May 13, 2011


REVIEW: of The Most Human Human: a Defence of Humanity in the Age of the Computer By Brian Christian (John Gray - 12 May 2011, New Statesman)

Computers have been immensely liberating in all kinds of ways, but one of these is in opening up the possibility of a life composed of a succession of individual bits of information. Part of the charm of the wired life is the freedom from meaning it promises. Seeking an extreme form of this freedom, the futurist Ray Kurzweil and his fellow believers look forward to what Christian describes as "a kind of techno-rapture, where humans can upload their consciousnesses on to the internet and get assumed, if not bodily, then at least mentally, into an eternal, imperishable afterlife in the world of electricity".

What is most striking about this fantasy is not that the uploading it envisions is at present technologically impossible. It is that such an uploading would entail leaving behind much that makes us human. Believers in the coming techno-rapture may some day succeed in projecting phantom versions of their conscious selves into cyberspace. Even if this proves fea­sible, what survives will be only a cartoon version of the human individuals that once existed. But perhaps this is what these techno-gnostics really want: to cease to be human.

Christian is surely right in arguing that the rise of computers need not erode the human sense of self. Instead, the result may be to bring into clearer focus what it is that makes us different from machines. If history is any guide, however, human beings do not greatly cherish the features that truly make them what they are - finite creatures, with limited abilities. Quite the contrary, people will do anything they can to escape from being what they are. So, a version of the Sentence still holds true: the human being is the only animal that refuses to be itself.

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Posted by at May 13, 2011 6:15 AM

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