Interview with Craig Webster

—–Original Interview—–
From: Ian Lewis
Submitted: Wednesday, 18 September 2002 9:00AM
Subject:Interview with Craig Webster

“Craig Webster has a Bsc in psychology and an Msc (1st class Hons) in neuropsychology from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He is a Research Fellow with Auckland’s Green Lane Hospital, and is working on a PhD on the nature and prevention of medical error and the safety of complex systems, with the Auckland University School of Medicine. In 2001 he was awarded a three-year Fellowship with the Health Research Council of New Zealand in support of his research. His interests include how to better design technology to suit the minds of users, the nature of the increasingly fuzzy line between technology and biology and how to improve our technology by considering the design solutions evolution came up with long before we were capable of considering such questions.”

I found Craig through reading some of his reviews of books which dealt with issues surrounding the internet, new media and media culture. After reading these reviews and many of his writings posted on his website, I approached him for this interview. I was really interested in his views about the media and his expert detailed knowledge about the mind. I wanted to learn more about the physical make up of the brain and see if there was anything to learn that I could apply to my thoughts about are own sense of identity and our current media environment. He was generous enough to say yes and consequently I sent him my interview questions. After receiving his reply, I then sent him a couple more questions to clarify and gain a further response.

Interview with Craig Webster >>>

Q 1. How long have you been interested, in thinking? the brain? and

Since I was in intermediate school. I think I have always been interested in
why different people act in different ways. Back then I didn’t have much
idea about how the brain worked or what thinking really was but I remember
sitting in the local library reading Psychology Today magazine…

Q 2. How long have you been using the Internet?

I can’t remember exactly, but I think I’ve had an email address since 1987
or maybe 88. At first my access was only at university terminals, but then I
got a modem for my Amiga1000 computer (do you know what an Amiga is?)

( yeah my friend used to have one, and i used to have a spectrum with games on cassette tape, lol )

and i was able to check my mail using a POP account at home. The web hadn’t been
invented then, so all there was was email, and ftp. Incidentally I think I
was the first person I know to get a job off the internet. In 1995 an ad for
a job as research assistant at Green Lane Hospital came round the
department. I applied, and am still working at GLH several promotions later.
1995 doesn’t seem that long ago, but people didn’t do a lot of web browsing
back then because there weren’t many websites. Even the Psychology
Department at the University of Canterbury was only beginning to set up its

Q 3. Do you think there are any similarities or differences between the
Internet and the brain, in their structure? And in their growth?

Some people have claimed that the internet is “evolving” into a kind of
global brain. However, if you consider the evolutionary psychology of the
brain and its neuro-anatomy there aren’t all that many similarities when you
really get down to it. Sure both process information, and both are networks
which obey some of the same mathematical rules (see Small World Networks
in New Scientist or Nature), but that is about where the similarities end
(at least in terms of today’s internet and today’s human brain). Brains
evolve according to the very developed theory of Darwinian (or
postdarwinian) evolution and one of the reasons they can do this is that
people die. For natural selection to work (which is the engine of change
behind evolution) there must be something to select from. Some people die
because of illness or reckless behaviour, some have more children than
others – all these are the selective processes which determine which
individuals, with which traits survive into the future (and which won’t).
Variability in the population guarantees that selective pressures can shift
the population towards specific characteristics which convey survival
advantages and so species change over time – a process we know as evolution.
The internet is a human artefact. There is not only one internet, so you
can’t select from a population of differently able internets – so natural
selection of “fit” individuals won’t work in any kind of true biological
sense. Also the connectivity of the internet is much much more haphazard
than the connectivity of the brain. The brain is separated into lobes and
functions are localised within certain zones. The wiring within and
underneath the cortex is also highly orderly, with specific bundles of
fibres serving specific functions (have a look at the functional
organisation of the human visual system). Disrupt this orderliness and you
end up with an individual who is cognitively impaired. Now this is not to
say that everyone’s brain is wired in exactly the same way, but at a gross
anatomical level it is clear that all human brains follow the same
blueprint – they are not wired at random (which you might mistake the
internet as being). At the level of individual brain cells there is
variability in terms of the wiring, but only within tight constraints. The
whole development of the brain from embryo to adult is tightly constrained in the same way. The wiring of the internet is a much more fast and loose
affair. New nodes get tacked on where-ever convenient and there is little
discernible anatomy. In terms of complexity of course the brain is many
magnitudes more complex than the internet. In terms of growth, clearly the
internet has grown much more quickly than the brain is growing/changing
(which it still is, evolution isn’t over). One of the primary functions of
the brain is to preserve the individual, because the world is full of
selective processes which could bring the unwary individual’s life to an end
(at least in the evolutionary past). The internet is information plumbing
without any kind of self awareness or self preservation. Some theorists say
that it was the need to preserve the individual which sparked all the
complexity of our modern consciousness’ because the brain was continually
monitoring if things were okay outside and inside it’s body. This “alert
loop” may have been the first spark of self awareness on which all the
complexity of our mental life now rests (see The Lopsided Ape, by Corballis,
or Consciousness Explained by Dennett). Now maybe, the internet could
develop the same “alert loop” – but this leads quickly to science fiction.
The answer right now is that no-one has any idea whether this is possible or
not. However, even if the “alert loop” did come about (probably with a lot
of help from humans which means its not evolving this ability but being
gifted it), no-one has any idea how to turn a checking feature into actual
self awareness (this is one of the deepest problems and mysteries of the
philosophy of mind). However, there are artificial processes based on
natural evolution which could be used to develop the internet. Genetic
Algorithms could be used to tailor all sorts of aspects of the internet’s
function, and they are increasingly being used to solve engineering and
computing tasks (do a search in New Scientist with genetic algorithm and
you’ll find some fascinating examples). Evolving the internet’s software
with GAs would involve having populations of code for different features
competing to be the best at a task. This would mean that evolution would be
happening inside the internet, not between different individual internets –
which might yield quiet a different result in terms of intelligence. Maybe
such a process is more likely to develop a kind of hive-mind? But again no
one really knows.

Q 4. How do you interpret the construction of identity or sense of self?
For instance is identity merely states of mind that we can switch between
or is it a deeper evolving process?

These are very very difficult issues. I know what I mean when I say “I”. And
others know what I mean also. But, clearly the circularity of that statement
makes any kind of reductionist approach essentially useless in terms of
trying to understand what “I” actually is. I think our sense of self is
probably an illusion created by the brain simply to assist us in staying
alive. If we have a sense of self then that self is worth preserving from
dangers (i.e., non-self things in the world). Having a sense of self also
makes someone feel they have the free will to act purposely. Free will is
probably another brain-created illusion. Just try acting as if you didn’t
have free will! It’s impossible, we have an unshakeable belief in it.

Do you think that would be the same for acting with total free will? that you cant escape other laws, structure, that you cant escape acting upon ‘others’ will, whether it be against it or with it?

Yes, but what does “acting with total free will” mean? If you aren’t capable of free will at all (which is what you’d expect from any kind of physical thing which obeys the laws of physics) then no matter how freely you felt you were acting, you wouldn’t be free – your actions would be determined, just like the physical events in any other part of the universe. This said, we can’t act as if we didn’t have free will, so appreciating at the intellectual level that we probably don’t have free will doesn’t stop us from acting every day as if we did. And that’s just fine. And even if we can convince ourselves we don’t have it at an intellectual
level – it is impossible to act as if you didn’t have it. So self seems pretty hardwired – its a deep seated primitive function of the brain.

So sense of self is more of a subconscious aspect of the brain?

I think a sense of self and a sense of free will probably carries an evolutionary advantage, because it might be one of the most efficient ways of processing and responding to the information in the world. Responding better to threats in the world will convey survival advantages etc. So the brain may have developed these for these reasons. However, this doesn’t necessarily make these things subconscious – its more complicated than that. What we are consciously aware of (and hence what is subconscious) changes depending on all kinds of things – what we are attending to, prior experience, being under hypnosis etc. So the conscious/subconscious shouldn’t be seen as a hard distinction, they do overlap to some extend. The neural machinery which underlies our senses of free will and self is primitive in the sense that we can’t think around it – this is why we can’t stop acting as if we had free will when we think we don’t have it. Free will and self are associated with new areas of the brain, like the frontal cortex, but they will be underpinned by a lot of old neural machinery as well. Nothing new develops in evolution without being built on the old.

Interestingly autistic’s don’t have the same sense of self as the rest of us – their brains seem to have a fault which stops them having self awareness. They hardly ever use “me” or “I”, they often refer to themselves by their own names as other people would.

Q 5. How much of our experience of the world forms our brain and its patterns of thinking?

Our “pattern” of thinking is much more influenced by our experiences than
the formation of the brain itself. Conversely the formation of the brain is
much more determined by embryological constraints than stimulation from the
world. There are exceptions in both directions. If light is not able to
enter a young child eyes (because of a growth in the eye for example), their
visual cortex won’t develop the kinds of edge detectors and functional
structure that a sighted person would. Even if light is able to enter the
child’s eyes later on – they will remain blind because the neural machinery
needed to see will never have been built in the brain. So that’s an example
of experience affecting the development of the brain. Our patterns of
thought can also be influenced by the kind of brain we have (although most
of the time it is primarily influenced by events). For example, chronic
depressives seem to have an imbalance in certain neurotransmitters which
makes the person depressed no matter what happens to them. This can be fixed
(to varying degrees) by taking antidepressant drugs.

Q 6. Would our experiences of media in our adult lives, form patterns of
thinking? And if so, is it a significant factor in forming these
patterns of thinking?

Yes, I think the media is having an increasing influence on people. People
worry about getting on airplanes since Sept 11, mostly thanks to the media
and the repetition of that image of the planes hitting the buildings. But,
ironically it is probably safer to fly now that it has ever been, and flying
has always been much safer than crossing the street or driving your car. The
media is working harder to hit target markets and so advertising is becoming
more invasive and subtle. All media is really about advertising rather than
information per se, because if your market share slips then you go broke. So
even if your media isn’t in advertising, you have to worry about people
knowing your name or brand because otherwise they are going to buy the
competition. This applies to everything from magazines to PDAs. I think
there is going to be more and more an arms race between advertisers and
consumers. Consumers are going to get smarter about how to avoid media
advertising (spam filters, distrusting conventional modes of advertising)
but media will respond with smarter and more subtle ways of getting the
message across. (See this weeks time magazine.)

Q 7. As media is becoming increasingly instant and everywhere, do you
think this will affect the way we react to, or perceive our own reality?

Yes to both. People send less letters now because they take longer to arrive
than an email. People will probably become more connected in an always-on
way and always expect instant access. When PCs shrink and disappear into
mobile phones you’ll have the pleasure of being able to be always at work.
But there are limits and many of these are not technological but
psychological or physical. People’s hands aren’t going to get any smaller
even when the whole computer can fit under the “a” key on the keyboard. And
people still love paper. The paperless office doesn’t work and may never
work (at least not until they come up with electronic paper!). So many of the
overheated predictions of the technocrats will remain hot air. But there is
little doubt that technology will continue to affect the way we live and in
turn how we think about the world. People will have to start paying to be
disconnected at some point when connectivity reaches saturation point. I
don’t have a cell phone and don’t want one. I have an uncle who helped put
the first geostationary satellites into orbit – he had email in the 70’s!
Now he pays someone to read all this email and to take his calls. He calls
them when he has time, they can’t contact him – he doesn’t carry a
cellphone. In the future more people will be like my uncle. If you are
over connected you are less efficient because you can’t get anything done
because of constant requests from the world. But, being completely isolated
makes it harder to be efficient because you lose touch. So you have to find
the optimal middle. Most people still think cellphone’s are a cool thing –
this won’t last forever.

Q 8. And, on a specific level, would the instant and everywhere media
effect the way we think? For example, could it affect brain activity
like neural patterns, self-stimulating loops and waves? If so, how do you think this
might happen?

Media affects the ideas and thoughts people have about the world for sure.
Are you familiar with Memetics? It’s the study of how ideas spread and
perpetuate through populations. There’s a book called “Meme, myself and I” I
think. Also see the book “The tipping point”.

Yes, I have heard of memetics! but I was also keen to get your view on a more neurological level?, like maybe its sci-fi but could the media change the psychological process, can media and signs make the brain change how it thinks?, as in say prevent looping or waves and/or make us think in other neurological patterns? for instance to describe zero-consciousness, where people use the media without apparent thought e.g. internet/tv surfing for the sake of surfing, implies to me a chance for different thought processes to emerge/evolve?

You should read the book Snow Crash. A snow crash is when you crash a computer so badly that the screen turns to snow – it doesn’t happen so much now. The book is about someone who develops a technology which can do the same to the human brain through human language. Interesting ideas, but not useful scientifically because language is a new add-on for the brain and so could not affect the deep structures which evolved long before language was invented. I think the media can make people depressed or happy and that affects brain chemistry (at least temporarily). I think the way people conceptualise the world can certainly change through media, but this doesn’t necessarily cut as deep as affecting the neurochemistry. I suppose you could make someone insane with certain media and so that’s a pretty radical neurochemical change, but it isn’t a wholesale rewiring of their brain. Our brains are always making new connections etc. (they used to think that the brain couldn’t grow any new neurons after birth – this has now been shown to be false). But the way they grow and form is dictated by ancient, primitive neurochemical processes, not what we are thinking at the time. This is a generalisation, there may be some small exceptions – for example I mentioned the formation of the visual system which can be affected by lack of sight, but there are generally too many constraints on the way the brain works to allow it to be disrupted by media at the neural level. That’s not to say that some other, move invasive technology couldn’t rewire someone’s brain.

Q 9. Which do you think is more influential in changing thinking patterns
of the brain. Outside stimulus or self-stimulus?

Both are very important. I think you have to have ideas in your head before
you can reflect on them and come up with something new – but that requires
both and makes both equally important.

Q 10. I read your book review on The Media Equation by Byron Reeves &
Clifford Nass; Cambridge University Press, (1996). And found it very interesting. Do you think that as the media becomes increasingly more invasive, that subconscious thinking towards the media will change?

Yes, as I said above I think there will be an arms race between media and
people. And each will influence the other. That book itself was rather
dull – the results of the experiments were more interesting. It lost a star
because of its dullness. I think people will become more cynical and
distrusting of the media if media isn’t careful. But as our technologies
become more “biological” media will change as well – maybe into something it
is hard to imagine now. Imagine adbots on the internet “evolving” to be more
efficient at conveying their message in a way the person wants to hear (so
they don’t hit their spam-block key). You should also read my review of “How
we became posthuman” – that is a very interesting book and probably presents
the ultimate fate of the human race and technology.

Q 11. Do you think constructed artificial signifiers can be as strong or
stronger than natural signifiers?

I’m not sure what this means. As our psychology is not going to change in a
hurry I think natural signifiers will always beat constructed ones hands
down. But, it depends what you mean by constructed. If artificial signifiers
are made in the likeness of natural ones they could carry most of the same
strength of signal with them. And this is exactly what is happening in
computer design (more or less). Pointers and menus are intuitive ways of
navigating a program. DOS is much less intuitive (and so is more

in other words: Do you think people can or will ever be able to ignore or be totally unaware of their environment/surroundings/reality and only ever involve themselves in the media and media signs, for instance people might start to ignore the truth in what they see in front of them and only ever believe the medias view?

Oh sure, I think a lot of people do this already. Rather than hearing someone’s voice on the phone, or going to see them in person, they will send a text message. People easily substitute “artificial” representation for “real” ones and function perfectly well most of the time. There is only a problem when you rapidly move them back to having to use the real representations, or vice versa. I think virtual reality, the most extreme version of artificial media – when it finally matures – will be a very addictive “drug”. Why put up with the real world where you are fat and have no money when you can spend all your time in VR where you are rich and beautiful. The only trouble is of course that you have to pay for the power running your VR simulation and if anyone pulls the plug you are back to being fat and poor again in an instant – very psychological disturbing. I am sure there will be many people who choose to spend all of their time in VR, just like there are people now who suffer from so called internet addiction. VR addicts will probably have to be fed by tube, and evacuated by tubes as well because they won’t want to stop to have a meal or go to the toilet. They will develop VR suit sores – like bed sores – from a lack of normal movement and will be on antibiotics for it. Many will probably kill themselves when they get pulled out of VR because of the shock of being themselves or because they can’t afford to go back in. This is science fiction at the moment of course, but its probably not that far away. In the book “Better than Life” society as we currently know it collapses because of VR, because no-one wants to do any work anymore and most of the population is locked up in their dream worlds. The movie The Matrix also runs along this theme – a fantastic movie can’t wait for the 2 sequels to come out. So I think media can change the way we live, perhaps radically if you think about fully developed VR, but that doesn’t mean our brains are going to function any differently. We will respond to the artificial representations just as if they were real. The only problem comes when you have to switch from one to the other rapidly.

Craig Webster, Auckland, NEW ZEALAND

Thanks these are really good answers, It was really interesting reading them and thanks for your time.

Ian =)