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March 20th, 2019
In general, each person has a vague and hazy idea of who they are. A more circumspect person might include who they would like to become and spend some time thinking about the aspects of their current self that need some work. A retrospective person might be able to look back on the process they’ve gone through to become who they currently find themselves to be.
One strange opportunity that some technologies offer is the ability to get a new mirror to look in.
To understand this we can think of the first moment in history when someone was able to place two mirrors at angles so that they can see the back of their own head. It’s difficult to think of this sort of opportunity occurring in the natural world, but easy to imagine the inventor of the portable mirror to have that first bizarre day of fun discovering all those new perspectives. It’s entertaining to imagine the copper smiths of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia putting two mirrors in parallel and witnessing that strange phenomenon of having one’s head repeat to infinity. Doubtless they wondered if they’d discovered another dimension.
These mirrors, whether we talk about the polished copper of Mesopotamia or the modern mirror invented by Justus von Liebig are a kind of technology, and it’s the most literal example of getting a new perspective on one’s self.
We can see an evolving growth of this perspective via innovations in technology when we think of the film camera. Never before had humans been able to literally see exactly how they looked and sounded in the immediate past.
These examples are quite literal with regards to perspective, they involve actually seeing our body, whereas other areas of technology are providing less intuitive perspectives.
There are, for example, continuous glucose monitors which can give a moment-by-moment measure of blood sugar. This presents another perspective on what is going on when we contemplate the phenomenon of the self.
(Some may like to differentiate the self as some sort of soul that is separate from the body in some way, but this idea need not take away from the current line of thinking in any way.)
There also exists monitors for tracking sleep patterns, brain activity and all sorts of things that occur within the body.
One important caveat to these technologies is that if they are not used, then the information they might provide need not even be considered possible. Meaning: just because it exists doesn’t mean its actually useful unless its actually being used. This is hopefully eye-rollingly obvious. However, we need only consider one of our oldest technologies and it’s lack of use to see how much opportunity sifts through the fingers of our life.
Descartes famously said: I think therefore I am.
Overlooking the many problems people have found in this statement over the years, we can make the simple observation that, often people don’t even know what they think about a given topic.
We need only think of the mere existence of phrases like “I don’t know” or “I’ll have to think about that.” to find the simplest and most troubling problem in Descartes declaration.
If we don’t know what we think about a given topic, do we cease to exist in relation to it? This is a silly train of thought to ride and puts us at risk of losing sight of the more important point which lies in the opposite direction, which is namely the answer to this question:
If I don’t know what I think about something, how do I find out?
While many of us are quite likely to sit quietly and stew unproductively like some ruminating herbivore – and this is a conscious stab at the general uselessness of such behavior – others are likely to employ the strategy of talking it out, finding a friend and having a discussion, bouncing the topic off someone else’s mind – so to speak.
We might wonder if this is simply an excuse to socialize and create a feeling of progress on the topic. The ubiquitous hate for the business meeting is perhaps the clearest signal to evidence this possibility. Whereas those who seek out a friend to discuss personal life are being a bit more true to the urge of simply wanting company and interaction.
This isn’t to say that such situations can’t be useful, but merely to point out that the likelihood is low.
These strategies depend on our most powerful technology, that of language, but there is perhaps an iteration of this technology that is far more efficient and powerful when it comes to figuring out exactly what we think about a given topic:
If Descartes’ declaration could be worded with a little more specificity, we might imagine an addendum:
I think therefore I am, and I write to know my thoughts.
Ponder for a moment all that has been written by the human race. Certainly much of it is useful and reports important facts about our shared physical world. But we might wonder: how much of our written content is more an exploration of the author’s own mind?
While school has become incredibly adept and efficient with the task of sterilizing the act and practice of writing to the extent that people lump it into a similar category with ‘chores’, writing as a technology remains to be a tool that can sharpen endlessly in our quest to know ourselves.
It can be better than any movie or novel or entertainment that we might fill our free time with, for the simple and symmetrical reason that one doesn’t know exactly what they’ll think and write next, just as novels and T.V. shows keep us in suspense for what will happen next. Except when we are creating the story or the concept through writing, it simultaneously creates a record of who we are and how we know ourselves.
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