How Technology Changes Our Concept of the Self [1]

The general project that I’m working on is about the self and technology—what we understand by the self and how it’s changed over time. My sense is that the self is not a universal and purely abstract thing that you’re going to get at through a philosophy of principles. Here’s an example: Sigmund Freud considered his notion of psychic censorship (of painful or forbidden thoughts) to be one of his greatest contributions to his account of who we are. His thoughts about these ideas came early, using as a model the specific techniques that Czarist border guards used to censor the importation of potentially dangerous texts into Russia. Later, Freud began to think of the censoring system in Vienna during World War I—techniques applied to every letter, postcard, telegram and newspaper—as a way of getting at what the mind does. Another example: Cyberneticians came to a different notion of self, accessible from the outside, identified with feedback systems—an account of the self that emerged from Norbert Wiener’s engineering work on weapons systems during World War II. Now I see a new notion of the self emerging; we start by modeling artificial intelligence on a conception of who we are, and then begin seeing ourselves ever more in our encounter with AI.

PETER GALISON is the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor of the History of Science and of Physics at Harvard University and Director of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. Peter Galison's Edge Bio Page [2]