I will get to what I am talking about with yesterday’s post – “There is no God in the machine” – early next week. In the meantime, the conclusion from the paper I wrote for my recent library technology presentation here. It will tie in with what I post next week.
Again, much bigger implications than just libraries! (for more on what I call the MSTM below, see here):
X. Concluding thoughts
What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument… For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means… the power of some men to make other men what they please….[…mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of the masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motives but their own ‘natural’ impulses… ] If man chooses himself as raw material to be manipulated, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his dehumanized Conditioners…..
– C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man [i]
In this conclusion I will say no more about specific things I think libraries should do. I think that by now, it should be rather clear that I see libraries within a certain frame of reference – one that I have attempted to make clear – and it is enough for me to put forth the idea that all of our decisions should be made thoughtfully – and, I humbly submit, at least seriously considering the frame of reference that I have put forth.
But there is a great and arduous challenge in front of us, because the MSTM is strongly held, seemingly intractable. The movie Star Trek: First Contact, from several years ago now, illustrates this with particular force. In this film, mankind is threatened by the “uncanny” Borg[ii] – a compelling and disconcerting enemy. In this particular episode, the leader of the Borg has taken on the form of a human female, the Borg Queen. The ship’s Captain, Jean Luc Picard, is “assimilated” by the Borg as is the rest of Picard’s crew. There is one character, however, who remains to be assimilated: the good android, Data. While the collective entity of Borg, exemplified by the Borg Queen, wants to draw life out of the living like a parasite (like a vampire), killing their victim and effectively reproducing itself, Data is not alive and so cannot be assimilated. But as watchers of this science fiction series know, Data desires to become a human being, and so here, the Borg Queen offers Data what he has always wanted: human flesh, by means of implanted skin on his face and forearm. For a while, it appears that Data is all in with the Borg Queen, seduced by the pleasure of feeling truly alive. However, in the end, Data comes though, rejecting the Borg Queen and saving Captain Picard and his crew. As the author of the article, Justin Everett, points out, “it is, ironically, Data’s choice that shows him to be the most human of all, in spite of his losing his chance to be, at least in part, corporeally human. His choice… is clearly accentuated in this scene.”[iii]
This is a nice picture of a good “robotic moment” (not the way Sherry Turkle uses the phrase) par excellence where the machine, Data, is the salvation-winning hero of the story. Evidently, Data here shows even more humanity than Captain Picard, who at one point in the movie, recalling his own assimilation, stated: “It was not enough for you to assimilate me. I had to give myself to you willingly.” One might draw a parallel here with the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. Where Adam and Eve fell by not trusting in God (Satan: “Did God really say?”), Data, exemplifying the best of humanity, is able to overcome temptation and save humanity (the Enterprise crew) through his own “human” actions.[iv]
This final hope in science and the technological – typical of the MSTM – also mirrors the end of Aiden and Jean-Baptiste’s book Uncharted. Speaking of Isaac Asimov’s idea of predicting the future from his Foundation series, mentioned also at the beginning of this presentation, they note that sociology found its beginnings in the early 19th century man Auguste Comte, who had hopes mirroring those of Asimov. “Careful empirical study would eventually reveal the laws that governed the operation of human society…. [there are] underlying mathematical principles…” (210) They note that sociology, in fact, was originally called “social physics”. Aiden and Jean-Baptiste give voice to many when they say: “Maybe, just maybe, a predictive science of history is possible. Maybe, just maybe, our culture obeys deterministic laws. And maybe, just maybe, that is where all our data is taking us.” (211, 212)
But for them, data does not save us wholesale like Data from Star Trek does. They want to make more room for the truly human and so quote the anthropologist Franz Boas saying:
The physicist compares a series of similar facts, from which he isolates the general phenomenon which is common to all of them. Henceforth the single facts become less important to him, as he lays stress on the general law alone.
On the other hand, the facts are the objects which are of importance and interest to the historian… Which of the two methods is of a higher value? The answer can only be subjective…” (pp. 208-212)
Quibbles about simplistic formulations aside, I think this approach is misguided and that history is clearly more fundamental than physics. Why? John Cohen, in his 1967 work, Human robots in myth and science, gives us a clue: “’[some claim]…for prognosis, history is never necessary’. This may be true for an automobile. It is not true for the driver.” (p. 135) This is exactly right – the practice of physics, is, and always must be, contained within the living and pulsing events of human history – passed down in living memory (even as understandings may be deepened and refined through good empirical work) and not vice versa – even if things like n-grams tempt us to think so!)
No, there is a clear order of precedence here: were it not for history, there would be no modern physics. Without modern physics, there still would be history. And without modern physics we are human beings but without history we are not.[v] And Cukier and Mayer-Schoenberger are simply wrong and careless to say “The possession of knowledge which once meant an understanding of the past, is coming to mean an ability to predict the future”.[vi] Without modern physics , we would still have knowledge but this would not be the case without history.[vii]
One might ask, why can we not, like Schumacher*, make these into a couplet? History and physics? The answer is that these things, again, are not alike: physics does not even deserve to be on the same playing field. When it makes a play to be an “equal” – or rather, when human beings make this play – problems have already begun. As they look to move physics to the top position – perhaps even subconsciously – they will find themselves reciting a very different history, with very different facts elevated to the fore. And ironically, assuming a continual dominance of the importance of physics, those with eyes to see can actually predict the future to some extent, as the “natural consequences” of a devotion to physics become a self-fulfilling prophecy. See again Lewis above.[viii]
And of course it is only because we have a real history – and one that is largely knowable (that as Aiden and Jean-Baptiste point out, we seem to be forgetting with increasingly velocity) – that we also have and a real human future. And with this note about the future, we are brought full circle back to the beginning of this presentation: the relation of the “machine” and prediction.
Today, one will often hear about people being on the “right side of history”. But what does this mean and how can anyone know? People do not say this because they have any sort of confidence from some divine revelation from God. Rather people believe this because they are confident there is a system that aligns with what they consider their truest and best feelings and allows them to accurately predict – even if one can talk about individual choice and freedom within the system – history’s general arc…
Nowadays there might be far more effort to dress it up, make it more organic, soft, and “natural”, but the underlying fact remains the same: we are, in large part, a part of a system. A predictable system. A system under the control of some humans. A machine, though perhaps a kind of organic machine. Concepts such as “information technology” and some notions of what Big data is and will be simply reinforce this viewpoint – subscribed to either subconsciously or consciously – and take it to the next level. Again, as I said in the beginning: by treating the cosmos as a machine and by carefully observing it, mathematical formulas can be “captured” and used to make predictions about it.
This includes people as well – who may, without too much concern, be reduced to their data. MSTM, ever pragmatic and reductionistic, will stop at nothing to make sure that there are no limits for the Controllers – those who understand how the cosmos works and will “work with it” as they please. Again, things like “information technology” and Big data can be seen, just like the physical automata, as a symbol – a microcosm – of what the MSTM sees (at the very least in practice) as the cosmic machine, our “final frontier”. And again, this “mechanical muse” is surprisingly alluring – often surprisingly “free”. It seems clear to me that unless there is some other strong, counterveiling belief that holds controlling precedence over this general view, how we behave – how we treat the universe, the things within it, and especially the persons we know – will, generally speaking, impact deeply what we find ourselves believing.
To say so is to not say anything really unique. It is simply to point out what some of the classical and ancient philosophers have been saying throughout history. Christians have always said something similar about their worship: “lex orendi, lex credendi”, that is, the “law of prayer” – which has to do with what we say and do – affects the “law of belief”.
But as I said, this is a deeply secular mediation and so I best not go much further.[ix] I’ll close with a short bit of God-talk” – what little persists among the elites in our secularized age – quoted in the Second Machine Age:
“Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God’s gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences.”[x]
In the proper context – with a few nuances – I think I could make that statement into something I could say “Amen” to. Thank you for your time.
* E.F. Schumacher, in his enlightening little 1977 book A Guide for the Perplexed, looks at life in a rather broad fashion and puts it this way:
“Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind (italics mine).”[i]
[i] Ibid, p. 127. More excellent, and I would say very ethical, observations from p. 5 and 125: “What we have to deplore… is not so much the fact that scientists are specialising, but rather the fact that specialists are generalizing…. Convergent problems relate to…where manipulation can proceed without hindrance and where man can make himself ‘master and possessor,’ because the subtle, higher forces – which we have labeled life, consciousness, and self-awareness – are not present to complicate matters. Wherever these higher forces intervene to a significant extent, the problem ceases to be convergent”.
[i]Lewis, C. S. 1996. The Abolition of Man, or, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools. New York: Simon & Schuster, 67, 70, 81, 80. While he was speaking of scientific practice in general, I think that these comments from C.S. Lewis’ book the Abolition of Man have particular relevance here – one need not think that most all of today’s elites are consciously trying to condition and enslave the masses to see the point Lewis is getting at. His answer to the dilemma is something that he develops throughout the book, the idea of the Tao, which he says is shared by cultures worldwide to some extent: “Either we are a rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes of the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motives but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can overarch rules and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery” (pp. 80 and 81).
[ii] In this essay “The Borg as Vampire in Star Trek”, Justin Everett writes about the Star Trek villain the Borg sucking out one’s ‘essence’ causing a person to become one of them. He expands on this and also talks about Freud’s notion of the “uncanny” : “the Borg remove something from their victims, and in the process, introduce an alien substance that transforms them into something decidedly nonhuman. Essence can be taken in at least two ways here: 1) as a literal sampling of human flesh (and in doing this, tasting or eating some part, however small, of the victim); and 2) as removing that immaterial quality that makes humans, well, human. The first meaning is merely a part of the physical process of making a Borg in the Star Trek universe. A relationship of this as an attack of vampiric fangs (and, through penetration, ‘rape’) is less interesting than its spiritual analogue. As with a vampire bite, when a Borg injects someone with nanoprobes, that person ‘dies’ in the sense that his human ‘essence’ is lost, though the body continues (though it could hardly be called living), obeying not its own will, but that of the Collective, just as the vampire is a slave to its own bloodlust, Thus, like vampires, the Borg represent a contradiction, an uncanny infusing of the alien with the human. It is exactly this kind of irreconcilable intermixing that, in the words of Sigmund Freud, ‘arouses dread and horror.’… In Freud’s famous essay ‘The Uncanny,’ he struggles to understand this elusive fear tinged with strange familiarity (or resemblance) that is so changed that something that was recognizable and comfortable becomes a sort of opposite that continues to echo what was familiar in it. Freud uses the German word unheimlich…” (p. 82, 83)
Quoting another who talks about the uncanny being a “peculiar commingling of the familiar and unfamiliar, Everett writes: “It is perhaps the word commingling that is most compelling in this description. Without heimlich, the familiar, unheimlich cannot even be apprehended. It remains alien and utterly without reference. It can only be gazed at in wonder and fear, like glaring dumbstruck into the blinding face of God. Many works of science fiction attempt to relate the sheer awe of encountering something completely unknowable. In film, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is perhaps the best known example of this…” He also mentions Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979) and Star Trek V: the Final Frontier (1989) as containing examples like this and goes on to say that for the Borg, the “Collective cannot be separated from the heimlich individuals that is comprises. For this reason, the Borg, unique in a universe populated with the unknowable on one extreme and the familiar on the other, are uncanny.” (p. 84)
Browning, John Edgar, and Caroline Joan Picart. 2009. Draculas, Vampires, and Other Undead Forms: Essays on Gender, Race, and Culture. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, pp. 82-84.
[iii] Ibid, pp 88-89. More: “This is something the Borg cannot do: to choose. Though Dracula’s victims do not choose to become vampires, the openness to seduction (the potential for sin, the weakness of will) that many victims demonstrate leads them into the undead state in which all humanity, all freedom of will, has vanished.”
[iv] For his part, Everett ends his interesting essay by stating the following: “a forked path lies before us. One leads to a future in which science and technology free human beings to become better than they are now, to shape a utopian vision. The other directs us to the end of humanity, a destiny in which humans become slaves of their own mechanical creations.” Ibid, p. 91.
[v] Questions like “whose history?” certainly have their place here or there, but by no means nullify this deeper point.
[vi] Cukier, K., and V. Mayer-Schoenberger. 2013. “The Rise of Big Data How It’s Changing the Way We Think About the World”. Foreign Affairs – New York. 92 (3): 28-40, p. 39.
[vii] An even more extreme position has been put forth by Anderson (2008), who claimed that as regards researchers using Big data, “data are everything that researchers need and thus…they do not have to settle for models….” See Park, H.W., and L. Leydesdorff. 2013. “Decomposing social and semantic networks in emerging ”big data” research”. Journal of Informetrics. 7 (3): 756-765, p. 757.
[viii]It seems to me that the endgame here would be a loss of confidence in the idea of history altogether, as hope for continued “progress” and “human flourishing” dissipates. Our own “humanity” becomes less obvious (the science fiction writer Philip Dick introduces android characters which constantly “destabilize the human characters, making their very humanity subject to doubt”*). While technological knowledge might not be lost, perhaps it is conceivable that persons would see time more in terms of recurring cycles that never seem to be going anywhere… never having a destination, as it is thought to have now. In other words, “destiny” replaced by “fate”….
*Geraci, Robert M. 2007. “Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction: Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence”. Zygon. 42 (4): 961-980.
[ix] I have my own answer to what that wisdom is, and I will start by saying that it is pretty much the opposite of what is contained in this quote:
“I don’t personally have a problem with religious faith, even in the extreme, as long as it doesn’t supersede science and it’s not used to impose outdated mores on others.” He goes on: He goes on: “But some people see our extreme religiosity itself as a form of dysfunction. In a 2009 paper in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, Gregory Paul, an independent researcher, put it this way: “The level of relative and absolute societal pathology in the United States is often so severe that it is repeatedly an outlier that strongly reinforces the correlation between high levels of poor societal conditions and popular religiosity.”
Charles M. Blow, “Indoctrinating Religious Warriors,” The New York Times, January 3, 2014, accessed Mar. 14, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/04/opinion/blow-indoctrinating-religious-warriors.html?ref=charlesmblow&_r=1
I must admit that I would seek to impress, not impose, my “values” on others (unlike this “liberally-minded” person, who it seems would be much more “Marcusian” [i.e. “repressive tolerance”, after Herbert Marcuse]: http://www.thecrimson.com/column/the-red-line/article/2014/2/18/academic-freedom-justice/?page=single ): I would say the phrase “reductionism and religion”, should also not be on the “divergent-issue list” that I talked about earlier. Nor do I think E.F. Schumacher himself, the author of the quote and one of the fathers of the environmentalist movement, would have accepted this (he was, to my knowledge, like Jaques Ellul, a fiercedly devout and gentle Christian man)
If persons want to continue the conversation with me more, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or get in touch with me via my theology blog, theology like a child. You can start by reading this post dealing with the dangers of technology from a theological perspective: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/mankind-has-always-and-always-will-seek-to-reach-three-fundamental-things/
[x] Freeman Dyson, quoted in Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, p. 1.