Consciousness, a test
Inspired by Accelerando
Think of 7 English words that begin with the letters ca (fex, cabbage). Write them here:
Done? OK, now let me introduce you to Dictionary Search, a cool database by The National Puzzler’s League of famous word lists (like The Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary) that can be searched through regular expressions WP — search patterns (like when searching for files in your computer and using a star ((*) to indicate “whatever”).
The first instruction of this post can be expressed as a regular expression as ^ca, and, sure enough, you can click on that to search it in Dictionary Search. In seconds, it returns 1478 matches from the Scrabble list.
Let’s come back to how you came up with the seven words. How did you do it? This is important. Think about it for a while.
I can’t speak for you but for me it was only a matter of willing it and waiting for the words to start popping into my head. I started a jump-rope rhythm of “ca, ca, ca,…” that was punctuated every once in a while with cries of found words — “ca, ca, ca,…, castle!”
Upon close examination, I realize I have no idea of how exactly I do it, the dirty work all happens beneath my conscious awareness. It doesn’t feel like I consult a dictionary list inside my head because the process isn’t smooth and predictable, it happens haphazardly and in bouts. Mistakes are frequent. If I up the ante and try slightly harder searches, like words that begin with ca but end with t (fex, cat), I’m lost completely.
Dictionary Search, on the other hand, handles such instruction, ^ca.*t$, immediately and without the slightest trouble. With some practice in regular expressions you can perform searches almost as complicated as you can imagine and perform them immediately and without fault. You make guesses and carry them out almost as soon as you think of them, the search being so fast it’s almost interactive.
It is not stretching language to say that your searching through Dictionary search is (far) more conscious than your in-brain searching. You could even go from operative knowledge to really intimate knowledge: you can learn all the nitty-gritty of how regular expressions are implemented all down to how computers work. We know all about it, we built them. You can’t say the same for your brain — yet.
I can imagine a myriad tests like this one — remembering vs. writing, doing arithmetic in the head vs. by hand vs. with a calculator, etc — where we contrast internal thought processes versus external ones to the same result. I chose this one only because its novelty seems to help drive the point home. What I want you to realize is how opaque your thought is, how rough-handed is your control of it, how alien to you it already is — consciousness is overrated. And I want you to realize the promise of external thought, the promise of greater transparency, of godspeed, of finer control, of accuracy, of interactiveness, of, yes, more consciousness.
Our first reaction to thought externalization is fear. We still bemoan that kids don’t bother learning to do basic arithmetic in their heads — “But they don’t know what they’re doing! They aren’t thinking, they’re just pushing buttons!” We would bemoan far less if we realized how little (if anything) we lose, how much we have to gain.
It is important to realize this as thought externalization will only accelerate. It is already far beyond what most of us believe, waiting only for better, everpresent interfaces. If calculators scare you, get ready for ubiquitous googling, algebra modules, location modules, grammar modules, semantic modules, translation modules, planning modules. Get ready for exoselves that tell you who you are. And yes, these will all be net increases in consciousness.
A coda (for webheads).
It is — if you should pardon the clumsiest and, in its use of technology as metaphor, most trite of comparisons — as if consciousness where a dumb client WP that relies on your subconscious server WP for processing. Externalizing this “server” from your noodly insides out into the light and in so doing allowing for much finer, faster, and interactive control than was possible before, is a bit like — and now I’m breaking all codes of moral decency — AJAXing WP your consciousness. And that’s why we’ll do it.