Posts tagged humanities
For a hundred years, in an Italian palazzo transplanted to the shores of a Swedish lake, the Sigtuna Foundation has been hosting conversations where people from different worlds meet — artists, scientists, theologians, poets. So it seems an appropriate location for the meeting where I’ve spent the past two days, called by Kevin Anderson, professor of climate leadership at Uppsala University, and known (among other things) for being “the climate scientists who doesn’t fly”. At his invitation, the Centre for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala (CEMUS) brought a group of twenty of us together to ‘develop and collate insights from the social sciences, humanities and the arts, with the purpose of eliciting a richer picture of the challenges facing rapid societal transformation’ to have a chance of reaching the commitment to limit global warming to 2° made at the Paris COP.
Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.
Science has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space. Like great works of art, these are not just pretty pictures but prods to contemplation, which deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and of our place in nature. And contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise. The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age. The Green Revolution in agronomy alone saved a billion people from starvation. And if you want examples of true moral greatness, go to Wikipedia and look up the entries for “smallpox” and “rinderpest” (cattle plague). The definitions are in the past tense, indicating that human ingenuity has eradicated two of the cruelest causes of suffering in the history of our kind.
I admire Ray Kurzweil’s advocacy of radical ideas. However, like so many scientists and tech mavens he has never been able to frame the essential humanistic components of his master plan in a compelling way. When you promote powerful notions of human transformation it obviously becomes important not to portray humanity as something that must be overcome. Therefore it would seem to be essential to include a Future Humanities department as part of the Singularity University’s curriculum.
Perhaps we should ask whether the Turing Centenary will actually convince the humanities and the sciences to attentively read Turing’s work? Forgive the disingenuous patronising structure of the question; I clearly realise that people have read Turing’s work, especially his most famous and readable article, Computing Machinery and Intelligence published in 1950. But think back, have you actually read it?
Amidst the swirling maelstrom of technological progress so often heralded as the imminent salvation to all our ills, it can be necessary to remind ourselves that humanity sits at the center, not technology. And yet, we extrude these tools so effortlessly as if secreted by some glandular Technos expressed from deep within our genetic code. It’s difficult to separate us from our creations but it’s imperative that we examine this odd relationship as we engineer more autonomy, sensitivity, and cognition into the machines we bring into this world. The social environment, typified by the contemporary urban landscape, is evolving to include non-human actors that routinely engage with us, examining our behaviors, mediating our relationships, and assigning or revoking our rights. It is this evolving human-machine socialization that I wish to consider.
RICH AND SEEMINGLY BOUNDLESS as the creative arts seem to be, each is filtered through the narrow biological channels of human cognition. Our sensory world, what we can learn unaided about reality external to our bodies, is pitifully small. Our vision is limited to a tiny segment of the electromagnetic spectrum, where wave frequencies in their fullness range from gamma radiation at the upper end, downward to the ultralow frequency used in some specialized forms of communication. We see only a tiny bit in the middle of the whole, which we refer to as the “visual spectrum.” Our optical apparatus divides this accessible piece into the fuzzy divisions we call colors. Just beyond blue in frequency is ultraviolet, which insects can see but we cannot. Of the sound frequencies all around us we hear only a few. Bats orient with the echoes of ultrasound, at a frequency too high for our ears, and elephants communicate with grumbling at frequencies too low.