December 23, 2007

The Way the Mind Works: Screens, Walls, and My Uncle Manny

Credit: Joseph A Carr-From Wikipedia article on Telephone Swithboards

I was speaking with my (almost) 97-year-old Uncle Manny recently, who lives in Florida. As we often do, we were talking about the old days when he and my father, who died a number of years ago, were boys. We were marveling at how easy it had become to stay in touch since then. The telegraph replaced letters as the only way to reach across distances, and then came the phone.

He told me that his grandfather had one of the first phones in the neighborhood. It was a pay phone of sorts. Neighbors could come and deposit their nickels to make a phone call. The phone company charged a set fee and also got a percentage of the take; my great grandfather got to keep the rest.

We discussed how phone technology had changed---from operators, like Lily Thomlin's "Ernestine," who connected calls on a switchboard, to rotary dial phones. He reminded me of how for a number years if you wanted to make a call overseas, you had to tell an operator, she would place it for you, and then call you back when she had the other party on the line.

We continued with touchtone phones, then cell phones and e-mails. (Great site on history of the telephone ) Keeping on with technological progress and communication, I told him about the voice activated wordprocessor I use because a repetitive strain injury limits my ability to type. It's called Dragon NaturallySpeaking. You can begin using Dragon right away to type text, but it takes awhile to learn to some of the more subtle maneuvers connected with word processing, such as formatting and moving files around. (See Voters Beware: A True Fable to learn about some of its more disarming idiosyncrasies.) It's taken a year or so, but I've now become quite good with it and can do most of what I want to.

One of the ways Dragon lets you move the pointer around on the screen is by saying commands like "start scrolling down," "move mouse right," "move mouse left." When you want the pointer/mouse to stop you simply say "stop." It can be a little tricky to get it to stop just where you want it to, because the voice recognition adds a delay. So you need to say stop just a little before hand.

I had an unusual experience the other day that suggests that technological innovation can go two ways. It seems as if my friend Dragon NaturallySpeaking is beginning to rewire my brain. I had been working very hard that day and late in the afternoon I slipped out to go to my local Whole Foods to go grocery shopping. I was going up and down the aisles, perhaps thinking about my work, while grabbing what I needed. I was in the frozen food aisle when apparently some part of my mind feared that another shopper going the other way down the aisle would soon be in danger of colliding her cart with mine. All of a sudden I found myself saying “stop,” but not to her, or even to her cart. Instead I was talking to an invisible screen, and rather quietly in my flat Dragon voice, which I doubt she even heard. Nonetheless she stopped at the entrance to the little cheese alley and no collision occurred.

I came to full alertness when I recognized what had happened and furthermore that she wasn't even really that close. I felt equal measures of amusement at what had happened and concern for my poor addled brain.

My uncle and I had a good laugh about my mistaking real-life for virtual reality. Then he said, "That reminds me of a story. I'm not sure exactly why it's coming to mind, but somehow it seems to fit."

"Former President Eisenhower went to visit Israel and was shown around by Golda Meyer. They went to the Wailing Wall, where he saw religious Jews in prayer shawls dovening, or moving back and forth as they prayed. He also saw people slipping scraps of paper into the cracks between the stones. Intrigued he asked Golda what was going on. She explained that they were leaving prayers on these scraps of paper.

Eisenhower said he would also like to leave one. He wrote something on a piece of paper and placed in the wall.

Golda tried to contain her curiosity, but eventually it got the best of her. She said, "Mr. President, excuse me for asking, but I am most curious about what you prayed for."

Eisenhower answered, "I asked for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians."

"Ah, Mr. President," Golda answered, "you know of course you are praying to a wall."

Additional thoughts: I don't for a minute believe that my "intervention" was the critical factor in averting a collision. But at the same time, I trust these unconscious responses, especially as they relate to traffic. See Running in Herds, Traffic, and Intuition. Not only do we read momentum, like other animals, we also read intention, and from many different cues. We somehow know, for the most part, if someone we are observing is planning to keep on going, or if they are thinking about making a turn. Nonetheless I would put my money on the fact that the woman just remembered at that moment she needed some cheese. At the same time some trouble-making part of my mind just won't let go of the possibility that something about “my response” to this situation---since she was looking right at me---triggered her stop.

While speaking to Manny again a few days ago, I learned that the Eisenhower/Golda Meier story I had heard for the first time from him was in fact very well-known a number of years back. Intriguingly, even though the story has faded, the situation it captured is unchanged. Everything moves on—technology gallops along, good stories are forgotten. Yet(as Golda intuited) the Israeli Palestinian situation remains essentially frozen in time.

I am going to proffer my own solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. How about if everyone on both sides started using Dragon NaturallySpeaking to help prevent repetitive strain injury. After all real-life reality, virtual reality, and metaphoric reality are all likely equidistant from each other.


Jim said...

When I first started using freeware, 12 or so years ago, I found that the new mode of interaction began appearing in my dreams e.g. in the shape of one of those "greyed out" buttons that used to indicate that some function of the software was not available to users of the free, beta version.

Ray Kurzweil, in his book 'In The Age of Spiritual Machines', predicts that it will become increasingly difficult for us to distinguish our biologically endowed behaviour from those actions we perform in collaboration with computers.

By the way did you see the footage of President Bush walking through Ramallah? He looked to be in a state of terror.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting Lois. Thanks... One of my very first real jobs in
1971 was at an Ernestine style switchboard. It was a gorgeous brass creation and there were two of us working and it had to be polished daily. And I remember living in a place in the early 70s that still had a party line! How many changes there have been!

Anonymous said...

Of course it is "rewiring your brain." You have been exposed to reinforcement contingencies and your brain has been changed such that you behave in new ways. And the extension of it to a different situation has a name as well - it is called "stimulus generalization" and has been investigated scientifically, at least since Pavlov, though you are talking about generalization of an operant discriminative stimulus.


R. Rosenzweig said...

Whatever we have, be it biological or cyber-mechanical, let's hope for peace in any form. Maybe a trial run in cyberspace could work. This was fun reading.

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