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This Cybernetic Life

November 11, 2012 Leave a comment
The Watt Governor

One of the first and best-known automatic feedback and control mechanisms of the modern age, the Governor of the Watt Steam Engine relied on the tension between gravity and centrifugal force created by the engine’s motion to operate a throttle thereby keeping the engine running at the right speed.

Speaking of digitally stored photographs, search engines, and programs that use algorithms to predict and counter your brain’s tendency to forget, leads to the subject of how and if our minds are merging with our machines. We are coming into a time where, by habit, if not by surgical implantation, we are as cyborgs out of science fiction.

Let’s consider if this is taking place, and what it means to our strategy for building our potential.

Are you a cyborg?

To answer that we need to know, what a cyborg is.

The word cyborg is a shortened form of cybernetic organism. Organism is familiar, but what does cybernetic mean? The newer, but perhaps more common word that includes the same root, is cyberspace, coined in the 1980s by William Gibson for his imagined future virtual reality Internet.

Does cyber, or cybernetic therefore mean computer, or technology?

No, the word cybernetic was coined in the 1940’s by Norber Wiener to mean, “The Science of Communication and Control in the Animal or the Machine.” And it was adapted from the Greek word which meant the art of steering.

In Roman times the word cybernetic became government. So cybernetics is concerned with steering, governing, or control as well as communication or feedback. How does this apply to what we are doing with our memories when we use a computer to store them and make them available to us, or use software that gives us reminders, so that we don’t have to bother with remembering or as a training program to strengthen our memories? It applies directly.

What we are doing, by habit if not by physical merging, is communicating with, and taking feedback from our machines so that the information we need is given to us when we need it. The result of the use of these systems is conscious control over the unconscious process of remembering. According to this understanding, virtually every thing I have been writing about memory improvement is a sort of cybernetic technology, even those parts which are thousands of years old, and not obviously technological.

Mnemonics is the art of encoding information that is not naturally memorable to the human brain into other forms of information that is naturally easier to recall, such as words or numbers into pictures, locations etc. It is recognizing what works and what doesn’t, and changing strategies accordingly, to effect conscious control of an otherwise unconscious process.

Biofeedback, including neurofeedback, are ways of learning to take conscious control over otherwise unconscious processes of emotional states, relaxation and mental rhythms, so as to manage anger, stress and attention. This feedback is the basic concept of cybernetics that makes control possible.

Use of a memory training program like Supermemo is an enlightened approach to repetition. It helps you to train your memory. Normal use involves you grading your own performance. Your grades cause the program to adjust the algorithm, presenting information you found difficult more frequently and information you found easy to recall less frequently. In this system, the program is learning from your performance as you are learning the information you gave it to feed back to you.

What is the significance of this understanding for our strategies?

Goals become the biggest issue.

We can dream and consciously desire things that are incongruent with our most important purposes. When we are at the mercy of our natural limitations, we are under the influence of pressures and feedback mechanisms like those our ancestors survived. When we take conscious control of processes previously left to nature, we have to have more wisdom than those who do not have these enhanced abilities lest we risk wasting our energies, powering down the wrong path, making changes in ourselves we will not be happy with. Clarity and greater forethought are required, and so is the humility to understand the unintended consequences of our choices. We must be willing to correct course more nimbly. We must be sensitive to signs that our efforts are giving us results other than those we hoped for.

I would appreciate any feedback you can give me in the comments section.

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Joshua Foer at TED Talks

October 30, 2012 Leave a comment


Here’s another video with Joshua Foer, recent American Memory Champion, talking about how he got into the competition, beginning as a science writer who learned the techniques memory athletes use, and entered the contest to gain an inside experience.

Joshua Foer is the author of the book, “Moonwalking with Einstein,” Which is a pretty good survey of what people know today about memory, how it works, how it goes wrong, and how it can be trained to a higher capacity.

What Joshua Foer has learned is, to paraphrase Piotr Wozniac, The difference between a genius and a person of ordinary mental abilities is not so much a difference on the biological or synaptic level, but a difference in their skill to handle information. The genius quickly dismembers information and forms simple models that make life easy.

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