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Thursday, 13 April 2017

Stopped in my tracks

It's no secret I love Lapham's Quarterly. I eagerly await each season's delivery and then pour over it and nibble on it until the next one arrives. It makes me feel smarter than I am.

I always start with Mr. Lapham's editorial notes, and in the Spring 2017issue, Discovery, what he says in Homo Faber stopped me still. (I will say though, I've changed and emboldened his reference to "man" to be neutral, just because we can do that now.)
Our technologies produce continuously improved means toward increasingly ill-defined ends. We have acquired a great many new weapons and information systems, but we don’t know at what or at whom to point the digital enhancements. For direction to the “peace and security” of a cosmos that suits us best, we are better advised to look, as did Albert Einstein, to “the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist” than to the economist, the cosmetic surgeon, and the engineer.

Machines can measure blood flow and scan a heartbeat, but they don’t know how it is with people, who we are, and how it is between us. Data streams can number and store the dots in the EKG and the ATM, hook up assignations with Tinder and fix the trades for Goldman Sachs. But they can’t connect the dots to anything other than themselves. Watson and Siri can access the Library of Congress, but they can’t read books. Machines don’t do metaphor. They process words as lifeless objects, not as living subjects, and so they don’t know what the words mean. Not knowing what the words mean, they can’t hack into the civilising heap of human consciousness (of myth and memory and emotion) that is the making of ourselves as human beings.

The internet is maybe the best and brightest machine ever made by [humans], blessed with a near-infinite expanse of miraculous application. Language is not yet one of them. Computers scan everything but hear nothing. Even if they know where to find or how to make a cosmos best suited for human habitation, how would they send word word of the discovery? They know now who they are or what they do.
I also quickly looked up the Einstein reference and found the fuller essay, Principles of Research, from Einstein’s Essays in Science. I've also done a basic gender swap this time, because women are also capable of cosmic thought.
A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception an thought; this desire may be compared with the townswoman’s irresistible longing to escape from her noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity. With this negative notice there goes a personal one. Woman tries to make for herself in the fashion that suits her best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; she tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of her for the world of experience, and thus overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher and the natural scientist do, each in her own fashion. She makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of her emotional life, in order to find this way the peace and security which she cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.
I love the idea that a computer doesn't know who to tell when it discovers something. I'm totally going to steal all this, so thank you, Mr. Lapham.
Posted at 10:34 am
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