Overcoming the Other AI 📱.

“If you don’t know me and I you, a pattern that others put in place may prevail in the world.” - Malidoma SomĂ©

1. Focus on the living.

Last year I ended a long term relationship, the latter years through which I felt I was mostly sleepwalking. In the aftermath I found countless examples of how the lifestyle I designed for myself - one focused on achievement, speed, novelty, and scale - was getting in the way of human connection.

While we may rightly point to our own behaviors or the behaviors of others as the source of dissonance in our relationships, there are also countless technological structures that get in the way of meaningful human connection. This should not be surprising - they are engineered, lifeless, and extractive entities - at best, imitations of something with a soul. They cannot care about you the way a living being can.

Author Mandy Brown minces no words in her call to focus on the living and not the technological:

“You are born with so many fucks to give. If you give your fucks to the unliving—If you plant those fucks in institutions or systems or platforms or, gods forbid, interest rates—you will run out of fucks. But if you give a fuck about the living, they will give a fuck right back.

I know from having given and received, from having lost and been renewed—that enough of them will come back that you can keep on giving, for a while at least, for as long as any of us has time to give.” A Unified Theory of Fucks.

Giving and receiving is exactly what I want more of in my life. Anything but the status quo self reliance I grew up being told to strive for.

One early morning, sitting in a coffee shop, with this unified theory of fucks lying somewhere dormant but not forgotten in my post-breakup brain, I flipped through a local paper and came across my horoscope. The gist of the advice was simple - “Focus on service and friendship, and when you have to choose between them, choose service”. In the absence of any other strategy, I adopted this as my guiding principle.

I joined volunteer organizations. I said yes to everyone who asked for help. I attended weird community events and made space for curiosity in their unfamiliar subcultures. I looked for opportunities to make myself useful even when it was for something I cared little about. I dug my hands into the dirt at community gardens and new life emerged in response. Somewhere amidst all that, I experienced moments of happiness that took on a flavor I hadn’t encountered in years. What changed? The clearest thing I can point to is a focus on the living.

2. The Other AI

I’m far from an expert on love and relationships. I dedicated my career and my attention to staring at pixels and code - digital, social, virtual, advertising. Tracking, preempting, upskilling - grappling with what relationship expert Esther Perel coined “Artificial Intimacy”.

Artificial Intimacy presides as the intermediary for many of our most crucial societal needs - Community, Attention, Embodiment, Witness, Connection, and Closure. It’s the thing we have constructed in order to facilitate both our rapidly expanding universe and our most intimate personal connections. Everything everywhere all at once.

I’m working to shift the focus of my work from entertainment, monetization, and distraction toward the better aims of the web, but every day I confront an accute dichotomy - how to leverage technology’s possibility to solve big problems, yet retain within this a sense of scale and attention that will help us thrive as humans and remain connected.

In aggregate, our relationships are crumbling. I could point to the larger societal trends as evidence, but I need look no further the numerous close friends, neighbors, and family members I’m suddenly encountering in the throes of separation and relationship struggles. What’s happening?

US trends in social isolation — Kannan VD, Veazie PJ

While many of the sources of such statistics point to technology as a root cause, this negates the good intentions behind many of those technologies, as well as their ability to help us navigate a world that evolves in ways that we as humans cannot alone predict or control. To investigate where we’re at, perhaps it’s helpful to look quickly at how we got here.

In an article on the evolution of the internet called “Searching for My City”, Humphrey Obuobi discusses the flyers on the bulletin board at his local coffee shop:

“Patched together on the board, they are a map of a diverse city that is actively and continually shaped by residents…deeply local. I would be hard pressed online to find the same concentration of local people, discussion, and culture that this humble cafe is able to create.”

You’ve probably got your own such coffee shop, with its own said bulletin board, speaking volumes about your local community - its skillsets and passions, needs and opportunities. If you haven’t found that coffee shop yet, I suggest you try. Here’s a picture of mine.

The bulletin board at my neighborhood coffee shop — Jim and Patty’s

The modern equivalent of that bulletin board today might be Nextdoor - which came with the promise to “cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on.” But alas, with the growth of the platform,

“less investment went into the cultural features that would have helped it shine. It’s fairly well-documented that the most popular place-based application is less of a town square and more of a homeowner’s association.”

As often happens with social platforms, the conscious attention of humans to onboarding and hosting was supplanted by systems of Artificial Intimacy, facilitating a sort of uncanny-valley representation of neighborhoods that contributed to the instances of conflict, misinformation, and harassment the web has become notorious for. Obuobi writes,

“The painful reality is that the internet somehow makes it easier to find friends who live halfway across the world than to connect with the people who live down the street.”

Or sleeping beside you - as was my case. As the post-pandemic world grew more remote and tech-centric, as my partner and I gained self-sufficiency, as the original qualities that connected us took on unfamiliar shapes - the threads between us ultimately unraveled. Obuobi puts a point on it:

There’s some beauty in our newfound ability to explore beyond home so easily, but there’s also a risk of forgetting, of losing our relationship with what actually sustains our lives.

3. Ambiguous Loss

This disconnect is what Esther Perel refers to as “Ambiguous Loss” - feeling lonely with those you are closest to, experiencing something that should feel real but doesn’t.

Sound familiar? How many times have you sat in on a Zoom call with the people you see every day, face present but mind a million other places? How many times have you proudly posted your work in an online community, only to receive a smattering of thumbs ups in response, and no clearer picture of whether your hard work was truly seen and appreciated? Where do you feel ambiguous loss most profoundly?

Systems like Zoom and Slack were designed in part to minimize friction amongst humans. Minimize friction, the idea goes, and you can increase speed. Increase speed and you can increase scale: do more, achieve more, be more. But without friction there is no vulnerability, and without vulnerability we never quite achieve the sense of connection we were seeking in the first place. What good are tools for a disconnected world?

The device you are reading this on is what author Brene Brown calls “a vulnerability shield”. It is the intermediary between you and me - optimized for the demographic middle, cutting out edge case outliers and smoothing rough edges. But those rough edges are what make us unique, what make us feel. In helping us hide our vulnerability, they keep us from knowing each other as full humans.

We somehow become less embodied as tech becomes more embedded. We wear it on our wrists and strap it to our faces. We swallow cameras in pills and pin AI to our chests. We now have tech that is powered by our tears!

We are indebted to our technology. As British geologist Jan Zalasiewicz puts it, “Humans collectively have no choice but to keep the technosphere operative — because it is now indispensable to our collective existence.”

4. Return to Human Scale

We are wrestling with a technological chimera that is growing too big and changing too quickly for us to adequately size up. In her book on the attention economy, “How to Do Nothing”, Author Jenny O’Dell writes:

“In ecology, things that grow unchecked are considered parasitic. Yet we live in a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and regenerative. This view of usefulness fails to recognize the ecosystem as a living whole that in fact needs all of its parts to function. An overemphasis on performance turns a thriving landscape of thought into a Monsanto farm whose production destroys the soil until nothing more can grow. When we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation [such as likes on and followers], time becomes a resource that we can no longer justify spending on ’nothing’”.

In my own work within Innovation and AI, the pace of growth is acutely felt. What might’ve been true, relevant and actionable the previous month is old news the next. Tech giants swallow up land for server farms and ask for trillions of dollars for chip making capacity to preempt explosive demand.

The minute you land on a problem worth solving, you may realize someone with deeper pockets and greater headcount has been working on it for months, that it has already been built with mechanisms to stifle competition and lock away learnings.

The rallying cry in venture-capital is “move fast and break things,” and that frenetic energy carries from the top of the corporate hierarchy all the way to the screen that demands our dopamine driven gaze. But what if we just didn’t break things in the first place?

Somewhere amidst that sense of speed and overwhelm and indebtedness and FOMO, “the self becomes a project, not a subject” (source) - something to be optimized and maximized. We live halfway between the present and a constantly shifting future, “unable to recognize anyone or anything not traveling the same speed as we are, strangers now to the slower cycles of life.” (source).

Two themes stand out in that passage - the importance of slowness and cyclicality. It’s only at a slow pace that we can sync up as humans, make connections among our thoughts and each other. Attention, embodiment, and intimacy only occur with a certain degree of stillness. Contrary to our instincts, could we achieve more by doing less?

It is only in cycles that we can revisit what we might have missed - see what changes are a result of the passage of time versus the covering of ground. I love the perspective of circular time described in Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights:

“Sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death. But nomads and merchants, as they set off on journeys, had to think up a different type of time for themselves, one that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time is linear time, more practical because it was able to measure progress toward a goal or destination, rises in percentages. Every moment is unique, no moment can ever be repeated. This idea favors risk-taking, living life to the fullest, seizing the day. And yet the innovation is a profoundly bitter one: when change over time is irreversible, loss and mourning become daily things.”

6. Ritual, Community, and Collective Effervescence

In slow cycles we allow ourselves to pay attention. To pay attention is to bear witness. To be witnessed is a core human need. The Still Face Experiment is a visceral example of what happens when babies feel they’re not accurately witnessed. To witness, though, we must be fully present in body and mind. Artificial intimacy disrupts this embodiment - it lacks the multisensory aspects of true human experience. Senses are essential not just to life but to kinship - they are the things that allow us to hold opposite truths, navigate paradoxes, and make connections. “That these are being cut off is a crisis on the level of species loss,” argues professor and author David Haskell (source). Indeed, our very survival depends on the ability to make connection. “We are part of a transmission from one generation to the next.” (source)

French Mystic Simone Weil said that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. To attend to something properly is to resacralize it.” (source). “Re“sacrilizing indicates a necessity for continued renewal - implying that the even the sacred loses luster or power over time. Perhaps that’s where rituals come from, and where they tie into the concept of circular time - they force us to revisit, reinforce, and collectively sanctify that which truly matters.

“Weil believed that simple attention was required for moral attention, which was required for empathy, which was required for ethical action” - Jasmine Wang, Attending to the Other

Rituals are a stabilizing force in society that require embodiment and community, - a concept known as “Collective Effervescence” - leaving individual affect to join in collective emotion.

In his “13 observations on Ritual”, author Ted Goia makes some important distinctions between ritual and the sort of vapid habituation commonplace in things like social media:

  • Genuine ritual is always embedded in time and place.
  • Tech is obsessed with generating content, abandoning ritual.
  • Internet businesses fill this void with addictive pseudo-rituals [like infinite scrolling], but these lack important components of genuine ritual, such as closure.
  • The restlessness inherent in our devices create an instability within our selves.
  • Technology is not hopeless. When technology promotes human fluorishing, the results can be ritualistic.

I think of ritual as one of our clearest counterparts to artificial intimacy. What form it takes is less important than what it reinforces - embodiment, attention, repetition, cyclicality, community, an acknowledgment of time and place. Ritual does not seek consumption, disruption, or innovation.

Ritual may not be devoid of technology, but technology cannot be a ritual in and of itself. Scrolling through instagram every morning and smashing that like button is not a ritual, it is an addiction - and without a greater sense of embodiment its continuance results in anhedonia - pursuing the stimulus to avoid the pain of deprivation rather than the sense of enjoyment.

As Dagara Spiritualist Malidome SomĂ© wrote: “We have been made indebted to technology. What may be hard for us to accept is a technology that includes so little machinery.” SomĂ© does not call for an abandonment of technology here, but implores a broadening of what we define as technology. What would technology look like if it were designed to account for the mind and body, for community, physicality, for moderation?

What if oversight of these factors was put into our collective hands instead of under the misaligned discretion of the technology’s creators? It might be a bit chaotic - but it also might introduce a greater sense of boundaries, an increased relevance to our daily lives and not our aspirational ones. It might be more rooted in community, and that community better equipped to shape technology’s direction. I imagine it would look a little less like the artificial intimacy of my endlessly scrolling, algorithmically curated social media feed, and a little more like that bulletin board at my local coffee shop.

By identifying the mechanisms that disconnect us and control us, and by putting structure to the ways we want to feel, we can imbue technology with a greater sense of true embodiment and intimacy. Let it flow from the mood boards down to the design docs and spec sheets, past the unit tests and continuous integration controls, straight into to the pixels and transistors of the great motherboard herself - so that somewhere amidst the inner workings of her artificially intelligent arsenal of h100 chips, non-machine learnings will also take hold.