Machine Models

To understand things we invariably rely upon models. Sometimes these are diagrams or, these days, impressive animated visualisations such as this one showing the human blood circulatory system. This is not a random example because the human body has frequently be seen as a machine, something we’ll return to. But for now just think of one major commonality between biological organisms and machines. Both take in energy, change it to produce movement of some sort, and expel waste. This applies to a simple one cell amoeba and a motor car.

The workings of a car baffle most of us. But a very simple ‘block diagram’ captures the basics:

Simple enough. But even the dumbest driver has some inkling that in the engine are things like pistons, cylinders, spark plugs , valves, cranks and so on. Attached to the engine are things like a carburettor, an exhaust, waterpump, cooling fan, air filter etc. As soon as you start representing a machine in a model things get a lot more complex. The following has the same shape as the above but includes more detail:

You can see twin exhausts have been added. Things get more complex still the more you add. Like your body, a car has many different systems. Our blood vessel system alone is highly complex, as is the electrical system of a car. We could go on adding simple car system models such as timing, brakes, suspension. But the more deeply we get into it, note how each part become more complex. Here’s a diagram (or model) of a 1909, so technologically very early, carburettor which is a key component of the fuel delivery system:

Now, we’re not particularly interested in the workings of motor cars but hopefully we can extract some useful ideas from the above:

  1.  Models are useful for giving us understanding of how things work.
  2. Simple models are good to provide an overview  of things.
  3. Understanding in depth requires more complicated models.
  4. Models show us some parts of a system but not he whole.

As well as visual models, our language uses models all the time. Someone describing their hangover may say their tongue ‘feels like the bottom of a parrot’s cage’. We even make our minds into a model. Sometimes it’s like a room. We have things ‘at the back of the mind’ for instance. We may talk of trying to ’empty our mind of bad thoughts’; or we may talk of our minds as ‘full’ (e.g. of confusion).

Other times the mind is compared to a machine. We talk of ‘a racing mind’, of our mind ‘going round in circles’. Perhaps our minds are feeling ‘pressured’, other times they may be ‘driven’. Sometimes we feel our mind is ‘out of control’.

None of these expressions are literally true. They are models we need to express ourselves. Most of our language and thinking depends on such models.

We also continuously model the world. We don’t see things as they really are; rather, we ‘project’ our internal models onto things. We will ‘see’ a person, for instance, as good or bad depending on what models we already have of what constitutes goodness and badness.

There’s a famous saying that the map is not the territory. The map is a model, selective, showing only certain features and ignoring many. Yet it may also be said that the territory is the map. We only ever see what is filtered through our internal maps or models. In this picture, the cover of a pamphlet about maps, notice the man’s role of being in charge, the adoring woman’s subservient role.

Such a model of female subservience and male dominance would, should, is, strongly contested these days. Yet even today it is unconsciously taken as how things ‘are’ by some people, and in recent times it was a model of happy family life: the man with power, who worked and had knowledge, the good wife in the kitchen with a meal ready for him, looking after the children, honouring and obeying.

Notice too the claim that the objective of mapping or modelling is to ‘form a true mental picture of the ground’. This implies that there is an objective final ‘truth’ which a map or model can refer to. Yet even a moment’s consideration should tell us this cannot be so. The way you see the world is very different from how I see it; we have different models. Countries go to war over different models. Different political parties have strongly differing models of how things should be. History, which is an ocean of models or maps of the past, is a site of often intense dispute between historians (and remember the saying, too, that history is usually written by the victors). Even science which claims total objectivity is subject to very sharp disputes about theories (elaborated models). And the idea or model of scientific truth and objectivity has itself been subject to serious criticism.

How as individuals and how as a society we model the world is immensely important. Take the case of addicts and addiction. Some people condemn a heroin addict as ‘a scaghead’, an alcoholic as ‘an alkie’: such judgments go with a belief that addicts are morally bad, weak, irresponsible, have no one or anything to blame for their condition but themselves. Others recognise addiction as a disease, an illness that can affect anybody, something to be treated, supported non-judgmentally, with care and human concern. This is of immediate concern to our site’s primary focus upon how the digital environment contributes to spreading the virus of addiction: in particular, our sister site, Beat the Fix, examines gambling addiction through a lens (or model) of the role of digital machines whose design encourages addiction.

Or take mental health generally. The epidemics of depression and anxiety see many lives ruined. Yet there are still people who blame the sufferers. To them, they are ‘weak’, ‘flawed’, even ‘snowflakes’. Such attitudes greatly increase what is already tremendous pain. It may be that among other reasons – particularly poverty, isolation, loss of meaning and connection for example – our electronic media themselves contribute to mental distress, something this site will examine.

The Human Machine

Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein is named not for ‘the monster’ but after the scientist who created him, Victor Frankenstein. The author is concerned about the growth not only of science in her day but the growth of an attitude of ‘scientific progress’, the idea that science would banish all traces of human superstition and ignorance, and lead to, what later Aldous Huxley ironically entitled his novel, a Brave New World. Shelley envisaged that the fervently pursued enthusiasm for scientific discovery and technological development could result in unintended consequences.

An early example of science fiction, Shelley’s lesser known work, The Last Man, is an apocalyptic vision of the last survivor of the human race following a devastating plague. Later writers saw such a plague as resulting from scientific experimentation such as in germ warfare. (Away from fiction, the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, in his book Our Final Century? published at the start of this millennium included plague as one of many realistically possible causes of human extinction in the 21st century).

We are always caught between Utopia and Dystopia. Advances in science and technology have brought us tremendous benefits. They have also brought us to the edge of nuclear annihilation and climate catastrophe. Great optimism and great pessimism go hand in hand. Optimists talk of colonising other planets; they talk of a ‘posthuman’ future in which our biological limitations such as Death will be overcome (and remember, there are the frozen bodies in centres which offer rich people resurrection when new technologies are available). There is also ‘transhumanism’: this to some extent is happening already and will culminate in truly posthuman future. This is the world of meshing biological life with non-organic material, of perfect linkage between the brain’s neural activity and computers with the possibility of ‘uploading’ a mind. The questions and theories raised here are far too broad to enter into but interested readers can find immense amounts of content on the internet.

Many of us take the internet for granted today. What if we model it as a machine? In a remarkably visionary story of 1909 the writer E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops predicted just such a comparison. In the future, while there are ‘primitives’ living on the surface of the earth, most live isolated underground in isolated hexagonal cells. Life is serviced and shaped by ‘The Machine’, a vast and complicated electronic entity:

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

There is no human contact, only a giant screen and thousands of virtual friends. Everything is provided by ‘The Machine’. Very unfortunately, the Machine starts going wrong, and nobody has a clue how to fix it. Then it stops.

In such a scenario, fiction though it is, perhaps we can ask ourselves: Are we now all living in a machine? Although not wired into machines, perhaps even through our connections with the internet, our social media, our digital leisure pursuits, have we blurred the boundary between the human and the machine? Such dependence upon electronic machines is not new. Television has become a necessity for many, some watching it many hours in a day.

Farenheit 451 is a dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury published in 1953. F 451 is the temperature at which paper burns; in the future there is an onslaught of burning books, alongside which is a growing sophistication of television technology. People can stay in their room all day, each wall become a giant screen; they can interact, say with soap opera, becoming a character themselves. In the following extract, a fireman comes home to his wife’s pleas:

“It’ll be even more fun when we can afford to have the fourth wall installed. How long you figure before we save up and get the fourth wall torn out and a fourth wall-TV put in? It’s only two thousand dollars.”

“That’s one-third of my yearly pay.”

“It’s only two thousand dollars,” she replied. “And I should think you’d consider me sometimes. If we had a fourth wall, why it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms. We could do without a few things.”

“We’re already doing without a few things to pay for the third wall. It was put in only two months ago, remember?”

“Is that all it was?”

It’s worth noting that interactive television is already being trialled. Also a 72 inch television screen is one that many will replace with a 96 inch one in a few years.

For now we can dismiss discussing the major implications of future technology. It is very possible that in the near future cyborgs – a mix of cyber- and biological organism will emerge, along with astounding artificial intelligence devices, robots and even artificial consciousness. That may fill you with excitement or dread. Let’s stick to the present.

For many decades neurosurgeons have operated on conscious patients. Using very thin electrodes they can stimulate precisely parts of the brain and get feedback from the patient about what they are experiencing. In the 1940s electrode implantation demonstrated that a morose and very depressed person could be made ecstatically happy. Permanent implantation across the two hemispheres of the brain could cure or ameliorate epilepsy. There is no technical reason whatsoever why a person could not receive a fixed electrode implant into pleasure centres of the brain triggered by a radio operated switch they carry to bring about feelings of great pleasure.

But let’s stick to the indirect effect of mechanical devices, ones which are not physically connected. Let’s return to addiction. It’s a very complex area and, in the sense of modelling, we are using a very simple model here, that is we’re missing out an enormous amount. When a gambler craves to play electronic roulette, or a heavy drinker craves a drink, similar factors are involved. In both cases, a tension, a very negative feeling, a deep anxiety, seem to be relieved simply by anticipating the playing or the drinking. A negative is replaced by a positive. Studies show that this period of anticipation involves a release of dopamine in the brain, a ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter. The dopamine rush fades so an addict immediately tries to get the good feeling again and again, on and on. In the case of alcohol there is enhanced feel-goodness by sugar-rush, calmness (brought on by alcohol’s action as a depressant) and suppression of awareness of negative life factors. These positive feelings don’t last; withdrawal effects act very quickly after a first drink which themselves induce negative feelings so more drink is taken and the cycle is continued.

In the case of gambling, the actual design of the gambling device (machine) is a major factor in repeating use. Some researchers have spent years studying how the music and sound effects of machines work; others have researched the visual aspects. The most thorough study to date is Natasha Dow Schull’s study, Addiction by Design. Schull, an anthropologist, spent fifteen years researching the human-machine interaction in the casinos of Las Vegas. A lecture here summarises keypoints. In this too is explained the foundation of our website’s name, The Machine Zone.

What about our phones, our televisions, our pads and laptops? Addiction is a ‘heavy’ word, loaded with negative connotations. Yet researchers are now taking seriously the existence of things like internet shopping addiction, internet pornography addiction, internet addiction full stop. Psychologists continue to research the negative effects of social media and gaming on young people, and the sheer prevalent usage of digital devices on all of us. Perhaps ironically, in the field of mental health ‘apps’ are being marketed for profit or by health services as ways to combat mental distress (which may, of course, be partially caused by our immersion in ‘the machine zone’.

Do we wander into ‘the zone’ for extreme reasons such as gambling, or, for most of us, as distractions, anaesthetics, to feel comfortably numb? What life do we sacrifice by so doing?

The cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan stated in 1962 that electronic devices would increasingly become ‘extensions of our nervous systems’. More famously he said, ‘the medium is the message’ which means, among other things, that irrespective of any content we access through digital media, what will affect us most, what will change us most, is the medium itself be it a computer screen, a television, a print medium, a sound medium, a film, whatever. Perhaps this needs refining. After all, a computer contains hundreds if not thousands of ‘machines’ within itself, most of which we don’t use. It is fair to model gaming as a separate medium than, say, writing in Word even if both use the same hardware.

Back to Basics

Whew! A long way from our neat diagram at the beginning, and a mere skimming of so many, many things. Remember we’re trying to think about models and what’s been written here is itself a model! A model of models, certainly not a model of excellence! Our digital world is changing almost unimaginably quickly. Things are going to happen, to emerge, totally unexpectedly, which will have major impacts on our lives. The Industrial Revolution seems comparatively simple compared with today’s environment where the machines are largely invisible, but though we can agree that the advent of the older machines caused massive social, cultural and political changes, even today experts debate what these were. As we try to model or map our current digital revolution we have to be extra aware of our ignorance and be ready to tear up tomorrow the brilliant maps we drew today.