Last week I had a jarring conversation with one of the most influential figures in Silicon Valley. Me: I wish more kids were learning to be musicians. He: In 10 years computers will be able to use a combination of artificial intelligence and massed data from the Internet to generate music better than human musicians. We can already use these techniques to choose hit songs more accurately than record executives. Musicianship will be an obsolete profession by the time today's kids grow up. There might be good reasons to teach kids music, but creating a new generation of professional musicians is not one of them.
This was one of those moments when I wondered at what's become of computer culture. The remark was the kind of thing Marvin Minsky, the legendary MIT professor and one of the fathers of artificial intelligence, used to say to me when I was a young researcher to piss me off and make me think. But there were unmistakable layers of humor and irony in Marvin's provocations. Many of today's Silicon Valley thought leaders seem to have embraced what used to be speculations as certainties, without the spirit of unbounded curiosity that originally gave rise to them.
Ideas that used to be tucked away in the obscure world of artificial intelligence labs have gone mainstream in tech culture. The basic tenet of this new culture is that all of reality, including humans, is one big information system. The meaning of life, in this view, is making that system function at ever-higher "levels of description." People pretend to know what "levels of description" means, though I doubt anyone really does. A Web page is thought to represent a higher level of description than a single letter, while a brain is a higher level than a Web page. An increasingly common extension of this notion is that the Net as a whole is or soon will be a higher level than a brain.
There's nothing special about the place of humans in this scheme. Soon computers will get so big and fast and the Net so rich with information that we will be obsolete, either left behind or subsumed into some cyber-superhuman something.
Silicon Valley culture has recently taken to enshrining this abstract idea and spreading it in a novel way. Since implementation speaks louder than words, ideas can be spread in the designs of software. If you believe the distinction between the roles of people and computers is starting to dissolve, you might express that, as some friends of mine at Microsoft once did, by designing features for a word processor that are supposed to know what you want, such as when you want to start an outline. You might have had the experience of having Word suddenly determine that you are creating an indented outline at the wrong moment. While I am all for the automation of petty tasks, this is different. From my point of view this type of design feature is nonsense, since you end up having to learn more than you would otherwise in order to manipulate such software's expectations of you. The real function of the feature isn't to make life easier—it is to express a new philosophy.
For decades I've been complaining about antihuman computer culture, and I frequently end up attracting some unwelcome allies. I seek to influence young technical people—and I think I have been able to do that—but I also seem to excite some other folks who get it all wrong. I'm not the slightest bit Luddite. I don't believe that something natural is necessarily any more meaningful or true than something artificial. I'm actually a raving technological utopian!
A description of my particular utopian thinking will have to wait for another month's column, but I believe the most beautiful possibilities come from treating people as mysterious wells of meaning and using technology to find new ways to connect people to each other. The important point is that while I'm willing to go very far in imagining what information technology might be like in the future, I don't assume that I know quite what a person is, and therefore I don't attempt to reduce personhood in my designs.
These days I feel as though I'm walking on a tightrope, with a crowd of ravenous faux robotic nerds on one side and a gaggle of sentimental antiquarians on the other. I try not to fall to either side.
In a sense, this is a continuation of old battles sparked by the Enlightenment. You can imagine some of the traditional religious enemies of the Enlightenment on one side of the rope. The least likable have always been those driven by the power that comes from perpetuating church empires built on the fear of death. This was and remains the setup for popes and bishops who would bother to persecute a Galileo or ridicule a Darwin.
Of course, there are also many religious or spiritual people who understandably wonder about questions related to death and who worry whether meaning, beauty, and other deeply human qualities can survive the cold scrutiny of rational inquiry. If a new technologically informed worldview isn't attractive to such people, I think technologists ought to change their culture to make it more welcoming, and that is particularly true for product designers.