CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, October 6th -- Roger B. Blumberg

A Cyborg is in the House

We're fortunate indeed to have Michael Chorost with us today, for our first discussion of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Although we eventually want to analyze the book in the context of the works by Moravec and Arnold, and the unit of the course that questions the relationship between computers and human identity, we'll start with introductions and questions for Michael about particular claims/passages/chapters in the book.

It's possible to read Moravec and Arnold as each representing a typical reaction to modern technology, and especially to digital technology. The first reaction is to embrace the new, allow it to rewrite the old in senses epistemological, political and ethical, and to think about and work toward a promising "futuristic" future. A second reaction is to bristle, to defend elements of the old (or the "classical") against the encroachment of "modern trends", and to reassert the values of some variety of humanism. Is there a third reaction? Does Rebuilt seem to you such a "third way"?

The Human and the Posthuman

"We must .. not only describe virtue as a state of character, but also say what sort of state it is. We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well." Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 6.

""The important thing is not, bang, you turn on the camera and somebody who has been blind for fifty years can see. That's just not reality," Humayun said. Retraining the brain is what's required. And not only retraining the brain but also retraining the brain to perceive at a lower resolution, since the input is not as detailed as what comes from a normal retina. Cochlear implants require a learning curve -- about two months of intensive training -- similar to that of the retinal prosthesis." from "The Bionic Eye," by Dr. Jerome Groopman, The New Yorker, September 29, 2003

In her book How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles presented four characteristics of what she called a "post-human" age, as distinct from a "modern" and even a "postmodern" age. These characteristics were:

  1. privileging informational pattern over materiality in the identification of subjects, objects and activities
  2. thinking of consciousness as an epi-phenomenon
  3. thinking of the body as merely our original prosthesis
  4. thinking of humans and machines as seamlessly integratable.

For next time I've assigned an excerpt from Lyotard, whose work did much to define/recognize the characteristics of "postmodernity", and from Hayles' book, but first we might saw something about what these authors are thinking about when they use the term "modernity".

"A revolution took place in the mind of Europeans -- a slow revolution, since it took several centuries -- which led to the establishment of the modern world. To grasp it in its most general sense, we can describe it as the passage from a world whose structure and laws were preexisting and immutable givens for every member of society, to a world that could discover its own nature and define its norms itself." Tzvetan Todorov, Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism (Princeton University Press, 2002) [9]

The Modern Age, or "Modernity", is usually contrasted with the Middle Ages, and a common view is that the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century is contemporary with the rise of Modernity. One of the characteristics of the Modern Age, according to Arendt and others (e.g. Hans Blumenberg in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age), is the value placed on a life of action and making, rather than a life of contemplation. Whereas before the Modern period the kosmos was considered a well-ordered, divinely created whole exemplifying values like harmony, purpose, and perfection, we think of the Modern universe as characterized exclusively by "facts" rather than "values". Although we may use the term "harmony" or "beauty" in modern Astronomy or Astrophysics, the notion is "secularized" and usually defined in the language of science rather than religion. This is only fitting if we believe, unlike Medieval scholars of the kosmos, that knowledge of the world is to be gained not by passive contemplation but by the active reconstruction (through experiment, modeling and simulation) of the world we wish to know. Thus "theory" as the contemplation of truth, is replaced by "theory" as hypothesizing, testing, revision, decision and more hypothesizing, testing, etc. In the last chapter of The Human Condition, Arendt writes:

Where formerly truth had resided in the kind of "theory" that since the Greeks had meant the contemplative glance of the beholder who was concerned with, and received, the reality opening up before him, the question of success took over and the test of theory became a "practical" one -- whether or not it will work. Theory became hypothesis, and the success of the hypothesis became truth. (278)

All this may seem well and good, but there is a question that bothers many philosophers of the Modern Age (including Arendt) concerning "value". When we could look to the Heavens and contemplate "perfection" and "harmony", believing that we were clearly observing expressions of the Divine, we had natural and authoritative measures of value to apply to ourselves and to society. But once we think our theories of the universe are less contemplations of the truth (of divinely-created reality), and more our own self-assertive hypotheses requiring regular revision, framed in ways that reflect our own human purposes, then there is a new sense in which truth seems "man-made." What becomes of our search for "meaning" and "value" in this pursuit? The only "meaning" of this sort of hypothesis-making is as a human-centered means to some human-centered end (i.e. ideas are just means, or instruments, and their truth is determined solely by their usefulness). On p. 156, Arendt writes:

Man, in so far as he is homo faber [man the maker], instrumentalizes, and his instrumentalization implies a degradation of all things into means, their loss of intrinsic and independent value, so that eventually not only the objects of fabrication but also "the earth in general and all forces of nature," ... lose their "value because [they] do no present the reification which comes from work." (Arendt is quoting Kant here)

Are "utility" and "usefulness" enough to ground our ethical judgements? If so, aren't animals and robopets in trouble? What about policies concerning the treatment of "criminal" or "unproductive" or "high maintenance" members of society?

But if "utility" is not enough, what then should replace or supplement it? Arendt's answer is rooted in the Kantian imperative to treat humans as "ends in themselves", but it's not clear that this will help us in our dealings with cyborgs or robots. (Perhaps calling into question the special meaning/value of the "human" might be thought the natural culmination of modernity.)

For Next Time: Read the excerpts from Lyotard's The Post-Modern Condition and those from N. Katherine Hayles' How We Became Post-Human. Topics for the first paper should be posted to WebCT by Friday, October 14th. The papers will be due by the 21st. Please feel free to come see me anytime to talk about the topics, the papers, or both.

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