Archive for July 2011

You Are Not a Gadget

July 21st, 2011 — 11:24pm

I’ve been reading (very belatedly) Jaron Lanier’s book, “You Are Not a Gadget”. And while I don’t necessarily agree with the main thrust of his argument, as a provocation, and as a corrective to some of the wilder thinking about technology (what Jaron calls ‘Cybernetic Totalism’ and ‘Digital Maoism’) it is a very impressive and thought-provoking work. It’s one of the first books I’ve read that raises some really valid and profound criticisms of our relationship with computers, and argues for a fundamentally humanistic approach to design and technology.

In the first section of the book, Jaron argues (and here I am going to have to paraphrase him wildly) two things: that large and complex programs and software often simplify and reduce the possibilities for human expression, and that instead of trying to design software and systems that are better and more responsive to our needs, we try to become more stupid and shallower so that we can use the machines. We admire our own creations so much that we debase ourselves to their level of ‘artificial intelligence’ rather than celebrating our own emotional and moral sophistication.

There are several reasons why I find this argument unconvincing. One is because of the sheer complexity of biological matter, especially the brain. In his excellent book ‘Bright Air, Brilliant Fire’, the neuroscientist Gearld Edelman explains that the human brain contains over a hundred billion neurons, or individual nerve cells. But each of these neurons is connected to the other neurons that are densely packed in around it. Each neuron may have  thousands of connections or synapses. But the truly staggering complexity only emerges when you consider that experience may trigger combinations of synapses in an essentially infinite variety of ways. The physical and chemical makeup of the brain constantly changes, in a way that no computer currently can. So, even at a purely physical level, the sophistication of the human brain is way beyond that of any computer. And not only that, but the combination of processes in the brain give rise to a consciousness, and self-consciousness, a mind, that no computer has.

This gives me great confidence in the capability of our minds not to be ‘dumbed-down’ by computers or by Web 2.0 applications, as Jaron seems to think they are. He cites Facebook, and the way in which our friendships become little more than hyperlinks, as evidence that we are narrowing and devaluing our humanity. But the very term ‘facebook friends’ has developed as an ironic response to this phenomenon. We know, when we ‘friend’ people on Facebook, that we are doing so not to replace a real friendship, and not even to give the illusion of friendship, but simply as a way of keeping in touch with people we can’t actually be with then and there, because it is convenient, because it makes long-range and instant communication possible. If Facebook does diminish our real friendships it is only because it makes it possible for us now to maintain contact with a much larger number of people, and therefore less easy to divide our time between all the members of our social group. But that is not to say that any of us now think of swapping a few photos on Facebook or sharing status updates as a real relationship. It is just a stand-in, a cipher, for friendship, and a way of staying in touch with people we never could before. But we recognise this instinctively.

There’s also quite a lot of dyspeptic stuff about the growing culture of re-mixing and sampling, and the threat this poses to the creation of original work. This is the resurgence of an argument popularised by Andrew Keen in his ‘Cult of the Amateur’, that this kind of activity will somehow undermine ‘real’ artistic originality, and that our aesthetic tastes and creative instincts will be dulled because all we will have is an ever growing roster of YouTube Hitler parodies. I’m afraid I just don’t see this. Yes, there is a lot of mundane stuff being made, mainly for the re-mixer’s own amusement. But this is not the work of recognised artists. It is not replacing or threatening invention and originality, artistic exploration. These things are made by different people, by people who previously had no way of responding to or participating in the work. Now they can quite easily re-mix other people’s work for amusement or for any purpose and create their own derivatives. But that doesn’t mean that artists or filmmakers or musicians are losing the desire to create truly new things.

More convincing is his argument that software design often tends towards the interoperable, the common denominator, rather than the highest standard of mimesis or intuitive experience. So, the story of MIDI, and how it describes music in a relatively crude way, is revealing about the processes by which software comes to be widely accepted, and replicated, and before we know it gets ‘locked-in’. It is harder to say whether a prevalence of low quality MIDI or mp3 digital files will erode our appreciation of music, whether we will come to think of all music as simply a tinny treble sound from a pair of badly insulated headphones. I rather think not. And judging by the sums of money people are still prepared to pay for custom built speakers, earphones, and to see music live, in concert, it seems the death of the audiophile has been much exaggerated.

I think that the sheer complexity and sophistication of our minds, and our bodies, will prevent us from being lulled by poor quality recordings, by choppy re-mixes, by poorly designed software and crappy social networks. Yes, we use them, because they make music portable, instant, they make our friends and acquaintances partially accessible at a distance, but they don’t come close to replacing the experience of hearing a band live, of having dinner with a friend, or viewing an artistic masterpiece in a gallery.

‘Cybernetic Totalism’, is the idea that every system is, or can be faithfully represented as, a regulatory system of feedback, control and adjustment. This idea has been very powerful, without doubt, in the fields of computer science, social sciences, environmentalism, and finance. What Jaron criticizes is the belief, the faith, in cybernetics as a means of explaining, and modelling, all systems. Here he is at his most convincing and brilliant. But if his criticisms sometimes feel revelatory, it is also because this belief in a simple way of representing a complex world seems so far-fetched when it is actually subjected to scrutiny. The thought experiment he asks us to perform is to imagine that every neuron, every synapse, could be represented by a transistor, or by a microprocessor, or an artificial version of itself. And then to ask ourselves, if this model brain were constructed faithfully, down to the last detail, would it still give rise to consciousness, to a mind, to a soul? The Cybernetic Totalists are apparently convinced that it would. But this seems a hopelessly naive conclusion. It is a certainty based on a radically reduced understanding of the complexity of the philosophical problem.

‘Digital Maoism’, the idea that the “collective is all-wise”, that the aggregated knowledge of the community must always be a better guide, a truer source of knowledge, than the application of an individual intelligence, seems equally far-fetched when it is examined closely. But of course these ways of thinking do not develop as the result of a dialectic process. They come into being through a series of misunderstandings, conflations, and wild enthusiasms. They are inflated by sudden gusts of PR and the fickle breeze of VC funding. They are easy ideas to cotton onto, and to disseminate. They are in fact nuggets of ideas. They are not fully formed, not coherent. But they are not Straw Men, either. Lanier is right to warn us of the dangers of falling into these simplistic patterns of thought. He is right to re-charge our critical faculties. Because the danger of accepting these convenient falsehoods is that we resign our ability to design something better, to question the way things are, and to improve the world around us.

He quotes Alan Turing, and gives a fitting description of his contributions to the field of computer science, cryptanalysis and mathematics: “he gifted us with wild leaps of invention, including much of the mathematical underpinnings of digital computation”, before going on to interpret the meaning of the Turing test in a novel, and important, way: “what the test really tells us, however… is that machine intelligence can only be known in a relative sense, in the eyes of a human beholder.” In other words, we can never discover whether a machine has a soul, or a mind, like ours because, as the test demonstrates, a sufficiently well programmed computer can trick us into believing that it is human, or intelligent, when it is not. This is a strong critique of the field of Artificial Intelligence as it is thought of today, and an important refrain in the book – that self-consciousness is a mystery, one that we should treasure and appreciate. We should not debase it for the convenience of our machines.


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