What Emerson Knew About Google

As a rule, I don’t think of myself as an Emersonian–rather the opposite, in fact. But while I usually find myself arguing with Emerson as I read him, I find it a profitable argument to join and Emerson’s voice a spirited counterpoint to my own intellectual tendencies. That said, here’s a passage from “Self-Reliance” that jumped out at me today:

“The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe, the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; [....]“

The Internet, of course, is our almanac.

Friday Night Links

Here’s another round of items for your consideration.

At Balkinization, Frank Pasquale is interviewed about his forthcoming book, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information.

Mike Bulajewski offers a characteristically insightful and well-written review of the movie Her. And while at his site, I was reminded of his essay on civility from late last year. In light of the recent discussion about civility and its uses, I’d encourage you to read it.

At the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten reflects on experience and memory in the age of GoPro.

In the LARB, Nick Carr has a sharp piece on Facebook’s social experiments early this year.

At Wired, Patrick Lin looks at robot cars with adjustable ethics settings and, at The Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh asks, “Can Robots Be Too Nice?”

And lastly, Evan Selinger considers one critical review Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage: Automation and Us and takes a moment to explore some of the fallacies deployed against critics of technology.


Are Human Enhancement and AI Incompatible?

A few days ago, in a post featuring a series of links to stories about new and emerging technologies, I included a link to a review of Nick Bostrom’s new book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Not long afterwards, I came across an essay adapted from Bostrom’s book on Slate’s “Future Tense” blog. The excerpt is given the cheerfully straightforward title, “You Should Be Terrified of Super Intelligent Machines.”

I’m not sure that Bostrom himself would put quite like that. I’ve long thought of Bostrom as one of the more enthusiastic proponents of a posthumanist vision of the future. Admittedly, I’ve not read a great deal of his work (including this latest book). I first came across Bostrom’s name in Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism?, which led me to Bostrom’s article, “A History of Transhumanist Thought.”

For his part, Wolfe sought to articulate a more persistently posthumanist vision for posthumanism, one which dispensed with humanist assumptions about human nature altogether. In Wolfe’s view, Bostrom was guilty of building his transhumanist vision on a thoroughly humanist understanding of the human being. The humanism in view here, it’s worth clarifying, is that which we ordinarily associate with the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, one which highlights autonomous individuality, agency, and rationality. It is also one which assumes a Platonic or Cartesian mind/body dualism. Wolfe, like N. Katherine Hayles before him, finds this to be misguided and misleading, but I digress.

Whether Bostrom would’ve chosen such an alarmist title or not, his piece does urge us to lay aside the facile assumption that super-intelligent machines will be super-intelligent in a predictably human way. This is an anthropomorphizing fallacy. Consequently, we should consider the possibility that super-intelligent machines will pursue goals that may, as an unintended side-effect, lead to human extinction. I suspect that in the later parts of his book, Bostrom might have a few suggestions about how we might escape such a fate. I also suspect that none of these suggestions include the prospect of halting or limiting the work being done to create super-intelligent machines. In fact, judging from the chapter titles and sub-titles, it seems that the answer Bostrom advocates involves figuring out how to instill appropriate values in super-intelligent machines. This brings us back to the line of criticism articulated by Wolfe and Hayles: the traditionally humanist project of rational control and mastery is still the underlying reality.

It does seem reasonable for Bostrom, who is quite enthusiastic about the possibilities of human enhancement, to be a bit wary about the creation of super-intelligent machines. It would be unfortunate indeed if, having finally figured out how to download our consciousness or perfect a cyborg platform for it, a clever machine of our making later came around, pursuing some utterly trivial goal, and decided, without a hint of malice, that it needed to eradicate these post-human humans as a step toward the fulfillment of its task. Unfortunate, and nihilistically comic.

It is interesting to consider that these two goals we rather blithely pursue–human enhancement and artificial intelligence–may ultimately be incompatible. Of course, that is a speculative consideration, and, to some degree, so is the prospect of ever achieving either of those two goals, at least as their most ardent proponents envision their fulfillment. But let us consider it for just a moment anyway for what it might tell us about some contemporary versions of the posthumanist hope.

Years ago, C.S. Lewis famously warned that the human pursuit of mastery over Nature would eventually amount to the human pursuit of mastery over Humanity, and what this would really mean is the mastery of some humans over others. This argument is all the more compelling now, some 70 or so years after Lewis made it in The Abolition of Man. It would seem, though, that an updated version of that argument would need to include the further possibility that the tools we develop to gain mastery over nature and then humanity might finally destroy us, whatever form the “us” at that unforeseeable juncture happens to take. Perhaps this is the tacit anxiety animating Bostrom’s new work.

And this brings us back, once again, to the kind of humanism at the heart of posthumanism. The posthumanist vision that banks on some sort of eternal consciousness–the same posthumanist vision that leads Ray Kurzweil to take 150 vitamins a day–that posthumanist vision is still the vision of someone who intends to live forever in some clearly self-identifiable form. It is, in this respect, a thoroughly Western religious project insofar as it envisions and longs for the immortality of the individuated self. We might even go so far as to call it, in an obviously provocative move, a Christian heresy.

Finally, our potentially incompatible technical aspirations reveal something of the irrationality, or a-rationality if you prefer, at the heart of our most rational project. Technology and technical systems assume rationality in their construction and their operation. Thinking about their potential risks and trying to prevent and mitigate them is also a supremely rational undertaking. But at the heart of all of this rational work there is a colossal unspoken absence: there is a black hole of knowledge that, beginning with the simple fact of our inability to foresee the full ramifications of anything that we do or make, subsequently sucks into its darkness our ability to expertly anticipate and plan and manage with anything like the confident certainty we project.

It is one thing to live with this relative risk and uncertainty when we are talking about simple tools and machines (hammers, bicycles, etc.). It is another thing when we are talking about complex technical systems (automotive transportation, power grids, etc.). It is altogether something else when we are talking about technical systems that may fundamentally alter our humanity or else eventuate in its annihilation. The fact that we don’t even know how seriously to take these potential threats, that we cannot comfortably distinguish between what is still science fiction and what will, in fact, materialize in our lifetimes, that’s a symptom of the problem, too.

I keep coming back to the realization that our thinking about technology is often inadequate or ineffectual because it is starting from the wrong place; or, to put it another way, it is already proceeding from assumptions grounded in the dynamics of technology and technical systems, so it bends back toward the technological solution. If we already tacitly value efficiency, for example, if efficiency is already an assumed good that no longer needs to be argued for, then we will tend to pursue it by whatever possible means under all possible circumstances. Whenever new technologies appear, we will judge them in light of this governing preference for efficiency. If the new technology affords us a more efficient way of doing something, we will tend to embrace it.

But the question remains, why is efficiency a value that is so pervasively taken for granted? If the answer seems commonsensical, then, I’d humbly suggest that we need to examine it all the more critically. Perhaps we will find that we value efficiency because this virtue native to the working of technical and instrumental systems has spilled over into what had previously been non-technical and non-instrumental realms of human experience. Our thinking is thus already shaped (to put it in the most neutral way possible) by the very technical systems we are trying to think about.

This is but one example of the dynamic. Our ability to think clearly about technology will depend in large measure on our ability to extricate our thinking from the criteria and logic native to technological systems. This is, I fully realize, a difficult task. I would never claim that I’ve achieved this clarity of thought myself, but I do believe that our thinking about technology depends on it.

There’s a lot more to be said, but I’ll leave it there for now. Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.

Technology in the Classroom

I want to briefly draw your attention to a series of related posts about technology in the classroom, beginning with Clay Shirky’s recent post explaining his decision to have students put their wired digital devices away during class. Let me say that again: Clay Shirky has decided to ban lap tops from his classroom. Clay Shirky has long been one of the Internet’s leading advocates and cheerleader’s, so this is a pretty telling indication of the scope of the problem.

I particularly appreciated the way Shirky focused on what we might call the ecosystem of the classroom. The problem is not simply that connected devices distract the student who uses them and hampers their ability to learn:

“Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK, and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers. In an environment like this, students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that structure is disproportionately provided by the professor, especially during the first weeks of class.”

I came across Shirky’s post via Nick Carr, who also considers a handful of studies that appear to support the decision to create a relatively low-tech classroom environment. I recommend you click through to read the whole thing.

If you’re thinking that this is a rather retrograde, reactionary move to make, then I’d suggest taking a quick look at Alan Jacob’s brief comments on the matter.

You might also want to ask yourself why the late Steve Jobs; Chris Anderson, the former editor at Wired and CEO of a robotics company; Evan Williams, the founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium; and a host of other tech-industry heavyweights deploy seemingly draconian rules for how their own children relate to digital devices and the Internet. Here’s Anderson: “My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules.”

Perhaps they are on to something, albeit in a “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” sort of way. Nick Bilton has the story here.


Okay, and now a quick administrative note. Rather than create a separate entry for this, I thought it best just to raise the matter at the tail end of this shorter post. Depending on how you ordinarily get to this site, you may have noticed that the feed for this blog now only gives you a snippet view and asks you to click through to read the whole.

I initially made this change for rather self-serving reasons related to the architecture of WordPress, and it was also going to be a temporary change. However, I realized that this change resolved a couple of frustrations I’d had for awhile.

The first of these centered on my mildly obsessive nature when it came to editing and revising. Invariably, regardless of what care I took before publishing, posts would get out with at least one or two typos, inelegant phrases, etc. When I catch them later, I fix them, but those who get their posts via email never got the corrections. If you have to click over to read the whole, however, you would always see the latest, cleanest version. Relatedly, I sometimes find it preferable to update a post with some related information or new links rather than create a new post (e.g.). It would be unlikely that email subscribers would ever see those updates unless they were clicking to the site for the most updated version of the post.

Consequently, I’m considering keeping the snippet feed. I do realize, though, that this might be mildly annoying, involving as it does an extra click or two. So, my question to you is this: do you care? I have a small but dedicated readership, and I’d hate to make a change that might ultimately discourage you from continuing to read. If you have any thoughts on the matter, feel free to share in the comments below or via email.

Also, I’ve been quite negligent about replying to comments of late. When I get a chance to devote some time to this blog, which is not often, I’m opting to write instead. I really appreciate the comments, though, and I’ll do my best to interact as time allows.

“Civility” Reconsidered

A few days ago, I wrote about why online communication so often turns vile and toxic. I did not, however, provide any examples of the problem; rather, I relied on a series of posts in which others had lodged their own complaints and provided illustrative instances of Internet awfulness. Basically, I took it for granted that readers would already know what I had in mind, and, of course, that’s always a hazardous assumption to make. I was, at the time, more interested in identifying the sources of the problem, than in clearly delineating the problem.

As I’ve thought about that post over the last couple of days, I’ve found myself a bit dissatisfied with what I had written. I couldn’t quite put my finger the problem, but a couple of recent posts, by Freddie deBoer and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig respectively, have helped me think more clearly about the problem. DeBoer and Bruenig both vigorously criticized the rhetoric of civility. This initially struck me as a rather odd tact to take; after all, I’d just written myself about the lack of civility in public debate, particularly as it unfolds online. But, from a different angle, I’d already half-formulated my own critique of the concept of civility. I’ll start with that fledgling critique and then move on to the more developed concerns articulated by de Boer and Bruenig.

As I thought about my post, specifically its vagueness about the exact nature of the problem I was addressing, I wondered if I’d not inadvertently negated the possibility of vigorous, impassioned exchanges–exchanges which might verge on the uncivil, or at least seem to. I remembered, then, that I’d written about this very thing nearly three years ago in a post about civility and friendship occasioned by the passing of Christopher Hitchens. Think what you will of Hitchens, I wasn’t a great fan myself, but the man knew how to turn an acerbic phrase. In any event, I went on to make the following (slightly edited) observations about civility.

To some, the problems with our current public and political discourse stem from a lack of civility. Yet, this depends on what we might mean by civility. A friend recently suggested that the inverse is probably true. We are too civil to speak forthrightly and honestly, it is all obfuscation. In which case, it is not civility that is the problem, but civility’s unseemly counterfeits — slimy flattery, ingratiation, or cowardice. In any case, compared with previous ages, our political discourse is, in fact, remarkably tame.

More to the point, I would say, what we have is not so much a failure of civility as it is a failure of eloquence, made all the worse for the narcissism that frequently attends it. Few, I presume, would mind a little incivility so long as it was to the point and artfully delivered. Hitchens was the master of this sort of artfully acerbic incivility, and he deployed it to great effect. Nothing of the sort characterizes our political discourse. We are plagued instead with the shallow and inelegant shouting matches of cable news programs or that manner of speaking without saying anything mastered by politicians.

I closed, riffing on Aristotle, by suggesting that when people are friends they have no need of civility. In a subsequent comment on the post, I went on to clarify that claim as follows:

Aristotle’s claim is that when people are friends they have no need of justice. I read this along the same lines as C. S. Lewis’ observation that humility makes modesty unnecessary. One is a posture that becomes unnecessary when the true virtue is present. I realize a lot of this comes down to how we are defining terms, but what I was trying to capture is the sense that among friends I have to worry less about “civility” if civility is understood as a kind of artificial restraint. I rely instead on the bonds of friendship which allow for greater freedom of expression and even a little well placed humor or “incivility.”

I’d still stand by that, although, again, much of it hangs on how civility is defined.

What’s more, it struck me that, given my own standards of what is right and admirable, I’d better leave some room for the flipping of tables and rather pointed criticisms of personal character.

Taking all of this together, then, it would seem best to say that, first, civility can be a fuzzy category, and, secondly, that civility is not the only or final word in human communication. Indeed, in some situations, demands for civility may be downright perverse.

This is where deBoer and Bruenig come in. DeBoer’s post was occasioned by a heated controversy in the academic world, one, I’m afraid, I have simply not kept up with. Bruenig’s post, cited by deBoer, appears to have been inspired by her own recent experience with online debates. Both of them remind us that calls for civility sometimes mask and perpetuate asymmetrical relations of power. To put that less clinically, calls for civility sometimes allow the corrupt and powerful to obscure their corruption and retain their power.

For instance, deBoer closes his post with the following summation: “That’s what civility is, in real life: the powerful telling us that we must speak to them with deference and respect, while they are under no similar responsibility to us.”

Bruenig’s thoughts are more extensive and organized with almost scholastic clarity, so it is harder to select a shorter representative sample. That said, here is one passage for consideration: “If you don’t know how to ‘talk the talk’, if you’ve grown up speaking in slang and playing the dozens and you’re not really clear on the delicacies of civility, you’re going to be ruled out of the discourse at every turn. Not for any real reason of course, but because you can’t speak the way upper class parlor sitters do.”

And here is the passage that deBoer cited in his own post:

“It’s not an accident that civility forces you to adopt the framework it is premised upon — the one which preferences no values, which automatically considers all arguments potentially equal in merit, the one which supposes the particular aesthetics of the afternoon salon produce the richest debates, and that the richness of a debate is really its goal. It’s not an accident because — as even people who argue for civility will tell you — civility is about, at some level, establishing common ground. Supposedly this works the arguers to a mutually satisfactory resolution.

But there simply isn’t always common ground, and to be artificially placed on common ground is necessarily to lose some of the ground you were holding. So if you are arguing, for instance, that poor people are being mistreated, should be angry about it, and should lobby for change — civility will force you to give up the ‘angry’ part, or at least to hide it. But that was part of your ground! Now you’ve been muzzled.”

I’m not sure I would’ve said that civility is merely about establishing common ground, but I think Bruenig makes a sensible point here. She forced me to think more carefully about what I am asking for when I make my pleas for civility or lament the lack of it.

Indeed, I am at some level simply asking for people to employ the sort of rhetoric with which I am most comfortable. I prefer, as she puts it, “the aesthetics of the afternoon salon.” I’d like to think, of course, that I have good reasons for this and that it is not merely a matter of self-serving preference. But, the rhetoric of civility, insofar as it presumes a neutral common ground, can be deceptive. We might think of it as the communitarian critics of the liberal democratic project think of the modern secular state’s pretensions of neutrality toward competing visions of the good life.

In fact, by assuming a posture of ostensible neutrality, the liberal democratic state already smuggles in certain substantive judgements. In cases of morality, for example, the enforcement of neutrality is equitable only on the assumption that the matter is, finally, not one of moral consequence. The deck is stacked against those who would argue otherwise, and, coming back to the point at hand, it is easy to see how calls for civility may analogously stifle the voices of those who are morally outraged. From this view then, civility is, like certain calls for tolerance, the thin gruel we’re left with when we’ve been stripped of a more robust and sustaining moral grammar.

I’m not sure, however, that I want to abandon the pursuit of all that is wrapped up with the concept of civility. Perhaps we simply need a better, richer grammar of virtuous discourse. May be we do better to speak of humane discourse, rather than civil discourse. When, for instance, we condemn the death of innocents, it may not be very humane at all to speak with civility as some might define it. To speak of humane discourse also gestures toward an acknowledgement of the fullness of our humanity. We are not, as certain modern version of the self have it, merely thinking things. We are feeling being as well, and a well-ordered soul is one which not only thinks clearly about the world, but one whose whole being responds appropriately to the world it experiences. We should, in other words, be revolted by what is revolting, we should be enraged by pervasive injustice, and so on. Calls for civility may only be a way of hamstringing legitimate human responses to the very broken world we inhabit.

But, aye, there’s the rub. As I write that, I immediately realize that if only we could all agree on what is revolting and unjust, we wouldn’t have a problem adjudicating the proper place of civility rightly understood. I find myself coming back to one of my complaints in last week’s post. Part of our problem, as I see it, is that we are too damn cocksure about the moral uprightness of our own positions. But, again, perhaps civility is the wrong antidote to prescribe. Humility is what is needed, and humility is at once a more challenging and more effective cure. Unlike bare civility which may only deal with the surface, humility goes to the root.

All in all, then, even as I’ve been writing this post, I’ve talked myself into deeper agreement with Breunig. I encourage you to read all of what she has to say (as well as her follow-up post). I’ll leave you with her own closing remarks, which suggest that we might do well to reframe our civility talk as a matter of rightly ordered love instead.

“None of this is to argue for being cruel, vulgar, intentionally insulting, etc. But there’s a peculiar tyranny of ‘civility’, and it’s to argue that the good of civility should be judged according to the particular conditions of argument, and should always be balanced against the stakes of the actual content of the debate. We should all want to be the kind of person who is charitable, merciful, quick to forgive and quick to ask forgiveness; these are all better virtues than ‘civility’ anyway, which is by its own admission little more than a veneer of these genuine virtues. But we should also see that love is at times bracing, especially when it is operating in defense, and that a little rupture and agonism are sometimes necessary for an honest reconciliation.”

I take that back. I think I’ll leave you, instead, with W.H. Auden, who, as Richard Wilbur put it, “sustained the civil tongue / In a scattering time.” Here is Auden’s deceptively simple plea to which we should all frequently return: “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”


UPDATE: Compare Alan Jacobs’ take on this whole “civility” thing. Basically, he thought Bruenig and deBoer went in the wrong direction with their mostly accurate assessment of the problem.