TLDR – Use the PACMAN (pragmatic agent concepts mapping algorithmic narratives) to better navigate an increasingly complex and informationally dense world and to best protect your own interests and goals from other agents.
What does Qanon, aliens, the CIA, Covid 19, the Catholic Church, President Trump, China, Apple, Disney, Marlboro and the World Health Organization all have in common? The answer is you, they all want something from you. My goal here is to recommend adopting PACMAN as a Pragmatic approach to an Agent as a being or Concept that is Mapped and understood as a natural or inherent mental Algorithm (broadly: a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end) which is a useful Narrative device to more effectively understand the complex information and systems in the world. PACMAN will help you navigate your world by giving you a simple method that’s already inherently understood which can account for and help organize an increasingly complex world full of agents who may not have your best interests at heart.
The simplest understanding of PACMAN is to understand an agent as a being with the capacity to act, and ‘agency’ represents the exercise or manifestation of this capacity. So, why should we care whether something is called an agent or a person, or a corporation or any of the other names we have for the multitude of things demanding our attention?
The first reason is that we’re already comfortable with humanizing things. All you have to do is think about SpongeBob, the Grinch, Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse to know what I mean. Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology. Because we have an inborn psychological tendency for it, it means that by considering things or entities as agents we are working with our mind not against it, which gives us a tremendous natural advantage.
This instinctive tendency of human psychology is related to theory of mind, which is the ability to attribute mental states, such as: beliefs, intents, desires, emotions and knowledge, both to our selves and others. Theory of mind is necessary to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from our own. Theory of mind is crucial for everyday human social interactions and is used when analyzing, judging, and inferring others’ behaviors. The idea then is to carry this forward when applying it to other acting forces in the world by working with our own advanced capability of understanding how ‘others’ work, driven by motivations that are predictable based on goals or desires of the agent.
Our in-built familiarity with using theory of mind since we were infants, gives us a uniquely sophisticated ability to understand the schemes of others. However, when we usually engage in the world in a way that doesn’t include agents and agency beyond what we normally consider to be people, it often doesn’t take long for us to get lost and exploited. To give an example of this: if a stranger were to come up and ask us a bunch of personal questions and want to write the information down, we would rightly be suspicious if not outright alarmed of what they wanted it for and what they might do with it. However, this is hardly the reaction we have when agents such as Facebook, Google or a Government (Central Intelligence Agency or People’s Liberation Army) start recording the same information, knowingly or unknowingly. When we start looking at the rest of the world the way we currently look at other people, we already have the best tool we need to look after our interests: PACMAN.
I’m not suggesting that you believe that any of these agents are ‘real’ people, rather that we act as if they were real agents because of the many practical benefits it gives us by thinking in this way.
PACMAN is a modernized version of a similar ancient notion which we call animism, where potentially, the belief of animism perceives all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork and perhaps even words—as animated and alive. The difference here is the contrast of the perception or belief of its realness, rather than its practical use towards beneficial outcomes. Animism is a belief system whereas PACMAN is a tool of belief.
New Zealand is one of many places that are taking exactly this kind of notion seriously, as the Whanganui River in New Zealand has recently been made a legal person, partially because of the animistic beliefs of the Maori people who have relied upon the land for thousands of years but also for other more practical reasons too. Perhaps the aboriginal wisdom has been exhibiting a more sophisticated method of viewing the world all along: they have treated the land that they relied upon as something living to respect which had the beneficial consequence of preserving their own lives by keeping their environment clean and protected. This in contrast to how we have often in modern times treated the land as an objectified commodity. This has inevitably lead to our poisoning the land we live on, the water we drink and the air we breathe in, leaving a clear link to our own responsibility in the inevitable poisoning of ourselves.
PACMAN isn’t such a strange idea beyond New Zealand rivers; the notion of an agent is already well established as a concept in law, in the form of corporations as legal persons. If even the law is beginning to consider these systems legitimately as agents, perhaps the rest of us should start taking more notice and start to consider these entities not just as enjoying legal personhood (perhaps better considered as legal agency) but also that we consider them as agents in fact, and begin to engage them as such with all that entails.
Our own sense of ourselves as agents through personhood is itself often not clear to us conceptually. We still struggle with the problem of identity, both philosophically as well as existentially which I think is best conceptualized by Theseus’ Ship. My own sense is that we identify ourselves with our experiential relationships (memories/beliefs/knowledge/social relationships) and the shape we fit ourselves into after all these complex weaves we call the ‘I.’
This however means that maybe conceptually it is a mistake to identify ourselves with a noun as our grammar tells us, but rather we should consider identifying ourselves as a semi-permanent structure in a flux, more like a verb. Now, this might seem to be on the surface a paradoxical notion of identity. We have on the one hand underlying the notion of identity the very opposite of a fixed thing, that of constant dynamic flux. And here I have complimented that within a singular stable system structure, that is a complex and ever changing web of shifting connections. A concept that is called a dissipative structure in science, like a tornado.
This seeming paradox revolves around the notion that our identity is fixed in a noun, an object. If we stop trying to identify ourselves in nothing more than the configuration of a fixed noun, we might find the whole of our identity is instead a complex pattern in dynamic feedback. This might provide us a better explanation. The mistaken space within which our current awareness inhabits or lives, our house, more often called our body, is however equally dynamic even as it gives us a stronger sense of unchanging continuity.
This might suggest that the identity of personhood or an agent is more about how we or it might inhabit different experiential–relational patterns through spacetime. Even more interestingly, it might give us pause to consider that even for our own consciousness (a concept I am currently holding outside of the rest of what we have considered) we designate specific spacetime coordinates (our body) a kind of conscious property rights.
Most of this so far has been to give some sense of what an agent might conceivably look like, both from the side of personhood and legal entity, as well as through the concept of identity. Having started from there, we can begin to get a handle on the notion of agency with a couple of examples in how it might effect us.
Governments are obvious agents which work towards their own multi-national goals, often completely separate from us as citizens of a state, they live outside or beyond us and have major effects on our lives. A State by default will work to submit its population to sublimation under the state will, to varying degrees of tyranny and freedom. It will consider us citizens to be a resource to its own continued ends and motivations, and anytime citizens are at variance with the state, the state will effectively act to destroy us unless tempered by its own morality or values, or remove or isolate us from its system, such as in a prison.
Corporations similarly are agents, with their own particular ends, wherein they both conceivably live and die, and perhaps we might be considered as “food” or sources of energy much like in the Matrix movie. We provide the means of their propagation, often exclusively. We are the consumer of their products (whatever form that takes, information, material or otherwise) and provide them with the labor and energy to act out their wills. Without consuming or using us, they effectively cease to exist as an agent, so they need us and are motivated to keep us providing for their needs. We would do well to consider then, which corporate agents we engage or deal with, and what that might mean for us and our lives and our own values.
Even plants can be seen to be agents, which have their own goals and directives, often using other agents, such as insects or people to accomplish their ends, such as pollination. Much in the same way that a corporate agent might use us. Plants are also not beyond having a major effect on us directly in their manipulation, and should be considered equally suspect along with governments and corporations. Just think of the tobacco plant and how it has used humanity to grow it, nourish it and protect it, and to propagate it all over the Earth. How many have died to this plant’s manipulations, how much harm has come from people’s innocence regarding its agency?
Ultimately, the shaping of direction and purpose is intrinsic to agency. This is the reason there are influences from other intelligent agents trying to shape things in the world. If it is not your own will or direction, it is suspect. Utilize your PACMAN and be a lamp unto yourself. Whatever is truly an agent or not, you can find your own way. Agents have agendas. Be wary of any agenda that isn’t immediately obvious or specifically your own. The idea being, regardless of what is an agent or not in reality, engage the world and the actors in it as if it were an agent to better understand how to orient oneself and act most effectively to protect your own interests.
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