L’ANNÉE ZÉRO DE LA LIBRAIRIE “LES IDÉES” : “AMONG THE DISRUPTED”
In a brilliantly styled article – « Among the Disrupted” Wieseltier names our times “posthumanist”, and offers diagnosis, prescription and prognosis for a culture in which “streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by…thugs…of the culture industry.” [ http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted.html?_r=0 ] “Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be”, he observes. And abjures us in conclusion: “Never mind the platforms. Our solemn responsibility is for the substance.”
I would like to analyze the substance of his claims.
His fundamental argument is that process and its intellection have replaced a “humanism” which once offered choice, wisdom and humanity. Economics trumps all; and newspapers, journals and magazines follow bookstores to the grave. A twittered “cacophony of one liners and promotional announcements” define the culture. And, if it can’t be measured, it can’t be known, judged, or used. Knowledge is no longer distinct from data. Machines will achieve – are achieving—human complexity and uniqueness of humans will end in the “Singularity” – the point at which machines pass human intelligence. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity ] His point is neatly illustrated by the following from Reuters:
In the escalating battle of big data vs. human experts, score another win for numbers.
The most accurate predictions of which movies the U.S. Library of Congress will deem "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" are not the views of critics or fans but a simple algorithm applied to a database, according to a study published on [January 19, 2015].
Wieseltier offers his “gloomy inventory” “for the purpose of proposing an accurate name for our moment.” But the name “posthumanism” is not the substance – in fact, it is a diversion from the substance I wish to consider. Wieseltier offers, substantively, a set of conditions necessitating the preservation of humanism – defined for our purposes as judgment independent of computation. There are “first principles.” Every “culture,” religious as well as secular, contains contradictions among its first principles. Every philosophy is, even if purportedly universal, a “particularism” which can only be situated, analyzed, verified in a context larger than itself. Wieseltier refers to Borges’ “universal library” (=the internet?) in which all knowledge, each published work, will repose and be instantly available. And algorithmically analyzable, as we learn – or do we?—from Reuters. For Wieseltier, “universal accessibility” is only the beginning: “The humanistic methods which were practiced before digitization will be even more urgent after digitization, because we will need help in navigating the unprecedented welter. Searches for keywords will not provide contexts for keywords. Patterns that are revealed by searches will not identify their own causes and reasons. The new order will not relieve us of the old burdens, and the old pleasures, or erudition and interpretation.”
But the unanalyzed term here is not the data, but the “us”. Long ago – in 2000!—a famous computer scientist asked in Wired magazine if “we” were necessary. [http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html] In his extraordinary and famous article (“Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”), Bill Joy asserted that machines would become more and more dominant as social decision makers. For starters, he cites the “Unabomer”/murderer, Ted Kaczynski: “Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.” And: “These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free.” [ Ibid., quoted from Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines.]
The thesis is that developments in genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics will enable development of creatures/machines having greater than human intelligence and judgmental capacities and that such creations will, in addition, be able to replicate and modify themselves so as to evolve without human control, including in directions which are destructive of human life and the planet Earth.
One aspect of this development is the implantation of various devices into human bodies. The human-technological interface promises new, utopic powers. “But if we are downloaded into our technology, what are the chances that we will thereafter be ourselves or even human?” He further notes that weapons of biological, nano technological robotic weapons of mass destruction can be developed, and developed outside large governmental programs which otherwise might limit their distribution. Responding the possible consequences of knowledge based weapons of mass destruction, he asks if we can survive our own collective consequences:
I believe that we all wish our course could be determined by our collective values, ethics, and morals. If we had gained more collective wisdom over the past few thousand years, then a dialogue to this end would be more practical, and the incredible powers we are about to unleash would not be nearly so troubling.
I say “he asks” because his belief seems more a question than an answer. His conclusion:
Each of us has our precious things, and as we care for them we locate the essence of our humanity. In the end, it is because of our great capacity for caring that I remain optimistic we will confront the dangerous issues now before us.
This dramatic phrasing fills the blank in Wieseltier’s diagnosis. That diagnosis is partial but essentially correct. He sees the imposition of data governance as a dehumanization, requiring a “humanistic” response. He feels, but does not define, the loneliness of the “posthumanist” environment. His “solutions” – the retention/rehabilitation of “judgment”, “wisdom”, and other “values”, is no solution and has no substance, unless it can be based on an accurate science, such as Bill Joy’s diagnosis attempts to be. Wieseltier does not address, and cannot address, questions such as the following: what is the source of mathematical concepts such as pi and e? He states: “The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.” Ignoring the rhetoric, are they not also human?
Wieseltier is arguing for the special capacity of the humanities, the need to preserve them as objects of study and, moreover, to acknowledge their special role in determining beauty, truth and humanitarian “values”. This analysis is misplaced and must turn, instead, on our “precious things” – our “care” for them in which in which “we locate the essence of our humanity.” Wieseltier and Bill Joy would agree that the “precious things” are endangered, and scientifically endangered. But Wieseltier cannot exclude from his catalogue of humanistic elements the science, the data management, the economics and other “particularisms” or “universalisms” in order to regain our freedom from “the salience, even the tyranny of technology in individual and collective life.” Perhaps a more modest goal is in order: can we use the humanities to describe the subjective, human gains and losses from technology? Even if describing our own destruction, is a description of our “care” not relevant? If the “humanities” are sourced to such a role, their “values”, “judgment” and “wisdom” will offer at least an explanation to the “Disrupted.”
Wieseltier’s style, or perhaps stylistics, deserve comment in another place. Here, in Pennsylvania, in Millvale, on Grant Avenue, among the non-“Disrupted” are the Librairie “Les Idées”, a small bookstore, two blocks away from Attic Records, a world-renowned distributor of vinyl records; and four blocks away from Esther’s, a model train and hobby emporium. It’s too bad the baseball memorabilia shop closed. The terminally disrupted are not ghosts of their functions but of the people who frequented their locales.