Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Religion of Ignorance

I have never heard Ray Kurzweil speak nor read any of his books, but he is certainly a major figure in the world of technology, the world in which I live and work. So he is a very familiar character. In his brilliant passion he reminds me of Edward Teller, whom I did get to hear talk a couple of times. Do I remember right, that Edward Teller was the model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? Anyway that shoe would have fit well enough.

I have to admit that I find this sort of brilliant passion more on the pathological side of normal than on the wise side. But these crazy visions somehow have become enormously powerful. Who knows, maybe the hydrogen bomb really did make the world more peaceful. Who knows, maybe computers will become more intelligent than we are, maybe computers will become conscious, maybe we will become able to transfer our consciousness into a computer.

What is quite interesting about these speculations is that their terms are quite slippery. Terms, of course, are always slippery: how many whiskers does it take to make a beard, etc. Sometimes the slipperiness doesn’t make a significant difference – but sometimes it does!

What would it mean for a computer to become conscious, to have a mind? What is mind? Need such a question have an answer? How can a meaningful question fail to have an answer? Or, what constitutes an answer, what function does an answer serve?

Alongside the question, what is mind, consider another question, what is the American Dream? An answer to this question is a political platform, a position that claims power. There is a kind of terrifyingly stupid brutality in refusal to grant others the space to hold different dreams. And, whether we call it consciousness or mind or soul, to carve out an answer and enforce adherence to one answer, that idolatry is the totalitarian killing of the soul. Soul is the ever deepening exploration and appreciation of the boundlessness of experience, of life. But, sadly, the totalitarian killing of the soul is what we must confront every day.

Computer technology certainly gets more powerful and more sophisticated at a stunning pace. What are the implications of that progress? To say that technology is one thing and what people do with it is another, that doesn’t quite make sense. Technology is something that people do. In our massively scaled society, the connections between the different facets of a technology become hidden and disguised and so appear separate. Gun manufacturers don’t kill; gun company stockholders don’t kill; gun sales people don’t kill; gun advocates don’t kill: it is gun users who kill.

Limitation of liability is fundamental to the corporate institution, so it’s not quite right to discount conspiracy theory in this pattern. There is certainly value in trying to understand how we got here. But the value is primarily in helping us understand whither we are headed, and more importantly, what opportunities are available for steering toward the happier among whatever paths are open before us.

This notion of transferring our mind into a computer: what does that idea do? Why might that idea be attractive? Of course we are each mortal, and so any sort of survival of mind beyond the body, that is attractive. Clearly we are toying with religion here, with worship of the computer. A computer is a kind of stunning crack in reality, an actual presence of perfection in our otherwise imperfect world. Religion is not altogether a bad thing: the devil is in the details! How might the religion of the computer work out?

Computers are the ultimate in clarity, the opposite of mystery. Computers are mechanical models of dualistic grasping. A final answer is the end of investigation, of looking, of awareness. To worship computers is to worship ignorance. The 1980s brought us the freedom to think that greed is good. The worship of ignorance is not likely to move us in a better direction.

How might this play out in practice? The worship of greed imploded in the marketplace. The worship of ignorance, unawareness, death, this worship seems likely to implode on the battlefield.

Computer technology already plays a huge role on the battlefield. The fighting gets more and more abstract, at least to those who specify the targets. The battlefield itself becomes abstract. The internet becomes a field of potential targets, friends and foes. I saw a video recently… one video gamer called in a SWAT raid on another video gamer. The SWAT team, with all their guns and armor, were the robots in this farce. A name and address popped out of a computer, and they performed their function as they had been trained, in total ignorance of the broader situation.

We already live in a world that is deeply structured by algorithms… for another example, look at the sort of statistical politics practiced by Karl Rove. Our government is run by statistical analysis of polling data! Our legislators have become robots!

The notion that computers might take over the world, that is quite absurd. Each individual sentient being is in inseparable possession of unbounded power. But that power can be buried and denied in countless ways. The worship of ignorance through the glorification of mechanical dualism, that is one way we can hide from our own power. How deeply can we entangle ourselves in this confusion? That is the nature of our unbounded power: it enables unbounded confusion.

Don’t worry about computers! If we can each acknowledge our own power and responsibility, and cultivate the awareness, curiosity, and wisdom, to turn over the rocks of easy answers to discover the vibrant puzzling life hidden beneath… we might even become capable of making good use of that amazing microelectronic technology!

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