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Dark euphoria

by on September 19, 2011

During the first week of the  Awakening the Digital Imagination course we watched a very remarkable video, Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us.

Notice the upbeat tune, the euphoria of exploring a new thinking which will allow us to augment ourselves as a species.

While using the web we’re teaching the Machine, which learns from our billions of daily online actions. The Machine is not just connecting data, it’s connecting people. In that sense one could dream of an exponentially increasing worldwide intelligence, which eventually becomes self-learning (the Technological Singularity discussion). It reminds us of the optimism of engineers, who realize that our world and our survival become ever more complicated. However, engineers are optimistic: complexity is a problem which can be tackled. Computers and networks change Thought itself, and enable it to solve  the big challenges of our time.

But then again there are these other thinkers, more to be found in the humanities: they talk for tens of years now about the end of the big Ideologies, the end of the big metaphysical stories making sense of it all. Patient deconstruction and analysis show the fallacies, the inconsistencies, the circular reasonings in those stories. Should we confront the supposed cynical smile of the humanities-expert with the optimism of the engineer, or rather deconstruct this opposition suggested in our syllabus, The New Media Reader (MIT Press, 2003)? I’ll find out in the weeks to come.

This week we’ll discuss Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think“ – a very visionary text which was published in The Atlantic Magazine in July 1945. Scientists had contributed during wartime in defeating the forces of evil. Now they were gearing up for transforming Thought itself, facilitating easy access to all the knowledge which humans had accumulated through the ages.

Bush was intimately aware of the double nature of knowledge and scientific progress: as a way to augment our humanity, but also a possible way for the destruction of humanity and the planet itself. It’s straightforward to applaud the technological achievements which seem to confirm the vision of Bush, but there is a dark side as well which we should not ignore.

Individuals and small groups now indeed have unprecedented access to knowledge and technology. Peer2peer learning, opencourseware, Massive Online Open Courses make it even possible to acquire that knowledge at very little financial cost. The cost of computing power and increasingly also of your very own biotechnology-lab is coming down constantly.

Of course, at the same time the authorities grow ever more nervous about the destructive use individuals can make of this power. Weapons of Mass Destruction can be nuclear, chemical, biochemical, cyber attacks can cause mayhem and panic. So while the power of the individual seems to increase, there is an arms race going on with the authorities who feel compelled to control and monitor society. One could formulate a similar argument about business and the economy: the increasing technological possibilities and the empowerment of the individual also lead to major worldwide economic and financial crisis situations (I’ll try to discuss this in another blog post).

The sci-fi author Bruce Sterling talks about “dark euphoria” – and that’s the feeling I get when I study the impact of technological change on societies and economies. Euphoria because the increase and that what is yet to come is exhilarating and the opportunities are real, dark because of the danger which is no less real.

Roland Legrand

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2 Comments
  1. lizdorland permalink

    Dark Euphoria. Thanks for the post Roland. Looking forward to seeing you Wednesday. I’ll be interested to hear if there are any crossovers with the MOOC.

  2. Nice post, Roland. It’s true that Bush was intimately famliar with that double-edged sword of knowledge and scientific progress. And through it all, his tone remains so optimistic and exuberant. Really interesting…

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