The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    From the Editors

From the Editors

Jay Tolson

How well prepared are we humans for life under the ever-ramifying digital dispensation?

Are we marching to Estonia?

It might seem so. According to Nathan Heller in the New Yorker, the small Baltic republic is well on its way to transforming itself “from a state to a digital society.” Under the aegis of e-Estonia, as the nation’s government-led project is called, virtually every service the state deals with, from education to health care to transportation, is being “digitally linked across one platform, wiring the nation.” Savings and efficiencies amounting to two percent of the country’s GDP have already been realized, and cutting-edge innovations, from driverless cars to an elaborately de-centralized system of personal data, are changing the way 1.3 million Estonians (and some 28,000 registered e-residents) conduct business and lead their lives. 

Whether you see it as utopia or dystopia, Estonia’s digitopia is where modern societies appear to be heading. Yet as the contributors to this issue ask, how well prepared are we humans for life under the ever-ramifying digital dispensation? Do we even begin to consider what we might be risking when we opt for, or succumb to, the ease, efficiency, and beguilements of online life? 

Many boosters claim, not unreasonably, that the digitally enhanced life only extends the capacities and potentials of the human being. But growing evidence suggests that such a regime may also be distorting or diminishing our human endowments, including our imagination and intellect, our will and attention, our feelings and emotions. Nor is it unfair to say that the life digital—both the reality and the hype—has already gone some way toward diminishing our sense of human distinctiveness. 

One does not have to share historian Yuval Noah Harari’s vision, set forth in his Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, of a nightmare future dominated by a small techno-elite and a breed of god-like superhumans to be concerned about the faith now being placed in the algorithmically re-engineered life. Tech mogul and visionary Elon Musk fantasizes about uploading human consciousness into the Cloud—a notion sensibly batted down by, among others, neuroscientist Anil Seth, whose work attempts to show that consciousness is the product not just of our brain activity but of our entire body’s participation with the world, participation that effectively helps generate our conscious experience as a kind of hallucination. Yet however often more cautious thinkers and scientists dispel the hype of the Singularity—that moment when artificial intelligence will supposedly allow the mind to transcend biological limits—we humans seem increasingly in thrall to tech gurus and hucksters who claim that we are nothing more than highly complex algorithmic machines. In a variety of ways, notably in our eagerness to cede wide epistemic authority to Big Data and machine learning, we as a culture are submitting to the picture of ourselves as beings in the image of the computer. 

Breaking the hold of that picture requires the kind of careful philosophical consideration given to the nascent digital domain by thinkers back in the 1940s, one of whom, the neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch, was centrally involved in the relatively short-lived science of cybernetics (defined by Soviet mathematician A.N. Kolmogorov as the “study of systems of any nature which are capable of receiving, storing and processing information so as to use it for control”). As intellectual historian Leif Weatherby explains in his essay “Digital Metaphysics,” McCulloch and others of this group contributed to “a speculative energy that we could use now. It was put at the service not of innovation or disruption but of maintenance and politics, of establishing categories to put our digital world on a better course.” That course, Weatherby believes, can lead us to “a way to think through the balance of the digitization of our world while avoiding the extremes of digital utopianism and digital denialism.”

Great as they are, the challenges of the digital age are not only profoundly intellectual and conceptual. They are also emotional and affective. In her essay on the digitally revealed life, historian and technology critic Christine Rosen asks the salient question: “If emotions use our bodies as their theater, as Antonio Damasio puts it, what happens when that theater becomes virtual?” Almost without having noticed it, denizens of the digital world have willingly submitted to a new cultural imperative: “Expose thyself!” Putting ourselves out there, in the digital ether, has engendered a curious, somewhat alienated sensibility, at once jaded and vulnerable.

As much as we invest of our minds and feelings in and through digital media, we are remarkably uncaring about the long-term fate of those thoughts and sentiments. What if Facebook or any other major social network were to shut down? This is not merely a technical question, argues the literary critic and scholar Alan Jacobs in his essay, “Tending the Digital Commons”: “In the years since I became fully aware of the vulnerability of what the Internet likes to call my ‘content,’” Jacobs writes, “I have made some changes in how I live online. But I have also become increasingly convinced that this vulnerability raises wide-ranging questions that ought to be of general concern. Those of us who live much of our lives online are not faced here simply with matters of intellectual property; we need to confront significant choices about the world we will hand down to those who come after us. The complexities of social media ought to prompt deep reflection on what we all owe to the future, and how we might discharge this debt.” 

The question of ownership in the digitally mediated world raises other large questions at the juncture of commerce and culture, many of which Edward Tenner, a historian of technology, addresses in his essay, “Who's Afraid of the Frightful Five?” Surveying a growing body of literature critical of Big Tech hegemony, Tenner partially agrees with concerns about the monopolistic tendencies among the various giants, and the resulting effects upon intellectual and artistic creativity, but he cautions against a certain myopia about the history of monopoly itself. Perhaps, he suggests, there is a more important reason to be concerned about the sway of the Silicon Valley overlords: “If the online moguls had truly sinister designs, it would be far easier to reform their enterprises or to break them up. Part of the problem is that they don’t know how to control the new world they have created, one that opens so many vistas to the cynical.” 

If there is a thread running through our essays, it is that we yet poorly grasp the many perverse effects of the kind of dominion promised by our embrace of the new digital dispensation. To some degree, we are what we make. But when what we make makes us in ways that we fail to understand, the human at the core of culture grows dangerously fragile.

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