Thursday, September 8, 2016

Will human enhancement cause problems for interpersonal communication?




China Mieville’s novel Embassytown is a challenging and provocative work of science fiction. It is set in Embassytown, a colonial outpost of the human-run Bremen empire, located on Arieka, a planet on the edge of the known universe. The native alien race are known as the Ariekei and they have an unusual language. They have two speaking orifices and as a result speak two words at the same time. They cannot communicate with the humans and other alien races who live on the planet because none of these races can speak two words at once. Not even two humans working together can accomplish the feat because then the two words are not spoken by one shared mind. The Ariekei can only understand when the two words are spoken by one individual.

To overcome the communication problems, humans have created a genetically engineered group of Ambassadors. The Ambassadors are identical twins who share an empathic link. They can pull off the trick of communicating in the Ariekei language. The plot of the novel revolves around a new Ambassador who is not a pair of genetically engineered twins. For some unknown reason, their speech is intoxicating and addictive to the Ariekei, which leads to a social crisis on the planet.

I’ll say no more about the novel. It’s worth reading if you ever get a chance. What is interesting about it for present purposes, however, is the way in which it illustrates an important link between our biology and the form and content of our language. Humans have one voice box under the control of one brain. This means our language is necessarily limited to a single channel of speech. One word is spoken at a time. We can understand what is being said if the speech follows the single channel format. If multiple words are spoken at once (as sometimes happens in heated debates or crowded rooms) it becomes difficult.

But what if we start tinkering around with our biology? What if we change our body shape and size? What if we add or subtract new senses and cognitive capacities? Could this lead to communication problems? Advocates of human enhancement often encourage such tinkering, but they rarely consider the implications this might have for interpersonal communication. They rarely consider the possibility of a communication-breakdown between enhanced and non-enhanced individuals.

There’s one noteworthy exception to this. Laura Cabrera and John Weckert’s 2012 paper ‘Human Enhancement and Communication: On Meaning and Shared Understanding’ makes the case for communication problems arising from human enhancement. I want to take a look at the arguments presented in that paper in the remainder of this post.


1. The Basic Argument: Shared Lifeworlds and Human Communication
I actually spoke to Laura about the arguments presented in that paper for an upcoming episode of the podcast I am doing. In the course of that interview, I offered my own reformulation of her main argument. Laura accepted my reformulation so I want to start out with that.

The argument proceeds from the assumption that human communication depends on shared lifeworlds. That is to say, in order for humans to communicate meaningfully with each other they must share a common frame of reference. This is something that linguists and philosophers of language often highlight. The spoken or written word is a highly compressed vehicle for communication. In order to make sense of what is said, both the speaker and listener need to share a whole host of background assumptions about how the world works, how humans relate to that world, and how ideas and metaphors influence our understanding. Thus, if I said to you that ’tis fierce wet outside/bring an umbrella’ you may have some sense of what I am saying but maybe not the whole sense. You know enough about the weather and how it is experienced by human beings to know that you would like to protect yourself from the rain. You know that rain is ‘wet’ so that’s probably what I am referring to. You probably don’t (unless you’re from Ireland) know what I mean by ‘fierce’ wet. This is an idiomatic phrase that is commonly used to describe particularly inclement weather. I can fill you in on that idiomatic quirk and that will help you get the full sense of the meaning.

So you share some of your lifeworld with me, but not all of it. We can communicate and understand each other because of the shared components, but we may hit the occasional bump.




From that starting presumption, the argument proceeds to inquire into the foundations of our shared lifeworld. To some extent (as in the ‘fierce weather’ example) it seems that it must depend on a shared cultural history. But more broadly, it depends on us being similarly situated in the world, i.e. having a similar physical, emotional and cultural relationship with our environments. To the extent that enhancement technologies could impact on how we are situated in the world, e.g by changing our bodies or senses or culture, it could affect this shared lifeworld. This could lead to serious communication problems if the changes wrought by enhancement technologies are sufficiently radical.

This allows us to flesh out the remainder of the argument. It works like this:


  • (1) Human communication depends on us having a shared lifeworld.
  • (2) Having a shared lifeworld depends (to some extent) on having similar bodies, similar perceptual equipment, similar cognitive capacities, and a similar socially embedded nature.
  • (3) Some (radical) human enhancement technologies could have dramatic effects on our bodies, perceptual equipment and cognitive capacities.
  • (4) Therefore, some (radical) enhancement technologies could affect our shared lifeworld.
  • (5) Therefore, some (radical) human enhancement could impact upon or lead to communication problems.


I want to look at premises (2) and (3) in more detail.


2. Three Routes to Communication Breakdown
Premises (2) and (3) are the key to the argument and they can be treated as a pair. Premise (2) makes claims about how our shared lifeworld gets constructed; premise (3) suggests that enhancement technologies could affect the construction process. Cabrera and Weckert use three main examples to illustrate this point.

The first has to do with the role of the body (its size and shape) in the construction of a shared lifeworld. The authors use an example from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to illustrate the point. Alice has spent her day being shrunk and enlarged. It has been a confusing and upsetting experience. She meets a caterpillar and tries to explain the situation to him:

’I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, ‘because I am not myself, you see’
’I don’t see’, said the Caterpillar.
’I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly’, Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’
’It isn’t’, said the Caterpillar.

The suggestion from Cabrera and Wecker is that Alice and the Caterpillar are experiencing something of a communication breakdown because of the differences in their lifeworlds. For Alice (a human being) increasing and decreasing in size so often in one day is a very strange experience. For the Caterpillar it is a common one. That’s how caterpillars get around: by constantly elongating and shrinking. Indeed, caterpillars undergo more radical physical transformations at other points in their lifecycle. The difference in how their bodies relate to the world thus causes communication problems. This, of course, ignores other problems with the whole idea of a human speaking to a caterpillar. Some philosophers think the idea is complete nonsense (even in a thought experiment). Wittgenstein was a famous proponent of this view. He once opined that ‘if a tiger could speak, we wouldn’t be able to understand him’. Our lifeworlds are just too different.

How is this relevant to the enhancement debate? Well, there is a significant segment of the transhumanist community that embraces the idea of ‘morphological freedom’, i.e. the freedom to change one’s body size and shape. Some of these changes might be minor and relatively unproblematic. But what if people start grafting wings onto their backs or prehensile tails onto their spines? These would result in more radical reorientations in how we relate to the world. Also, there are those who think we could someday upload our personalities and identities to a digital computer. This would lead to a type of disembodied existence. That would surely result in a very different kind of lifeworld. This is hinted at in the movie Her, where a physical human being falls in love with an intelligent operating system. They are able to speak to each other (that’s how the relationship is possible) but they clearly have very different lifeworlds and this leads to the eventual breakdown of the relationship.

The second example used by Cabrera and Weckert has to do with sensory experiences. Clearly, our senses impact upon our lifeworld. Think for a moment about the number of expressions in the English language that rely, directly or indirectly, on some visual metaphor, or attempt to report some visual experience. This mode of sensation has a powerful effect on the content of our language. But, interestingly, the absence of this sensation doesn’t seem to lead to communication problems. Those with congenital blindness seem to be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with those who can see. The philosophers Bryan Magee (sighted) and Martin Milligan (blind) tested this hypothesis in their book Sight Unseen. The book is a series of letters back and forth between both authors. The dialogue carried out in these letters seems perfectly ordinary. There are some philosophical disagreements — Magee insists that there is something that Milligan can never know when it comes to the raw experience of seeing red — but there is no clear moment of communication breakdown. Milligan knows what Magee is getting at; and Magee knows what Milligan is getting at.

Cabrera and Weckert contrast this real-world example with a fictional one. HG Wells’s short story The Country of the Blind tells us about a traveler who visits a valley in the Andes that has been cut off from the rest of the world for centuries. The inhabitants of the valley are all blind, and nobody alive remembers anything about the world of sight. The traveler has serious communication problems as a result. This results in a hypothesis about when changes to our sensory experience will radically affect our communication:

Hypothesis: If you have a sense that the majority in your society lack, then you will have serious communication problems; if you lack a sense that the majority in your society have, then you will not.

This is the suggested difference between Milligan and the traveler in HG Wells’s story. Milligan has been raised in a sighted society. To make his way in that world, he has to attune himself to the lifeworld of the sighted people. He has to adopt their language and idioms. The traveler is inserted into a society that lacks sight. He has already acquired a different mode of communicating and understanding the world. It is very difficult for him to bridge the gap between his lifeworld and that of the valley-dwellers (at least in the short time available to him).

This is relevant to the enhancement debate because one thing that enhancement technologies could do is change how we experience and sense the world around us. Neural prosthetics could create new modes of sensation (e.g. seeing in ultraviolet or infrared; hearing different frequencies of sound). Augmented reality eyewear could potentially do something similar, e.g. by constantly displaying statistical predictions of how the people and objects in the world around us will behave. We might then, literally, see the future all the time (or, at least, as good an estimate as we can get of that future). If these changes are radical and sudden, and if relatively few people experience them, then we might end up with something like the communication problems depicted in HG Wells’s short story. I am, however, somewhat sceptical of this. I think the sensory changes brought about by enhancement technologies are unlikely to be that radical and sudden. The credibility of Wells’s story depends on the fact that the traveler was raised in a very different community with a very different lifeworld. If he was not, or if he had more time to acculturate, the communication problems might dissipate. So unless those with enhanced senses are sectioned off from the rest of society, this doesn’t seem to me like a major threat to communication.

The final example used by Cabrera and Weckert relates to cognitive capacities. They have a couple of really good illustrations in this section of their paper. I’ll just focus on one, having to do with memory. Our memory clearly affects our lifeworld. It is the fact that I remember who I am from day to day — that I can situate myself within a coherent life-narrative — and that I remember general facts about the world and how it works, that facilitates much communication. We see this most clearly in the case of people with terrible amnesias. Henry Molaison, a famous amnesiac case study, lost the ability to form new long-term memories back in the 1950s when he underwent radical surgery for his epilepsy. He lived the remainder of his life in a perpetual present. He could remember events that happened before the surgery, but nothing after. If you sat in a room with him for a couple of hours, he would get to know you and would seem to remember who you were. But if you went back the following day, he would have forgotten and you would need to start from scratch. This obviously created noticeable communication problems. Henry wasn’t building a life narrative in the same way the people around him were. This could lead to moments of great sadness and frustration.

Henry Molaison had a different lifeworld, maybe not radically different, but noticeably different, due to his amnesia. The same thing can happen in the opposite direction. Those with extremely good memories (eidetic memories) often experience the world in a very different way. We know this from some famous case studies, particularly Alexander Luria’s pioneering work The Mind of Mnemonist. The book describes a real-life patient who can effectively remember everything that has every happened to him. Borges used Luria’s work as the inspiration for his short story Funes, the Memorious. One passage from the story gives a sense of how different the lifeworld of someone with an extreme memory might be:

With one quick look, you and I perceive three wineglasses on a table; Funes perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had see only once…Nor were those memories simple — every visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on. He was able to reconstruct every dream, every daydream he ever had. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day.

Even with this, the story is about the struggle to really understand what it would be like to live this life. If you get two or more people with such extreme memories together, they may develop new communication styles that are better attuned to their lifeworlds. This is relevant to the enhancement debate, of course, because cognitive enhancement is such a prominent desire among the proponents of human enhancement. But enhancing cognitive capacities could have knock-on effects on communication.



3. Why is this important?
This brings us to a concluding question: why is any of this important? I think Cabrera and Weckert do a good job of highlighting the potential impact of enhancement on communication, but why should we care about this? As they themselves note, the arguments they make are highly speculative. They are suggesting a possible area of inquiry and concern; they are not making a firm prediction.
But it is important because of the role that communication plays in our society. For better or worse, language is one of the distinctive attributes of human society. Languages are capacious and flexible modes of communication. They are obviously more expressive than animal modes of communication. They allow us to form very rich lifeworlds, replete with abstract theories and concepts, similes and metaphors, irony and humour, and so on. Sharing in these lifeworlds is part of the ethical glue that holds society together.

If the enhanced and the unenhanced have radically different lifeworlds, then there is some cause for concern. They may not be able to understand one another. They may lose empathy and regard for one another’s modes of existence. If I cannot really understand what it is like to be you, I may not be able to protect and care about your interests. Society is a collaboration, competition and compromise over these interests. If we cannot communicate with one another, we may be left with nothing but competition.

One final point before I go. Cabrera and Weckert briefly mention in their paper how other types of technology affect the way in which we communicate. But they don’t seem to think (or entertain) the possibility that they could radically alter our lifeworld. I think this is somewhat mistaken. I think ICTs are beginning to radically alter how we situate ourselves within and understand the world around us. I also think language is an increasingly important commodity in the digital age. This is something Google appreciates intimately: they make their money by commodifying language. Sometimes this means that they abstract language away from its original semantic context. Pip Thornton (currently working as a research assistant on my Algocracy and Transhumanism project) makes this point with her project on poetic language, and it is something I think needs to be considered in more detail.

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