Monday, January 10, 2005

Humanists Unite!

In his About Me piece my colleague Joel has proclaimed himself a humanist. I guess it's the nearest you can get to describing yourself as an intellectual or even a philosopher in the anglophone world without sounding like a bit of a twat.

Some of you might think that making public statements about private inclinations like this is a bit like announcing to the world that you wear clean underwear every day. Very admirable, but so what? Unless one goes on to explain the relevance to your life's projects it could also be taken as a mark of decadence, rather like informing colleagues that under your suit you habitually wear red satin boxer shorts. (or have a diamond up your nostril!)

I'm not so sure that I have ever (up to now at least) openly described myself as a humanist, yet there's no denying that my education was broadly humanist in flavour and that this is as good an adjective as any for describing my everyday intellectual inclinations. It can of course mean any number of different things. Undogmatic feels quite comfy, but this shades quickly into uncontroversial, uncommitted even. Those humanistic underpants can be worn so tightly as to induce sterility.

Conversely anti-authoritarian sounds unreformably bolshy. Yet there are some powerful and dangerous new authorities in the modern workplace that operate on a different plane to the traditional corporate hierarchy and it is perhaps it is these that those of us of humanistic disposition are best placed to confront and reject.

Last Autumn Spiked!'s Frank Furedi spoke in our company bar about twenty first century philistinism, referring to a process of dumbing down in both academic and public life whereby anyobody that seeks knowledge for its own sake is considered somehow deviant. Back in the 80s Richard Rorty wrote that while primary and secondary education should properly feature an information dump geared towards the socialisation of the individual, further education should then be where the socialisation stops and criticism commences. It is also the beginning of the self-individualisation of the student who is ideally provoked into a lifelong tension with received wisdom. Non-vocational higher education fosters this kind of enormously valuable scepticism much better than the purely vocational variety. The latter is much more about being shaped than about assuming the task of shaping yourself. The current emphasis on vocational training over the study of 'the humanities' therefore presents a more significant danger than the growing prevalence of boorish philistines in a cubicle near you. It is starving our society of doubt.

On the flight to Houston in December I watched I, Robot once more and ended up slightly revising my opinion of the film. It was still a very mediocre piece of entertainment, but perhaps I was wrong to think it played exclusively on the technological anxieties of a bygone era. As well as highlighting the inevitable consequences of creating new tools simply because we can, and asking the now familiar questions about what happens when machines start thinking like human beings, on second viewing I detected a more interesting and certainly more immediate concern - what if, as a result of working with ever more 'intelligent' machines, we start to be overcome by machine logic ourselves? We probably won't have to wait another 50 years for this threat to manifest itself. I'm already rather disturbed by the number of my colleagues that actually seem to be trying to think like difference engines.

If humanism used to mean a belief in the potential of human beings to forge their own destiny rather than surrender to the will of God, in the future it may come to signify a belief in the potential of human beings to forge their own destiny rather than surrender to the logic of computers.

It may not be the machines themselves that pose the greatest threat, but rather the technological formalists for whom 'solutions' are always an end in themselves and the 'algorithmics' that would have us believe that all human output can be mapped against (and therefore comprehended by) a set of underlying rules. ("My logic is undeniable" insists V.I.K.I in I, Robot.)

Anyway, there's no end to the amount of arrant nonsense and economic waste being generated by these people. It is against such dangerously misinformed individuals that the humanists must stand - with a view to disenchanting this pernicious new form of mumbo-jumbo. (This is not some sort of neo-Luddite crusade in disguise. Those with a genuine familiarity with the potential for technology to complement and ultimately augment human capacities are amongst the least likely to be found spouting robo-babble. )

The weapons at our disposal include the following:

  • A preference for inferences over equivalences - the conviction that metaphor and association are often more revealing than what is learned by breaking down complex wholes into their simple parts.
  • A suspicion of pseudo-analytic approaches which consider practice as a mere instrument of theory, ignoring context in the name of one or other signature methodology.
  • A dedication to finding the blind-spots in all organised systems of thought.
  • The notion that intersubjectivity is nearly always preferable to so-called objectivity.
  • Pluralism. (You can always tell an honest pluralist by how many incompatible beliefs and opinions they harbour. Those that are ruthlessly consistent are nearly always fraudulent and potentially dangerous too.)
  • A commitment to the provision of original content (or else useful redescriptions) in our blogs. (Joel has promised…)

So, we humanists are "intellectually squishy" and proud of it. We are reflective sorts that, as Rorty would put it, constantly seek to enlarge our own sense of what is possible and important - individuals that are happy to occasionally prioritise becoming a different person over changing our material circumstances.

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