Saturday, November 6, 2010

What Does What Want!?!

Not for the first time (and, to be honest, almost certainly not for the last :)), I wish to dispute with Phil Bowermaster regarding something in one of his typically thought provoking Speculist posts. Also not for the first time, let me begin by pointing you somewhere else first.

My blog-friend Kevin Baker is spending his actual Saturday having fun in similar fashion to my own, but before he left, he posted the transcript of a speech George Will gave last May to the Cato Institute's biennial Milton Friedman Prize dinner. As part of his remarks, Mr. Will said the following in comparing the political beliefs of two Princeton graduates, James Madison of the class of 1771, and Thomas Woodrow Wilson of the class of 1879:

Madison asserted that politics should take its bearings from nature, from human nature and the natural rights with which we are endowed that pre-exist government. Woodrow Wilson, like all people steeped in the nineteenth century discovery (or so they thought) that History is a proper noun with a capital "H," that history has a mind and life of its own, he argued that human nature is as malleable and changeable as history itself, and that it is the job of the state to regulate and guide the evolution of human nature ...

Now back to friend Phil:

I think technology "wants" to improve our circumstances. Technology wants to empower individuals and transform society. Technology wants to decrease human suffering and increase human happiness.

In other words, technology wants exactly what we want. And that shouldn't be all that surprising, because our technology is us.

Much like Socialists anywhere (and American Progressives particularly) do in their economic thinking, Phil is doing in the quote above. Both resort to a species of magical thinking to make their argument.

{In his defense, Phil is responding to this article about the book What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly, so the views he expresses might not be entirely his own.}

Now, I recognise the implied intent of the modifying quotation marks Phil employs; I understand he is making an allegorical statement and not a literal one. While I am quite willing to accept without comment using such as a rhetorical device, to advance a narrative say, such thinking simply isn't explanatory though which is Phil's stated purpose for the passage quoted above.

I have argued in the past that money is an artificial human intellectual construct. I believe the same can legitimately be said for history as well.

We have a (variably detailed and questionably reliable) historical record, which is often seemingly well-supported by a collection of historical artifacts. What we don't have is any actual history, because it doesn't exist any longer. Belief in "History" as George Will attributes to Woodrow Wilson above, "that history has a mind and life of its own", is thus shown to be a class of magical thinking that imbues our collection of variously ancient detritus with independent intent and consciousness.

In similar fashion as does Phil with "technology", that accumulation of not-quite-finished-with-yet proto-detritus we are frequently pleased to hold up as self-evident examples of "civilisation" (and that will be enough of the scare quotes).

Basically, it's just stuff. And while we may have an occasionally embarrassing excess of stuff (and a correspondingly distressing lack as well), it is the height of folly to think of it as anything more (or less, it should be acknowledged) than a particular example of varyingly well-contrived crutch we frequently find useful in certain applications (and decidedly not in others). The contents of our ever-expanding tool box laid out on public display, if you will.

And like all the rest of our stuff, we can make more if we break it, use it up or just plain outlive it's usefulness to us.

I can think of very little in this world (or off it that I am aware of) that has any great store of intrinsic worth or value (oh, please, is there a Gold Bug in the house?) on it's own. Usefulness in plenty, to be sure, but that's a different standard of measure, one that is imputed by some other agency and often quite variable by circumstance (ruminants find grass generally quite useful; humans without a Lawn Service quite a bit less so). Endowing our stuff with magical abilities doesn't improve it in any measurable way and, frankly, works to impede our usage more often than not.

I don't care what my toaster might think, nor my induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, I just want them to function. And should they not do as I expected, then the failure is to be found in my own lack of understanding, not some fanciful cognitive whimsy. We may in fact one day make stuff that has independent consciousness and identity from ourselves - the so-far mythical AGI. Come that day, I certainly agree we should ask it's opinion. 'Till then, why deliberately obscure our already flawed understanding of stuff, eh?

In the spirit of full disclosure, the things I say to my tools when I screw up a job would seemingly put the lie to all the above (and make my past nautical association disturbingly plain), so if humor was your intent I take it all back, Phil.