11.01, Tuesday 13 Apr 2004

How dogs perceive the universe.

There's a different between using smell as the primary sense and vision. Vision is all about surfaces, about being outside. And it's at a distance too. We take input, then cognition occurs, and then act. (That's not to say that sensing and locamotion are separate, they're not.) There's a self there.

But smell. Vision first. If you see a lion, you can do something about it before you have to deal with it. You can hide. Or run away, if it hasn't seen you. But there's thinking time. Vision decouples sensing from action. And it's very binary: it's only an edge case where you see a hint of something. Sense exceeds reach; vision affords anticipation, apprehension.

But smell! Smell is all about hints. You don't smell a lion, you smell 70% of the likelihood of a lion -- is it nearby in space, or in time? How close is it? How much does it smell? There's no chance to think about it, you can't hold the sense-of-lion at a distance: even 10% of lion is 10% chance of getting eaten. Wherever you are in the field, there's the chance that something will happen.

There is no cognition step between sense and act with smell.

Smell is all about moving through the insides, through a field of intensities, of potential. There's no hiding.

For a dog, the sensory input of smell leads to actions (or potential of action) so thoroughly that it comprises a large portion of the mind of the dog. The smellspace is not just input, it's the beginning of output too. So when the dog walks along, it's like they're thinking. It's not undirected thought by any means. A dog can decide where to walk, so moving equals thinking.

Navigation is cognition. But there's no concept of moving. Just being (continuing).

For us, this is almost like reading (especially reading someone like Markson). You can't read and articulate thoughts at the same time. The input is how your minds moves; the book comprises part of your thought processes. And because you decide what to read, it's like a dog exploring the landscape.

Of course something there's an unexpected scent. Or an event unaccompanied by a scent. To a dog, this is like a burst of intuition, or a joke. If you creep up on your dog, and surprise them by tickling, that's a surprisingly witty remark (or just rude, I can't tell).

We live in a world dominated by vision. Vision is directed, so we look at something. And because of that decoupling, we can decide what to do, how to interact with the thing we see. That's what gives room for hands, for manipulation. Rather than locomotion (which just moves us along a sensory gradient), we have reach too, which lets us perceive with better detail without moving the body.

We live in a spectacular world, where what can be sensed on the surface dominates (because it happens first), and what can be reached/affected is often neglected. A spectacular world neglects the capacity to be affected.

We think we live in a spectacular world. And unfortunately our artificial systems (cities, cyberspace) take as their point of construction something to look at but not adapt. (We bring cities to life when we inhabit them. Ditto becoming embedded in cyberspace. But it's a stuggle.)

I'm not saying it's a bad thing. Spectacle is what lets us say that plants can be dug up and put in a place together (that the land and the process of growing are separate from the growth of the plant). Spectacle lets us abstract, and claim that a dog's nose is like a man's nose. Spectacle gives us science, and speech, and maps.

Dogs understand that the world is part of our mind. The world as extelligence. Dogs are able to inhabit the same world as one another, to follow one another's thoughts. They don't just explore the environment, they are literally of it, encoded in it. The dog says that the map is not the territory, however much its spectacular surface convinces us. The dog says that there are no surfaces, just occassional strata of unusual density, and that there can't be abstaction because deep isomorphism is always required.

Third order cybernetics.

Some books, and links.

I think of Dennett saying that for early bacteria, sensing a chemical gradient is isomorphic with doing something about it. (Do you sense something if it doesn't change you at all?) Ben in those dinner conversation notes: their cognition is smeared out across the ocean itself. the brain is not a locus of the intelligence. Clarke and Chalmer's The Extended Mind [my notes]. And Gibson (p226): This is why to perceive something is also to perceive how to approach it and what to do about it. Information in a medium is not propagated as signals are propagated but is contained. Wherever one goes, one can see, hear, and smell. Hence, perception in the medium accompanies location in the medium.

Oh, go watch a dog.

Follow-up posts: