9.18.2013

Bewilderment in the age of technology

// This essay was originally posted here.


I have complex feelings about . He describes his work as "philosophical espresso shots" of "psychedelic art" conveying wonder and awe in technology "as the manifestation of our dreams". I'm all in favor of psychedelic art. I've honestly found some of Silva's art to be inspired, and I've used it in my classes. It's started some interesting discussions. 

But I've also found myself needing to say a lot to provide background and context for the claims he makes. Sometimes I can, but too often I find that in fact _there is no background_ for helping to make sense of the claims being made in this work. There is very little theory supporting the stream-of-consciousness style association of infobytes and futurism. Maybe I come from a different school, but for me philosophy is associated with rigor and clarity of thought, in the pursuit of _understanding_.  What Silva packages as "wonder and awe" is too often just disguised bewilderment.

Perhaps we should encourage a childlike sense of wonder, but I also think we should try to cultivate clear and mature thinking wherever possible. In any case, we should be careful to distinguish wonder from bewilderment. Wonder is a sense of fascination that encourages further exploration. Presumably, that exploration ought to settle into a mature and developed understanding of a field-- not to eliminate wonder but rather to mark intellectual progress and to encourage still further exploration of the details. Bewilderment, on the other hand, is the sense of confusion one feels when overwhelmed by experiences one can only just barely process. Bewilderment might be an inevitable aspect of any learning experience (including psychedelic ones), but it is clearly distinct from wonder, and it isn't so clearly something that we should be encouraging. Learning, done properly, should provide an anecdote to bewilderment even if it encourages wonder. 

Silva's presentation, in both his videos and his live performance, is a study in practiced bewilderment. Each mind-bending revelation is followed immediately by the next, without much pause to consider the relevance of any of it, much less the relations that bring them together in the piece. One does not come away from these "shots" with an enlightened understanding of the phenomena of technological development. One maybe comes away with the sense that "anything is possible" and "the future is awesome" and "there's so much I don't know", and these is more evidence of bewilderment disguised as awe than any genuine understanding. 

Interestingly, Silva is careful to provide author references for a surprising number of his claims, some of which I'd think he could just say because they are so obviously true. I feel like the abundance of references is too much protest, and adds to the bewilderment instead of clearing anything up. I happen to recognize most of the references because I'm a tech philosopher by training too, and while there's nothing in particular I want to disagree with here, there's also nothing in particular that makes it all hang together as a coherent view. 

The closest thing is Kurzweil, Kelly, and the Singularity brand of futurism, which have used the new-agey term "exponential thinking" (which, just to be clear, DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING) to justify a range of predictions over the near and absurdly long term that would make Nostradamus blush. It is no surprise that a thinker born of this intellectual paucity would generate such bewilderment in his wake. This isn't the place to bash the Singularity views, but let's just say this is an intellectual problem. (More: http://goo.gl/id2Cdi)

I appreciate Silva's appeal to Clark, a text I've used in my technology classes since 2006. But Clark's view bears little relation to the futurism Silva defends in the same breath. Clark has a theory of technology and its relation to human minds and communities. I have intellectual quibbles with his theory that I can elaborate on in boring detail, but I know what it is, how it works, and the broader views of science and philosophy from which they spring. 

I have no idea what Silva's theory of technology is, or the general philosophical or metaphysical perspectives he's endorsing in these confused but entertaining spectacles. I'm worried that they endorse or even encourage views of science and technology that I wouldn't endorse, like "technology makes my dreams come true". That's not a fact of the world, that's an ad slogan for silicon valley, and as an educator I care to keep them distinct, thank you very much. 

More importantly, I worry that they inspire the same bewilderment with technology in my students: that by showing them Silva's performance, I'm somehow encouraging the belief that these ideas are overwhelmingly large and incomprehensible, or that understanding is an unachievable goal. That's entirely the opposite of what I'd hope to express.