Should it ever happen that a world-class fashion designer notices an emperor parading around without any clothes on we would do well to pay even closer attention than if the same comment came from a sartorially unsophisticated child—or a blog-writing psychologist! So we should pay very close attention now that a technologist as accomplished and gifted as Jaron Lanier has used the Op-Ed page of the NY Times to question the prophetic claims of technological evangelists.
Lanier takes issue with his colleagues' rhetorical excesses and outrageous predictions that confuse the technical with the human. For example, referring to the Jeopardy-playing IBM computer I wrote about last month Lanier writes,
"Suppose I.B.M. had dispensed with the theatrics, declared it had done Google one better and come up with a new phrase-based search engine. This framing of exactly the same technology would have gained I.B.M.'s team as much (deserved) recognition as the claim of an artificial intelligence, but would also have educated the public about how such a technology might actually be used most effectively."
He gives other examples of how we unnecessarily cast computers as people—albeit with "artificial" intelligence—and turn people into fleshy computers by asking computers to be responsible for human tasks such as educating our young, caring for our elderly, or making aesthetic choices. More and more it seems we love our gadgets more than our neighbors.
He reserves his best thinking for "the Singularity," the idea that our tools and toys herald a glorious post-human future complete with a super-intelligent sentient Internet and human consciousness virtualized and rendered immortal inside computer simulations. Lanier says that these technologists are doing nothing less than creating "their own ultramodern religion." And why? Well, because "computer scientists are human, and are as terrified by the human condition as anyone else. We, the technical elite, seek some way of thinking that gives us an answer to death, for instance."
Now I confess, I love my MacBook (and my iPhone too!): the feel of that unibody aluminum case in my hand, the sharp screen, even those back-lit keys. Love it. Love what it does and what it lets me do. But as a way to answer questions of ultimate concern raised by the inevitability of death? I'm not so sure technology is the place to look, and in that I find myself listening closely to people like Lanier who keep pointing out naked techno-emperors.
While Lanier frames his conclusions as reminders for fellow members of the technological elite, it has implications as well for the rest us who consume—and are sometimes consumed by—technology:
"Technology is essentially a form of service. We work to make the world better. Our inventions can ease burdens, reduce poverty and suffering, and sometimes even bring new forms of beauty into the world. We can give people more options to act morally, because people with medicine, housing and agriculture can more easily afford to be kind than those who are sick, cold and starving.
"But civility, human improvement, these are still choices. That's why scientists and engineers should present technology in ways that don't confound those choices.
"We serve people best when we keep our religious ideas out of our work."
Bravo! My enthusiasm aside, what needs to be added is that the rest of us should consume "technology in ways that don't confound those choices." We "end-users" also need to avoid the trap of developing religious fervor from technological choices: "online therapy" is not the second coming; social networking won't end loneliness and solve world-hunger; there will never be an "app" to guarantee happiness and well-being. What we end-users need to keep in mind is that anything that seems too good to be true is, and any tool that makes itself more important than the person using it is a tool to avoid.