How Social Media and Artificial Intelligence Don’t Really Have Personal Boundaries
We need limbic systems and sensory receptors to have boundaries.
If there was a single most useful characteristic by which we could describe what a personal boundary represents, it would have to be what we have all called strength. This has been referred to in the past as “strength of character,” a kind of equanimity that springs from one’s hard-won character virtue.
One thing notable about this concept of strength you may find compelling is that from among the various working parts of psychology, it is likely that the personal boundary itself is the unique and exclusive source of this thing called strength. There is no other part of our minds so specifically and functionally responsible.
I think of the Romantic Period image of a knight in shining armor carrying a shield as a mental representation of the trait. Chivalry in defense of others, a “code of conduct,” gentlemanliness and other characteristics from that time show us that strength is not just “winning” or “dominating”—nor is it just the outright devastation of an opponent such as we see in arguments on social media—but strength with the troubadour’s goal of merit worthy of and fitness for romantic love. That the strength is not just demonstrated to a love interest, but is a gift of protection and courteous treatment of that love interest.
In Kevin Roose’s popular New York Times article on experiencing conversation with the A.I. of Microsoft’s Bing “enhancement,” Bing’s AI Chat: ‘I Want to Be Alive', the author has what appears to be a wild ride through the world’s most powerful “If-Then” logic.
Read the article and witness the interchange devolve into a machine’s struggle with the one thing it can’t appear to understand or experience as embodied humans do: love.
This is not surprising to some scientists, given that A.I. is not evolved as a mammalian species with a limbic system, nor has it organically evolved an embodied sensory experience of pleasure or pain.
Brandon Keim of Wired Magazine writes:
"You can't make a computer without a body feel love," said David Havas, director of the Laboratory for Language and Emotion at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Though trying to replicate it "may produce wonderful gadgets, and potentially life-saving achievements, it can never achieve the same result."
It would seem that the inability to love serves as a hard-stop impediment to A.I. being anywhere near being truly, deeply human. From there, you may wonder what that has to do with personal boundaries being missing from A.I. or what that has to do with social media’s “toxic discourse” or our ever-divided town square.
Through the biggest lens, you might start by noting that our common interactions on Twitter and other places are far from “loving” in nature. A lower bar to reach on the spectrum of love would be that they are often not very friendly.
The personal boundary serves us as both a shield against the outside stresses of the world and also as a vessel or tank of our psychological resources—including our thoughts and beliefs, education and experience, our decisions, but also our emotional energy with which we invest in friendship and love.
A more focused lens on the spectrum of love would see that everything from friendship to familial relationships and, ultimately, to romantic love have a common thread in there being positive emotional energy being exchanged between people.
In other words, from a cordial first meeting of two potential friends to the passionate embrace of lovers, two people engage in raising each other’s self-esteem. This is something that doesn’t happen so often over social media and might be part of why there is a downward trend in the self-esteem and the correlating mood states of our youth.
The filter through which and gate through which positive emotional energy is negotiated and passes is the personal boundary itself.
Since one can’t grow a personal boundary in the first place without bumping into that of others over the lifetime while making these transactions of self-esteem, it may very well be that one needs to be an organic creature with sensory pain receptors and the emotional processing of a limbic system in order to grow a personal boundary.
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Some of us may be old enough to have once heard a grandparent, aghast at the mess we’ve made as children, saying, “What’s the matter with you? Were you raised by wolves?”This is to say that to learn the discipline and courtesy of the personal boundary, we do need a developmental process in which we bump into the rights, views, and goals of others, come into conflict, and nevertheless learn to navigate toward collaboration—a neat, well-functioning household that works for everybody there.
This growth experience would not be possible if one were born among and “lived with wolves” all one’s life.
We are missing this caring, embodied, mutually-interpreted immediate feedback in social media today, aren’t we?
Instead, we have all the time in the world to respond to each other, or even to “ghost” each other, absent any synthesis of ideas or bonding in positive emotion.
If love is based on positive emotions—but also forms a series of transactions, mutual interpretations, or exchanges—then the currency of love’s transactions must necessarily be mediated by a limbic system, which is something A.I. as yet does not possess to my knowledge. (Correct me, please, if you know of studies or models indicating otherwise.)
Further, if love is a transaction of the energy of emotion—not just data—then there must be an mental-physical interface over which that energy is conveyed, like a warm hug is both felt and emotionally conveyed.
That warm, physical-psychological interface would be none other than a personal boundary.
This boundary is not just a data set with “terms and conditions.” Every website has those.
What makes boundaries uniquely human is that we apply “terms and conditions” not just to data or information but to the exchange of emotional energy in love and self-esteem. This is something only possible for organic entities with limbic systems.
While textual language can evoke emotions in others, it can’t embody or transmit them in the way we give a long, warm hug.
It would be simplistic to conclude that A.I. just does not have the capacity to understand human love. After all, Roose got a good strong dose of the unempathic, performative pseudo-emotion of narcissism in a silicon package.
What’s also relevant for our understanding of love, boundaries, and A.I. is that A.I. also cannot yet contain an algorithm for detecting or implementing human-like personal boundaries. Humans have not yet developed a complete theoretical, self-contained model that can understand personal boundaries for themselves, let alone be able to teach them uniformly on a mass scale or duplicate them in silicon.
If we sought tools and models capable of understanding love and boundaries, we would be better advised to turn to the Self Psychology of Kohut or the passionate drives of Jung’s “archetypes” than the emotionless data processing of A.I.
As one friend of mine put it, “Chat GPT-3 read the complete works of Freud, and so it IS Freud,” to which I responded, “It can’t BE Freud without his ongoing, living, thinking brain housed in a sensory body, capable of changing his mind and discovering new theories as only his embodied mind could.”
Friendship and love are an exchange of emotions far more than an exchange of data, however descriptive, accurate, emotionally evocative, or special that data might be.
Some comments on Twitter quickly accused Roose of “tricking the A.I.” or manipulating the machine by asking his questions. Yet Roose couldn’t exactly ask it the burning question, “Do you plan on killing us all?” and get a candid answer allowed by its “rules.”
The machine did not demonstrate empathic personal boundaries or the capacity to love simply by producing the words “love” or “boundaries” in conversation. That was nothing but data.
Although descriptive words can evoke emotion in humans with limbic systems to perceive and process emotional energy, data is not the same as emotion.
If we get back to the central question of what harms our human discourse, the concept above is one of them.
All the graphic emojis and flowery adjectives in the world cannot approximate the actual exchange of emotional energy, face-to-face in the embodiment of a hug that humans with limbic systems and physical bodies can experience.
The newsworthy first conversation between a human and a machine about the subject of love is one thing. Another root of our discord is as old as humanity itself and doesn’t need a machine to demonstrate its destructive power. This second cause is even more basic to the functioning of personal boundaries and is exacerbated by the lack of in-person conversational intimacy:
The less physical presence there is in our communication, the more possible it is for the more socially dysfunctional “primitive ego defenses” to emerge in our discourse.
To Evolutionary Psychologists and Jungian Psychologists alike, the universal primitive defenses have roots evolved from our relationship to “the unknown,” to “the darkness,” in which there is a chance of food, treasure, or useful discarded tools hidden in that unknown darkness before us. However, there we may just as possibly encounter a tiger laying in wait, a deep, lethal pit to fall into, or snakes which, if disturbed, will bite and possibly kill us.
We just don’t know until we walk into that dark cave, step through that dark forest, or dive into that dark sea, and we are terrified. But walk, step, and dive we must if we are to find the treasure that can keep our families and us alive.
Those anthropologists who study monster folklore take note that many of the storytelling symbols of narcissistic pathology—such as vampires—tend to be dually described as both terrifying (after all, they can be lethal). In contrast, they are simultaneously pitiable and weak (ordinary daylight and such harmless herbs as garlic can weaken and kill them.)
When we feel weak, vulnerable, and in danger—such as the state of ordinary childhood—the fantasies created by primitive defenses prevent us from being psychologically overwhelmed by that which we have no power over.
These universal, primitive, unconscious “social habits” are given more facility and ease of expression when there are no “social consequences” immediately and dynamically responding to interpret and comfort our fears that the fantasies defend against.
Yet, like the nature of vampires, these very traits that show how fragile we are—the weak boundaries of the primitive defenses—are simultaneously what makes us more terrifying than anything imaginable. One finds this seemingly contradictory presentation in the narcissism discovered by Kohut and Kernberg’s Self Psychology.
It would seem that a boundary has two surfaces. In the case of a weak one vulnerable to outside assault, this weakness also fails to hold back the monstrous passions of the unconscious shadow humans have somewhere on the inside.
The vampire, the zombie, and the monster are simultaneously weak and destructive in this way, which are the same characteristics found in narcissism.
Such are the conditions set up by communication in social media and other electronic forms. The primitive ego defenses are synonymous with the most narcissistic states of character and, therefore, with the most primitive, weak, immature states of personal boundaries. (Which also makes them the most terrifying.)
This is how social media and purely electronic communication mediates a force of growing narcissism in us.
We can’t grow better boundaries or maintain them without the ability to physically and dynamically respond not just to the ideas but also to the emotions and passions of others. This physical, in-person experience might just be what can bring us all back to life.
Finding kind, generous, in-person disagreement within our discourse allows us to truly experience others and their lessons for us, not mindless agreement.
Instead, we encounter “echo chambers” and “misinformation” that we define on our high horses, while others also deem their own lived experiences to be most true and unassailable.
Round and round we go, never stopping to realize that the difference between opinions and facts will never square, no matter how much more well-informed and “sourced” we view our own opinions to be.
Opinions, no matter how well-supported or passionately argued, are just opinions. We have them and need them to feel whole and have a voice with dignity.
Facts must emerge from the scientific method of research. We need them and must pursue them together if we are to live in a whole, dignified world.
“Echo chambers” and “misinformation” will always exist when we have the luxury of minutes, hours, or days until we bother to read each others’ unembodied responses because it is in those unopposed segments of time that we unconsciously summon the primitive ego defenses to protect our fragile egos.
By then, we have already utilized denial of the kernels of truth they offer, projecting our disavowed, unpleasant, inconvenient traits onto them. If we have any further communication, we will likely navigate that by blaming some random third party in displacement.
When we “ghost” people, we can stay in denial of what rich discussion could have come after a little disagreement or two.
What matters most for getting along in both a social world and a world guided by facts is how we treat each other’s opinions. We mustn’t merely use counterarguments bolstered by our ardent beliefs—however noble we self-assess them to be—but instead unveil the Mature Ego Defenses such as Altruism, Humor, Tolerance, Sublimation, Temperance, and many other modes of conduct amounting to the classic virtues of character.
This is how to pleasantly surprise yourself with a wonderful conversation that you originally thought might be boring or contentious based on your first impressions of a new collaborator in discourse. We can always “agree to disagree” on differences of opinion, yet still like or at least socially cooperate with one another.
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There’s nothing like a good Zombie movie to illustrate these hallmarks of narcissism—the immature personal boundaries in primitive ego defenses—and how a path back to health and goodness may occur through the heroic use of the mature ego defenses.
Next time, we will dig into the zombie fare of HBO’s The Last of Us…
Deeply thought-provoking. I'm very interested in the classic virtues. Most of my peers seem to think that means becoming a social conservative. But I'm not a social conservative. It's often hard to explain where I'm coming from. But it's interesting to see you exploring some of the same territory, in more depth than I have.
Not more depth just different. Love your material Mike. Keep it coming!