Embracing the Non-representational Theories in a computerized world — Part 1

I’m in my 20th month of my 3-year PhD program. I’ve read more than 800 articles and books since I started my Master back in 2013. And I’m that kind of people that look for weird explanations of the world.

Simply, I don’t believe in behaviuoralism, and I think that cognitive sciences are ok, but it is not enough. This posture took me to have a lot of rejection in some fields, specially on Computer Science and HCI. When I say that “Affective computing” is not really affecting, and it is biased by cognitive models, I have won more enemies around the world.

Since my Master I’ve started to read and attend seminars about different type of theories in Social Sciences. Firstly I’ve met the Social Construction of Technology, then the whole universe of Science and Technology Studies, and later the phenomenological world and Ethnomethodology.

I knew that all the scholars that wrote about those different approaches have something in common. After passing my half period of my PhD I understood that there is a name for that, something that has no shape but gather all together under the same perspective.

The Non-Representational Theory (NRT)is not a theory. Is a bunch of (very critical) perspectives about we understand the world. I believe that is like a club for skeptics like me. Finally, I have some framework to explain it to the world, and to work with.

To put in few words, in NRT, the idea is that there are things that can’t be represented, because such things happen in a non-cognitive state. Yes, you have read correctly. Not everything is representational. And the main thing in which can find a non-representational state is how we make sense of things.

Making sense of the world, you may think, is totally rational, cultural and social. We share values, and intentions. Yes, it is true. You can trace social relations, and you can trace what people say about things. If people agree that Starbucks cafe is great, there you have, Starbucks coffee is good.

But are we talking about the coffee or the social agreement of a brand? Because the coffee, how we do value the coffee? what is a good coffee? For sure Italian, Colombian and Brasil could start a war trying to agree on that.

We can watch Professor Liberman explaining in the following video, how objectivity can be tricky in describing coffee flavours:


But why is this important? You may ask yourself. If there is a ton of Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain technology that will solve all the problems, why do you start from the beginning again?

When I started with my Phd, I started to research about Machine Learning, chatbots, and other cool stuff. And I realized that we are far from getting something that change our behaviour. I found that researchers usually rely blindness on what people feel and how people relates with these new objects.

There is an enchantment with technology. Modernism (and post-modernism, if that exists) is the replacement of religion by the technology. The magic thing about technology (which is the magic in the human, by the way) is that people can believe something and build it up. That is fantastic. We thought that we can capture movement in motion, and we invented films and video recorders. We thought that we can fly, we invented planes. We wanted to connect all the world, and we invented internet.

Behind this, there is a technicality. We can know how it works. But differently, this Machine Learning (or fake AI) has something different. We don’t know how it works, how it learns from things. We only know the algorithm that governs it, but we can’t separate it by pieces and build it again, we can’t look inside. It is a blackbox.

And if you start thinking, we have something similar in the universe. It is called Nature. For centuries, humans have been researched about natural phenomena. From evolution to the cosmos. From plants to DNA. But we still didn’t get how the things started, neither how they will evolve. Of course, we have the Climate Change and we can have, more or less, an idea on how bad the things are going down here. But, we really don’t know how good or bad are the consequences, and in terms of what that is good or bad. I don’t want to go deeper here, but you got the idea.

With ML we are in the same situation. And I didn’t want to go to that side, just because a lot of people is working on it, and if you look at the state of the art, it is really early yet, to have any conclusions.

So, if we have this situation, what happen with us? How can we make people feel better if its not in the scenario of technological progress? Maybe we can try to understand better what is going on in a different layer…

Explaining from the beginning

I have been a fan of philosophy since school, and when I had my first class in university, we reviewed the pre-Socratics. I’ve loved Heraclitus. These guys had something that Western culture have lost and I didn’t know how to search for it. He explained the natural phenomenon in a different way and I was really curious about it.

For Heraclitus, nature is full of contraries. But these contraries are not opposed, they are part of the same thing. He was fascinated about this “eternal flame” that the life is:

As the same thing in us are living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old. For these things having changed around are those, and those in turn having changed around are these. (B88)

But, then Plato came, and he separated the world in two parts. The real world and the world of ideas, resulting in the starting point of the western society.

But why, if something is part of the same of us, we take that as something external? For western cognitive theories, the external is something that we interpret, as part of the internal set of knowledge that process and has an output (perception) and bring up some sense of it (and emotions). This looks like something easy to reproduce in a machine, right? If we got the eyes to see, the brain to process, and arms, mouth and gestures to act acording to what we perceibed, more or less we can reproduce this process.

The thing is that there is a group of people that think that this also happens in another way. Of course, the cognitive science is not wrong. Here is not about getting the things right or wrong. It is about to explain differently. Here is where we leave our ego and stop competing each others. What I believe is that, as human beings, we tend to take the easy path to build what we need for making sense of the world and make it work. It is a good thing. But someone has to take care about the other paths, right? If this were a movie, probably one of them will die, but it is worthy to take different paths to see if there is any chance to survive.

Then, I discovered Heidegger and his phenomenological world. He wrote about this relation between work-world. But, for the sake of you, my reader, I will explain it in the next story…