Nothing Is Written, Even In Code

Catching up on Ross this morning after writing yesterday’s account at Pomocon of how technology really threatens (small-l) liberalism was a nice synergy, if by no means a destiny. For Ross has excerpted a fascinating but awful mental exercise, by a particularly futurist David Gelernter, that shows even better than I could hint what loomed behind the themes of my own, closer-to-the-ground account.

For the sake of conversation, I will limit myself to five points:

1. Gelernter’s cheery fatalism on the private machines-vs-Cloud debate unnerves me greatly. It’s not that I hope for, or would fight for, a world without clouds. But I do hope for, and might even fight for, a world without a Cloud.

2. The Cloud problem is itself merely a symptom of Gelernter’s insistence on seeing the internet as a single, universal System — driven, as I suggested at Pomocon, by a captivation with the vast possibilities unleashed by treating the internet as a System. This element of geek psychology is a serious problem — less because the field of human possibilities can and should be dramatically reduced, and more because I detect, paradoxically, a failure of the imagination among geeks who gravitate with such pubescent enthusiasm to technological unitarian universalism. I’m profoundly unconvinced that the possibility-maximizing framework is, and must be, the unitary and universalist one.

3. This is to leave aside the whole issue of the inadequacy of our theory of possibility itself. Gelernter is hard on today’s internet for greatly increasing the quantity of information and transactions without increasing their quality. For some, quantity IS quality, or is quality’s main ingredient; Gelernter would therefore seem not to be one of these people, but his relentless fantasizing about our uni-uni System Destiny seems to me to undermine our confidence that this is the case. There are imported assumptions about what a possibility IS that need to be, in the parlance of our times, ‘unpacked’ and ‘interrogated’.

4. The revealing characteristic about the fantasy that there can be a singularity — the point at which the uni-uni System Destiny is consummated or realized — is its apparent inability to theorize possibility outside the frame of destiny itself. We are told repeatedly, and I think exclusively, that the singularity can exist only because it must. Any causal theory of omnipossibility that requires destiny already fails, doesn’t it? What’s more, any theory of possibility that imagines it even possible for all possibilities to be contained within a single system depends on the logically defective assumption that no possibility requires system plurality, or at least binarity. At least some possibilities are being excluded from any uni-uni System that contains even all the possibilities that an open-ended number of human beings can experience ever.

5. This implies that our experience as human beings points to the realization that the scope of experience is of necessity narrower than the scope of possibility. Though this realization has fueled secular unitarian universalist projects since Saint-Simon, Comte, and Hegel — if possibility must be limited even when it functions for us as infinite, then why not opt for the System? — there are well-known problems that re-present them in this post-internet context. The model for a unitary universal system of dramatically limited possibility is, of course, Biblical creation and the Biblical God. The attempt to escape the good judgment of God — both as a consequence of our being and its cause — leaves us with two choices: the judgment of particular humans and the judgment of the System. The destiny theory of singularity ultimately fails because it claims that the System Destiny has already escaped the good judgment of the particular humans who have created the system — in other words, that the singularity has already happened in the future, has come back to the present from the future to make itself happen. Whose standard of good judgment would ratify this as our best point of departure for figuring out what to do with the internet?