Just Lights and Clockwork

One of our culture’s most brilliant contemporary non-Luddite critics of our use of technology must be Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows and more recently The Glass Cage. At the close of a chapter dubbed “White-Collar Computer” he pinpoints the special danger that automation might pose to culture by way of undermining the distinctive feature of philosophical thinking: Wonder. 1

If we’re not careful, the automation of mental labor, by changing the nature and focus of intellectual endeavor, may end up eroding one of the foundations of culture itself: our desire to understand the world. Predictive algorithms may be supernaturally skilled at discovering correlations, but they’re indifferent to the underlying causes of traits and phenomena. Yet it’s the deciphering of causation–the meticulous untangling of how and why things work the way they do–that extends the reach of human understanding and ultimately gives meaning to our search for knowledge. If we come to see automated calculations of probability as sufficient for our professional and social purposes, we risk losing or at least weakening our desire and motivation to seek explanations, to venture down the circuitous paths that lead toward wisdom and wonder. Why bother, if a computer can spit out “the answer” in a millisecond or two?

In his 1947 essay “Rationalism in Politics,” the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott provided a vivid description of the modern rationalist: “His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void.” The rationalist has no concern for culture or history; he neither cultivates nor displays a personal perspective. His thinking is notable only for “the rapidity with which he reduces the tangle and variety of experience” into “a formula.” Oakeshott’s words also provide us with a perfect description of computer intelligence: eminently practical and productive and entirely lacking in curiosity, imagination, and worldliness. [The Glass Cage, 123-124]

Notes:

  1. For those who might imagine that a computer could someday replicate even this aspect of human nature, I would suggest reading Edward Feser’s review of Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind.