Technology and the Fate of the Humanities

Leon Wieseltier, editor of the New Republic, added another entry to the growing genre of commencement speeches targeting technology.  He worries about the shrinking of the humanities in higher education and the culture at large, as technology colonizes more and more corners of our lives.  His piece reminded me of T.S. Eliot:

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?  Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Leon is taking aim at the values and worldview of Silicon Valley, an ideology that Evgeny Morozov has dubbed “technological solutionism”, the reduction of all problems to technical problems, the notion that technology can fix all things, and the reduction of knowledge to information:

There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

He is referring, of course, to Ray Kurzweil, the scientist, inventor, and anointed Philosopher Prophet of Silicon Valley who has just been hired by Google.  Leon’s piece is aimed squarely at Kurzweil’s scientism:  the extension of science from a method to a metaphysics, with claims based not on data but on dogma.  There are some who consider Kurzweil the Most Dangerous Man in America.  While Steve Jobs has been raised up as the Great Man of our age, he may end up being overshadowed by Kurzweil, who is on track to become the Father of AI.  I will be addressing Kurzweil’s worldview–essentially, that technology is the continuation of evolution by other means–in future posts.  For now, see Michael E. Zimmerman’s recent reflection on AI from the perspective of Integral philosophy.

Leon’s is exactly the argument that C.S. Lewis made over half a century ago in The Abolition of Man:  man’s modern conquest of nature is really nature’s conquest of man.  Why?  Because when reason is turned into a tool to satisfy our desires, our desires are running the show–but our desires or instincts largely come from nature.  I will return to Lewis’ argument and its connection to modern nihilism in future posts.

One noteworthy thing Leon mentions is the place of philosophy in all of this:

Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness — and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

What would it mean to not just “tinker and tweak”?  What would that look like?  Why is it so difficult, not only to do, but to even imagine?

I think philosophy has been assigned one of its great tasks for the present age.   If Hegel said philosophy is its own time comprehended in thought, then the great challenge for thought in our time is that one of the most important matters, technology, is largely about our future, and its grip on our present makes it so hard to reflect on it.

3 Replies to “Technology and the Fate of the Humanities”

  1. I agree, in particular because I am a physicst having work in “tech” ever since. Based on the limited sample of tech people I have met I have come up with a weird theory: I believe that “technological solutionism” can put people off in a way leading directly to the most irrational pseudo-science or esoterism.
    I have seen overly rational numbers focused tech guys turning into the most spiritual, emotional followers of strange cult-like ideologies as if there were no middle ground. I tend to say it was particularly the extremely sober and intellectual that fell for that.
    However, I did not do any research on numbers – probably I am generalizing too based on some outstanding examples.

    1. Elke,

      Your comment reminded me of an article I read about pick-up artists. They deploy psychological tricks and techniques that, when you first hear them, you think, “Oh, only stupid girls would fall for that.” But in the PUA’s experiences and anecdotes, it was often the intelligent, well-educated women who thought themselves immune from such blatant manipulations that proved to be the most susceptible.

      This is true of philosophers as well (see one of the entries in the “Scumbag Anatlyic Philosopher” meme: “Ridicules you for believing in God’s existence…believes in modal realism [the belief that there are parallel universes]”. Intellegent people with a somewhat neurotically intellectualistic bent can tend to be “top-heavy” and get sucked into a neat and tidy belief system, however fantastical its theses. I speak from personal experience!

      Behavioral economists and their expositors–David Brooks, Daniel Kahnemen, Dan Ariely–are shedding lots of light on the many ways in which we are human, all too human…

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