Depending on who you listen to, healing we are either on the brink of a global apocalypse or of an unprecedented in human evolution. This is a new story, order this is an old story. Prophets of both doom and of glory have been with us for a long time. So it should come as no surprise that this age, whether it is an age of “spiritual machines” or a new Jerusalem of our humanity, should have its own distinctly digital flavors.
Ray Kurzweil has gained sufficient traction for his idea of a coming “singularity” (when humans and machines merge) that there is now an institution of higher education advocating that particular and peculiar vision. For Kurzweil it is the capstone piece of a edifice of controversial but convincing science. Many are tempted by his claim that the acceleration of the rate of technological change will make certain kinds of evolution tenable, if not straightforwardly inevitable. Softened by the evidence supporting Moore’s Law (about the acceleration of the capacity of transistors, and by implication of computing power), some are ready to grant Kurzweil some latitude in his reverie of Singularity.
Not Jaron Lanier. His recent “You Are Not a Gadget” implores us to tear away the veil of our technolust and lay bare the truth of a coming fascism, not unlike that imagined by the Washowki Brothers’ film, The Matrix. Lanier is not a Neo nor even a Morpheus, just a dude in dreads who knows better and wants us to remember our humanity before we finish building Skynet. His arguments are sometimes sparse or too simplistic, but I think that underneath them is a call for critical reflection that is never out of place.
Too many folks believe that people like Kurzweil are simply too intelligent to be understood, let alone to question. It is not so much a matter of whether they trust in what the oracle says, as it is a resignation to their inability to penetrate such mysteries of the intellectual occult.
On at least one thing, Kurzweil and Lanier appear to agree: that we are coming to a point of reckoning. They both see the divinity of the machine. Kurzweil sees eternity in its eyes, while Lanier sees the abyss. What we must all see through the fog of technology is ourselves: our fallibility, our frailty, and our future…
Technology is not like Tolkein’s one true ring. It’s heart is not in Mordor, but in the very sociality of the human animal. Our techne, the Greek root of technology (for “know how” or a knowing doing), can become alienated from the knowers, but it cannot fail or do violence, those are human errors, not machine ones. That doesn’t mean that machines, especially complex ones, may not, perhaps have already become not just a part of our living, but a kind of life. Maybe we should be less focused on the question of whether or not machines will supercede us and wonder more about the new diversity of living things.