When we worry about machines replacing human beings, we are focused more on these alien robots than on mimetic replicants. Yet the programming of robots can, as the engineer Cecil Balmont observes, make their proper use obscure and dysfunctional, just because we have no guiding measure of what they should do for us. Neither Lanier nor Balmont are back-to-Nature romantics; they are raising questions of purpose and value in the design of machines, questions they think can only be answered by returning to the human subject. It is exactly the same question technicians in Spinoza’s generation posed about the value of the double concave lens he was a master in fabricating. I have wanted, in sum, to explain in this essay why the label “humanist” is a badge of honor, rather than the name for an exhausted worldview. Humanism’s emphasis on life-narratives, on the enriching experience of difference, and on evaluating tools in terms of human rather than mechanical complexity are all living values—and more, I would say, these are critical measures for judging the state of modern society. Looking back to the origins of these values is not an exercise in nostalgia; it is rather to remind us that we are engaged in a project, still in process, a humanism yet to be realized, of making social experience more open, engaging, and layered.
more from Richard Sennett at The Hedgehog Review here.