On Saturday, I attended the Brighter Brains conference on artificial intelligence. Not that I am particularly interested in AI. There really is so much more that we humans need to do – and know! – before I would agree that pursuing artificial intelligence is worth our time and energy. Plus, as Gary Marcus pointed out at the conference, we don’t know enough about the brain to make artificial intelligence feasible – at least in the near term.
Despite my trepidation, I am glad I went because one speaker had some particularly intriguing ideas. Nicole Sallak Anderson talked about the AI we might want and the cultural context that enables it. If artificial intelligence mimics us, what parts of us do we want it to mimic? Roughly, she argued, there are two strands in us humans: The destructive strand that leads to friction, anger, and killing and the creative strand that leads to networking, inventions, and solutions. The destructive strand, Nicole pointed out, is driven by our threat assessment. When we feel threatened, we react with fight or flight and believe the credo “you give and I take” of the zero-sum game. The creative strand is nourished by our ability to connect with others and supported by the belief that “more for you is more for me.”
This idea of creation and destruction was picked up by Josh Bacigalupi within the context of design. While Nicole focused on the cultural influences on design, Josh looked at how creation and destruction are an intrinsic part of learning and intelligence. Combining these two speakers’ ideas suggests that within our culture, we are overemphasizing the destructive side and have not integrated the creative side, at least not in a way that allows us to leap forward as a species into a culture that is more life-affirming than how we currently live.
Why might that be?
I have been exploring over the last few months the impacts of my childhood on my current life. Not in the Freudian, psychoanalytical tradition that seems to blame mom for just about everything, but with a view on the cultural messages that my parents (mostly unknowingly) conveyed to me. What I am uncovering are the messages that my emotions are dangerous, that my self-expression is unacceptable at least when it isn’t purely intellectual, that connection is filled with pain and best not pursued at the depth I long for. I have learned to stay mostly on the destructive side, which manifests in myself as shame and self-doubt: “I am not worthy of love and connection because there is something wrong with me.” What’s wrong with me? Well, I am an emotional being and I don’t quite fit into the normative box that society is trying to keep me in. I have learned to keep myself in that box through shame and doubt: “Who do I think I am to be living differently?!”
This is what I call cultural trauma: The wounds that we carry from a culture that does not affirm our creative side, that teaches us about isolation, self-alienation, and scarcity. “More for you is less for me,” to use Nicole’s framework.
I am discovering that what gets in my way is my association of love and connection with pain. I made this association possibly first (maybe even earlier) at age 8 when my grandmother died. It was magnified during my marriage that was abusive – abuse that did not end with the marriage but continued, enabled by a skewed court system, for almost 20 years. This association is getting in the way because I even downplay my need for connection – it’s not really that important; I have food and shelter, after all!
That is also where another cultural message comes in: The idea that I can only get the deep, intimate connections in one way: through marriage. Well, I tried that and got very hurt. Thus, in addition to the trauma of my marriage itself, I am stifled in my attempts to connect because the one culturally approved way is associated with tremendous pain.
How can we move beyond that?
I agree with Nicole that connection is at the heart of the solution. We need to learn how to connect with each other and heal whatever might get in the way – and design a culture that facilitates these processes. To be able to move beyond my own blocks, I am healing both the marital trauma and my association. I am starting to own how important love and connection is for me. So important, in fact, that to live authentically me, I need to build relationships that reflect that. Even when that means struggling (intellectually) to combine my critique of matrimania with a coupled relationship. I am beginning to see that I had created an intellectually sound excuse for disowning my desire for love and connection because the only path I saw to meet that desire was the normative way. I am now experimenting with discovering a new path, a path that says that an intimate relationship does not prove that we are worthy of love and connection, it reflects our worth. This is a subtle, yet tremendously important distinction. Believing that we have to have proof leads us into shame when we don’t have that proof, i.e., when we are not coupled. Believing that we are worthy simply because as human beings we need love and connection to thrive leads us to reach out to others to connect – whether that looks like a traditional coupled relationship or not, which is really what I have been teaching.
What gets in our way of connecting is the belief that there is only one right way to do that and if we don’t follow that path, there is something wrong with us. Transforming that belief allows us to connect deeply in relationships that we design. Once we’ve moved into a culture that teaches that, we can design artificial intelligence that enhances life even further.