Between Us? Is it a connection to a collective consciousness as Jung believed and as Deepak Chopra believes? Or, is the Internet an external world of ideas as Plato postulated?

Tolle during his webinar mentioned that when he introduces language to describe presence as consciousness it creates a duality which reminded me of Decartes and his theory of Cartesian Dualism of the mind and body as separate. But, some scientists and artists don’t feel this way and think that our embodiment needs an upgrade as our bodies don’t keep up with our ever expanding technology which expands our minds.

The Internet is a medium which expands our capacity for thought, for ideas, for information and it demonstrates perfectly how the medium is the message. This medium – the Internet – expands us and influences how the message is perceived and so, creates a symbiotic relationship.

We talk about going online or being online. And when we talk about the Internet, which after all is just a network of computers, we talk about it as a space which we navigate, we surf, we go back or forward in. Is it a mental space for us? If so what happens to our physical? Where is our presence?

I have been online and had access to the Internet for over two decades now and I have often gotten lost online – not so much in hyperspace – but lost myself completely, lost all sense of time and space, or specifically an idea of where I was, during say a unix talk which would split the screen in two and you could see both sides of the conversation, or during chats on Facebook Messenger, or DM on Twitter, when both parties have treated this asynchronous feature as a chat in real time. According to Tolle this is because I have identified with, in this case, the chat, I’ve let them/it take me over and I am longer in the now. I have been drawn into unconsciousness to which I would add I have been drawn into the collective unconsciousness. But then most of us have had this experience when reading a book or in the cinema well before we all went online.

Research into literary realism – a 19th century art movement which we might call sociology nowadays – has established that human comprehension and language cannot encompass reality in its entirety. We may have a partial understanding which comes from our experiences and senses in the now, but most of what we understand is largely based in concepts, or mental representations.

So, since we are limited by our senses, perceptions and feelings which make up the now, it makes sense that we are easily led and go elsewhere, we fall into the collective unconsciousness. A while back I talked about flow, and the gap and falling into other people or into an online video, or argument in the Moments in modern technology blog as I couldn’t quite figure out if technology was causing us to miss moments or not – were we absent or present? Tolle says that being conscious of our presence in a moment is the way we feel super alive. Being taken over by thoughts and triggers is being absent.

In the field of literary theory, absence and presence has long been debated and understood that people can be made to believe that they are somewhere they are not, or in the presence of people and objects that do not actually exist. Our suspension of disbelief as Coleridge put it whilst reading text on a page, allows us to go online and enter virtual spaces.

Virtual architecture and design creates social norms in virtual spaces which affects how people use and communicate in a given space for they follow the cues offered. So, if an online group meet in a virtual lecture with a lecturer at the front they will behave quite differently to say if they meet in a virtual coffee shop, and it will impact how a student learns.

As I said in Games,Storytelling and Ludology, the more the environment demands of us, along with giving our senses all the information they need – sight, sound, touch (haptic feedback) the more complete it feels. And our minds, don’t really know, or care if it is real or not.

Sculpted virtual environments aside, even in text-only chats, we still lose ourselves online. I believe it is our desire to connect and experience and be experienced which really drives our minds, not the technology. It is our willingness to want to reach out. We are hardwired for connection and shared experiences are a quick way to connect. As Tolle says: When you are really present you are not looking past or future or comparing you are no longer a person… you and the now are one and the same… you can understand experientially or conceptually.

The yogis says that experience can be Nirguna (formless) and Saguna (with form), and I see now that this means, if we give it form, we break it down conceptually and then it is just a partial understanding. A formless experiential experience expands us and influences us.

I think that is what we do online, we experience experientially in the now, and when we come back from online, like on TV after an ad break, a presenter will say: Welcome back, as if we’d been somewhere, perhaps it is then when we interpret conceptually.

If we, as Tolle recommends, learn to cultivate a stillness inside us against which everything happens then it is will be easier to retain a sense of self online, a sense of presence, and our virtual and physical will be aligned.

However, if you are like me, I lose myself everywhere and anywhere and yet I am often told by people that I have great presence, just be reassured I’ve gotten lost a million times online, but I always find my way home.