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Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Just when I am thinking of chucking this whole blog thing because of my depression at the failure of the Wisconsin recall effort, "Pied Cow" issues a challenge that I cannot in honor ignore.  My last post was an idle jeu d'esprit, triggered by finding my late father's public library bookmark.  At the close of my fond reminiscences, I remarked that some day my little granddaughter Athena [who is, at three, already completely conversant with an IPad] might have a chip implanted in her brain that would make even Google unnecessary as a source of information.  It was a throwaway line to exit a post, but Pied Cow is having none of it.  What do I think of such a prospect? he asks.  What are the moral dimensions and implications of such a possibility?

Well, I am too distraught to read the news online, and since it is drizzling steadily, I cannot go for my daily four mile power walk [which I actually completed yesterday in fifty-seven minutes, a personal best], so until it is time to start packing for a one month stay in Paris, I think I owe it to Pied Cow to do a bit of armchair philosophizing [is there any other kind?]

As a philosopher, I feel a certain obligation to reflect on this question with some sense of historical perspective, so let us begin with Homer and the great tradition of the oral epic, which is to say the lengthy narrative poem memorized by a bard and proclaimed to audiences as a way of preserving and transmitting the collective history of a people.  When I was a lad at Harvard, there was a very distinguished scholar named, if memory serves, Albert Lord, who was said to be the world's leading expert on the Serbo-Croatian oral epic.  [Who even knew the Serbo-Croatians had oral epics?]  Sure enough, Google in seconds tells me that my memory is correct.  This is, of course, directly relevant to the subject of this post.

Committing an enormously long epic to memory and declaiming it or singing it on state occasions [the inauguration or the interment of a king, for example] is a tremendous feat, one that requires a prodigious memory and years of apprenticeship to an established bard.  Lord observed that the repetition in oral epics of ritual phrases ["wine dark sea," in Homer's case, for example] was, among other things, a sort of mnemonic crutch to help the bard keep his or her place and master the epic.

One can easily imagine the reaction of the traditional bards when someone got the dangerous idea of writing the epics down, so that they would be available to anyone with no more training than was required to learn to read.  "Oh well, sure, if you are going to do that, what's the big deal?"  Rather like lazy wannabe pianists who bypass years of practice by buying one of those electronic keyboards that let you, with the press of a button, supply an entire bass accompaniment while you pick out the tune with your forefinger.

Much the same reaction was provoked, I would imagine, by paper, by ink, by movable type, by the printing press, and by the typewriter.  I am old enough to recall the disdain with which serious writers like myself greeted the word processor [the very phrase, "word processor," is appalling, as though writing were nothing more than making sausage.]  I wrote my doctoral dissertation with a pen in longhand, and the physical act of pushing the pen across the page was inextricably linked to the shaping of my ideas.  Eventually I graduated to a standard typewriter, but I never made the move to an electric typewriter, and to this day I find it vaguely dishonorable to write as I am now doing on a computer keyboard. 

Each of us -- epic bard, medieval manuscript scribe, goose quill pen sharpener, fountain pen filler, typist, word processor -- thinks of the physical technique of his or her youth as the standard of rigor and moral worthiness, and views all of the more recent technological innovations as enticements along the path to Hell.

Which brings me to Google. 

In an earlier age, a considerable part of formal education consisted of nothing more than committing large numbers of facts to memory -- the emperors of Rome or kings of England or presidents of the United States, in their proper sequence, the periodic table of elements, even what was called, when I was in high school, the "bead tests" for chemical elements.  [Beads of different substances, when heated over a Bunsen burner, give off different colors, and as part of my high school chemistry course, I had to memorize those color indicators.]   I can recall, as a young man, hearing of scholars whose considerable claim to academic fame consisted of having laboriously constructed a concordance to the works of Spinoza or Shakespeare or the Bible, something that can now be done with a click of a mouse on a computer.

Those of us who periodically suffer what are generously referred to as "senior moments" use Google the way Homer used "wine dark sea," as an aid to memory.  If I know enough to know what key words to put into Google to come up with Albert Lord, can I not be said to know who Albert Lord is as truly as if I were able to call that item of information from my brain?  Is there really something valuable about being able to run off all those English kings in sequence, when Google will put the list before me more quickly than I can call it to mind?  I can still recall the Boy Scout oath ["On my honor, I promise to be trustworthy, loyal, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent" -- I almost got thrown out of Boy Scout camp in Pennsylvania at the age of twelve for refusing to say "reverent"], and I can name the sixteen principal points of the compass in less than ten seconds ["North, North Northeast, Northeast, East Northeast, East, East Southeast, Southeast, South Southeast, South, South Southwest, Southwest, West Southwest, West, West Northwest, Northwest, North Northwest, North"  whew.]  But this seems to me no more impressive than being able to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time [or, to quote Lyndon Johnson, to walk and chew gum at the same time.]

Well, suppose it does come to pass that little Athena some day has a chip implanted in her brain that she can activate by her thoughts and that will do for her, anywhere in the world, what Google now does, what Katherine Hepburn and her team did in Desk Set, and what Homer and the Serbo-Croatian bards did?  Will this be the end of human civilization, the attack of the clones, the fulfilment of the dark vision of I, Robot?  Somehow, I doubt it.  Athena will be the same charming, bright, quirky person she is now.  And she will know, in an instant, all of the kings of England.

But she probably will not write longhand with a fountain pen.  Nothing is perfect.


Jerry Fresia said...

I realize you are caught up with your new gig, but as I read through this blog, it occurs to me that what the world also needs is a slightly older and more erudite George Carlan. Skip the Catskills. Go straight to Las Vegas. I can see it now:... (harp music please)... "The Improv is proud to present, in his highly acclaimed 'Irreverent at 78 RPM's'...THE PROFESSSSSSSOR."

Regarding WI, wasn't it dear old Emma who said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”? (They sort of have.)

the pied cow blog said...

Hi Professor, and thank you for the free plug for the Pied Cow Blog in your posting of June 6.

What you say is too true: nothing is perfect. I'd include in that list the implantation of microchips into humans.

And although people with microchip implants (which, by the way, already exist - they're now known as RFIDs or Radio Frequency Identity Tags) will remain the same charming and bright people that they always were, they'll be yet one step closer to their enslavement.

The saddest - and most predictable - characteristic of these devices is that they'll be touted as more than benign.

They'll be extolled as essential to keep track of convicts and of helpless and wandering Alzheimer's patients. They'll be shown to help worried parents to keep track of their teenagers at night. Doubtless they'll obviate the need to use inconvenient (and vulgar) ATM cards at the grocery store and they'll ensure that no "unauthorized personnel" enter into our workplaces or - perish the thought - into our military installations that protect us from terrorism.

Yes, those will be truly halcyon days.

But the problem is, once the authorities (and the corporations who design them or who purchase the rights to their data, for that matter) have that power, they'll also have the power to keep track of us at any given moment.

You might agree that this is an issue of more than passing concern to someone who holds himself out as a Marxist and as an adversary of human rights abuse.

And what about criminals who hack into these things as their technology "improves?" For example, think about pimps controlling their "employees." Think about extortionists tracking their victims. Think about human traffickers keeping track of little girls sold into sex slavery.

Oh, one could reply, these are matters only of momentary concern, and matters that will be improved as technology advances.

Yeah. Right.

While you may have intended your posting of June 4 as an "idle jeu d'esprit" you raised an issue that's of grave concern not only to us, but one that's perhaps more important to upcoming generations - and one not at all to be taken lightly, in my view.

Thanks for posting my response and I look forward to reading your blog.

Pied Cow

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P. J. Grath said...

I'm with Pied Cow on this one, seeing more problems than benefits. Along this line, I would remind everyone that Google searches are now "personalized," so that we are not all getting the same results when we search. What you get depends on where you've been before. We are thus being sent down familiar paths in more cases than we realize. Say you search your own website or blog and see it in the top ten results. That's because you go there a lot. Other people? Maybe--probably--not so much. A Google search is not a card catalog online: it is selecting and making choices, not simply displaying all pertinent information.

formerly a wage slave said...

Is there a difference between optimism about the human race (one's granddaughter) and a willingness to trust those who are in control of technology (those who design and manufacture it)? Am I wrong to think that RPW's critics are thinking of the second and RPW is thinking of the first?