I have this little browser plugin of my own creation. It filters out content I don’t like. It substitutes terms I don’t care for with the ones I feel comfortable with. Most importantly, it continues to learns my taste each time I click the small, barely noticeable button that says I don’t like this. Behind the curtain, it operates on several ordinary machine learning techniques that would, with every ounce of effort, extract features from the preference I’ve explicitly supplied. The result is most satisfying. No more pusky nonsence or eye-rolling schnanigans. No more horrible Mandarin loan words slapping me right at my face. If peace has ever existed, I am with it now.
This plugin, as Hansen describes, has directly altered the sensory experience I gain from online matter (and their causal efficacies), and therefore influced my moves and decisions. Even though my consciousness is aware of such intervention of the evident kinds, it may and is more than likely remain ignorant of some more subtle and nuanced effects. My consciousness may realise that it feeling glad is a result of absence of disagreeable content, whilst having no knowledge of it dispising a certain product being a consequence of failed replacement of abhorring Mandarin words. I have no access whatsoever to the process inside the plugin even though I designed it. The flow of sensory data creeking under the table is simply non-existent to me, yet it has affected almost every aspect of my online, even offline moves and decisions.
This could be even more unsettling in the case of some widely installed systems that operates on the same principle. Most social media and news agencies have recommendation systems that learn users’ taste and decide what to show them. Similar systems utilise the data, sensory and experiential, from these twenty-first-media, study, manipulate and exploit them so that they could control the final moves and decisions entailed by those data. Consciousness doesn’t even stand a chance now that the mere existence of such intervention (or more precisely dictation) is lost to it, let alone the process and the data they operate upon: the browsing history, the time lingered on one page and how these lingerings are distributed, everything that is recordable piling up so high. These are all inaccessible to us either in scale or in sensory capacities. They are not only the loyal scriber of our past and current conscious experience, but also, in ambitious hands, fed into and shape our future conscious experience. They have opened a window to the future, predicatable and forseeable future founded on the solid, copious sensibility captured as machine-processible data, collected, catagorised and studied.
Another thing that pops into my mind whilst thinking about such systems are the famous brain in a vat thought experiment. To some extent it is the ultimate form of such system, where everything outside the carrier of consciousness itself are opaque to it. The brain still feels, experiences and interprets the decisions and moves afterhand, only that none of the sensibility are real. But then what would matter if the efficacies and the data are real? After all they are just media through which sensibilities evoke sensory experience and ultimately moves and decisions that consciousness is aware of. Twenty-first-century or twenty-second-century, print or electronic, no longer matters.