I don’t know how you’re spending your airplane time lately — maybe you’ve arranged your life in some eminently sane manner that doesn’t require periodic four-hour stints spent breathing other peoples’ fecal particles and noroviruses in a 25-year-old metal tube indifferently steered by a recent graduate of low-cost simulator training — but I’m spending mine reading Godel, Escher Bach for the fourth and, I hope, final time. It’s not an entirely voluntary re-perusal. My son is crawling through The Turing Omnibus and “GEB” is the logical next step after that. He will want to discuss it. I will need to be prepared.
Much of this book concerns the mechanism by which we might construct “consciousness loops”, at least in a mathematical sense. As they currently exist, computers are awfully powerful but they have no ability to “step outside” their processing loop and examine themselves. We can nest levels within levels, and indeed that’s our current moronic H1-B-centric computing paradigm of Docker-inside-Kubernetes-inside-VMWare and so on, but none of these levels have the ability to “think” about themselves. That’s the beginning of consciousness. A computer (or a dog, or a monkey) can run a program and exhibit all sorts of fascinating behaviors, but at no point can it stop and ask itself “Why am I doing this?” To our knowledge, human beings are the only devices in the universe with the ability to consider themselves in the abstract. Dolphins, maybe. I wouldn’t bet on that.
It’s a neat trick, but only if we use it. Any time you find yourself explaining your past actions to an employer, spouse, or officer of the law with “I don’t know why I did that,” what you really mean is that you didn’t take a moment to be conscious, to examine your behaviors and motivations from a distance. In those unexamined moments, you were no better than a chimpanzee and considerably worse than, say, an array of Core i7 processors operating in parallel. It is never wasted time to pause what you are doing and use that uniquely human faculty of consciousness to evaluate your actions from a third-party perspective.
Perhaps that explains why I found myself wheedling a “FastPass+” for Space Mountain out of a bored foreign national with a journeyman’s command of the King’s English on Martin Luther King Day — or perhaps it does not. As you’ll see, however, applying a bit of human consciousness to Disneyworld raises more questions than it answers.