Data-Driven Regimes of Truth

Below are excerpts from three items that came across my browser this past week. I thought it useful to juxtapose them here.

The first is Andrea Turpin’s review in The Hedgehog Review of Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War, a new book by Andrew Jewett about the role of science as a unifying principle in American politics and public policy.

“Jewett calls the champions of that forgotten understanding ‘scientific democrats.’ They first articulated their ideas in the late nineteenth century out of distress at the apparent impotence of culturally dominant Protestant Christianity to prevent growing divisions in American politics—most violently in the Civil War, then in the nation’s widening class fissure. Scientific democrats anticipated educating the public on the principles and attitudes of scientific practice, looking to succeed in fostering social consensus where a fissiparous Protestantism had failed. They hoped that widely cultivating the habit of seeking empirical truth outside oneself would produce both the information and the broader sympathies needed to structure a fairer society than one dominated by Gilded Age individualism.

Questions soon arose: What should be the role of scientific experts versus ordinary citizens in building the ideal society? Was it possible for either scientists or citizens to be truly disinterested when developing policies with implications for their own economic and social standing? Jewett skillfully teases out the subtleties of the resulting variety of approaches in order to ‘reveal many of the insights and blind spots that can result from a view of science as a cultural foundation for democratic politics.’”

The second piece, “When Fitbit is the Expert,” appeared in The Atlantic. In it, Kate Crawford discusses how data gathered by wearable devices can be used for and against its users in court.

“Self-tracking using a wearable device can be fascinating. It can drive you to exercise more, make you reflect on how much (or little) you sleep, and help you detect patterns in your mood over time. But something else is happening when you use a wearable device, something that is less immediately apparent: You are no longer the only source of data about yourself. The data you unconsciously produce by going about your day is being stored up over time by one or several entities. And now it could be used against you in court.”

[....]

“Ultimately, the Fitbit case may be just one step in a much bigger shift toward a data-driven regime of ‘truth.’ Prioritizing data—irregular, unreliable data—over human reporting, means putting power in the hands of an algorithm. These systems are imperfect—just as human judgments can be—and it will be increasingly important for people to be able to see behind the curtain rather than accept device data as irrefutable courtroom evidence. In the meantime, users should think of wearables as partial witnesses, ones that carry their own affordances and biases.”

The final excerpt comes from an interview with Mathias Döpfner in the Columbia Journalism Review. Döfner is the CEO of the largest publishing company in Europe and has been outspoken in his criticisms of American technology firms such as Google and Facebook.

“It’s interesting to see the difference between the US debate on data protection, data security, transparency and how this issue is handled in Europe. In the US, the perception is, ‘What’s the problem? If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. We can share everything with everybody, and being able to take advantage of data is great.’ In Europe it’s totally different. There is a huge concern about what institutions—commercial institutions and political institutions—can do with your data. The US representatives tend to say, ‘Those are the back-looking Europeans; they have an outdated view. The tech economy is based on data.’”

Döpfner goes out of his way to indicate that he is a regulatory minimalist and that he deeply admires American-style tech-entrepreneurship. But ….

“In Europe there is more sensitivity because of the history. The Europeans know that total transparency and total control of data leads to totalitarian societies. The Nazi system and the socialist system were based on total transparency. The Holocaust happened because the Nazis knew exactly who was a Jew, where a Jew was living, how and at what time they could get him; every Jew got a number as a tattoo on his arm before they were gassed in the concentration camps.”

Perhaps that’s a tad alarmist, I don’t know. The thing about alarmism is that only in hindsight can it be definitively identified.

Here’s the thread that united these pieces in my mind. Jewett’s book, assuming the reliability of Turpin’s review, is about an earlier attempt to find a new frame of reference for American political culture. Deliberative democracy works best when citizens share a moral framework from which their arguments and counter-arguments derive their meaning. Absent such a broadly shared moral framework, competing claims can never really be meaningfully argued for or against, they can only be asserted or denounced. What Jewett describes, it seems, is just the particular American case of a pattern that is characteristic of secular modernity writ large. The eclipse of traditional religious belief leads to a search for new sources of unity and moral authority.

For a variety of reasons, the project to ground American political culture in publicly accessible science did not succeed. (It appears, by the way, that Jewett’s book is an attempt to revive the effort.) It failed, in part, because it became apparent that science itself was not exactly value free, at least not as it was practice by actual human beings. Additionally, it seems to me, the success of the project assumed that all political problems, that is all problems that arise when human beings try to live together, were subject to scientific analysis and resolution. This strikes me as an unwarranted assumption.

In any case, it would seem that proponents of a certain strand Big Data ideology now want to offer Big Data as the framework that unifies society and resolves political and ethical issues related to public policy. This is part of what I read into Crawford’s suggestion that we are moving into “a data-driven regime of ‘truth.’” “Science says” replaced “God says”; and now “Science says” is being replaced by “Big Data says.”

To put it another way, Big Data offers to fill the cultural role that was vacated by religious belief. It was a role that, in their turn, Reason, Art, and Science have all tried to fill. In short, certain advocates of Big Data need to read Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. Big Data may just be another God-term, an idol that needs to be sounded with a hammer and found hollow.

Finally, Döfner’s comments are just a reminder of the darker uses to which data can and has been put, particularly when thoughtfulness and judgement have been marginalized.

Jaron Lanier Wants to Secularize AI

In 2010, one of the earliest posts on this blog noted an op-ed in the NY Times by Jaron Lanier titled “The First Church of Robotic.” In it, Lanier lamented the rise quasi-religious aspirations animating many among the Silicon Valley elite. Describing the tangle of ideas and hopes usually associated with the Singularity and/or Transhumanism, Lanier concluded, “What we are seeing is a new religion, expressed through an engineering culture.” The piece wraps up rather straightforwardly: “We serve people best when we keep our religious ideas out of our work.”

In fact, the new religion Lanier has in view has a considerably older pedigree than what he imagines. Historian David Noble traced the roots of what he called the religion of technology back to the start of the last millennium. What Lanier identified was only the latest iteration of that venerable techno-religious tradition.

A couple of days ago, Edge posted a video (and transcript) of an extended discussion by Lanier, which was sparked by recent comments made by Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk about the existential threat to humanity AI may pose in the not-to-distant future. Lanier’s talk ranges impressively over a variety of related issues and registers a number of valuable insights. Consider, for instance, this passing critique of Big Data:

“I want to get to an even deeper problem, which is that there’s no way to tell where the border is between measurement and manipulation in these systems. For instance, if the theory is that you’re getting big data by observing a lot of people who make choices, and then you’re doing correlations to make suggestions to yet more people, if the preponderance of those people have grown up in the system and are responding to whatever choices it gave them, there’s not enough new data coming into it for even the most ideal or intelligent recommendation engine to do anything meaningful.

In other words, the only way for such a system to be legitimate would be for it to have an observatory that could observe in peace, not being sullied by its own recommendations. Otherwise, it simply turns into a system that measures which manipulations work, as opposed to which ones don’t work, which is very different from a virginal and empirically careful system that’s trying to tell what recommendations would work had it not intervened. That’s a pretty clear thing. What’s not clear is where the boundary is.

If you ask: is a recommendation engine like Amazon more manipulative, or more of a legitimate measurement device? There’s no way to know.”

To which he adds a few moments later, “It’s not so much a rise of evil as a rise of nonsense. It’s a mass incompetence, as opposed to Skynet from the Terminator movies. That’s what this type of AI turns into.” Big Data as banal evil, perhaps.

Lanier is certainly not the only one pointing out that Big Data doesn’t magically render pure or objective sociological data. A host of voices have made some variation of this point in their critique of the ideology surrounding Big Data experiments conducted by the likes of Facebook and OkCupid. The point is simple enough: observation/measurement alters the observed/measured phenomena. It’s a paradox that haunts most forms of human knowledge, perhaps especially our knowledge of ourselves, and it seems to me that we are better off abiding the paradox rather than seeking to transcend it.

Lanier also scores an excellent point when he asks us to imagine two scenarios involving the possibility of 3-D printed killer drones that can be used to target individuals. In the first scenario, they are developed and deployed by terrorists; in the second they are developed and deployed by some sort of rogue AI along the lines that Musk and others have worried about. Lanier’s question is this: what difference does it make whether terrorists or rogue AI is to blame? The problem remains the same.

“The truth is that the part that causes the problem is the actuator. It’s the interface to physicality. It’s the fact that there’s this little killer drone thing that’s coming around. It’s not so much whether it’s a bunch of teenagers or terrorists behind it or some AI, or even, for that matter, if there’s enough of them, it could just be an utterly random process. The whole AI thing, in a sense, distracts us from what the real problem would be. The AI component would be only ambiguously there and of little importance.

This notion of attacking the problem on the level of some sort of autonomy algorithm, instead of on the actuator level is totally misdirected. This is where it becomes a policy issue. The sad fact is that, as a society, we have to do something to not have little killer drones proliferate. And maybe that problem will never take place anyway. What we don’t have to worry about is the AI algorithm running them, because that’s speculative. There isn’t an AI algorithm that’s good enough to do that for the time being. An equivalent problem can come about, whether or not the AI algorithm happens. In a sense, it’s a massive misdirection.”

It is a misdirection that entails an evasion of responsibility and a failure of political imagination.

All of this is well put, and there’s more along the same lines. Lanier’s chief concern, however, is to frame this as a problem of religious thinking infecting the work of technology. Early on, for instance, he says, “what I’m proposing is that if AI was a real thing, then it probably would be less of a threat to us than it is as a fake thing. What do I mean by AI being a fake thing? That it adds a layer of religious thinking to what otherwise should be a technical field.”

And toward the conclusion of his talk, Lanier elaborates:

“There is a social and psychological phenomenon that has been going on for some decades now:  A core of technically proficient, digitally-minded people reject traditional religions and superstitions. They set out to come up with a better, more scientific framework. But then they re-create versions of those old religious superstitions! In the technical world these superstitions are just as confusing and just as damaging as before, and in similar ways.”

What Lanier proposes in response to this state of affairs is something like a wall of separation, not between the church and the state, but between religion and technology:

“To me, what would be ridiculous is for somebody to say, ‘Oh, you mustn’t study deep learning networks,’ or ‘you mustn’t study theorem provers,’ or whatever technique you’re interested in. Those things are incredibly interesting and incredibly useful. It’s the mythology that we have to become more self-aware of. This is analogous to saying that in traditional religion there was a lot of extremely interesting thinking, and a lot of great art. And you have to be able to kind of tease that apart and say this is the part that’s great, and this is the part that’s self-defeating. We have to do it exactly the same thing with AI now.”

I’m sure Lanier would admit that this is easier said than done. In fact, he suggests as much himself a few lines later. But it’s worth asking whether the kind of sorting out that Lanier proposes is not merely challenging, but, perhaps, unworkable. Just as mid-twentieth century theories of secularization have come on hard times owing to a certain recalcitrant religiosity (or spirituality, if you prefer), we might also find that the religion of technology cannot simply be wished away or bracketed.

Paradoxically, we might also say that something like the religion of technology emerges precisely to the (incomplete) degree that the process of secularization unfolded in the West. To put this another way, imagine that there is within Western consciousness a particular yearning for transcendence. Suppose, as well, that this yearning is so ingrained that it cannot be easily eradicated. Consequently, you end up having something like a whack-a-mole effect. Suppress one expression of this yearning, and it surfaces elsewhere. The yearning for transcendence never quite dissipates, it only transfigures itself. So the progress of secularization, to the degree that it successfully suppresses traditional expressions of the quest for transcendence, manages only to channel it into other cultural projects, namely techno-science. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the entire techno-scientific project is an unmitigated expression of the religion of technology. That’s certainly not the case. But, as Noble made clear, particularly in his chapter on AI, the techno-religious impulse is hardly negligible.

One last thought, for now, arising out of my recent blogging through Frankenstein. Mary Shelley seemed to understand that one cannot easily disentangle the noble from the corrupt in human affairs: both are rooted in the same faculties and desires. Attempt to eradicate the baser elements altogether, and you may very well eliminate all that is admirable too. The heroic tendency is not safe, but neither is the attempt to tame it. I don’t think we’ve been well-served by our discarding of this essentially tragic vision in favor of a more cheery techno-utopianism.

Reading Frankenstein: Chapters 11–13

Earlier posts in this series: Walton’s Letters, Chapters 1 & 2, Chapters 3 & 4, Chapter 5Chapter 6, Chapters 7 & 8, 9 & 10

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I’ve been a bit delinquent with the Frankenstein posts of late, but I intend to make up some ground by covering chapters eleven through sixteen in this post and the next. These chapters are the heart of the book, structurally and thematically. In them, the Creature assumes control of the narrative, sort of. Throughout these chapters it is his voice that we hear narrating the two years between the moment of his creation and the present encounter with Frankenstein; but we should remember that the Creature’s words are still being reported by Frankenstein to Walton. It is still, in a sense, a filtered account, even though it is presented to the reader in the first person. I don’t think this should throw into question every detail of the Creature’s account, supposing that Frankenstein has necessarily misrepresented him; but it may be wise to read the Creature’s story with a certain suspicious attentiveness.

Had Shelly chosen to narrate her story from a more conventional third person perspective, we might imagine that the moral of the story would have been more straightforward, or that our sympathies would have more readily coalesced around one of the two central characters. The multiple first person perspectives complicate matters and inject a certain moral ambiguity into the story. As in our own real-world experience, hearing multiple accounts of the same sequence of events from motivated witnesses forces us to assume the responsibility of making judgments about whom to believe and to what degree. Often, we find that there is no obvious way of arriving at an “objective” account of the events and, knowingly or not, we fall back on our own proclivities and sympathies. We may also find, given our access to multiple perspectives, that the sequence of events unfolded with a kind of tragic unnecessary necessity. Things need not have transpired as they did, different decisions could have been made; but, given the limited perspective of the interested parties, it is hard to see how they could have done otherwise.

In his discussion of tragic plays, Aristotle observed that the tragic hero cannot be either wholly deserving or wholly undeserving of his fate. The emotional force of the tragedy depends on this ambivalence. If we think the hero entirely deserving of their fate, the play amounts to a comedy in which justice is served. If we think the hero entirely undeserving of their fate, then we will think the play a farce. Aristotle offers Sophocles’s Oedipus as the perfect embodiment of this tragic ambivalence of character. In my view, Shelley achieves a similar effect with both Frankenstein and the Creature, hence the emotional force of her story. And this effect she achieves principally by allowing us to hear each of them tell us their own stories. This isn’t merely a matter of emotional payoff, though; the meaning of Shelley’s story is inextricable from this tragic form. The meaning of the story, on my reading, also hinges on recognizing the Creature’s experience as a microcosm of human civilization, and that becomes apparent very early on in the Creature’s story.

In chapter eleven, the Creature describes the earliest hours and days of his existence, during which he comes to terms with the physicality of his being. Over the course of several days, his ability to perceive his surroundings is sharpened, as is his ability to navigate the world with his body. As he acclimates to having a body, the Creature also begins to express himself with “uncouth and inarticulate sounds,” the beginnings of language. While still in this state, he encounters a fire left by wandering beggars. The fire fascinates him and its usefulness is immediately apparent to him. Like a hunter-gatherer, he soon finds that he must abandon his fire in search of food. He does so and subsists on berries and nuts until he stumbles upon the abode of a shepherd where he finds bread, cheese, milk, and wine. The shepherd symbolizes a more settled life than that of the hunter-gathers, and the foods the Creature enjoys are all the product of human cultivation, none of them are naturally occurring. Finally, he moves on and enters a village. He is awed by the homes and their gardens. But, in a pattern that will recur unfailingly, this place that is at once an expression of humanity’s skill and ingenuity is also the setting for the Creature’s first encounter, apart from his initial abandonment, with “the barbarity of man.” Having innocently entered a home and frightened its inhabitants, the Creature is chased out of the town by a barrage of blows and projectiles.

The Creature then comes upon a modest cottage in the woods and he crawls into a hovel attached to one of the cottage walls. Here he is able to live unnoticed, and, through a crack in the wall of the cottage, he is able to observe the family that inhabits it. This family consists of an elderly blind father and his two grown children, Felix and Agatha. We learn later that they are exiles from France living in Switzerland. At this point, the Creature regarded them a saintly, if also melancholy, brood. Watching the sacrificial kindness Felix and Agatha display toward their father, the Creature’s emotional life is awakened. “I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature,” he recounts, “they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions.” The chapter closes with the Creature seeing the family read together before turning in for the night. At the time, however, he knew nothing of the “science of words or letters.”

Through this perhaps too-convenient plot device, Shelley will account for the Creature’s continuing education, intellectual and moral. To this point, though, we might read Shelley’s portrayal of the Creature’s life as an early nineteenth century mashup of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development, and the history of human civilization. The Creature, then, is a symbol of human civilization. Better yet, Frankenstein and the Creature together symbolize the dual and tragic nature of human civilization.

Throughout chapter twelve, the Creature continues to watch and learn from the family that he begins to affectionately refer to as his “friends.” There is an innocence to the Creature’s early observations. He is confused by a sadness that he perceives alongside their amiable and caring manner. Felix, whose name means “happy” in Latin, was “the saddest of the group.” To his simple mind, they had all that he could possibly wish for. They had a warm home, food, and their mutual companionship. But after a considerable period of time passes, he realizes that one source of their sadness is, in fact, their poverty. They were often hungry, and the Creature often witnessed Agatha and Felix go without food so that their father might eat.

Witnessing that act of self-sacrifice awakens the Creature’s conscience. He had till then been stealing from their stores in the night, but now he felt the pain that he was unwittingly causing them and learns to make do with whatever food he can gather from the surrounding woods. Moreover, he is moved to act in kindness toward his friends. Noticing that Felix spent the better part of the day gathering wood, the Creature begins to gather wood in the night and deposit it on their doorstep. He then watches their reaction with pleasure and is glad for the better use that Felix is able to make of his time.

In much of what follows, the Creature becomes increasingly aware of the “godlike science” of language, in both its spoken and then its written form. By observation and imitation, he acquired a rudimentary vocabulary, and he decides that he will not present himself to his friends until he has mastered the ability to speak with words. During this time, the Creature had also become aware, by seeing his reflection in a pool of water, of his physical deformity. An anti-Narcissus, he was convinced “that he was in reality that Monster that I am” and he was filled with feelings of “despondence and mortification.”

But he continues to imagine, foolishly by his own admission, that he might be able to help his benefactors overcome their sadness and that he might even be accepted by them despite his deformity. Reviving a theme in Frankenstein’s narrative, the Creature is also comforted and encouraged by the onset of spring and the reawakening of nature. Spring also brings a new member of the household, whose story reveals the other source of the family’s sadness.

Chapter thirteen introduces a young Arabian woman named Safie. Her arrival cheers the family, especially Felix. And in another just-so plot turn, she does not yet speak French. As she is taught to speak and read by the family, the Creature, observing her lessons from the fortuitous crack in the wall, finally learns to speak fluently and to read. He also gets a survey of human history via Volney’s Ruins of Empires, a radical critique of prevailing governments and religions written in the aftermath of the French Revolution. He learns about the ancient empires of the Middle East, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Christian Empires of the medieval age. He also learns of the discovery of America, and he “wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.” Reflecting on what he had learned, the Creature offers the following meditation that expresses the same tragic duality that he and Frankenstein embody:

“Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another, as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honor that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm. For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of the vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased, and I turned away with disgust and loathing.”

Not only do Frankenstein and the Creature both symbolize and embody this tragic paradox, neither of them fully realize the degree to which this tragic paradox runs through both their beings even though they both express guilt and sorrow for their actions. This blindness is their tragic flaw; it is the blindness induced by their own peculiar forms of hubris. For Frankenstein, it is a hubris born of knowledge; for the Creature, it is the hubris born of a self-righteousness that stems from victimhood. But all of this is not quite obvious yet.

Frankenstein also gets a lesson in political economy via Felix’s lectures to Safie: “I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood.” He realizes that human civilization values nothing so much as the combination of noble lineage and great wealth. One of these two will get one by in life, but, having neither, a person is ordinarily “doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few!”

All of this leads the Creature to lament his pitiable situation. He was uniquely powerless and alone: “no money, no friends, no property” and hideously deformed for good measure. Then we get a remarkably Pascalian comment:

“I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me: I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger thirst, and heat! Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock.”

Our ability to imagine ourselves other than we are is both our greatest virtue and the source of all our misery. Knowledge and desire are both a curse and a blessing. Again, a note of tragic paradox is sounded. The only escape from this condition, this thoroughly human condition, was death–a state, the Creature feared, he did not yet understand.

The more he learned through his observations of the family, a family he came to love, the more miserable he became. He became increasingly aware of all that he did not have and all he could never have. He was without friends and relations, without mother and father. He was alone and plagued by one question: “What was I?”

Reframing Technological Phenomena

I’d not ever heard of Michael Heim until I stumbled upon his 1987 book, Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing, at a used book store a few days ago; but, after reading the Introduction, I’m already impressed by the concerns and methodology that inform his analysis.

Yesterday, I passed along his defense of philosophizing about a technology at the time of its appearance. It is at this juncture, he explains, before the technology has been rendered an ordinary feature of our everyday experience, that it is uniquely available to our thinking. And it is with our ability to think about technology that Heim is chiefly concerned in his Introduction. Without too much additional comment on my part, I want to pass along a handful of excerpts that I found especially valuable.

Here is Heim’s discussion of reclaiming phenomena for philosophy. By this I take it that he means learning to think about cultural phenomena, in this case technology, without leaning on the conventional framings of the problem. It is a matter of learning to see the phenomena for what it is by first unseeing the a variety of habitual perspectives.

“By taking over pregiven problems, an illusion is created that cultural phenomena are understood philosophically, while in fact certain narrow conventional assumptions are made about what the problem is and what alternate solutions to it might be. Philosophy is then confused with policy, and the illumination of phenomena is exchanged for argumentation and debate [....] Reclaiming the phenomena for philosophy today means not assuming that a phenomenon has been perceived philosophically unless it has first been transformed thoroughly by reflection; we cannot presume to perceive a phenomenon philosophically if it is merely taken up ready-made as the subject of public debate. We must first transform it thoroughly by a reflection that is remote from partisan political debate and from the controlled rhetoric of electronic media. Nor can we assume we have grasped a phenomenon by merely locating its relationship to our everyday scientific mastery of the world. The impact of cultural phenomena must be taken up and reshaped by speculative theory.”

At one point, Heim offered some rather prescient anticipations of the future of writing and computer technology:

“Writing will increasingly be freed from the constraints of paper-print technology; texts will be stored electronically, and vast amounts of information, including further texts, will be accessible immediately below the electronic surface of a piece of writing. The electronically expanding text will no longer be constrained by paper as the telephone and the microcomputer become more intimately conjoined and even begin to merge. The optical character reader will scan and digitize hard-copy printed texts; the entire tradition of books will be converted into information on disk files that can be accessed instantly by computers. By connecting a small computer to a phone, a professional will be able to read ‘books’ whose footnotes can be expanded into further ‘books’ which in turn open out onto a vast sea of data bases systemizing all of human cognition. The networking of written language will erode the line between private and public writings.”

And a little later on, Heim discusses the manner in which we ordinarily (fail to) apprehend the technologies we rely on to make our way in the world:

“We denizens of the late twentieth century are seldom aware of our being embedded in systematic mechanisms of survival. The instruments providing us with technological power seldom appear directly as we carry out the personal tasks of daily life. Quotidian survival brings us not so much to fear autonomous technological systems as to feel a need to acquire and use them. During most of our lives our tools are not problematic–save that we might at a particular point feel need for or lack of a particular technical solution to solve a specific human problem. Having become part of our daily needs, technological systems seem transparent, opening up a world where we can do more, see more, and achieve more.

Yet on occasion we do transcend this immersion in the technical systems of daily life. When a technological system threatens our physical life or threatens the conditions of planetary life, we then turn to regard the potential agents of harm or hazard. We begin to sense that the mechanisms which previously provided, innocently as it were, the conditions of survival are in fact quasi-autonomous mechanisms possessing their own agency, an agency that can drift from its provenance in human meanings and intentions.”

In these last two excerpts, Heim describes two polarities that tend to frame our thinking about technology.

“In a position above the present, we glimpse hopefully into the future and glance longingly at the past. We see how the world has been transformed by our creative inventions, sensing–more suspecting than certain–that it is we who are changed by the things we make. The ambivalence is resolved when we revert to one or another of two simplistic attitudes: enthusiastic depiction of technological progress or wholesale distress about the effects of a mythical technology.”

And,

“Our relationship to technological innovations tends to be so close that we either identify totally with the new extensions of ourselves–and then remain without the concepts and terms for noticing what we risk in our adaption to a technology–or we react so suspiciously toward the technology that we are later engulfed by the changes without having developed critical countermeasures by which to compensate for the subsequent losses in the life of the psyche.”

Heim practices what he preaches. His book is divided into three major sections: Approaching the Phenomenon, Describing the Phenomenon, and Evaluating the Phenomenon. The three chapters of the first section are “designed to gain some distance,” to shake loose the ready-made assumptions so as to clearly perceive the technological phenomenon in question. And this he does by framing word processing within longstanding trajectories of historical and philosophical of inquiry. Only then can the work of description and analysis begin. Finally, this analysis grounds our evaluations. That, it seems, to me is a useful model for our thinking about technology.

(P.S. Frankenstein blogging should resume tomorrow.)

The Best Time to Take the Measure of a New Technology

In defense of brick and mortar bookstores, particularly used book stores, advocates frequently appeal to the virtue of serendipity and the pleasure of an unexpected discovery. You may know what you’re looking for, but you never know what you might find. Ostensibly, recommendation algorithms serve the same function in online contexts, but the effect is rather the opposite of serendipity and the discoveries are always expected.

Take, for instance, this book I stumbled on at a local used book store: Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing by Michael Heim. The book is currently #3,577,358 in Amazon’s Bestsellers Ranking, and it has been bought so infrequently that no other book is linked to it. My chances of ever finding this book were vanishingly small, but on Amazon they were slimmer still.

I’m quite glad, though, that Electric Language did cross my path. Heim’s book is a remarkably rich meditation on the meaning of word processing, something we now take for granted and do not think about at all. Heim wrote his book in 1987. The article in which he first explored the topic appeared in 1984. In other words, Heim was contemplating word processing while the practice was still relatively new. Heim imagines that some might object that it was still too early to take the measure of word processing. Heim’s rejoinder is worth quoting at length:

“Yet it is precisely this point in time that causes us to become philosophical. For it is at the moment of such transitions that the past becomes clear as a past, as obsolescent, and the future becomes clear as destiny, a challenge of the unknown. A philosophical study of digital writing made five or ten years from now would be better than one written now in the sense of being more comprehensive, more fully certain in its grasp of the new writing. At the same time, however, the felt contrast with the older writing technology would have become faded by the gradually increasing distance from typewritten and mechanical writing. Like our involvement with the automobile, that with processing texts will grow in transparency–until it becomes a condition of our daily life, taken for granted.

But what is granted to us in each epoch was at one time a beginning, a start, a change that was startling. Though the conditions of daily living do become transparent, they still draw upon our energies and upon the time of our lives; they soon become necessary conditions and come to structure our lives. It is incumbent on us then to grow philosophical while we can still be startled, for philosophy, if Aristotle can be trusted, begins in wonder, and, as Heraclitus suggests, ‘One should not act or speak as if asleep.’”

It is when a technology is not yet taken for granted that it is available to thought. It is only when a living memory of the “felt contrast” remains that the significance of the new technology is truly evident. Counterintuitive conclusions, perhaps, but I think he’s right. There’s a way of understanding a new technology that is available only to those who live through its appearance and adoption, and who know, first hand, what it displaced. As I’ve written before, this explains, in part, why it is so tempting to view critics of new technologies as Chicken Littles:

One of the recurring rhetorical tropes that I’ve listed as a Borg Complex symptom is that of noting that every new technology elicits criticism and evokes fear, society always survives the so-called moral panic or techno-panic, and thus concluding, QED, that those critiques and fears, including those being presently expressed, are always misguided and overblown. It’s a pattern of thought I’ve complained about more than once. In fact, it features as the tenth of myunsolicited points of advice to tech writers.

Now, while it is true, as Adam Thierer has noted here, that we should try to understand how societies and individuals have come to cope with or otherwise integrate new technologies, it is not the case that such negotiated settlements are always unalloyed goods for society or for individuals. But this line of argument is compelling to the degree that living memory of what has been displaced has been lost. I may know at an intellectual level what has been lost, because I read about it in a book for example, but it is another thing altogether to have felt that loss. We move on, in other words, because we forget the losses, or, more to the point, because we never knew or experienced the losses for ourselves–they were always someone else’s problem.

Heim wrote Electric Language on a portable Tandy 100.

Heim wrote Electric Language on a portable Tandy 100.