As a God Might Be


Meghan O’Gieblyn in the Boston Review:

There are two kinds of technology critics. On one side are the determinists, who see the history of technology as one of inexorable progress, advancing according to its own Darwinian logic—the wheel, the steam engine, the autonomous car—while humans remain its hapless passengers. It is a fatalistic vision, one even the Luddite can find bewitching. “We do not ride upon the railroad,” Thoreau said, watching the locomotive barrel through his forest retreat. “It rides upon us.” On the opposite side of the tracks lie the social constructivists. They want to know where the train came from, and also, why a train? Why not something else? Constructivists insist that the development of technology is an open process, capable of different outcomes; they are curious about the social and economic forces that shape each invention.

Nowhere is this debate more urgent than on the question of artificial intelligence. Determinists believe all roads lead to the Singularity, a glorious merger between man and machine. Constructivists aren’t so sure: it depends on who’s writing the code. In some sense, the debate about intelligent machines has become a hologram of mortal outcomes—a utopia from one perspective, an apocalypse from another. Conversations about technology are almost always conversations about history. What’s at stake is the trajectory of modernity. Is it marching upward, plunging downward, or bending back on itself? Three new books reckon with this question through the lens of emerging technologies. Taken collectively, they offer a medley of the recurring, and often conflicting, narratives about technology and progress.

While the constructivists have gained ground in scholarly circles in recent decades, a strain of determinism persists, particularly among those most animated about the future. In fact, the determinist history lessons of Ray Kurzweil, Ramez Naam, and Andy Clark seem to have become a token of new books about technology. No exception is Malcolm Gay’s The Brain Electric: The Dramatic High-Tech Race to Merge Man and Machine, which traces the development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), electrodes surgically implanted in the brain. In an early chapter, Gay looks to history to assure us that BCIs are merely the latest instance of a very old trend: “In some essential sense, we’ve been enmeshing our lives with tools ever since Homo sapiens emerged from the hominid line some 200,000 years ago.”

More here.