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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Taylor’s Malaise of Modernity

As I happened to turn the leaves of the Economist of June 29th that came to my hand, of course quite lately, landing on the page 82, when I glanced at the caption, to my utter surprise,  I found the abstract running as: “Modern British television has founds its Dickens.” And, this slipup in a magazine of Economist’s stature!  This incidentally reminded me of the platonic myth about the beginning of writing:

It is said that Theuth was the first human to discover the number, calculus, geometry, astronomy and above all writing. In that time, a great king named Thamus lived in a city of the Upper Egypt; to him came Theuth, who showed him his arts and claimed that they should be made widely known to Egyptians. But King Thamus inquired into the use of each of the arts and, as Theuth went through them, he expressed approval or disapproval to each one. But when it came to writing, Theuth declared to the king: "Here is an accomplishment my lord the King, which will  improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians, as it has been invented as a remedy (pharmakon) of both memory and wisdom”. Thamus replied: "…you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful, they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources."   (—Phaedrus)

Perhaps, as digitization, artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc., are making deeper inroads into our life, our dependence on external resources has become so common that we are looking for calculators even to pay the grocer’s bill; people are asking Alexa to show way to their homes even. To be more realistic, deification of technology has almost become the in thing. We are perhaps, finding our satisfaction in technology, we are indeed taking orders from technology. Today, artificial intelligence that has become almost like a man interacting with other people, memorizing a lot of information within seconds and analysing  and interpreting it much faster, has simply put man aside.  

As Luciano Floridi observed in his book, The Fourth Revolution – How the infosphere is reshaping human reality, technology is changing our very perception of the world. No wonder, if today computer systems around us have simply liberated us from our known intellectual work. This made Floridi to state, “We have been forced to abandon a position that we thought was unique: to use our intelligence".   He went on saying, "We are increasingly delegating or outsourcing to artificial agents our memories, decisions, routine tasks, and other activities in ways that will be progressively integrated with us". 

It all perhaps, started with the modern man’s striving for ‘individualism’—belief in the right to choose anything by himself under his own rules unmindful of the hierarchy and the order that the ancestry had passed on to him—through science and technology, and somewhere down the line he appears to have lost his   sense of proportion. For instance, when computers arrived, we thought that they will do some intelligent work, like humans, and in the process “liberate us” from the drudgery of routine. But as the years rolled on they made us slaves of them—for everything we started looking at them.

In the process, I am afraid, we lost our objective vision of ourselves: "Who I am?"  "What I am?"  "What I am supposed to do?"  And interestingly, this vision can only be offered by someone like us but certainly not the ‘Alexa’.   In our anxiety to be independent, we are perhaps, surrendering more and more to the tools that we have invented. 

So what next?  Perhaps, it is time we have to make a call: we must understand what we are doing with our tools and what they are doing with us. While using our invented extensions, we must ensure that we do not lose our capacities. That is the fundamental requirement of the present era where our nature is transforming more and more into a ‘technological humanity’. If not we may, though unwittingly, forget exercising our faculties and end up living as prisoners of the ‘golden cage’ of technology. Choice is ours!


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