Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Interpretation of David Foster Wallace's "Mister Squishy"

         After reading the story "Mister Squishy" by David Foster Wallace and really liking the design of it, I found myself uncertain whether certain aspects were actually there or just something I read into it. So, I looked around online for interpretations of the story, especially one given by Wallace, but I couldn't find anything too useful—and I felt that many popular summaries were doing the story a disservice by describing its marketing language as 'noise' or 'random,' since it appeared as a stream of coherent concepts in my reading. So, here's my interpretation.

         The story is about the deception, manipulation, and unwavering self-interest that underlies the operation of modern corporations, particularly those whose success is highly dependent on the public's perception of the company and its products. The story is set in a downtown skyscraper, and the structure of the story matches this setting, its layers being displayed one at a time in an upward journey that reveals the figures of each lower level to have been duped by someone above.
         At the start of the story we are shown a focus group in progress, and are introduced to its coordinator, Schmidt. Then we are shifted up a level for the first time: it is revealed that the company isn't interested in the immediate results of the focus group, but is instead using it as a component in a larger experiment involving a parallel focus group being conducted with a slight difference. In particular, the group which we are shown is given information on the the processes behind the development of the product (a chocolate snack-cake), particularly the concepts behind its marketing; the other group will not be given this information. The aspect monitored for variation between the two groups is a measure of difference between individual surveys of members within the group, and a single group survey which each group will fill out together; in other words, deviation between their private and public responses to the product—though "public response" is probably too much of a simplification: the story treats groups of people as isolable, abstract organisms, the organisms studied by statistical methods; so really, the group evaluation contains the responses of this group organism.
         Now it seems that the purpose of the focus group, rather than gathering information about consumer response to the snack-cake, is to improve the design of future focus groups. Schmidt, however, informs the reader through glimpses we are given to his thoughts during the session, that the focus groups have no material impact: rather than using the collected data to make inferences about consumer preferences, it is desirable to end with a nebulous analysis which could conclude one outcome or another based on which direction the client company is already planning on moving in: the focus groups can only confirm a decision which has already been made: a deviation on this will result in the termination of the marketing firm. And so, the focus group facilitator, Schmidt, presumes that the real purpose of this inter-focus group experiment is to generate multiple conclusions so that a desirable data set may be selected at a later date.
         Then we ascend another level. We are introduced to the perspective of a member higher up in the marketing firm—Awad, and a peer of Schmidt's who has the favor of Awad: Mounce. Awad shares with Mounce that the true purpose behind the inter-focus group study is to explore a class of marketing strategy where a depiction of the inner workings of the company is the subject of advertising material. So, Schmidt, without knowing it, is effectively delivering to the focus group a primitive form of this behind-the-product advertising, and his peer Lilley gives a similar presentation absent the behind-the-product information to another group.
         Then we ascend another level. We are introduced to the perspective of a member higher up in the marketing firm than Awad: Britton. Britton also has a mentee, who he discusses strategy with while smoking cigars: Laleman. Britton and Lalemen have a sub-surface power struggle between them, Lalemen thinking he is on an approach to surreptitiously overtaking Britton, while Britton is fully aware of Lalemen's machinations. Still, they discuss the future of demographic analysis which they anticipate will be carried out by monitoring websites rather than running focus groups. The only problem is all of the presently employed focus group coordinators. Here is shown the penultimate deception of the plot: the inter-group experiment is actually a device that will be used to demonstrate to the coordinators their own inimical influence on the focus groups, using a statistical argument which the coordinators, themselves statisticians, will be forced to accept, followed by their resignation—or, if they are so unreasonable as to protest, as evidence against any case they may form in a lawsuit regarding their termination. The argument which Britton is devising centers on the fact that humans are random components interfering with the demographic analysis process, and in order to concretely represent this fact the focus group will have a "stressor" appear who pushes the coordinator to behaving erratically.
         There is another character, nearly silent, who plays an important part in my interpretation of the story as a whole: a participant in Schmidt's group, who is referred to as "I" in the story's narration, so that we must identify this character with the narrator of the story; however, the narration is omniscient, switching between the thoughts of many people in the course of the story; so, I conclude that this character is different from the others—he is a meta character who is a character in the story, but also represents the story itself. This "I" is covered in sensors, has been given a script which he must stick closely to, and wears an "emetic prosthesis," that can be used to simulate vomiting. He is the stressor which Britton has inserted in order to effect his strategy of giving the coordinators "enough rope."
         It is important to note also that this strategy of introducing a stressor and observing the results is demonstrated several times in the story (most vividly when Britton has Awad make unwanted sexual advances toward Lilley, just to observe her character), and becomes a symbol for the concept of applying scientific methods in a callous fashion.
         Similarly, by various approaches the concept of the consumer's awareness of marketing activity is presented, the conclusion generally being that at best the consumer has a superficial sort of awareness which the marketing agencies have already easily accounted for.
         Two other facts have evolved in parallel with the story's principle structure outlined above: Schmidt is a deeply dissatisfied person (probably) interchangeable with the typical white collar worker, and Schmidt has been developing (and implementing?) a scheme for injecting a lethal poison into the snack-cakes.

         So, we are introduced to an experiment where one group of people is given the (appearance of the) marketing strategy behind a product, and a control group is not; in this experiment is a character present who will stress the group so that some outcome may be observed (using his emetic prosthesis)—and this character represents the story itself; and, the reading of the story represents a sort of experiment analogous to the inter-focus group experiment: we have just been given a generalized version of the story-behind-the-product—we have been told the story behind products. Thus another layer of deception has been revealed: the real purpose behind the experiment was to inform readers of the more complex and insidious reality behind product marketing—but, this character, who is the story, also played the role of a stimulus used to provoke a reaction which could be scientifically observed, so the story must play that role also, and the author wins the pinnacle seat on the tower of deception, and proves himself the master of calculating manipulation.
         And there's another question left fairly uncertain: did Britton know about Schmidt's development of the poison or not? If so, then the emetic prostheses is supposed to trick Schmidt into thinking that one of the members of his group is vomiting in reaction to a poisoned snack-cake. If not, then the final scene where Laleman notes a chocolate cake stain on Britton's finger, laughing internally in reply, would seem to indicate that Laleman was exulting in consideration of Britton's demise. But, we are informed in the story that the chosen poison would take 24-36 hours to take effect, so I'm inclined to go with the latter interpretation, which seems to imply that the cog-like victims of the marketing machine eventually get their revenge.
         There's also a guy scaling the wall of the building and drawing a crowd that speculates on his activities throughout the story, who in the end, while carrying a gun or gun replica, inflates his costume which bears the image of "Mister Squishy" (the logo for the snack cake company). I see this scenario as representing the reality of the interaction of marketing firms with consumers: the marketers put on a carefully designed show and the consumers are drawn to it inexorably, their awareness of their situation never reaching more than superficial levels, though many take satisfaction in their delusions of knowledge.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

I Who?

     An excess of thought circulating in a young mind trammeled by habit and hopelessness drove the first of two unusually precise friends to complain, "I'm bored, Ramij. I'm tired of thinking about all the things I usually think about. I feel like all of the philosophical questions I've had have already been answered by derivations off of the universe being governed by rules..."

      Ramij sat opposite his friend at a weathered and graffitied park table; he'd been silent for some time, contemplating, but the interruption was welcome at this point.
     "Well Illya, if you're up for it, I think there's a question of self-identity that's important to consider, though people generally neglect it, thinking it's either too obvious or too impossible. Specifically, I think it's important to go beyond looking at self-identity in the in the sense that we use the word 'I' to refer too; its usefulness seems to be primarily in distinguishing one person from another, which is of course a very practical thing to be able to to do, but what I'm more interested in, once we've isolated an individual, is figuring out what is that individual. In other words, how does the individual relate to the rest of existence?"

     Illya nodded his assent, despite being a little disconcerted by his friend's barrage.

      Ramij continued, "Probably we'll make the best progress if we can nail down a little more precisely what an individual is first—what 'I' refers to in the way it's commonly used. Ideas?"

     Illya began to apprehend what he'd gotten himself into; he roused himself from his lazy boredom, sat up a little straighter, and managed to articulate, "Well, I'd say it's the atoms making up a  person's body... Although... I'm tempted to go a step further and say most of the body is irrelevant and that when we speak of 'I,' it's primarily in reference to our preferences and decisions, which seem to belong to the mind particularly. So maybe 'I's and brains are one and the same."

     Ramij knew fully well from the outset that they'd have to trudge through these preliminaries; he responded with patience, "I agree for the most part, but there's a tricky question of awareness that I think this misses—"


     "Possibly, depending on exactly what's meant by consciousness. Ninety nine percent of what's usually meant by it is pretty mundane, and brains are obviously responsible for it: it's a part of the brain that's aware of—or, processes data from—the rest of the brain, the rest of the brain being aware of data received externally from sensory input, as well as what it has stored internally. The only quasi-mysterious aspect of it is self-awareness, which seems to come from the fact that the computations occurring in consciousness—which are about the rest of the brain—are fed back into the rest of the brain, so that some of the rest of the brain's computations end up being about itself. In either case, it's a sort of awareness that seems entirely possible in mechanical systems, and which I think is insufficient for defining 'I's.
  "I think a definition of 'I' must include the aspect of brains which causes them to feel the data they process;  which gives red or cold data the particular feeling of redness or coldness—though this must not be mistaken with the sensory input itself: I mean the mind's experience of processing those symbols.  I think 'I,' as it's generally understood, refers to this sort of awareness... in conjunction with the operation of mundane consciousness and of the rest of the brain..."
     But Ramij had a habit of thinking as he spoke, and a potential shortcoming in his statement occurred to him, "—Err, I guess this could just be a property of the functioning of brains then—something everywhere-intrinsic in their operation rather than something adjoined; though I still don't see how to account for it materially and I suppose we won't get anywhere if this definition we seek ends up using elements from some hypothetical extra-reality..."

     For Illya the park then dropped out of consciousness. The thoughts that had ground circularly round too worn neural haunts appeared to slip outside the trammel. Tentatively, something new was happening.
     "Hold on a sec—you've given me an idea. If we define 'I' to be simply the sum of all the matter composing a particular person's brain, then I think we would both agree that 'I' in the common sense will have been accounted for, absent this final awareness that you speak of.  You said that maybe this awareness is just a property of brains—what if it's instead a property of matter generally, which just becomes interesting when matter forms arrangements with certain kinds of complexities, like human brains. In other words, maybe this final awareness is just how it is for the matter comprising a mind to process the data that flows through it; or rather, for that matter to exist in time(1).
  "Then again, it's unfortunate—"

     With quick perception Ramij saw the implications in full.
     "—Oh! That's good!"
He Hardly paused before moving on to applications.
     "Actually, seeing all of mind reasonably accounted for by ordinary matter, you've just given me a more satisfactory solution to the 'would I be my mind-duplicate' question than I've had before. If we take your definition of 'I' as all of the matter comprising a particular brain at a single instant of time and expand it to instead be the world line of that definition—"

     "—wait, wait—world line?"

     "I figured you'd know that one! A world line is an object in space and time, rather than just space. So, take a ball, say it pops into existence in 1952 and pops back out in 2005 and it stays in one place in space this whole time; its world line is a sort of cylinder with spherical ends extending from 1952 to 2005 along the time axis. Well, close enough anyway—that's a three dimensional approximate visualization of a four dimensional object. If you take a two dimensional object, say a circle, and extend it through time, then you actually get a cylinder.
     "Anyway, with the world line definition of an 'I,' whose implications I think form a complete correspondence with our common understanding of the notion, it becomes very clear that duplicating a mind would create a new world line, hence a new 'I.' Awesome."

     For Illya however, the discovery was not made without misgivings; it may have been, technically, a new region for his thoughts to roam, but the new land appeared as barren as the last.
     "I'm glad you can feel good about it; I think its a depressing confirmation of the idea that the self is insignificant; it's just a matter aggregate with enough similarity through time for human abstraction to call it the same object now and ten years from now. It's unfortunate to have a material account of experience—if all it is is some configuration of matter 'being,' I'm tempted to say that experience doesn't exist after all; if data in the brain essentially dies after being consumed by consciousness, I don't think it ever does anything useful at all. I have a kind of longing for there to be something there that actually experiences—whatever that means; and I know that's useless: nothing material will satisfy me, and I'll never be convinced of the non-material..."
     Illya's head drooped slightly; his boredom was forgotten.

     Ramij could empathize with Illya, but the new notion had struck him from another angle. He shrugged, "I feel differently about it—I think we've arrived at a good definition for 'I' in the way that it's traditionally used, but I think the more interesting question, which we originally set out to answer, is a little different; that was the question of identity in the deepest sense, really of how an 'I' relates to the rest of existence. This greater question we can form as 'what is self?' for convenience. I became curious about self after noticing that I'd been answering the question with 'self is "I",' which of course isn't really answering it at all. So yes, I agree with you that the 'I' is far less significant than it's been considered in the past, but the question of self still has potential.
     "We see the 'I' as less significant because it's material; it doesn't differ in any essential way from any other object in the universe(2). This makes the 'I' a much more arbitrary construct than it's traditionally been held to be; it doesn't make as much sense for our existential identity to be so strictly bound to it. If experience is just what it's like for matter to exist in time, then the essence of our selves is just being matter, not being the matter that our bodies comprise, but just generally being matter. That being the case, and since the universe is the only source of matter and nothing but matter, I feel a deeper identity with the universe as a whole rather than with just my body. "Matter" of course is slightly inaccurate, but by it I just mean "fundamental universe parts." Follow?
     Illya considered, then gave a minor nod, not indicating his comprehension so much as his desire for Ramij to continue.
Ramij considered: his words were accurate, but their import significantly compressed; a new approach was required. A demonstration.
"There's a way of visualizing the universe that will help to make the notion more concrete. In actuality the universe has some extents in time and spatially, and perhaps along other unknown dimensions as well, and these extents may or may not be infinite. In order to hold some concept of the universe in my mind, I strip it down—it becomes finite in all of its extents, it now has two spatial axes and one time axis which behaves exactly as the spatial axes—the whole universe, throughout time mind you, then becomes one massive, luminous glass cube with the most intricate conceivable patterns filling it. Since we started with two spatial axes only, from outside the cube we see all the objects within as their three dimensional world lines(3).
  "Now lets say this cube is actually glass—the material doesn't really matter, just that it's homogeneous, as the actually universe is in the sense that it's matter everywhere, or even better, rules everywhere—we can peer into it and see the full life of some two-dimensional being before us, one branch of a massively networked glass sculpture. When I contemplate the life of this being and ask myself what it is essentially, the only answer that comes to me is, 'part of the sculpture.' The only way that it differs from any other part of the sculpture is that it is in the space that it occupies—and its boundaries are extremely arbitrary: its only a consequence of my own mind's pattern forming routines that it can be called a separate object in any sense at all. Since the only boundaries between parts of the sculpture have a subjective origin, objectively there is just a single whole.
  "When I add back on to this glass sculpture each of the pieces I originally stripped out, making it matter again rather than just glass, giving it infinite extent and all of the dimensions it deserves, but pausing after each facet I rejoin to ask whether my conclusions about the object and its parts have changed, I must answer 'no,' even when the universe is whole again. And for that reason I think the universe is the most sensical source of identity for anyone in it. 'I's have no objective significance; your mind is how it feels to be the universe in one particular area, the same way that the sensations from a patch of skin on your arm are how it feels to be you in one particular area."
     Content that he'd made his case, Ramij leaned back, placing his hands with interlocked fingers behind his head.
     "The only question remaining then is whether it's any better to be the universe rather than some person in it. My answer to this is that although the glass cube approximation is a miraculously wondrous thing in itself, the true universe is still incomprehensibly grander. I think I would not have felt this way in the past, but the more I learn about the universe the more incredible I find it; and it doesn't hurt that it's probably infinite and eternal. I think even man's earlier overblown conceptions of the 'I' are meager next to this self I see."

     Illya had listened closely, and caught the spark of something in the proposition, but held on to reservation. His suspicion that reality was a disappointment still lurked nearby, hardly budged; but the prospect of a potential fatal flaw within it inspired a little cheer.
     "We'll see."

Unfortunately, now that I am done writing this, I realize that I'm actually uncertain on the existence of qualia (the stuff making up "final awareness," the way it "feels" to process the symbol "red")—I've got doubts. And I've expressed the doubt before: "A complex self-monitoring system would have the illusion of a meaningful interpretation of its own data." Fortunately the main thesis is untouched if they turn out not to exist (it'd be quite a lot stronger in fact). The material account of qualia I gave was only to give a fully material specification of mind; if the mind does not include qualia then its specification was already completed before broaching the subject. Ramij gets excited when qualia are accounted for because it troubled him before as a potentially non-material aspect of mind, but his important insight about self is due only to the fact that the mind had been fully materially accounted for; if Qualia is stripped out as part of the description, as may be appropriate, the mind remains material and the argument stands.

I see the most basic constituent of the universe as being the actual laws that govern it. My understanding of the modern view of fundamental particles, in physics, is that "particle" is really just a convenient way of referring to something which in fact doesn't represent a physical object at all, but is something closer to a consistent behavior. Now I say the universe is homogeneous because its laws appear uniform throughout. And even if there were more variation in its fundamental behavior than I've described, it's still just a bunch of rules being carried out; I don't think someone would find the essential character of the universe as one thing under A, B, C and another under D, E, F. The only thing which could make the character of these rules different, that I can conceive of, is if they were embedded in some kind of infinite nesting doll of meta realities—which is absolutely impossible to determine. So if nothing else, our universe is a homogeneous locus of rule application. (Later edit: interesting seeing this serious and detrimental error in thought here: the idea that the universe IS rules; clearly mistaking a system of description with the thing being described, mistaking the "finger pointing for the moon itself" as it's sometimes said.)

I think some would object to viewing the universe in this crystallized form even in principle due to a supposed lack of determinism in reality, the idea that what will happen next isn't actually determined until the current instant occurs. Perhaps that's the case—but I think we lack a reason for thinking it is. The idea of this non-determinism comes from quantum physics, which is non-deterministic; but quantum physics is not a direct description of physical reality, but a modeling of our knowledge of physical reality instead. So, just because this system we've invented for making approximate determinations of certain physical quantities (granted, with great precision) isn't deterministic, it should not be taken as an indication that the system it approximates is itself non-deterministic. The non-determinism in physics comes directly from the fact that its statements are in terms of probabilities, which are a result of speaking of our knowledge rather than the system itself—this should have no bearing on the qualities of the system itself.