Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, May 13, 2011

meaning and responsibility

A long quotation here, from John Gray’s review of a new book by Brian Christian:

So, what human abilities did Christian exercise that the computers could not mimic? With a degree in computing and philosophy, he is also a poet, and summarises one of the book's most compelling insights when he writes: "If poetry represents the most expressive way of using a language, it might also, arguably, represent the most human." The amazing proficiency that computers display in many contexts depends on their superior ability to think digitally, using information that has been broken down into discrete bits.

In contrast, what is distinctive of poetry — and, for that matter, of human language in general — is the vital role of context and allusion, which cannot be broken down into separate units of information. Human conversations are not composed of a finite number of particular exchanges; they take place against a background of tacit understandings, which often make what is not spoken as important as what is said. That is one reason why artificial intelligence programs have failed to replicate the subtlety of natural languages. 

Christian notes that the ever more pervasive role of computers in our lives risks thinning out these tacit understandings. In a change that he regrets, Facebook has replaced the box in which people described their favourite activities with a drop-down menu. The assumption is that people can come to know one another by ticking a list. But what makes us individuals is not which of a limited set of activities we choose to engage in. When we describe the things we love to do we are telling more about ourselves than we know. By eliminating the option of entering our own description of our favourite activities, Facebook has emptied these activities of some of their meaning. 

Yet Facebook is no less popular. For many, it seems, the loss does not matter. In fact, one of the attractions of a life that is mediated through computers may be just this loss of meaning. Computers have been immensely liberating in all kinds of ways, but one of these is in opening up the possibility of a life composed of a succession of individual bits of information. Part of the charm of the wired life is the freedom from meaning it promises.

I have read excerpts from Christian’s book here, and read an interview with him here, but haven’t gotten to the book yet. I am all the more determined to do so now.

What I find most interesting about this passage from Gray’s review is the forthright claim that people can prefer a life drained of meaning, or at least drained of the responsibility for seeking meaning. Thinking is hard work; discovering what life is all about is a fraught and unpredictable activity; and people, by and large, are immensely lazy. (I certainly am.) How many of us can resist the draw of any technology that says, “Here, let me handle that for you”?

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