Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rikk Watts: Starships off Sagittarius

Lets continue the discussion of the Borgmann lectures at Regent College Vancouver in 2011. I will again focus on the replies of Regent College New Testament Professor Rikk Watts but will start with an attempt at explaining the Prof Borgmann's second lecture Pointless Perfection and Blessed Burdens.

Pointless Perfection

'It is the powerful burden of perfection that actually leads to a pointless life, and in reverse it is certain types of burdens that bring blessing and should be embraced.  Beginning with a brief discussion of the classic greek ideal of perfection, Borgmann then went on to develop his discussion around the tempting nature of cyberspace to offer this ever-increasing, disembodied perfection.  This notion of disembodied perfection is very powerful in our culture, with virtual objects – those whose realization is independent from any particular place or time – dominating our cultural landscape, and revealing a dominant bent towards unlimited collected intelligence and thereby immortality.  However, Borgmann claims that this pursuit of perfection is pointless, as human intelligence is essentially embodied, that is, mind and body cannot be torn apart.  It is actually within the burden of being ‘bodied’ that we do find the blessing that we seek'.

Borgmann spent considerable time attempting to link the concepts of perfection and functionalism through a short but nevertheless messy discussion of the mind brain problem. In this incredibly meandering talk, he wandered through AI, Turing and current advances in computer technology. To make his points he draws on the most extreme boosterist like Kurweil. His argument is that the vision of perfection for the Brain downloaders movement is for us to be virtually ‘embodied’ online forever. Borgmann argues that being human is the physical and mind, brain and body – us – cannot be separated as it is the totality of our physical experience and our thinking that makes us, us. 

That is totally and undeniably true. So each of you readers out there are a mixture of male / female - short / tall - athlete / not so athletic - born in a very particular physical place and time. All of these physical attributes expose us to certain cultural influences that we carry with us through our lives. Indeed as we age and change geographies these continue to influence us. So I will say it, the brain downloading movement is nuts. But, they are something of a straw man in my opinion and in my opinion there are many stronger attacks on their understanding of the world than Borgmann's 'pointless perfection'. 

Why the cyber downloaders in the first place? Maybe to avoid death - hmmm now that dates back to when; lets see, Genesis. Herfeld suggests we suffer from cosmic loneliness, now that is food for thought and Christian discussion. Why should we be lonely? What is the remedy for that? What does the Bible have to say? But that is off track for this blog - Neither Borgmann or Watts went there. Through his talk Borgmann weaved a confusing thread of functionalism – that is that the function of the mind = architecture of the brain, which is what Watts picked up on in his commentary.

In response.

To sum up Rikk’s second thesis I would suggest it goes something like this – there may be a societal pull towards the Platonic idea of simple perfection and thus to the disembodied, but this need not imply that the Christian Philosophy is therefore to accept this equation and therefore reject cyberspace and the technological. Instead it is to live out a calling to transcend and redeem the philosophy of the age living with God’s desire for us to be mature, to submit our burdens to God and continue our creation mandate.

One of the more important points Rikk makes is this one.

For the designer, function belongs very much to the discourse of the Vicoean speech act, where a particular embodied subjective agent, through a particular act of imagination and incarnational fashioning, calls into being that which was not, namely, a particular thing; i.e. not motor vehicles generically but the model-T Ford. From this perspective, function has no existence of its own, but originates in, is called forth by, and is always oriented toward a particular incarnation; if one must, it’s more Aristotelian than Platonic. Variety, far from reflecting less-than-perfect attempts to realize the ideal motor vehicle, arises instead from the nature of what design theorists call “wicked problems.” A wicked problem is one where, in the very nature of the actual material world and unlike virtual mathematics, there is no single “correct” or perfect Platonic answer. The reason there are so many cars, aircraft, smart phones etc. and why people continue to design, build, and purchase them in all their glorious variety, is because they all succeed in various ways in their, not one or two, but manifold and incommensurable web of functionings (the plural is deliberate and essential).

Rikk here is directly challenging both Kurzweil's conceptualization of perfection as well as Borgmann’s retreat from it. There are many possible solutions to technical problems – thus we have many designs for cars, aircraft, toasters. I would add at this point that economics, the oft forgotten dimension is fundamental here. The equation goes something like this Function X Technical solutions X Economic transaction points (price, location etc etc) X Existing technological knowledge = DESIGNS. So rather than decreasing variety we have increasing variety. Even at the extreme, the hugely costly endeavor of civil aircraft building, even with fewer aircraft assemblers the actual range of models has probably remained at least static for decades – each model designed for a specific market.

This has an interesting cross over with Ellul, yet neither Borgmann or Watts mentioned this in their talks. Borgmann was arguing that the current worldview supports an Ellulian proposition that technology leads to one perfect solution and Watts arguing that in fact technology leads away from such a conclusion. Empirically, the evidence is with Watts on this. Here what Kevin Kelly said recently in an interview:

Over time we are generating new technologies, we're producing all new problems. Most of the problems we have today are technogenic, meaning that they were created by technology in the past. Most of the problems in the future are going to be created by technologies we're creating today. Technology is a means of producing new problems. It's a means of producing new solutions, but the fact that we have a choice between those two is what tips the balance very, very slightly in the favor of the good for the long term. Over civilization scale, we have this net tiny incremental accumulation of these choices over time, and that tiny accumulation is what we call progress.
The ordinary pen you use every day seems very simple but it probably took 100 different technologies to make this pen technology, technologies of plastic, ink, ball bearing, metal, and each of those different technologies probably themselves required another 100 sub-technologies to support it and, of course, there's kind of a circular way in which pens might be necessary to make a ball bearing in the same way that electricity is necessary to make a generator, and a generator may be necessary to make the wires of an electrical system. A hammer requires a handle and a head, and the saw requires the hammer to make the saw that cuts the handle, so there is a sense in which all of this is very recursive and that there is a network of different supporting technologies, and that the whole web of all these things I call the technium. The technium is that largest network of all the technologies working together to support each other, and while this pen is definitely not alive, there is a sense in which the technium as a whole exhibits life-like behaviors in the same way that your neuron doesn't really think, but the network of neurons in your brain can make an idea.

So rather than pointless ‘perfection’ as a unified point, technology and even cyberspace is actually heading in the opposition direction, like the biosphere the variety has increased.  


I feel Borgmann was on more solid ground on the topic of burdens. For Borgmann the ‘blessed burdens’ are taking the steps of walking, cooking, serving a meal, speaking words face to face etc. It appears that Watts was in agreement, noting that he has begun to enjoy activities such as mowing the lawn. Thus, there is nothing really to comment on here. We need to inhabit our own lives.

However, in a single sentence Borgmann skipped over a universe of issues.

“after we have cured the evil and truly intolerable burdens’ ... we can move on to enjoy the blessed burdens – what are these and what is the activity that will cure them. The science and technology system will surely be crucial in this endeavor. It was a throw away line that is fascinating for Borgmann's worldview.

Sameness does not equal  Perfection 

Borgmann was suggesting that the end point of cyberspace (as it should be pointed out conceived by some) is perfection but it is better characterised as sameness and those two are not the same. Once cyberised, experiences of a particular kind are fixed - one variable moves - the cyber entity can continue to think and learn but without a physical interaction with the world their is no true evolution of the person - Arnold Rimmer in the TV series Red Dwarf comes quickly to mind. Kevin Kelly in the same interview as quoted above makes a related point:

The real key is to remain different while you're connected. The problem with being connected is it tends to homogenize everybody, so there's this pressure to be the same if you're connected. You go to any large city around the world, and there is a uniformity in what that downtown looks like. Connection tends to drive things to uniformity, but the value, the power of being connected is by remaining different. There's this conundrum, this dilemma of remaining different while connected, because if you're just different but not connected, there's no power in that, and that's actually easy to do, but can you remain different while connected? You're different in certain degrees, yet you're part of the uniform standard. So it's like you don't want to make up new words that don't mean anything. You want to write a book that uses the standard words in the dictionary, so you're going to be different while connected to the standard. You're connected to the English language, but you're going to be different with what the words say.

In contrast to sameness I think the argument of Watts calls for difference.

But as humans we alone are also called to be “perfect”—meaning “mature, complete, lacking in no good work”—in our imaging the character of the one true personal God. And this is not a simple summons to “be good, or to do better.” It is an invitation to be transformed, by the indwelling grace of God’s Spirit, a Spirit, be it noted, of wisdom …and of truth. This is much more than telling people how to use cyberspace. It is changing us from the inside so that our mode of engagement, individually and collectively, takes on a different quality.

We are not called to be the same, we called to live the individual lives God intended for each of us. We should be encouraging a variety of lived expressions of the Gospel of Jesus and also challenging the dull sameness of the cyberspace visionaries but that is not the same as not allowing space in our lives for cyberspace. Can not cyberspace be a blessed burden. In other words can it not be a burden that is redeemed such that we have self control enough to enjoy it and not over indulge. We would say the same for eating. 

The last word however, must go to Rikk Watts for the most extraordinary conclusion to a Christian talk I have ever heard. Some of us may secretly hope for this but how many Christian have voiced it publicly I wonder?

Hopefully as (new) creators by our small expressions of transcendent incarnation in truly human technology we can work with God bringing a measure of merciful order, goodness and ... to this world in escatalogical anticipation of the goodness that is yet to come. And who knows if heaven on earth might not involve astonishing starships in stately formation off the galactic shores of an even more glorious Sagittarius. I not sure I can see the point of an embodied resurrection with our wonderful fully opposable thumbs if they are destined to spend the rest of eternity raised upwards or for the good Presbyterians amongst us calmly at our sides. Does this sound like preaching ... yeah but it was exactly this kind of preaching of the gospel that transformed the ancient world and I believe it will again.

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