Technology: A Metaphor For the World

Posted 1/27/2016

In Lewis Thomas’s Essay, An Earnest Proposal, he writes, “I take it on faith that computers, although lacking souls, are possessed of a kind of intelligence.” I note two points: firstly, that Thomas takes this assertion on faith, and secondly, that he separates intelligence from the soul. These two points are connected. We perceive the world around us through metaphor, expressing and describing our experience through comparison. We attribute theological, religious characteristics to the metaphors we choose. Today, technology is our metaphor. Modernity defines itself by technological advancement. Industry and philosophical enlightenment go hand in hand. The economic conflict between the western hemisphere and the “Third World” is largely a difference in technology. The War Between the States here in America was painted by northern abolitionists as a conflict between southern “backwardness” and northern “enlightenment,” where backwardness was defined by a deeply rooted distrust of theological and economic industrialism. I am making sweeping assertions. But I am not trying to explain modernity, or to offer a stiff model into which the modern world fits. I am simply making observations of a specific phenomenon, which is not in doubt: we perceive our own culture, and measure our own culture, through the metaphor of technology. Assertions to the side, I ask that we interrogate Thomas’ claim, that computers can be intelligent without souls, through a recognition that we tend to understand “intelligence” in almost purely technological terms. Nicholas Carr in The Shallows notes that we tend to think of our brains like computers, simply because of the pervasiveness of computers in modern society. Elsewhere on this blog I have mentioned how Joseph Weizenbaum, the great computer scientist, wrote of how computers generate their own metaphorical narrative–that they are “necessary”–based on their claim to be a universal machine. By the adoption of that narrative, we then interpret the rest of the world based on its applicability to the computer. On the subject of intelligence, therefore, I submit that it has become natural for us, as moderns, to think of intelligence in computational terms: so much information in, so much time in the processing unit, so much information out. Under this assumption, Thomas’ statement is a tautology. Of course it has not always been this way. The very word ‘intelligence’ has its roots in the Latin intellegere, meaning to understand, and assimilate. The Latin itself has its roots in legere, to draw together, to extract. At least in a older understanding, therefore, intelligence necessitates prudence, and volition: choosing between the good and the bad, assimilating the good together into a unity, connecting individual ideas into a whole. For the medieval, moreover, an integral part of prudence (and thereby, intelligence or understanding) was ars memoria, the constructing of images and the systemization of the governing metaphors by which material is assimilated and understood. Intelligence did not merely require a soul, it was a faculty of the soul. But there is another facet to this adoption of modernity’s technological narrative, indicated by Thomas’ frank admission that he takes the computational metaphor “on faith.” Ian Bogost, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has written compellingly in The Atlantic on our faith in computers, so compellingly that I will quote him at length.

Here’s an exercise: The next time you hear someone talking about algorithms, replace the term with “God” and ask yourself if the meaning changes. Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers people have allowed to replace gods in their minds, even as they simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion. It’s part of a larger trend. The scientific revolution was meant to challenge tradition and faith, particularly a faith in religious superstition. But today, Enlightenment ideas like reason and science are beginning to flip into their opposites. Science and technology have become so pervasive and distorted, they have turned into a new type of theology.

This is not a new trend. Frances Yates wrote years ago in her book, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, on the hermetic and occultic tendencies within the 16th century origins of the Royal Society. Humans are religious beings, and whenever a culture adopts a pervasive metaphor, or narrative by which they measure the world, it quickly adopts a religious character. Marxism is a narrative of history, by which history is measured in terms of class struggle; no one can doubt the religious fervor with which advocates of Marxism applied their beliefs. Capitalism has done the same for some elements of contemporary American conservatism. The worship of Reason, as a divine force, was made explicit in the French Revolution. The list of examples could go on. I am not inherently blaiming Lewis Thomas for his adoption of modernity’s technological, and computational, narrative. But I would ask that we take care to discern how many common arguments are actually faux tautologies based on our shared metaphor for the world. “Duh” moments are the most dangerous in rational thought, because we fail to notice their underlying assumptions.