Saturday, January 10, 2015

Think about science, and the machines, and who we are

Leon Wieseltier delivers a jeremiad in the NYTimes. It's a brilliant confusion of salience and missed-the-boat. Here's a good paragraph:
Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.
I doubt that anyone at all believes that "the processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire" nor, I suspect, does anyone have eschatological fair in global competitiveness. And, while I'm not so bothered by engineers as Wieseltier (my father was one, and a good one), there's really no chance that the character of our society is being determined by them. Billionaire financiers have a better shot at it. But up to those concluding sentences the paragraph is a good one.

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