American Consequences - January 2018



disciplined users. Where does that leave the rest of us? Playing video games until we die? Are we doomed to cede our minds to superior forces of artificial intelligence and carefully crafted algorithms? In his 1948 book, Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener speculated that the human brain might already be so far along the road to “destructive specialization” that it would soon be rendered obsolete. The Silicon Valley engineers and programmers busily hacking away at our remaining attention spans might think so as well. Indeed, many of them are attempting to expand the reach of our technologies into the realm of human emotion, like the researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who are using clips from a Pixar film, Up , to teach artificial intelligence how to recognize feelings. Perhaps the best way forward is to avoid either extreme and simply recognize our technologies as the simultaneously manipulative and appealing things they are, with the potential to both expand our minds and hobble them. In Technics and Civilization , critic Lewis Mumford, writing way back in the Jurassic age of 1934, warned us that in embracing new technologies, Christine Rosen  is one of the founding editors of The New Atlantis , where she now serves as senior editor.  She is working on her forthcoming book, The Extinction of Experience , to be published byW.W. Norton. Her past books include Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement and My Fundamentalist Education .  

The wealth of virtual temptations available taxes the self-control of even the most disciplined users. Where does that leave the rest

of us? Playing video games until we die?

we always risk turning them into crutches. “One is confronted, then, by the fact that the machine is ambivalent,” he wrote. “It is both an instrument of liberation and one of repression.” It’s a sign of progress that we no longer unthinkingly accept our new digital creations as benevolent. For all its promises of freeing us from human limits, our digital age has paradoxically ended up serving as a firm reminder of our hubris about technology’s power, about how easily persuadable and steered we are by new things, and about how ethical and moral insights don’t always follow from technological breakthroughs. It’s also a reminder that we shouldn’t take for granted that our minds are always fully our own. Our future robot overlords will no doubt agree. Ms. Rosen’s essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The American Historical Review, and The New England Journal of Medicine.


January 2018

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