Monday, January 31, 2011

We, Robots

This is the title of Jonah Lehrer’s review (in the NYT) of Sherry Turkle’s alarmist new book, Alone Together. In it, she describes the Internet “as a corporate trap, a ball and chain that keeps us tethered to the tiny screens of our cellphones, tapping out trite messages to stay in touch.” Lehrer thinks these worries are clearly overblown. In his view, the Internet is “just another tool, an accessory that allows us to do what we’ve always done: interact with one other. The form of these interactions is always changing. But the conversation remains.” So, the form of human “interactions” is changing, but its essence has remained the same. In her review of The Social Network (“Generation Why,” in the New York Review of Books), Zadie Smith reaches a very different conclusion. She says the movie “is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called ‘Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore”; 500 million “members” who have adopted Zuckerberg’s definition of friendship as “the exchange of personal trivia.” Why has that happened? Nicholas Carr, who suspects that “Google is making us stupid,” offers the following hypothesis: “as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” What is “artificial” about this new kind of sentience Carr describes? Apparently, a degree of emotional numbing as those countless hours interacting with flickering screens rewire our (and our kids’) brains. But these concerns would also seem misplaced to anyone who has always “interacted” with the larger world and others in the manner Zuckerberg does.