The Wonder Of What We Are

I recently caught a link to a brief video showing a robotic hand manipulating a cube. Here is a longer video from which the short clip was taken, and here is the article describing the technology that imbued this robotic hand with its “remarkable new dexterity.” MIT’s Technology Review tweeted a link with this short comment: “This robot spent the equivalent of a hundred years learning how to manipulate a cube in its hand.”

Watching the robotic hand turn the cube this way and that, I was reminded of those first few months of a child’s life when they, too, learn how to use their hands. I remembered how absurdly proud I felt as a new father watching my baby achieve her fine motor skill milestones. I’m not sure who was more delighted when, after several failed attempts, she finally picked up her first puff and successfully brought it to her mouth.

This, in turn, elicited a string of loosely related reflections.

I imagined the unlikely possibility that one unintended consequence of these emerging technologies might be renewed wonder at the marvel that is the human being.

After all, the most sophisticated tools we are currently capable of fashioning are only haltingly developing the basic motor skills that come naturally to a six-month-old child. And, of course, we have not even touched on the acquisition of language, the capacity for abstract thought, the mystery of consciousness, etc. We’re just talking about turning a small cube about.

It seemed, then, that somewhere along the way our wonder at what we can make appears to have displaced our wonder at what we are.

Ultimately, I don’t think I want to oppose these two realities. Part of the wonder of what we are is, indeed, that we are the sort of creatures who create technological marvels.

Perhaps there’s some sort of Aristotelian mean at which we ought to aim. It seems, at least, that if we marvel only at what we can make and not also at what we are, we set off on a path that leads ultimately toward misanthropic post-humanist fantasies.

Or, as Arendt warned, we would become “the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.”

It is odd that there is an impulse of sorts to create some of these marvels in our own image as it were, or that we seek to replicate not only our own capacities but even our physiology.

Yet, it is precisely this that also makes us anxious, fearful that we will be displaced or uncertain about our status in the great chain of being, to borrow an old formulation.

But our anxieties tend to be misplaced. More often than not, the real danger is not that our machines will eclipse us but that we will conform ourselves to the pattern of our machines.

In this way we are entranced by the work of our hands. It is an odd spin on the myth of Narcissus. We are captivated not by our physical appearance but by our ingenuity, by how we are reflected in our tools.

But this reflection is unfaithful, or, better, it is incomplete. It veils the fullness of the human person. It reduces our complexity. And perhaps in this way it reinforces the tendency to marvel only at what we can make by obscuring the full reality of what we are.

This full reality ultimately escapes our own (self-)understanding, which may explain why it is so tempting to traffic in truncated visions of the self. This creative self that has come to know so much of the world, principally through the tools it has fashioned, remains a mystery to itself.

We could do worse, then, than to wonder again at what we are:  the strangest phenomenon in the cosmos, as Walker Percy was fond of saying.


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Evan Selinger on Tech Criticism

Folks, just another PSA for you all.

CSET will be hosting a virtual talk delivered by Evan Selinger this Friday evening, May 24th. If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ll know that I think highly of Selinger’s work. He is a philsopher working especially in the field of philosophy of technology, who has written widely, for both popular and academic audiences, on matters of technology, ethics, and society.

The talk will begin at 7PM. If you happen to live in the Pittsburgh area, you can join a group of us who will meet in person for the talk. If you are not, you can still join in virtually.

You can find all the details you need here. Shoot me an email if you have any questions.

Symposium on Social Media

Just a quick post this morning to let you know about The New Atlantis’s symposium on digital discourse: The Ruin of the Digital Town Square.

I contributed a piece to the discussion titled, “The Inescapable Town Square.” That piece and all the others are available as of today. Take a look at the other entries, including pieces from James Poulos, Nolen Gertz, and Caitrin Keiper, among others.

Here’s an excerpt from my essay, which drew on the work of Walter Ong:

Consider, for example, the attention Ong drew to the mnemonic consequences of new media. Among the most important features of writing was that it allowed for an unprecedented degree of memory offloading. Ong invites us to “try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything.” In a culture without writing, “You know what you can recall.” Consequently, oral societies are inherently conservative, structured by rituals of remembrance intended to preserve their knowledge and their history. Individual identity, which to a large extent rests on memory, is subordinated to the more important work of keeping the memory of the community alive.

Writing relieves societies of this imperative to remember, and thereby also weakens the conservative impulse. Additionally, as writing and its tools become accessible to large parts of a society, individual identity flourishes, both because writing releases the individual from the strong focus on collective oral memory, and because reading and writing, especially after the invention of print, tend to be solitary and interiorizing activities.

Digital technology scrambles these earlier dynamics. On the one hand, digital media dramatically expand our capacity to document and store information. Externalized memory hypertrophies as we rely ever more on easily accessible and searchable archives. You carry ten thousand images in your pocket and you can search them by date, place, or face. The library is in your pocket, too, and it is in many respects better stocked than any local library you were likely to visit in the pre-digital age.

On the other hand, the structure of our digital platforms also recalls a feature of oral culture: the evanescence of the word. In oral cultures, the spoken word is passing away just as it is coming into being; it cannot be locked down or frozen. As Ong notes, the spoken word is not a thing but an event; it is not static but acts on the world at the moment it is spoken. Literate individuals, by contrast, can barely help thinking of a word as anything other than its static alphabetic representation. Our digital media timelines, like oral communication, privilege the fleeting present; what we document — words, sounds, images, video — quickly recedes into the past. Indeed, even our digital images no longer primarily serve documentary purposes, but instead are a form of instant and transient communication. This is a reality that Evan Spiegel, co-creator of Snapchat, noted in 2016: “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”

Under these conditions, the function of externalized memory shifts. It is no longer for recording the past or preserving knowledge, but now for acting in the present. Memory loses its context and story. It neither integrates a society, as the rituals of collective remembering in oral societies did, nor does it sustain an individual’s experience of the self, as writing did in the age of print. Memory, much of it highly personal, is “there,” but without the person necessarily remembering. This allows memory to become weaponized. It exists in massive and accessible databases, ready to be resurfaced, without context and without warning, in a newly contentious field of public discourse.

Read the rest.

The Myth of Convenience

I once suggested that the four horsemen of the digital apocalypse will be called Convenience, Security, Innovation, and Lulz. These were the values, so to speak, driving the production and enthusiastic adoption of digital technologies regardless of their more dubious qualities.

I was reminded of the line while reading Colin Horgan’s recent piece, “The Tyranny of Convenience.” Horgan rightly highlights the degree to which the value of convenience drives our choices and informs our trade-offs.

“In the ongoing and growing opposition to the seemingly dystopian world technology companies are building, convenience is often overlooked,” Horgan observes. “But it’s convenience, and the way convenience is currently created by tech companies and accepted by most of us, that is key to why we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.”

Not unlike Kara Swisher in a piece from a few weeks ago, Horgan does not absolve us of responsibility for the emerging digital dystopia. Which is not to say, I hasten to add, that tech companies and structural factors play no role. That goes without saying, but, you know, I’ll say it anyway. 

I would certainly not claim that the playing field on which we make our choices about technology is always level or fair; nonetheless,  it seems to me that we have more agency than we are sometimes given credit for, which, of course, entails a measure of responsibility. Indeed, the idea that we are basically helpless in the face of some vast and inscrutable techno-corporate machinery undermines the critical reflection and action that may be required of us.

There’s a line from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life that has always stuck with me ever since I first encountered it:  “it is always good to remind ourselves that we mustn’t take people for fools.”

But if we are not fools, by and large, and we are making choices, albeit sometimes against a stacked deck, how is it that, in Horgan’s apt formulation, we find ourselves living “in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.” (Granted: “we all chose” is in need of qualification.)

“[C]onvenience is a value, and one we hold personally,” Horgan concludes. “Ultimately, this is why it keeps winning, outweighing the more abstract ideas like privacy, democracy, or equality, all of which remain merely issues for most of us.” “Convenience,” he adds, “doesn’t simply supersede privacy or democracy or equality in many of our lives. It might also destroy them.” But this, too, requires a measure of explanation.

The Self-defeating Value of Convenience

Horgan’s piece recalled to mind Thomas Tierney’s The Value of Convenience:  A Genealogy of Technical Culture. Tierney’s book is over 25 years old now, but it remains a useful exploration of the value of convenience and its role in shaping our technological milieu. His argument draws on an eclectic set of sources and ranges over the history of technology, political theory, philosophy, and the history of religion.

Tierney’s work supports Horgan’s claim that convenience is an often overlooked factor shaping our technological culture, but he also tries to understand why this might be the case. What exactly is the nature of the convenience we prize so highly, and why do we find it so valuable? Perhaps it seems unnecessary to ask such questions, as if the value of convenience were self-evident. But the questions most of us don’t think to ask are often the most important ones we could ask. When we encounter an unasked question we have also found an entry point into the network of assumptions and values that structure our thinking but go largely unnoticed.

Tierney explains early on that there are two basic questions he is asking: “First, what is the value of technology to modern individuals? And second, why do they hold this value in such high esteem that, even when faced with technological dangers and dilemmas, they hope for solutions that will enable them to maintain and develop technical culture?”

Nietzsche looms large in Tierney’s analysis, and he introduces the primary focus of the book with a passage from Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“I go among this people and keep my eyes open:  they have become smaller and are becoming ever smaller:  and their doctrine of happiness and virtue is the cause.

For they are modest even in virtue—for they want ease. But only a modest virtue is compatible with ease.”

For “etymological reasons,” Tierney chooses to call this desire for ease convenience. “The value of technology in modernity,” he will argue, “is centered on technology’s ability to provide convenience.” He’s quick to add, though, that he is not interested in lamenting the smallness or mediocrity of modern individuals and their virtues. Rather, he seeks “to throw some light on, and thereby loosen, the hold which technology has on modernity. The desire for convenience seems to be an integral part of that hold—that is, an integral part of the modern self.”

Tierney is also not interested in offering a singular and definitive account of technological culture. Early on, he makes clear that the nature of technological culture is such that it requires multiple perspectives and lines of analysis, and even then it will likely elude any effort to identify its essence.

Regarding the nature of convenience, Tierney sees in the modern value a reimagining of the body’s needs as limits to be overcome. “The distinction I would like to make between ancient and modern necessity,” Tierney writes, “is that ancient necessity was primarily concerned with satisfying the demands of the body, while modern necessity is largely focused on overcoming the limits which are imposed by the body …. And by the limits of the body, I mean certain features of embodiment which are perceived as inconveniences, obstacles, or annoyances.”

Following a discussion of necessity in the context of the ancient Greek household, Tierney insists that modern necessity, just as much as ancient necessity, “is based upon the body.” However, modern attitudes towards the body differ from those of the ancient Greeks: “While the Greeks thought that the satisfaction of bodily demands required careful attention and planning throughout the household, modernity treats the body instead as the source of limits and barriers imposed upon persons. What these limits require is not planning and attention, but the consumption of various technological devices that allow people to avoid or overcome such limits.”

At points citing the work of Paul Virilio, Tierney adds a critical temporal dimension to this distinction. The demands of the body are seen “as inconveniences in that they limit or interfere with the use of time.” Technology is valuable precisely as it appears to mitigate these inconveniences. “Time-saving,” as is well known, has long been a selling point for modern household technologies.

“The need for speed,” Tierney continues, “both in conveyance and in people’s ability to satisfy the demands of the body, is a hallmark of modern necessity.” But this is a paradoxical desire: “Unlike purely spatial limits, as soon as a speed limit is overcome, another limit is simultaneously established. The need to do things and get places as quickly as possible is a need that can never be satisfied. Every advance imposes a new obstacle and creates the need for a more refined or a new form of technology.”

It brings to mind a line from Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic: “The ‘end’ or ‘goal’ is to keep going. Americans, as F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded, believe in the green light.” The green light, constant motion in whatever direction, acceleration—these are, of course, no ‘ends’ at all. They are what you have left when you have lost sight of any true ends. It is fruitless to save time if you don’t know why exactly your are saving it for.

There’s something rather pernicious about this. It seems clear that despite the continual adoption of technologies that promise to save time or make things more convenient, we do not, in fact, feel as if we have more time at all. There are a number of factors that may explain this dynamic. As Neil Postman noted around the same time that Tierney was writing his book, the “winners” in the technological society are wont to tell the “losers” that “their lives will be conducted more efficiently,” which is to say more conveniently. “But discreetly,” he quickly adds, “they neglect to say from whose point of view the efficiency is warranted or what might be its costs.” Tierney himself admits that what he has to say is likely to be met “with a degree of self-preserving … denial” because he will argue that “a certain value is not freely chosen by individuals, but is demanded by various facets of the technological order of modernity.” Which is why, as Horgan put it, “we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.”

Convenience, Asceticism, and Death

Tierney notes that others have focused on the domination of nature as the guiding value of modern technology. However, he makes a useful distinction between the value that animates the producers of technology and the value that animates the consumers of technology. The domination of nature, according to Tierney, “has been the value which guides the cutting edge of technology; it is the value pursued by the leaders of technological progress, the scientists and technicians.” Convenience, however, “is the value of the masses, of those who consume the products of technical culture.”

Admittedly, there is something about “the domination of nature” that seems somewhat archaic or passé. One doesn’t imagine Bill Gates or Jack Dorsey, say, waking in the morning, taking in a whiff of the morning air, and declaring, “I love the smell of Francis Bacon in the morning!”

However, there are a couple of interesting paths to take from here. One is presented to us by the evergreen mid-twentieth observation by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man that “what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” If you seek to conquer nature, you will eventually run into the realization that humanity is just another part of nature and, thus, the last realm to be conquered.

“Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man,” Lewis writes. “The battle will then be won. We shall have ‘taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be.”

“The battle will indeed be won,” Lewis reiterates, “But who, precisely, will have won it?”

Well, again: “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

This does seem rather more familiar now than the older language about the domination of nature. For whatever else we may say of digital technology and its purveyors, it certainly appears as if a vast, often unseen machinery is being built in order to realize dreams of what Evan Selinger and Brett Frischmann have called “engineered determinism.” The world, as I’ve noted before, is becoming our very own giant, personalized Skinner Box, and we assent to it, in no small measure, because of the promise of convenience.

So while Tierney’s claim that the technological elite are operating under the banner of the conquest of nature may have initially seemed somewhat dated, we need only observe that, in certain cases, it has simply morphed into its next phase. Which, to be clear, is not to say that this is the only motive at work among those who produce the technology most of us consume. But there’s another angle that’s worth considering, and with this we segue into something of the heart of Tierney’s claims.

In Tierney’s understanding, “the consumption of convenience in modernity reflects a certain contempt for the body and the limits it imposes.” This, in his view, lends to convenience a discernible ascetic quality. “[T]he fetishistic attitudes toward technology and the rampant consumption of ‘conveniences’ which characterize modernity are a form of asceticism,” Tierney explains.

This is an intriguing observation to revisit in light of the various accounts of the rather interesting practices that occasionally emanate out of Silicon Valley. Examples that come readily to mind include Jack Dorsey’s practice of intermittent fasting and his meditation retreats, Elon Musk’s sleep deprivation, and Ray Kurzweil’s diet- and pill-driven effort to live long enough to witness the singularity. Soylent obviously qualifies as a case in point, especially in light of its creator’s motivations for concocting the meal-replacement drink. Ultimately, of course, the apotheosis of this strand of body-denying asceticism lies in the aspirations of the posthumanists, so many of whom demonstrate a not even thinly veiled contempt for our bodily limits and whose eschatological visions often entail a radical re-configuration of our bodies or else a laying aside of them altogether. What this entails, of course, is a radical reimagining of death itself as a limit to be overcome.

Tierney already anticipated as much in the early 90s. He hints early on at how the value of convenience was becoming a leading factor on the production side of technology. His closing chapter is a reflection on this theorizing of the death simply as a problem to be solved. In it, he cites the astronomer Robert Jastrow’s 1981 work of futurology, The Enchanted Loom:  Mind in the Universe. “At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weaknesses of moral flesh,” Jastrow writes, 

Connected to cameras, instruments, and engine controls, the brain sees, feels, and responds to stimuli. It is in control of its own destiny. The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind. The union of mind and machine has created a new form of existence, as well designed for life in the future as man is designed for life on the African savanna.

It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever.”

Tierney includes an interesting footnote on this passage. He says that he first learned about it in an article by David Lavery, who described being on a panel on “Computers, Robots, and You” alongside what he called a “body-snatcher,” presumably someone who exhibited a disdain of the body and welcomed the day he would be rid of it. When Lavery expressed a reluctance to abandon his body, the “body-snatcher” called him a “carbon chauvinist.” (Lavery’s article, paywalled, appeared in The Hudson Review in 1986.)

The point, of course, is not these posthumanist fantasies—or (post-)Christian fan fiction as I’ve put it elsewhere—will necessarily materialize, rather it is that they are symptomatic of a set of values that do a lot of work in the conception and development of perfectly ordinary technology that many of us use everyday.

It is worth asking ourselves to what degree we have ordered our use of technology around the value of convenience. It is worth considering why exactly we value convenience or whether we have received the benefits that we expected. It’s worth considering what assumptions about the body structure our desire for convenience and whether or not we ought to reevaluate these assumptions. Would we not do better to understand our limits as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning,” to borrow a felicitous phrase from Wendell Berry, rather than as obstacles to be overcome?


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Our Digital Black Hole

One of the tongue-in-cheek subtitles Walker Percy gave to his 1983 book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book went like this: “Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos—novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes—you are beyond doubt the strangest?”

I thought of Percy while I was reading Matt Ford’s “In Defense of the Blurry Black Hole Photo.” Ford is writing, of course, about the remarkable image of a black hole released earlier this week by National Science Foundation. Doubtless you have seen the image, or at least you’ve absorbed some of the online buzz about the image in the day or two after it was unveiled.

Over the last few days, I’ve thought about the image and the varied responses to it. Initially, I was curious whether the image might arouse an interesting digital age variation on the experience of the sublime. The short answer seems to be “no, decidedly not.” Quite the opposite it seems, at least in some quarters.

Ford was not amused by the shrug-emoji level responses he began to read on social media (he was not alone). After citing a few examples, he chided, “This level of cynicism is better understood as ignorance.” Ford then mounts his defense of the image, doing his best to awaken readers from their metaphysical slumber.

“The image itself might indeed seem unimpressive,” he grants. “But,” he goes on,
“judging it as you would any other digital photograph, shorn of all context and understanding, would be shortsighted. One also has to consider the thought and labor behind its creation. The photograph might not depict the horror of galactic destruction as some expected, but it represents something even better.”

What, you ask, could be better than “the horror of galactic destruction.” What could rival the popularity, for example, of the Sweet Meteor O’Death?

In Ford’s view, the wonder of human ingenuity:

Think about it: A group of mostly hairless primates, stranded on a rock circling a nuclear spark, used radio waves to photograph an invisible sun-eater so far away that a person would have to travel for 55 million years at the speed of light to reach it. It’s hard to not feel a frisson of awe at the scale of the feat. This context is vital to fully appreciating the image itself, in the same way that the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is even more impressive when you know that Michelangelo spent three years of his adult life bent over backwards to paint it.

You can feel Ford rhetorically straining to will his readers into an experience of awe and wonder. You can also, it seems to me, feel his efforts falling flat (through no fault of his own, I’d hasten to add). In the context of social media, most forms of naive earnestness are potent anti-virals. It is telling, too, that Ford seeks to save wonder by attaching it to the labor involved rather than to the object itself (more along those lines in this account as well). I suspect that most people moved by an encounter with the Sistine Chapel, when such wonder was still psychically available, did not, in fact, have any need of conjuring up the image of Michelangelo bent over backwards painting it. 

An experience of awe or an experience of the sublime, however conceived, is finally an embodied experience. You cannot think yourself into it. I can’t blame Ford for his obvious annoyance with cheeky cynicism of the responses he catalogs, but he may also be asking for too much in turn

Interestingly, toward the end of his piece, he focuses on a properly embodied experience of the night sky and the starry heavens, an experience that, thanks to electricity’s conquest of the night, is unavailable to the vast majority of Americans.

“Our ancestors,” he notes, “had it easier, at least in some ways. They may have lacked radio telescopes to peer across millions of light-years at far-flung galaxies. But they did not need them to grasp their place in the cosmos. They could simply look up at night.” He notes, quickly, certain measurable consequences of light pollution, on human sleep patterns, for example, or avian migration.

“The existential impact,” he acknowledges, “is harder to measure.” Indeed.

Ford goes on: “A blurred photo of a distant black hole can’t fill the void within. It can certainly help, though.” He speaks of the need to nourish “a sense of cosmic wonderment,” and he leaves us with the following counsel: “There’s still a beauty and awe that can be found in the universe’s stark simplicity—if you’re willing to see it.”

I’m sympathetic to Ford’s concerns. I also happen to think that matters are more complicated than what his piece suggests. For one thing, the piece lacks an awareness of the reduction, or, to put it in a less pejorative manner, the reconfiguration of meaning that already preceded and, in fact, constitutes Ford’s perspective on these matters. It also intuits but does not appear to grasp the full significance of the unfolding reconfiguration of meaning driven by the advent of digital media.

The modern world, cultural theorists tell us, has been characterized by the disenchantment of the natural world. In fact, this disenchantment was accompanied by a Romantic enchantment of the social word. Mimesis gave way to poiesis. We can see this more readily when we recognize, following Charles Taylor for example, that enchantment is a matter of meaning as much as it is a matter of magic.

Ford already speaks out of one layer of disenchantment. The kind of cosmic wonderment he wistfully invokes is already a step removed from the pre-modern, pre-Copernican experience of the cosmos:  an experience of a certain at-home-ness in the comprehensible cosmos rather than a feeling of smallness and awe at the dark infinity of the universe, the latter experience being a decidedly Romantic attempt to recover a loss that it cannot quite name except by theorizing it as the sublime. Characteristically, then, this experience Ford defends is not simply given, it is something we must to some degree will ourselves to see. And it is a stark simplicity that we are meant to see.

Then there is the present reconfiguration or unraveling of meaning that is neatly encapsulated in James Poulos’s observation:  digital disenchants.

Modern technology disenchanted the natural world and enchanted the social world. Meaning was no longer a feature of the world to be merely perceived and inhabited by human beings. It became a subjective reality imposed and fabricated by human beings. We necessarily became artists of the self.

Digital technology disenchants the social world and enchants the technological world. Meaning is no longer subjectively experienced. Claude Shannon’s divorce of meaning from information in digital communication is recapitulated in the human experience of digital technology; it is the founding myth that contains the truth which illuminates the world. Meaning is kicked out of the human realm and displaced onto the technological, from whence it is imposed upon us. We can no longer believe in the romantic project of self-making and self-fulfillment. Poiesis gives way to an inverted mimesis. We no longer imitate, we are the imitated, sculpted in data by algorithmically powered “intelligent” machines. 

It turns out then that the image of the black hole was itself consumed by another, albeit digital, black hole whose gravitational pull threatens any enduring experience of meaning or wonder.


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