Divided Minds and Distributed Work

Posted: October 7, 2010 in Uncategorized
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I realized that usually when I write these entries, I have a pattern for length. If it’s a book, it gets its own entry. Articles have to share. But I try to make sure the articles have something in common.

I have not done this today. The articles for today are from very different fields and very different thinkers. They don’t relate to one another, but they DO relate to my larger research. Which creates an interesting pairing, all things considered. See, while the first article, Clay Spinuzzi’s “Guest Editor’s Introduction: Technical Communication in the Age of Distributed Work” is talking about the internet and networks, the second article, Derek Parfit’s “Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons” is talking about personhood and identity. The tie in comes from my earlier research on personal identity. The Only X and Y principle, which basically says that the identity (in the sense of sameness) of any two things (X and Y) is determined only by those two things, and not by anything else.

Why does that matter? Well, each of them (X) are continuous with my research (Y), though not with each other. Well, I thought it was interesting. But you’re right; on to Spinuzzi.While it should be remembered that this is an introduction to a special issue (and hence largely focused on other articles), there is quite a bit of important thinking that happens before Spinuzzi gets to that point. He informs us that “Currently, we face work structures that were hardly conceivable a few decades ago, and these work structures again require different rhetorical skills and communication practices” (266). The world has changed, and we need to change how we interact and communicate with it.

Spinuzzi goes on to tell us about modular work, by which he means “the understanding based on arrangements that underpinned the Industrial Revolution and that have been the foundation for industrial and managerial capitalism” (267). In other words, the action of taking a larger job and breaking it into smaller pieces (modules) in order to increase the speed of production. That’s what made the assembly line possible. But things continue to evolve, and now we have distributed work.

Distributed work is new, but not surprising; it’s more pervasive. Spinuzzi tells us that it is “the coordinative work that enables sociotechnical networks to held together to form dense interconnections among and across work activities that have traditionally be separated by temporal, spatial, or disciplinary boundaries. Networks, not hierarchies, are the dominant organizational form” (268). People work in groups, groups that are now existing across the Internet, taking place in nonsychronous space and time. These networks are what runs the world now, as opposed to before where it was a matter of everyone doing what their boss told them to do.

This has changed things, naturally. Spinuzzi says that “in shifting from monodirectional to multidirectional flows and from limiting to proliferating links among heterogeneous entities, distributed work has shifted from the panopticon to the agora, which is to say, from surveillance by an authority figure to mutual, distributed surveillance and critique … Black boxes are undone and redone. We monitor each other and ourselves” (270). The panopticon being the prison designed by Bentham (and discussed at length by Foucault in Discipline and Punish) where everyone is visible to the center of the tower, where there is, as far as anyone knows, an observer able to see everything that happens. This is like in an office, where the cubical walls are low enough to allow a manager to see what everyone is doing from his vantage point, or the manager looking over the line workers. We’re past that, Spinuzzi is saying. Now we watch each other, and we watch ourselves, because we are working in a network, which means that we rely on and are relied on by others to get work done.

Basically, what we need to remember is that “work is becoming more distributed: distributed across time, space, disciplines, fields, and trade; distributed across a multiplicity of stakeholders; distributed through telecommunications and digital technology” (272). In other words, it’s all around us, it spans different fields, and includes many people and modes of thought/production in the network.

The question may be whether or not this networking reduces or increases freedom and personhood. I think it increases it. But really, if we’re talking about personhood and identity, we should turn to Parfit (okay, I’ve had more elegant transitions, but what are you gonna do?)

Parfit is looking at identity, about where it’s focused and what makes a person who they are. He starts off by focusing on a split brain case and “alien hand syndrome,” which is when someone’s corpus callosum is severed (done sometimes for extreme cases of epilepsy), leaving the right and left half of the brain unable to communicate. Usually, one of the hemispheres is more dominant, and sometimes the other one causes the hand to act in a way that the person doesn’t intend or understand (hence alien hand).

Anyway, Parfit is looking at how many people there are in those cases. Is there one stream of consciousness or two? Parfit tells us that “in a sense, the number of persons involved is none” (20). To explain this, he goes into the Bundle Theory of consciousness. This basically says that a person is the sum of their experiences, mental states, and memories. Parfit tells us that “According to Bundle Theory, we can’t explain either the unity of consciousness at any time, or the unity of a whole life, by referring to a person” which in turn suggests that “In a sense, a Bundle Theorist denies the existence of persons” (20). This isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds. Basically, the Bundle Theorist is saying that there are no “persons” only in the sense of defining a person as one who thinks, acts, and feels; Bundle Theory claims that it is those thoughts, actions, and feelings that combined (bundled) make up the person.

Parfit does a great job of explaining this. He presents us with the teletransporter thought experiment: basically, imagine a machine that instantly reads the state of every atom in your entire body (destroying it in the process), and sends that information electronically to a machine on Mars, which reconstructs your body down to the last electron. This Replica of you will have all your memories, and will be psychologically continuous with you (that is, it will remember stepping into the machine on Earth and pressing the button). The question, though, is whether or not this Replica is YOU.

A lot of people would say that it’s not. That Replica will not have the normal psychological continuity, will not be numerically identical (ie, one and the same thing) as the original. As those people suggest, “this Replica won’t be you. It will merely be someone else, who is exactly like you. This is why this prospect is nearly as bad as ordinary death” (22). Here, we can see how the Bundle Theory helps. As Parfit explains, “Since you, the person, are not a separately existing entity, we can know exactly what would happen without answering the question of what will happen to you … it is an empty question whether the resulting person would be you, or would merely be someone who is exactly like you. These are not here two different possibilities, one of which must be true. These are merely two different descriptions of the very same course of events” (23). In other words, Bundle Theory says that you are the combination of your thoughts, feelings, and actions (and memories). The person who steps out of the teletransporter will have the same thoughts, feelings, actions, and memories as the person who stepped in. Therefore, same person.

That’s pretty much the way I see it. I don’t think that who we are is the actual atoms in our bodies; those are constantly being replaced (complete replacement roughly every 7 years), so doing it all at once shouldn’t be an issue. But what if the Teletransporter doesn’t destroy the original? What if it just copies, and so you’re still on Earth, but your Replica is on Mars? (22). Personally, I think that they’re BOTH you, but not one another. This is that whole Only X and Y thing again. If in the first case the replica is you, then it has to be you in the second case, because the existence of that person is not dependent on the existence of someone else. Only on the psychological continuity of You before pressing the button. When there are two of you (YouA and You1), both are psychologically continuous with the original, but immediately begin having different experiences, slowly diverging farther and farther away from one another.

But that’s way off topic, and is something I’ve already written a LOT about. Since Parfit was looking at the split brain, let’s get back to that. He suggests that there aren’t two different people. He reminds us that “ordinary people are, at any time, aware of having several different experiences. This awareness of several different experiences can be helpfully compared with one’s awareness, in short-term memory, of several different experiences” (25). We are aware of multiple things at once. I’m aware of the music Pandora is playing for me, and also aware of the words that appear on the screen, the pain in my back from sitting for too long, and the feeling of the keys under my fingers. Many things at the same time.

So, for the split brain, there are two states of awareness going on. But Parfit tells us that “In claiming that there are two such states of awareness, we are not postulating the existence of unfamiliar entities, two separately existing Egos which are not the same as the single person whom the case involves” (25). Saying that people with split brain are having multiple experiences, but it’s still the ONE PERSON having them.

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