Tag Archives: Arthur C Clark

Rage Against the Machine

Imagine that. They had it right all along, the science fiction prognosticators, the paranoid prophets who saw in early computers a danger to humanity. The Terminator, Clark’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – all envisioning a world where the created over takes the creator, where the machines rise up and rebel, changing the course of history forever. Heck, even Mary Shelley saw it in the fevered opium dreams that produced her great novel Frankenstein. The funny thing is we don’t see it, but we very well may be living it.

The midrashic literature, speculating about the way the Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians, paints a picture of gradual and subtle deception. Over a long period of time, a decree here and an edict there, a new responsibility added one month, a new freedom taken away the next. And then, seemingly suddenly, they were trapped. What is happening to us is not so dire, nor restricting, and it is true, more than anything else we are doing it to ourselves. OK, the huge corporations, the Microsofts and Googles, the Apples and Amazons, they are complicit, perhaps even driving us. But still. And we are going along for the ride earnestly, not hesitating, even saying ‘faster, faster.’ Where are we headed?

To an age of ‘post humanism,’ according to Leon Wieseltier. In a scathing essay published recently in the NY Times he argues that by so fully entering the machine age, by becoming so dependent on data and so connected to screens, we are leaving our humanity behind. Here a quote that brings his point home: “Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.”

Text without context is dangerous. Information without understanding, without wisdom, is meaningless, and perhaps even worse a path to apathy, to disconnection and dismay, to believing that nothing truly matters. What we must remember is that data can only describe our reality, it cannot make meaning out of it. The human element – intuition, insight, wisdom, inspiration – these are the impossible to quantify ingredients that are necessary for human intellectual life. Without them we do become like robots, responding to 0s and 1s, to code and data, knowing that a rose is beautiful, but not feeling that it is.

One of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare comes from Lear. Gloucester has been blinded, and he wanders on the heath with Edgar. By seeming chance they run into Lear, who asks Gloucester how he manages to navigate the world without his eyes. “I see it feelingly” is Gloucester’s timeless reply. (Lear act 4, scene 6) And there you have it. To see feelingly means to be sensitive to what is invisible. It is precisely what machines cannot do, and data cannot show us. And it is also, precisely so, the source of our humanity.

You can read the Wieseltier article at this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted

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