When things don’t go right in the world, and lately they very often don’t, our knee-jerk reaction is: “OK, who’s in charge here!”
An overbooked flight, a traffic jam on the expressway, another hack attack, another stalemate in Congress — our first instinct is always to look for the hands in charge or the heads that should roll. Later we may apologize away our anger at such chaos with the excuse: “It’s human nature.”
But is it…? Is our human nature so unruly and impatient that we must now turn to impersonal computers, robotics and algorithms in order to better deal with our chaos? In other words, in our passion to design these new tools and their Pandora Box of apps, are we turning over to them our existential challenge to manage such chaos? Yes, they can react well, but will they respond well?
To be sure, these tools are being designed to do what mere mortals cannot do as fast or as well. But ironically, with each new layer of sophistication comes a new layer of dependency. Drones are aimed from afar, stock markets from composite indices, trains from computer centers, psychoanalysis from big data, surgeries from robotic hands, answers from IPhones. Humanity at its noblest seeks to maximize itself, but at what point do we allow — will? — our tools to take over the search?
It’s not a new question, but it has a new urgency. Do we make machines more human, or humans more machine? Societies have always reacted to the new with some uncertainty. Fire, printing press, radio, atomic energy. Eventually we have time to catch up to our fears. However, in today’s accelerated age, the time between fear and acceptance has become dangerously shorter.
As ever, it’s a question which belongs to more than our technologists. Or even our dreamers and designers. It belongs to our philosophers. What…? Who ever talks philosophy after their last graduate course, right….? With the degradation of the old Judaic-Christian philosophy in a more secular West, some wonder who can claim to be the “nation’s conscience” as once did a Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, even a Fulton Sheen or a Billy Graham?
Is it possible we as a society have achieved such enormous means, we can no longer agree on their ends? Like generals seeking the ideal defense system, politicians the ideal standard bearer, managers the ideal team roster, and Silicon Valley the next cyber wonder, our philosophers need to find their voice as once they did in the great societies of the Ancient and Medieval World. Voices that dared to wrestle with the “why” as well as the “how.”
Put it this way. Yes, I can buy the newest market wonder for only $299; but once I do, do I have any reason to believe it will let me do anything really worth doing? “Worth” not merely in the sense of sleeker function, but of more humane purpose. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, where are you when we need you….
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