Welcome to Room 101

Harriet the cat

‘Sometimes I sits and thinks and
sometimes I just sits’ – A.A. Milne

Like Nicholas Carr, I, too, am disturbed by that prospect of someone deciding for me that I will be “better off” assisted by an artificial brain, a “HAL-like machine” that is “smart as peopleā€”or smarter.”

When the machine is “smarter” than the human it serves, will it still subordinate to the human’s wishes and whims? As Carr recalls in his article (Is Google Making Us Stupid?), the fictional HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey tried to send its human to a “deep space death.” The human succeeded in outmaneuvering HAL, “calmly, coldly” disconnecting it while the machine pleaded plaintively for a reprieve.

Today’s real cyber-servants are becoming commonplace, accepted, and even necessary to daily activity, while their creators strive to make them more HAL-like, ever-present and integral to everything we think and do, while reporting our wishes and whims — to who? Who will be privileged to know what I want even before I do? I don’t want or need somebody or something deciding how I will be better off. Certainly, I don’t need for third parties to have privileged access to my needs, desires, and weaknesses, to exploit my vulnerabilities, or to place their interests ahead of mine.

Human history is full of examples of the privileged exerting dominion over the non-privileged. Is “HAL” just another way to perpetuate the same power differentials that have always existed, or do these technological developments herald the creation of a new type of privileged class, one that may not even be human?

We have become the Jetsons
It’s not a greater quantity of information or quicker insights that stand between me and productivity; it’s the same clerical barriers that have always existed, but taking new forms. Instead of pushing a stylus into a tablet, I am pushing buttons to synthesize documents that I need for my work. The most modern tools impede my progress by imposing additional barriers. I can’t just convert my creation to a pdf format, as I did a few years ago, with a few keystrokes; the software servant demands authentication before I can access “the cloud.” With multiple roles, I use more than one “cloud,” and there is confusion in the machine. Problems that I had solved years ago regress to a more modern state and demand undue time and attention, if I can solve them at all. The machine is not my servant any more, if it ever was.

While it is convenient to have access to information upon command, I have never thought that I needed to speed up, to skim lightly over content so I could “cover” more. On the contrary, I long for the luxury of time to ponder. Flashes of insight, and, indeed, all deep learning, are the result of time, space, action, and even inaction — a pause for contemplation, while knowledge percolates, and its essence is distilled into new awareness.

6 Replies to “Welcome to Room 101”

  1. Monica,

    Thank you for the post. I have a few questions for you that I may not be able to ask in class. This is just to get a sense of your viewpoint.

    Do you think Carr-ians are the minority? Asked another way, have most of society (US context) purchased the idea of I-servants doing most of the brain work?

    1. Henry,
      Thanks for your comments!
      I think those who share Carr’s concerns are probably a minority. Instant gratification is so commonplace, and we who have it tend to take it for granted. I love that I can ask my phone for the law of cosines, or just about any fact or figure. It’s great. (I wonder how it will be when we are asking machines for their “opinion!”) You have to slow down and contemplate to realize the dark side of all this. Where”facts” come from is a whole conversation, but the thought that has me going today is that instant access is not for my benefit as much as it is there to exploit me. Also, the electronic servants that I use every day have become more burdensome in terms of the overhead of labor and inconvenience taxed to me, so my workload grows. I am a servant more than ever, at the expense of time that cannot be spent contemplating. That’s why I say that we have become the Jetsons. The clerical burden of “pushing buttons” all day is really onerous; the “cloud” had not freed me for higher purposes.

  2. Thank you for sharing this great post. The disturbance from all kinds of new technologies do make contemplation a luxury. When I want to spend one afternoon reading a book, I cannot help checking my emails and am afraid of some emergency may happen. I cannot focus on one thing for a long time because there will always be something attracting me away.

  3. It is frustrating at times how as soon as we “master” one technology, another one replaces it and we have to relearn our process! “New” technology is not always better (e.g. windows 7 vs windows vista), but the process is generally self-correcting, improving over time.

  4. Thanks for this, Monica. I think we should talk about the process you describe, whereby things that used to feel easy, intuitive, and even natural, have become more complicated, siloed, and time consuming to access — and we’re not even talking about the accessibility issues that ensue.

  5. After a semester of pushing all the wrong buttons on the projector screens….I’m really glad I came back to your post! One the things in philosophy that we talk about is the “extended mind” hypothesis whereby the things you use (phone, notebook, computer) can become the extensions of your mind and allow you to save cognitive resources. Rereading your post really made me wonder whether other people can count as that now (I think they can…oppression anyone) and whether we actually lose something robust in that offloading. I’ll have to keep pondering *sits down in philosophical armchair with ice-cream*

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