Borgs at the Bowling Alley

By way of capturing the prevailing narrative about the human relationship to digital technologies and the social web, I think Mark Changizi has come up with a catchy descriptive phrase: "Borgs at the bowling alley." Sure, the network keeps us in touch with far-flung friends and makes the morning commute quite a bit more manageable for many, including me, but it's just a tool.

Hold that thought.

Changizi reviews "You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto," by one of my favorite technology contrarians, Jaron Lanier, the digital relative of Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle. Changizi:

In fact, what comes across most clearly in the book is Lanier’s distinct and unique individuality. He brims with novel ideas, from the origins of speech and music (he speculates that it connects to color signaling in cephalopods), to radical kinds of programming languages (without protocols), and to new ideas for virtual reality (e.g., altering our perceptions so that we experience life as billowy clouds). Although many of these ideas are not entirely crucial to his central thesis, they serve to illustrate that it is in individuals, not collectives, where we find the lion’s share of creativity. These novel ideas also serve to convince the reader to trust Lanier’s intuitions about where creativity comes from....

Here’s what, in my experience, people tend to tell themselves: Smart collectives result from liberal servings of self-organization and complexity. Why? Because the most brilliant collectives that exist—those found in biology, such as our bodies and brains built out of hundreds of billions of cells—are steeped with self-organization and complexity. And, the intuition continues, the Web also drips with self-organization and complexity. The Web therefore must be smart. And because the Web is growing and evolving over time, the Web must be getting ever smarter. Perhaps some day it will even become self-aware!

If I may agree with what I take to be Changizi's point: what a load.

This is the time of the year for reassessment and stock-taking, for quiet and contemplation. Consider the growing number of people questioning what, exactly, this sometimes uncomfortably close and expanding network is, as well as the stunted idea that the human imagination can be sourced to the collective rather than to individuals.

Susan Cain, would you please consider being an IdeaFestival participant? Write me at whall[at]ideafestival[dot]com

As much as I admire the self-organizing and adaptive skill of the ant colony or the bee hive, I have no desire to be an ant or bee. The human experience with its constant striving, its ability to hold out possible worlds for examination, its sad lassitude in the face of problems like climate change and the horrific sexual trafficking of girls and young women, its ability to conceptualize something better and (occasionally) act on that new conceptualization, is much, much more interesting.

Heavens no. The Singularity is not near.

We've made great strides toward understanding the human brain. Neuro-imaging can show us our centers for self-restraint, obstinacy and that flicker of electrical activity that coincided with the raid on the kitchen fridge last night at 12:31a. Correlative? Yes. Causative, no. We still don't know why a three pound lump of matter should be capable of sifting the pros and cons of the late night snack or Dickens' Great Expectations. And the very idea that x-number of exponential steps will lead us anywhere that we might predict now is, frankly, laughable. We don't even understand the full future impact of any single breakthrough. Yes of course, technology is rapidly expanding, perhaps, as Lanier might charitably suggest, at a dizzying rate. It's easy to be confused. But to think that said network will self-realize after reaching another gazillion connected gadgets or so is a category mistake. The network will not one day blink open its eyes and ask us what we've been doing all this time. And if it does, let's hope it's familiar with the idea of pity, the mercurial stepchild of grace, because it surely won't be familiar with its practice. We wonderfully frail and biological gadgets are ultimately moved and convicted by the heaving in our chests, by the strength in our arms, by the moving of our feet.

One person at a time.


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