Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Nor am I a Blog
Speculum Criticum reader Alf Seegert recently forwarded the link to his article in the Jan 2010 issue of the Journal of Ecocriticism. Seegert provides a close reading of E.M. Forster's short story "The Machine Stops," as well as some critique of some of its implicit contrast between nature and the technological--a dichotomy which Seegert rightly sees as more problematic than Forster lets on. This is important because this is where so much ecological thought gets snagged on too-simplistic notions. I'll have more to say about this essay here soon.
The Forster connection was a nice coincidence because as it happened I caught another reference to this story in the hour-long interview with Jaron Lanier on Seattle radio KUOW. Lanier mentioned this story as the locus of the first suggestion of the internet. It isn't an optimistic suggestion, and indeed, while he isn't as dour as Forster, Lanier was suggesting that the cybernetics revolution he helped to shape, while perhaps not heading straight to dystopia yet, might be turning a bit sour. He is plugging his new book urging us each to remember that You are not a Gadget, which I've also been reading. For a helpful excursus, I recommend the brief Half Manifesto he wrote on Edge.org, as well as the interview podcast, where you can hear Lanier in his engaged and laid-back style tell about his conversion from piracy-advocate to champion of micropayments (and his rationale), play his Scriabin-cum-Gershwin improvisations on the piano and a Laotian mouth-harp, critiques Wikipedia, and generally walk the line between humble humanist and techno-optimist.
Always at pains to remind us that he is an enthusiast of online culture, that he helped invent Virtual Reality, and that he still believes in the promise of the web, Lanier nevertheless insists that risk ceding not only our intelligence but our identities to machines. Lanier thus joins the growing number of thinkers asking the hard questions, before it's too late--we hope: Can we stay human and still compute? As Nicholas Carr recently asked: Google making us Stoopid?
I appreciated especially Lanier's intoxicated love for music and his intuition that it is closely related to the transcendent (though he remains, rightly, circumspect about how exactly to draw the connection)--I have found, in practice, that the experience of playing music is one of the experiences closest to philosophical insight. I also admire the way Lanier critiques of strong AI and the reduction of the human person to a complex processing device, while maintaining a gently humble stance about explicit metaphysical declarations.
Most of all, I think Lanier's description of the "task of civilization" is as good an account of the philosophical project as I can think of: "To answer the question: how do we save ourselves from ourselves without losing ourselves?"
If I have one problem with Lanier's pithy sentence (and to be fair, he didn't offer it as an all-encompassing slogan), it's the triple refrain of "ourselves." This misses, I think, the other-directness of philosophy, the need to triangulate with the other human being, with the dog, the coral reef, the positron or the nebula. Of course I don't know that Lanier wishes to exclude these from the range of "ourselves" either; I merely wish to explicitly include them. Seegert argues in his paper that what matters is not whether an interface is "authentic" or not, since no encounter is unmediated; the question is--who or what does it connect us with? Just ourselves again? Or the more-than-human world? I think this is a crucial question.