Posted July 2023
The first part: I’m interested in how digital computing is different from thinking, following an expansive definition of “thinking” that includes feeling, dreaming, and other functions normally correlated with consciousness and self-awareness. I want to articulate these differences beyond the simple indication that some mental phenomena are beyond representation, especially representation in computable formats. Such an indication isn’t a place to end up; it’s a place to begin building a systematic, fine-grained account of what makes thinking not the same thing as computing. Ideally, this account would theorize thinking such that we can better understand the stakes of a world where many of us have accepted digital computers as prostheses for minds (maybe unwittingly, maybe against what we think we believe).
The second part: I want to know about the mechanisms responsible for blinding us to the differences between thinking and computing, i.e., for making the differences effectively unthinkable — or, at least, incredibly difficult to describe in formal, systematic terms such that they may influence scientific practices. My dissertation looked at this problem through the lens of psychedelic drug research. But I didn’t treat psychedelic research as a case study. I didn’t want to turn psychedelic experience into “the exemplary non-exemplifiable,” despite protests from at least one of my dissertation committee members (not the chair, thankfully) who implored me to consider psychedelic research as just one study in “phenomena relevant to science but uncomputable” in the interest of a generic 1+3+1 dissertation structure (opening chapter; three case studies; closing chapter).
I resisted this advice for two reasons. First, I don’t like “case studies,” since the process of exemplifying theory can lead to a mission creep that eclipses the real work of theorizing in favor of fact-exposition. The way I saw it, there was little need for case studies, but a lot of risk associated with them. The second reason is that I wanted to do the reverse: not treat “the psychedelic” as an example of the scientization of “unreal” and (possibly) “uncomputable” phenomena (like LSD-induced hallucinations). Instead, I wanted to define “the psychedelic” as everything that a) can be relied on to induce dramatic shifts in consciousness for palliative purposes and b) cannot withstand digitization. Accordingly, mental states associated with meditation, intense aesthetic experience, sex, and so on, might also count as “psychedelic.”
Psychedelic is a politically fraught term. I don’t think we should do away with it, but if we’re going to use it carefully, it has to surpass narrow applicability to psychoactive substance use.
While it was never a case study, psychedelic science was always just a lens. (When I was a grad student, a few people thought I was advancing capital-s Scientific research on psychedelics, which has never been true).
Here’s the second part rephrased as a question: What, exactly, makes it difficult to systematically present thinking as a non-computational activity (or set of activities)? Plenty of academic disciplines have useful things to say about that. I take a political / historical materialist approach which examines the co-evolution of capitalism and information technology. As an STS scholar, I’m not satisfied with any ahistorical and/or apolitical consideration of the relationship between minds and computers, and I think that the answer can tell us a lot about the political situation of publics who are constantly surveilled and datafied, and who don’t have the ability to opt out of internet use.
Outside of fiction, poetry, and reflections on pedagogy and academic life, everything I’ve published in the last five years or so is connected to this set of concerns.
I’m putting this out there to expose the seams that run beneath and across my writings. The elements that make them cohere. I have lots of anxieties about coming across as unfocused — whether it’s clear or not, I’ve had to be exceptionally focused, or at least hold persistence and narrow concentration of vision as goals. After all, to be a scholar in a capitalist economy is to be forced to hyper-specialize so that one may compete with one’s peers. Once you’ve carved out your niche, there’s some branding to do; your audience has to know what makes your work singular and “necessary.” This requires a lot of strategic thinking on the part of interdisciplinary researchers, since we have to make sense to audiences in multiple fields. Interdisciplinary or not, I don’t think the work of professional branding comes naturally to anyone.
I’m also writing this as a call to others. Up to this point, I’ve only worked alone. I’ll always have solitary pursuits but I’d really like to get some collaborative research going. I’m looking for scholars of digital tech who see theory reflected in empirics and vice-versa. My contact info is on the “about” page.