all of the selves we Have ever been
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Arthur Fletcher, United Negro College Fund
“In my head I was thinking.”
The speaker loses me right there. His brain may be a luxury liner, and he may be about to tell me the secrets to world peace, climate change reversal, and how to grow thicker, more luxurious hair, but my thoughts dive overboard.
I replay his words while awaiting underwater rescue: “In my HEAD I was thinking.” “In my head I was THINKING.”
I want to interrupt the speaker and ask, “Where else would you be thinking?” But my son’s insistent voice tugs on my mind in the same urgent way that he pulls on my arm in a department store when I am about to confront a shoplifter: “Mom, it doesn’t work that way anymore.”
Oh! And uh-oh! Another reminder that I am either touched or out of touch, drowning in a sea of changes. The most fundamental truths no longer hold water: now we must qualify where our thoughts come from.
No expert, but ever curious about why people do what they do and say what they say, I take a deeper dive. What better arena to find people talking than in politics? I listen. I try to grasp the thoughts behind the words. I try different news sources, and then I ask myself: Did that really come out of the head of a person educated at Penn? Yale? Harvard? Stanford? Pretty pricey educations. And in my head I think I have found the reason to forgive student loans.
Just to be sure it’s not just me struggling with the question of where thought comes from I turn to a friend about one of her recent experiences. Needing assistance in a store, my friend approached the customer service desk where another woman was already waiting for help. No one came to staff the desk. After waiting a bit, the women approached an employee stationed in the self-checkout area to assist customers who, shockingly, were having problems with self-checkout. On the surface, it seemed like the customer service representative and the two women shared the same language, but this customer request for a manager or someone to assist them just did not seem to compute in the young employee’s head. Finally, he pulled a response from the same pocket where he keeps his much smarter phone: “There’s no one here that can help you.” End of discussion. Problem unsolved.
My friend, a very bright woman who carries a big engine in her own head, persisted, “Well, who would you call if the store caught on fire?”
That seemed to get the lights flickering in the young man’s eyes: “Oh! That would be Tom?”
“Well, could you call Tom?”
Tom never appeared but the two women with the thinking heads solved their own problems.
Back at home, I watch a neighbor walk down our shared hallway, dripping and dropping food onto the carpet as he goes. Not unnoticeable, and yet he keeps walking. Keeps dropping. Keeps spilling. And steps in it! Days pass. No attempt is made to clean up the mess. His smart phone is on and updated, but his beautiful head is on lockdown.
At work people appear to be busy on their computers. They receive a constant stream of music and podcasts from their earbuds. As their minds process all of that sensory stimulation, I wonder: where do they think? And when? I would ask them, but they can’t hear me.
Wonderful people I’ve known for a lifetime are suddenly up in arms about a variety of conspiracy theories. Salacious, crazy ideas picked ripe from the internet and social media are turning their good minds into debris fields. No thought or fact checking required. All of their mental input is handpicked and arranged by AI the new thought generator.
I contemplate the notion of “artificial” intelligence. Is that an oxymoron? Or a bad substitute like ill-fitting dentures? Whatever AI is, it bears a shocking resemblance to the artificial additives that enhance the color, flavor, shelf-life, and addictive qualities of processed food. All of the flavor but none of the calories. And none of the nutrition. Seems to me the food giants do their thinking in their wallets. Never mind that artificial ingredients have led to an obesity epidemic that is the leading cause of death in America. Perhaps they learned this approach from the tobacco industry whose product is known to kill one out of every two of its best customers. And so, in my head, I ponder: What does this new artificial substitute for thought mean for our minds?
After tobacco, it was food. Now it is technology. We are already experiencing AI poisoning. Maybe we will eventually kill each other. And like the tobacco and food companies before them, big tech owners will stand back and claim it was all “freedom” regardless of their industry’s psychological manipulation. But, by then, the big tech guys will own all the real estate on Mars and the only rockets to get there. Don’t you love freedom?
The life of the mind is under siege. The future of thought is not looking good. What is to become of that vault of jewels that makes us human, the many faceted gems of thought, wonder, creativity, and empathy polished by time, experience, education, flexibility, maturity, and relationships? What happens when our heads are as junk-clogged as our arteries?
A poor swimmer in these uncharted waters I doggy paddle to stay afloat. I conclude that psychologically manipulated information--no matter the volume--is not thought any more than Cheetos are nutrition.
To the in-my-head-I-was-thinking-guy—I owe you an apology.
And some credit for trying.