Jaron's World: The Murder of Mystery

How Silicon Valley joined the superstitious fringe as the enemy of open inquiry.

By Jaron Lanier|Friday, September 01, 2006
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS

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.

There are also lunatics congregating on the other side of the tightrope: those who are treating the mere appearance of rationality as a fetish. Communists loved to overrule science, for instance, even though they cloaked themselves in language and even clothing styles that were supposed to evoke rationality. In the Soviet Union, the ideas of Trofim Lysenko, an anti-Darwinian pseudoscientist, were preferred over reality, contributing to disastrous agricultural policies. Similar things are happening today when business interests suppress global-warming research.

You can always tell when an idea comes from fake rationalists. The telltale sign is a premature decline in mystery, specifically the kind of mystery that can be tackled through testable hypotheses. Intelligent design falls into this category. If you believe a biological structure is nothing more than a fashion decision made by God (or an alien), there's nothing you can do to explain it beyond that; you're done. While it might at first seem to enshrine mystery, intelligent design actually insulates us from the endless, intriguing mysteries of nature by providing one answer in advance for everything.

It would have been possible to treat Darwin's insights in exactly the same way. A lazy, nonscientific Darwinian could say "Everything evolved" and be done with it. Some of my misguided colleagues do just that when they say things like, "Computers will inevitably evolve to correct flaws in our posthuman visions, such as the fact that software is endlessly buggy and needs to be fixed by human programmers."

The reason Darwin's ideas are so powerful is that there was another option. His ideas opened a type of path not opened by intelligent design: methodically challenging the initial base of ideas and refining it until it becomes something far more specific and useful. Biology benefited from an intellectual revolution provided by Darwin but has in many ways left him behind. Biologists now deal in genes, viruses, and a world of other objects and ideas Darwin didn't know about.

Lately the problem of premature mystery reduction has cropped up more than once within technical cultures. The tone taken by some string theorists reminds me of what I'm criticizing in recent Silicon Valley thinking (see "Tangled Up in Strings").

Is reality a giant information system and people just arbitrarily defined portions of it? Wrong question! Information theory is tremendously useful, but it doesn't tell us anything until it's been used. The idea that you might someday understand something is different from actually understanding it, or even knowing the right questions to ask. The big idea behind the new fake rationality is so diffuse that it's useless, except as a cultural badge.

That brings me back to my misguided colleague and his ideas about the future of music. There are a multitude of mysteries prematurely reduced by his point of view. We don't know what music is, exactly. We don't know much about how the brain works. We don't even have good experimental methods to tell when we're bending over backward to make a computer merely seem smart.

If I really believed that science was reducing the mystery of life, I would feel claustrophobic, but just the opposite is true. The more science I learn, the more mysteries I learn about, and the richer life becomes. I wonder if a technical culture that was better at avoiding premature claims of mystery reduction would find more friends among the sensitive, "spiritual" people I referred to earlier. Some extreme religious people will probably never embrace science, but I often wonder if the harshness of the way some scientists talk about the nerd future is driving reasonable people away.

Avoiding a premature decline in mystery is also a great principle for making better software. You don't have to pretend to know what music is to give musicians new ways to work together, but you do have to believe that human musicians are important. The genuinely radical ideas in computer science come when people work honestly within the boundaries of what we don't know.

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