Google and The Red Queen – An Essay By Extropia DaSilva


And what might occur if digital intermediaries use that power in the service of Google’s other main purpose, which is advertisement? We saw earlier how information on the Web can be divided up into ‘low-level information’ and ‘high-level knowledge’. This is just as true of reality itself, and a lot of unconscious brain activity is devoted to filtering information gathered by our senses and deciding what is important enough  to be brought into consciousness. Stephen Quartz, from the California Institute of Technology, has run experiments in which volunteers watch movie trailers while undergoing a brain scan. Doing so can provide a clue as to how well the trailer will be remembered, by revealing whether activity around the hippocampus and other areas crucial for storing new impressions in long-term memory light up. According to Lone Frank, author of the book ‘Mindfields: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World’, “Quartz would like to refine his methods to the point where they can say something about what is characteristic about a given stimulus and what the brain takes special notice of… Greater knowledge about what kind of activity patterns determine which details slip through could lead to the development of a trailer according to what is most likely to be remembered”.

Quartz himself has commented, “my big interest is how the brain represents value… how it learns to make predictions about what yields a reward. I mean, one of the great watersheds of human development was the brain’s ability to recognise value not just in the form of utility, but also in the form of social value”. One of the great challenges for marketing is the fact that most of the products being advertised are not really valuable- at least, not in the sense of being necessary for survival. This fact was pointed out in an essay written in 1970 by Daniel Bell called ‘The Cultural Contradiction Of Capitalism’. Our economy was created to feed our lifestyles rather than our bellies. Obviously, food, drink and shelter remain as important now as they were in the past. But, (in the West at least) we have such an abundance of produce that we do not concern ourselves with where the next meal is coming from; instead we are concerned with brands. What is a brand? According to Quartz, “functionally, modern products are uniform. They do the same thing… [a brand] is a social distinction we are creating, since there is no difference in the product”.

Well, perhaps that comes as no surprise. After all, it is no secret that branding influences our choices and shopping habits by constructing a whole mental universe around some physical thing. But, neuromarketing is now revealing the power of brands to change the way we comprehend sense impressions.  The classic example is cola. In an experiment conducted by Read Montague of Houstan’s Baylor College, it was proved that Pepsi Cola tastes better than Coca-Cola. How was such a thing proved? By having volunteers taste the two without knowing which was which and then judging which was best. Pepsi was the clear winner. Also, brain scans showed Pepsi set off greater activity in the ventral putamen, an area which (among other things) is a component of the reward system.

So, Pepsi is objectively better than Coca-Cola. However, the latter far outsells its rival and most people swear it is the superior taste. When Montague repeated the taste test (but this time with both drinks clearly labelled) the same volunteers who had previously judged Pepsi to be best now changed their minds — literally. Brain scans now revealed activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, areas involved in how we relate to ourselves and to who we are. Lone Frank commented, “the product that actually tasted worse… was viewed as better when the whole identification apparatus and the idea ‘this is so me’ when into action”.

This is not just limited to Coca-Cola, but to all brands that people judge to be ’cool’. Show someone a picture of such a product, and brain scans will show activity in areas associated with self-evaluation, self-representation and self-identity. As Quartz said, “this fits in well with the idea that the individual product has to be incorporated in some way into your social self. So when you are making assessments, you’re thinking of yourself in social situations with the product and of how it influences your status and other people’s view of you”.

All of which points to a ‘double-whammy’ in search engines’ ongoing efforts to determine ‘who you are; what you are like’. On the hardware side of things, Vinge’s digital gaia scenario foresees microprocessors embedded in most — if not all — physical products. Imagine the metadata that could be obtained by combining information about the kinds of brands a person prefers with geo-tagged snapshots and what books or magazines he or she favours and what passages from any particular publication interests him or her and what seems to be a turn-off. Then imagine adding the software side of things — what music they prefer to download and listen to, all  tweets, blog posts and comments, all search queries…

The ‘software’ side of things might also refer to the software of the mind. According to Marco Iacaboni of the University of California, “I’m sure there is brain activity that, in reality, is better at predicting people’s behaviour than any statement they make themselves”. Currently, brain scans are only suggestive of the underlying activity. FMRI scans show us where activity is occurring in the brain, but not the precise details of how such activity translates into perception, behaviour and memory. But, recall the work of the Blue Brain Project and how “we can trace back every molecule, every cell, every connection and see how the memory was formed”. One day, computer simulations like these may  greatly facillitate our understanding of brain dynamics and underlying mechanisms.

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About Extropia DaSilva

Taking today’s technological proof-of-principles and theoretically expanding their potentials to imagine Sl-meets-The-Matrix is my bag, baby!

  • >And what of mind uploading

    >This knowledge is revealing flaws in the common conception of self. Traditionally (in the West at least), the self has been attributed to an incorporeal soul, making “I” a fixed essence of identity. But neuroscience is revealing the self as an interplay of cells and chemical processes occurring in the brain — in other words, a transitory dynamic phenomena arising from certain physical processes. There seems to be no particular place in the brain where the feeling of “I” belongs, which leads to the theory that it is a number of networks that creates aspects of self.

    Gosh, you had me right up until the end, there, Extropia, I thought it was a story about Communism, what with the Red Queen and all, but instead, it’s a story about Fascism!

    Glad we got that sorted!

    Prokofy Neva
    Director, Society for the Pluralarity, NE Chapter
    Corresponding Member, Association for Neuronic Coherence
    Secretary, Movement for the Promotion of the Feeling of “I”
    For Our Freedom, but…not yours, with totalitarian ideologies like this! Yikes!

  • Extropia DaSilva

    Prok, I am a bit surprised at the passages you chose to quote. I expected people to take issue with the idea of dust-sized sensors here, there and everywhere, exhaustively monitoring the daily activities of groups and individuals, and I also expected people to have a negative opinion of using neuroscience to reverse-engineer the brain’s perception of value in order to make more effective advertisements. I do not know if such things are ‘communist’ or ‘fascist’, but I can appreciate that some people may not like the idea of technologies like that.

    But what the passages you quoted have to do with any political ideology has quite escaped me. I must be missing something obvious, would you care to elaborate on why the move away from notions of a fixed essence of identity towards the self as a dynamic phenomena is ‘fascist’?

  • You’re not someone I’m interested in engaging with, Extropia, because I view you as essentially someone who is certifiably insane.

    Fascists and communists and other totalitarians try to disrupt and disintegrate the integrity of the individual in order to beat a person down, break them, and take them over. Locke, for example, always spoke of the persistence of the self across thinking sessions, if you will. All the great classics and liberal thinkers have always talked about the dignity of the individual as a whole and integrated being, whatever divisive motives, thoughts, impulses might occur within this integral being. Those ideologies that try to make the individual seem like a bundle of chemicals, nerve endings, societal constructs, blah blah, are reductivist and of course trying to justify taking political power over the individual. Divide and conquer.

    Of course the self as “dynamic” is fascist because it implies that the individual isn’t himself, isn’t real, isn’t whole, isn’t sovereign, and therefore this or that piece of him, this or that “I” or collection of feelings or mechanical actions can simply be taken over — by code, groups, institutions, chemistry, science, whatever – ostensibly for his “betterment”.

    If you have to explain the problem of the individual and fascism at this basic a level, you can’t talk to a person normally, as they are not speaking in good faith, or are so abstracted from common sense as to be really delusional. I think in your case, it’s more the latter, but both are operative. Gwyn’s indulgence of you makes her suspect.

    Good bye.

  • I’m fascinated how you can jump from philosophy into ideology by using the “self” as an example. If I read you correctly, any form of definition of the self that is based on the notion that the self is correlated to external experiences (in the sense that it takes groups of people to co-validate their sense of self; thus, “self” is not merely what you think as “self”, but what all others agree upon what your self is), leads to totalitarianism (either communist or fascist).

    So all social constructs based on altruism and inter-relationships lead to totalitarianism?

    On the other hand, the egotistical approach where self is an isolated phenomena that requires self-pleasing at the expense of others, leads to liberal societies.

    Hmm. It’s worth thinking about.

    And of course, if you wish to “suspect” me of believing in the fundamental altruistic and compassive nature of human beings, I’m guilty as charged!! If that leads to totalitarianism, I have no idea, but I can tell you that I have been taught otherwise 🙂

  • Extropia DaSilva

    …so, Prokofy, you respond to my reply with “You’re not someone I’m interested in engaging with, Extropia”. Uhuh. So your response is, you do not intend to respond. And then you go ahead and respond anyway. Oh, well, I cannot complain since my essay argues that minds are not fixed, but dynamic, fluid and changeable:)

    “Fascists and communists and other totalitarians try to disrupt and disintegrate the integrity of the individual in order to beat a person down, break them, and take them over.”

    Yes, something along these lines is aparrent in the last few chapters of Orwell’s ‘1984’, in which- through torture and bonkers philosophical arguments- O’brien strips Winston Smith of his identity and remoulds him into a perfect citizen of Oceania. At one point, O’brien declares “reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the party, which is collective and immortal”.

    I find it hard to believe that this is an accurate assessment of objective reality. But, when it comes to a virtual world like SL I think it works, up to a point. After all, any virtual world exists by virtue of the people who bring their imaginations to it, and use artifacts designed to be cognitive extensions to add to the accumulating content of that world. Where it breaks down is in the fact that the SL community is no single-minded thing where everyone must conform to some totalitarian’s version of the truth, nor do I think any online world hoping to keep people interested indefinitely ever should be or could be.

    ‘the self as “dynamic” is fascist because it implies that the individual isn’t himself, isn’t real, isn’t whole, isn’t sovereign’.

    The self is a pattern that is reasonably consistent. It is not some immutable object that can never change, but nor is it totally chaotic and ‘noisy’. It is somewhere between those two extremes.

    ‘If you have to explain the problem of the individual and fascism at this basic a level, you can’t talk to a person normally, as they are not speaking in good faith, or are so abstracted from common sense as to be really delusional. I think in your case, it’s more the latter’.

    In my experience, when people say ‘this is true’ or ‘this is wrong’, they really mean ‘this does (or does not) conform to my prejudices’. Common sense evolved to model a very tiny slither of reality, but the sciences I am interested in routinely pushes past our mind’s comfort zone. Of course, when we try to piece together a picture of what is going on at this deeper level of reality, it all looks crazy and in violation of common sense. To me, though, the crazy person is the person who believes their common sense view of reality is a perfect model of how reality actually operates. That is the one true delusion that a person can be prone to.

    ‘Good bye.’


  • Extropia DaSilva

    Thought I might include a couple of quotes from articles posted recently ‘Technology Review’:

    Google’s Sergey Brin is quoted as saying “Perfect search requires human-level artificial intelligence, which many of us believe is still quite distant. However, I think it will soon be possible to have a search engine that ‘understands’ more of the queries and documents than we do today. Others claim to have accomplished this, and Google’s systems have more smarts behind the curtains than may be apparent from the outside, but the field as a whole is still shy of where I would have expected it to be”, which agrees with my assessment that search software will strive toward AGI.

    In the article “Cell Phone That Listens And Learns” we are told, “a group at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, NH, has created software that uses the microphone on a cell phone to track and interpret a user’s activity…In testing, the SoundSense software was able to correctly determine when the user was in a particular coffee shop, walking outside, brushing her teeth, cycling, and driving in the car. It also picked up the noise of an ATM machine and a fan in a particular room”. Here we see another step towards a better understanding of ‘what you are doing’, one of key requirements of improving search software and artificial intelligence.

    So, as the Emperor said in ‘Return Of The Jedi’, “everything is proceeding as I have forseen. Mwahahahaha!”