Our Duty to Mock

Bennahum and Holt

Our Duty to Mock

Bennahum and Holt

Our Duty to Mock
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 5 1999 2:17 PM

Bennahum and Holt

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Dear David,

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I began by raising the possibility that computers have not contributed to the sum of human happiness. There are two components to this sum: an economic one that can be measured in dollars, and a non-economic one that we can only make plausible conjectures about. I produced some hard evidence that the computerization of the American economy that has taken place over the last decade has not done anything to boost the GDP (as witnessed by the fact that productivity growth in the '90s hasn't even reached the anemic rate of the 1950s, much less that of the '60s and '70s). You counter with anecdotal evidence that computers have yielded some economic benefits. Apparently these are almost completely neutralized by computer-caused wastage: rapid obsolescence, excessive training costs, otiose e-mail, and a general profusion of not very valuable information. The hypothesis that computers have substantially bettered our economic lot has been tested empirically and found to be false. Or do you dispute the econometric methodology?

On to the non-economic component of the sum of human happiness. "Computers are good for entertainment," you say, adducing (improbably) this book discussion as a case in point. I cannot argue with your subjective experience, but surely computers must occupy a pretty lowly spot in the entertainment hierarchy, well below playing the piano, skiing, drinking claret with friends, reading a novel, or enjoying a one-night stand. Nor have computers done anything to improve culture at large; neither music nor art nor literature has got better; cinema and political journalism--thanks to special effects and the Internet, respectively--have been demonstrably degraded. And there are few things more dispiriting than the sight of spotty and stupefied teenagers sitting for hours in front of computer screens at the local library while great volumes of Web detritus scroll by. As a communications medium, computers have allowed individual nutcases, once kept isolated from one another by accidents of geography, to come together and for virtual nutcase societies that can do actual harm.

The unintended message of the two books we are discussing--especially Kurzweil's--is that it's only going to get worse. I did not find Kurzweil's book "turgid," as you did. As a would-be philosopher of consciousness he has little to say that is original, and sometimes he seems to make thinks up ("The late Wittgenstein heavily influenced the existentialists"--who told him that?). He betrays his tin ear for culture when he observes, for example, that the harpsichord is an "obsolete technology."

But when Kurzweil is conjuring up visions of the next century, his book can be fascinating in a ghastly sort of way. He loves computers so much, finds them so entertaining as a co-conspirator for fantasy, that he is positively lusting to merge with them. Thanks to nanotechnology and the "partial porting" of our brains with computer devices, he predicts, the world will become utterly transparent to our desires in the sweet by-and-by. He writes,

It may seem that we will have too many choices. Today we have only to choose our clothes, our makeup, and destination when we go out. In the late twenty-first century, we will have to select our body, our personality, our environment--so many difficult decisions to make! But don't worry--we'll have swarms of machines to guide us... Stroll with you lover along a virtual Champs Elysées, take a walk along a virtual Cancun beach, mingle with animals in a simulated Mozambique game reserve. Your whole relationship can be in Cyberland... With this technology, you will be able to have almost any kind of experience with just about anyone, real or imagined, at any time... The nanobot swarms can instantly take on any form and emulate any sort of appearance, intelligence, and personality that you or it desires--the human form, say, if that's what turns you on...

To quote Max Beerbohm: "So this is utopia, is it? Well,/ I beg your pardon, I thought it hell."

And who's to say it won't happen? Kurzweil, after all, was named Inventor of the Year by MIT in 1988, and he and his sort are already busy scanning brains, writing software that composes bad poetry and cracks feeble jokes, and inventing neural implants to turn our minds to software so that we can "reprogram" our feelings. If we cannot stop such people, we at least have a solemn duty to do everything in our power to mock, vex, and annoy them as they carry out their ridiculous schemes. Don't you think, David?

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David Bennahum is the author of
Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace
. Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for Lingua Francaand the Wall Street Journal. This week they discussWhen Things Start To Think,by Neil Gershenfeld (Henry Holt; 224 pages; $25) andThe Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, by Ray Kurzweil (Viking; 352 pages; $24.95).