(Copyright © 2009)

 

I’m on the phone to FairPoint to change my service. For 20 minutes, here’s what I get:

 

Thank you for holding. Your call will be answered in just a moment.

 

Every effort is being made to assure your wait is as short as possible. Thank you for holding.

 

Your call is very important to us. Thank you for waiting during this brief delay.

 

We know your time is important and appreciate your patience while on hold.

 

Thank you for holding. Someone will be right with you.

 

Thank you for calling today. We’ll be with you in just a moment.

 

Nice man, nice lady. You can tell by their voices. So concerned that I not waste my time. So caring. Every 20 seconds, they say the same thing a new way, with distracting music in between—all to keep me from realizing how annoyed I am at being continuously put off.

 

Am I conscious? No, I can’t do anything, so there’s no point in being alert. I’m just sitting here, annoyance turning to anger turning to Richter-scale fury.

 

Why do I let canned voices get under my skin? Because it’s an asymmetrical situation. Garry Kasparov versus IBM’s Deep Blue. They—the nice voices—are in total control. I can’t tell them to go f—k themselves. They just keep jabbing away at my brain. I can’t even defend myself because I have business with them, so have to hang on till I get a live one in India. They’re the phone company, I want to speak to an operator. But there is no operator. Just voices that recite meaningless phrases in my ear.

 

What interests me about this “encounter” is how familiar the situation has become in modern life. When you want to talk to someone, you get a recording—“If you know your party’s extension, you may dial it at any time during this message.” Yeah, sure, if I knew the extension, if I knew who my party was.

 

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who speak through recorded announcements, and those trapped into listening to them out of necessity.

 

When I turn on my computer, the screen says “Welcome.” Good old Microsoft, so well-bred and friendly. Drop dead, I say, but it never seems to hear. I got a letter today from Joe Biden: “Dear Steve,” it says, “Words can’t describe my gratitude for the friendship that you’ve shown President Obama and myself.” I get the drift—send money! Yep, the box with the lowest figure is for $100. Then there’s a bunch of numbers and letters, which is probably secret code for Dear Steve. Dear Joe, I’m currently low on cash, could you donate a century note to help me through hard times? 57286705    A4CD139

 

I am an ardent environmentalist who actually practices what he preaches. When I lived on $3,000 a year in the 1980s, I gave a third of it to environmental organizations. Ever since, I’ve gotten a lot of mail in the spirit of, Keep it coming, Steve, Buddy. Money makes you a lot of friends. Friends who are good at asking for more. At Christmas, I am always surprised how popular I am. Asymmetry, again. Like all those radio preachers who’d be happy to save your mortal soul (for a considerable donation).

 

Asymmetrically—that’s how society is built. The benefits dribble down as long as the money keeps flowing upward. Royalty at the top, faceless drones in the steerage below.

 

Which means consciousness is asymmetrical as well. There’s the view from the palace, and the view from the street. Those who rule the system build the scenery for each point of view. That is, they govern the media that enforce who gets to see/hear/do what.

 

In essence, this disconnect in consciousness stems from there being two different sets of rules, one for the ups, another for the downs. Emperors can put peasants on hold, but if peasants try that in reverse, they’re dead or in prison.

 

Knowing your station in life means accepting the rules the higher-ups want you to follow. They play by their rules, you play by their rules—what could be fairer than that?

 

As I keep saying, consciousness is situational. That is, your awareness depends on your life situation. Where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re headed, who you’re with, what they’re doing, what you’re doing, and so on. Consciousness arises in context. You’re part of the context for those at the top. They’re part of the context for those in the crowd down below.

 

Whenever you find yourself holding the phone while soothing voices tell you over and over how important you are, you know your consciousness is irrelevant. You don’t really exist for them. The situation is asymmetrical, which is a nice way of saying you’re living a lie.

 

On the Web, the person you’re chatting with may not be what he seems. You know television presents a hokey reality—even the reality shows. Same for movies. Even so-called documentaries are made from the producer’s point of view, the producer being the guy with money who brings it to the screen for his own purposes.

 

The biggest lies come from government. Between elections, the electorate is on hold for the duration. When have you ever gotten a straight answer to a letter you sent to your senator? What you get is meant to appeal to every constituent, so appeals to no flesh-and-blood person. As it is, we elect members of political parties to office, not human beings. Nowhere are such parties mentioned in the Constitution, yet there they are, taking or losing power for years—even decades—at a time. In the meantime, the electorate is on hold: “Your vote is very important to us. Thank you for waiting.”

 

The blogosphere is supposed to be the antidote to all this, at least according to those in the business of blogging. The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging deals with the future of news media and ends on this note:

 

We don’t know how this will all shake out. But we do know that in the blogosphere, as we all add our own critiques and new information,1 something starts to emerge that looks more like the truth.2 We’ve been fascinated to read studies showing that asking more and more people a question (e.g., “How tall is the tower of London?”) and averaging their answers yields something closer to the truth than asking one person alone.3 This is—in a nutshell—how the blogosphere is reshaping the media. In the past, voices were necessarily limited. So the information we received was limited as well. Now, as everyone feels free to contribute, we get a clearer picture of reality.4 If the function of the media is to inform, and to get the real story, then we’d say blogs are shaping the media in a positive way.5 That’s true even if come 2043, we’ll have to use something else to line our birdcages (page 167f, italics and notes added).

 

Little in this paragraph makes sense to anyone but the writer, who surely breathes rarefied air in a penthouse high above the street. Here we have a powerhouse in the blogosphere tooting the virtues of his or her chosen medium. Whoever would do such a thing? A person interested in attracting ad revenues, for one. Or a celebrity blogger boosting his own image, for another.

 

As to the specifics singled out in italics, I say this:

1 That cloud floating around the blogosphere may contain a few particles of information, but most of it is opinion or even disinformation.

2 The arbiters of truth are not bloggers at large but those actually in the know, who make up a small fraction of one percent of all bloggers.

3 Depends who you ask. The average opinion may not be more accurate than the opinion of one person. The sample is likely to be skewed, with truth far to one side or the other. Look at the arguments for creationism, or the existence of God, for example. I’d advise asking the one who had taken the trouble to measure the height of that tower.

4 There is no necessary correlation between the number of bloggers and their access to so-called reality. Concerning consciousness and understanding, most of the people can be fooled much of the time.

5 The blogosphere at large is not an example of the new media. People blog for all sorts of reasons, few bearing on media or the news per se. The writer takes the efforts of a small minority of clear-headed bloggers as emblematic of the mishmash as a whole.

 

¦

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

While mounting my photovoltaic panel, I notice wasps hovering around the end of a bough on a nearby spruce, apparently attracted by gleaming drops exuded from its tip. In the grass eight feet below, a smooth green snake eyes the wasps, taking in the scene. I go about my business, but look up ten minutes later to see the snake sliding along that same branch. Stealthily, inch-by-inch, toward the tip and the hovering wasps. Slowly, almost not moving, it extends its body beyond the end into the air, drooping slightly as if part of the bough, as if its nose—its mouth—were the tip. There it waits. And waits. But the wasps have gone elsewhere. I run and get my camera to document what I have seen with my own eyes.

 

Smooth Green Snake 

 

Can I ascribe consciousness, planning, even intelligence to a snake on the basis of such an anecdote? Watching from below, seeing the wasps, climbing the trunk, venturing onto a limb, sliding its length to the end, hanging beyond the tip—this is not random activity. It is clearly deliberate. Each move made in proper sequence. At some point the snake must have put it all together as a plan of action. It had motivation and a clear goal: the wasps were there and it wanted to eat them. It had the smarts to figure out the route to take and what it had to do in order to bring that about. I am sorely tempted to say this is conscious behavior. The only flaw was that the wasps were too wary for the snake.

 

Snake consciousness? Wasp consciousness? Or can such behaviors be fully accounted for by hard-wired, unconscious reflexes? In the case of the wasp, perhaps, but the snake fully grasped the situation before it acted. It had the imagination to draft a plan extending the now into the future, and the follow-through to execute it. Which took time. Memory must have been involved. Situational memory encompassing goal, motive, participants, route, complex course of action, all unified by seeing the world from its point of view.

 

I have seen similar performances in raspberry bushes where insects were drawn by ripe fruit, the snake waiting in the shadows of leaves farther back. Is that necessarily conscious behavior? Does the predator have a sense of what it must do to capture its prey? Or does it simply rely on the equipment it is given to do its thing? Is the frog aware of turning its head toward the fly, of lashing out with its tongue? Frogs and snakes survive only in the presence of suitable prey. The habitat may be the message, all else following as a matter of course.

 

That may be true in the case of the frog, but the case of the wasp-seeking snake is more complicated. If the wasps wouldn’t come to the snake, the snake figured out it would have to go to the wasps. Was the process of “figuring out” similar to what we would call consciousness? It was certainly situational from the snake’s point of view, which took into account its size, capabilities, motives, habitat, and goal. Consciously or not, all that figured in the snake’s behavior, which appears to have been visualized and planned beforehand while it watched from its vantage point in the grass. And then retained as it executed its moves in proper sequence.

 

The first move was to turn away from the wasps toward the base of the tree. Then to climb up the stem of the tree. Only when it turned onto the particular branch leading to where the wasps were when seen from the ground did it face toward its prey. Reflexes are instantaneous; they cannot account for these complex, time-consuming maneuvers. The snake apparently operated within a three-dimensional model in its head, and monitored its position within that space, which became ever more charged with meaning as it neared the end of the bough.

 

Many people accept that (like apes, monkeys, and humans) birds, deer, dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes, bears, and other animals have a mental sense of the territory which provides for and sustains them. But snakes? I am here to extend such a sense to them. I see the workings of the vertebrate hippocampus in their case as well. I see no compelling reason to believe that the wasp-seeking snake I witnessed was not conscious of its surroundings or its own actions. Until proven wrong, I will count snakes among the ranks of conscious beings, entitled to all the privileges such membership implies.

 

¦