September 2, 2010
The Shallows 7: The Computer's Dream
If we had no clocks, no time-keeping devices of any kind, what would happen? How would we know when to get to the airport? When would plays and sporting events start? For that matter, when would a basketball game end? How would lawyers know what to charge? What would the “timing belt” in my car keep track of?
If we had no clocks, society as we know it would collapse. Society might return to a more agrarian, more relational, more community-minded, more nature-conscious state—but our productivity would most definitely drop. Something would be lost and something gained. As Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows, “Every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities.” (p. 209).
Like clocks, computers are here to stay. There’s no going back. Without computers, society as we know it would cease. Just as clocks shape how we experience reality—making us into time trackers, into their own image—so computers do the same. (See here.)
I found a strange resonance between Carr’s concerns and those of Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan raises questions about manipulating farmland by injecting huge quantities of fertilizers and insecticides into fields, which offers massive short-term gains at the possible long-term expense of actually stripping the soil of its fertility. Pollan wonders if we wouldn’t be better off treating “farms less like machines than living organisms” (p. 130).
Carr’s questions are parallel. Has the technological revolution amped up the industrial revolution’s legacy of treating humans as machines (computerized machines in particular) rather than as living organisms?
Futurists dream of engineering humanity, of taking all the guesswork out of society itself. After all, we’ve plotted the human genome. But it would be naive to assume we could completely manipulate human behavior or experience based on that alone. Already we’re seeing that the environment as filtered by the epigenome has a much more complex role to play than we have imagined. Genes are not the end of the story. Yet the optimistic naiveté that so often courses through the veins of scientists, social scientists, journalists and commentators—the wish-dream of a species-wide upgrade—resurges with every new discovery.
The question remains: How successfully can we analyze, understand, educate, comfort, heal, forgive and love human beings as if they were machines if that is not fundamentally what we are?
Next Installment: The Shallows 8: The Future of the Book