Colin Wilson and “The Robot”

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Colin Wilson and “The Robot”

Gary Lachman

Quote:Wilson first wrote about the robot in an essay that appeared in Challenges of Humanistic Psychology, an anthology edited by the psychologist James Bugenthal, who founded the Journal of Humanistic Psychology with Maslow in 1961.1 In “Existential Psychology: A Novelist’s Approach,” Wilson wrote “When I learned to type, I had to do it painfully and with much wear and tear. But at a certain stage a miracle occurred, and this complicated operation was ‘learned’ by a useful robot that I conceal in my sub-conscious.”2 This robot, Wilson tells us, is very helpful. He drives his car, speaks passable French and “occasionally gives lectures at American universities.” The robot is very versatile; Wilson even jokes that he sometimes makes love to his wife. The robot is a labour-saving device. He takes over repetitive tasks so that we can focus our attention on other things. Alfred North Whitehead knew about the robot when he said that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” If I had to think about how to type each time I wanted to, I could never think about what to type. Once I’ve learned a skill, my robot takes care of the how, so I can focus on the what. We all know the story of when the ant asked the centipede how he could move so many legs. The centipede says “It’s easy, I do it like this,” and then finds himself unable to do it. His conscious mind has interfered with an unconscious or subconscious process, what in psychology is called “hyper-reflection.” The same thing happens when we become self-conscious, and start to bungle things we normally do easily. We then are getting in the way of the robot.

The robot is absolutely necessary. But there is a problem. “If I discover a new symphony that moves me deeply,” Wilson writes, “or a poem or a painting, the robot insists on getting in on the act.” After a few times, the robot takes over, and he is listening to the symphony or reading the poem, not me. We say it has become “familiar.” What does this mean? Why should a Mozart symphony sound less beautiful or exciting after we’ve heard it several times? After all, it hasn’t changed. We say we have “got used to it.” But what does this mean, other than that we have allowed the robot to classify it with repetitive tasks and, as T. E. Lawrence lamented, “become typical through thought.” Making things “typical” is the robot’s job; the problem is that he does this to things we don’t want to be “typical.”

Animals, Wilson says, don’t have this problem....
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


(This post was last modified: 2022-04-15, 10:23 PM by Sciborg_S_Patel. Edited 1 time in total.)
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This is one of the passages I remember most keenly from Wilson's books.  He talks about how most people go through life only half aware because of the robot taking over.  In his book "New Pathways In Psychology" he discusses the importance of non-robotic awareness in peak experiences.  It's a great way of modelling human awareness.  It seems that once the robot has been given an instruction, it will continue to carry out that instruction until a new instruction is given, leaving you free to ponder all kinds of wonderful things or total gibberish if you wish.  Many people nowadays use that freedom to glue themselves to their smartphones, seemingly unaware that there is an entire world around them that is worthy of thought and exploration.  No wonder mindfulness has become a trend - people need to re-learn how to be aware.
(2022-04-16, 10:04 AM)Brian Wrote: This is one of the passages I remember most keenly from Wilson's books.  He talks about how most people go through life only half aware because of the robot taking over.  In his book "New Pathways In Psychology" he discusses the importance of non-robotic awareness in peak experiences.  It's a great way of modelling human awareness.  It seems that once the robot has been given an instruction, it will continue to carry out that instruction until a new instruction is given, leaving you free to ponder all kinds of wonderful things or total gibberish if you wish.  Many people nowadays use that freedom to glue themselves to their smartphones, seemingly unaware that there is an entire world around them that is worthy of thought and exploration.  No wonder mindfulness has become a trend - people need to re-learn how to be aware.

"Non-robotic awareness" - great expression. I've had similar thoughts in trying to be a photographer or occasional artist, and more recently as an amateur musician. The photography one is perhaps the most obvious. Anyone, or even anything, can take a photograph. But for it to be a picture, something more than a random collection of photons, requires at some point, an act of conscious seeing. Usually that takes place before even picking up a camera, we observe, not with our eyes but somewhere deeper, and see something. This does sometimes happen afterwards in that an unpromising shot can be transformed by cropping out the irrelevant distractions and maybe adjusting the brightness, contrast, colours and so on.

With music again, we can have dots written on a musical stave and a computer can generate a sound from them. But the essence of music is the participation, either during the act of composing something, or in the performance. Live music has a life, an energy which often sounds unimpressive when recorded, but is astonishing at the time, it is almost a living thing which cannot be tied down any more than a butterfly can be pinned to a page.
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(2022-04-18, 10:10 AM)Typoz Wrote: "Non-robotic awareness" - great expression. I've had similar thoughts in trying to be a photographer or occasional artist, and more recently as an amateur musician. The photography one is perhaps the most obvious. Anyone, or even anything, can take a photograph. But for it to be a picture, something more than a random collection of photons, requires at some point, an act of conscious seeing. Usually that takes place before even picking up a camera, we observe, not with our eyes but somewhere deeper, and see something. This does sometimes happen afterwards in that an unpromising shot can be transformed by cropping out the irrelevant distractions and maybe adjusting the brightness, contrast, colours and so on.

With music again, we can have dots written on a musical stave and a computer can generate a sound from them. But the essence of music is the participation, either during the act of composing something, or in the performance. Live music has a life, an energy which often sounds unimpressive when recorded, but is astonishing at the time, it is almost a living thing which cannot be tied down any more than a butterfly can be pinned to a page.

I was out earlier walking over Geteryggen, Gothenburg's  rocky outcrop, and when I was taking a particular photo, I became conscious of how much meaning I was unconsciously projecting onto the scene.  Having consciously thought about what it would look like as just an image, I decided not to take the photo.  Our human interaction with the environment is entirely different from the camera's interaction and we are not usually aware of it until we see the photo.  Your musical example is also good.  I have heard a number of recordings where people have reproduced great classical pieces using programmed digital instruments.  They can do quite a good job with fake humanizing but never do they approximate a live performance where the players are emotionally invested in the music.
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