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17 Jul Are you who you say you are?

Mother Teresa ContrastHumans are capable of prolonged kindness and extreme altruistic behavior. We are also capable of aggravating selfishness and unthinkable cruelty. Different levels of each polar opposite behavior exhibit themselves in the same person – indeed, every person. I believe that context plays an important role in these phenomena: the context of one’s upbringing, ones socio-economic status, and especially, ones concept of self. I have spoken about how one’s place in the universe (The Context of Knowledge and In the Middle of a Big Wide World) may have a profound impact on the way one perceives incoming stimuli and responds to them. Today I am going to build on that framework, and show how self-awareness, a central element of mindfulness, is an important part of understanding – therefore must be included in cybernetic models.

Understanding Context Cross-Reference
Click on these Links to other posts and glossary/bibliography references


Section 5 #38

Fuzzy Logic Icon


Table of Context

CylonIn a recurring cinematic theme, the Terminator movies revolve around a premise that self-aware computers are a threat, hell-bent on taking over the world and destroying humanity: The Terminator: “The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.” The fear of HAL 9000 of 2001 A Space OdysseyThe Borg of Star Trek, and the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, casts a long and jagged shadow on the idea that self-awareness is not a good thing in intelligent systems. But when Siri wittily deflects verbal advances, we just laugh. There are many songs that ask the question: “Are you who you say you are?” One might turn the question inward and ask: “Am I who I think I am?” The Battlestar Galactica series is suffused with questions like this. To me it is a moot point: no self-awareness –> insufficient context –> limited capacity for intelligent behavior.

The Selfie Takes a Life of its Own

Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), an American sociologist, suggests that the level of insecurity people display in social situations is, at least in part, determined by internal assumptions of what other people think of them. “Cooley´s concept of the looking glass self, states that a person’s self grows out of a person´s social interactions with others. The view of ourselves comes from the contemplation of personal qualities and impressions of how others perceive us. Actually, how we see ourselves does not come from who we really are, but rather from how we believe others see us” (Isaksen 2013). This works for interactions in social settings where the people with whom you interact know you well enough understand your motivations: a relatively small circle. This falls apart in the broader context of extended acquaintances and perfect strangers following you on social media. It falls apart because the essential subtext and exformation are missing.

SelfiesAny image I include in my blog is intended to produce a reaction, typically consistent with the idea of the day. I choose my images pretty carefully to fit in the context of my posts. But you can do searches on images that will divorce the image from the context. When we post images of ourselves, we subject ourselves to others’ first impressions and snap judgments. It is natural for people to look at pictures of other people and imagine what the people in the pictures are like. These imaginary constructions of others may be sympathetic or merciless. There is no cure for this phenomenon: some people will give others slack, others will find fault.

Our close acquaintances, family and friends serve as “mirrors” reflecting images of ourselves. Cooley suggested a process with three steps:

  1. We internally construct an image of how we appear to another person, correct or not, based on our own assumptions/self-judgements;
  2. We project this perceived image on others, assuming how others perceive or judge us, and we seek corroboration in their countenance, actions and responses;
  3. We imagine how people feel about us, based on the supposed perceptions and whatever corroboration we can glean from interactions.

This process may become cyclical, and a self-fulfilling prophecy, as we may change our behavior based on how we anticipate people perceive us.


“Self-awareness is arguably the most fundamental issue in psychology, from both a developmental and an evolutionary perspective” (Rochat 2003). Rochat discusses five levels of self awareness (plus one level of unawareness):

  1.  Level 0: Confusion – This is the degree zero of self-awareness exhibited in infants that see everything perceived as a new or remembered pattern. This treatment of everything as external makes association more difficult because newly remembered patterns are not placed in a context.
  2. Level 1: Differentiation – At this level, a person begins to separate her/himself from the surrounding environment, understanding when looking in a mirror, that one’s own physical movements match the reflected image.
  3. Level 2: Situation – Above the recognition of one’s own movements, the individual now systematically associates reflected movements on the mirror surface and , and the attending kinesthetic awareness proprioceptively. This is a more contemplative stage that may be proto-narcissistic, characterized by self-exploration.
  4. Level 3: Identification – At this level, a person describes the reflection in the mirror as “me”, enabling identification of personal beauty or ugliness, and an awareness that the unique self occupies space in the universe.
  5.  Level 4: Permanence – The self is identified beyond the immediacy of a transient reflection, transcending appearance and other changes over time.
  6. Level 5: Self-consciousness or ‘‘meta’’ self-awareness – One recognizes one’s self from both a first person perspective, and from other people’s perspectives. This includes sensitivity to how one appears to the public eye.

Self Realization

Moving from mewling infant to contributing member of society goes far beyond self-awareness, but these fundamental steps in cognitive and social development form a necessary foundation.

Hyper Awareness vs. Dissociation

If devices or apps can become aware of themselves and their surroundings, what must be done to balance this awareness appropriately. We neither want narcissistic devices, nor the completely detached and oblivious chunks of processed minerals we carry around today. There is much in the literature about extreme ends of the spectrum of awareness. I like the brief summary about for trauma survivors I found on Brett Newcomb’s site: (Newcomb 2011). He describes both extremes in the continuum. On the one hand, there is hyper awareness in which people are hyper-vigilant, constantly scanning for dangers or distractions. These people may have difficulty relaxing. “Most of the people I have met with this pattern are trauma survivors of some kind.  Most likely when they were young, they encountered some very frightening and traumatizing experience.  They learned that they were in danger and they must constantly scan the event horizon for signs of new danger.  In order to minimize the cost of the danger, they had to be aware and alert at all times.”

On the other hand, a person may retreat into a shell. “This is one way trauma survivors learn to survive.  When they cannot physically escape some pain or some danger, they just go away inside themselves. They dissociate from themselves and their awareness of the event which is happening.”  Trauma survivors may generalize this behavior and take cover behind detachment whenever anything unpleasant or uncomfortable begins to happen.  Such people can still function while emotionally detached. “They are physically, but not emotionally present. They have escaped into some other place, or identity” (Ibid).

Identity ExposureAgain, I believe we neither want narcissistic devices, nor the completely detached and oblivious chunks of processed minerals we carry around today. I think that level 5 Meta Self-Awareness will be required for intelligent machines to carry on meaningful conversations with people, and deliver the best possible actionable knowledge.

The device that is able to intelligently engage in dialog with you should be able to correctly associate itself with HAL9000, The Borg, Cylon gunships and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and reassure you of its good intentions. I think I know how to build such a system without risking cybernetic attacks on humanity.

I’m preparing a post about context-collapse. This may be a bigger threat than cybernetic machines that are self-aware – and we may be victims of context collapse without even knowing it.

Click below to look in each Understanding Context section



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