On the Oh

(First paragraphs of my next book. I like them.)

In 2001, the American philosopher Hubert Dreyfus published On the Internet. The book continued the kind of work that Dreyfus had been doing throughout his career: debunking, from a pragmatic and phenomenological perspective, the hype surrounding emergent forms of information technology (IT). In this case, Dreyfus’s target was the chaotic organization, or rather disorganization, of what we then called the World Wide Web. It could be pretty frustrating, at the turn of the twenty-first century. As long as you knew what specific www you wanted, it worked fine (connection speeds aside). But if you only knew what general kind of site you wanted, the millenial internet was almost useless. An online search for information about tortoises, to use Dreyfus’s bookish but accurate example, might lead you to sites on pre-Socratic metaphysics (because a tortoise features prominently in Zeno’s famous Paradox). For Dreyfus, the failure of online search was predictable, rooted in the fundamental inability of computer networks, being merely syntactic (formal) engines, to capture the semantics (meanings) of the symbols they processed. A “tortoise” was a “tortoise” was a “tortoise” was a “tortoise” (…) as far as the web was concerned. What was worse, the amount of information available online was growing exponentially—into a wilderness of tortoises, within which it could only become harder and harder to find the specimen you wanted. The ineffectiveness of then-available search engines was an empirical matter, pegged even by their designers at about 30% precision. Dreyfus’s theoretical argument was to the effect that we had absolutely no reason to think that figure would improve. “One thing is sure,” Dreyfus concluded, grimly: “As the Web grows, Net users who leave their bodies behind and become dependent on syntactic Web crawlers and search engines will have to be resigned to picking through heaps of junk in the hope of sometimes finding the information they desire.” 

            In 2009, Dreyfus brought out a second edition of On the Internet. The revised first chapter draws a big red line through the original. For as Dreyfus freely and frankly acknowledges, his critique of less than a decade before was being undermined—in something like the etymological, fatal, sapper’s sense of that word—even as he was writing it. There was this computer scientist at Stanford called Terry Winograd, Dreyfus recalls; and he had a couple of bright graduate students (Larry and Sergei) working on the search problem. The young men realized that the meaningfulness of a given website for a specific search term could be quantified by clicks under that term. So, for example, if searches for “tortoise” yielded many clicks on a given zoological website (among those on the initial hitlist), that data counted as “votes” from the searching page for the clicked-on page. A page that received many such votes was “important” for the search term; the relative “importance” of the searching page could also be factored in; and the whole process would become stronger, in recursive (or self-reinforcing) fashion, every single time it was run. Out of these insights, the grad students built an algorithm. Around the algorithm, a program. Around the program, a search engine. And the rest, as they say, is now. The Dreyfus of 2009 makes no attempt to fold Google into any ongoing critique, reaching back to 2001. He just notes, baldly and a little glumly, that “pessimism has turned to optimism” in this area of computer science. He even gives Page and Brin, in the revised first chapter, the last word, to the effect that there is, after all, “a bright future for search.” The first chapter of On the Internet, 2nd edition, presents a rare instance of a brilliant, distinguished, and highly polemical scholar looking back over his own previous work—noting its falsification by the very forces he had attempted to critique—and finding that all he can say is: “Oh.”

In the middle of playing badminton, my 12-yr-old son asks why Steven Hawking is wrong to predict, worriedly, our overcoming by “intelligent machines”

“Because,” I should have said, “we aren’t just some things with intelligence in the world. We’re more like the world with intelligence in some things. You can no more abstract intelligence from the world than you can abstract existence from existents. What comes back from the abstraction, if anything, is something entirely different from what went into it.”

And he would have said: “Thanks, Dad.”

“I’m glad we had this talk. Now go read Being and Time.”

“Awwww!”

 

a recognition

This morning, my little boy, 4, asked me:

“What does ‘unconscious’ mean?” We were driving up the sunlit road toward his daycare.

I said, glancing back at him: “It means like when you’re asleep. That’s called being unconscious.”

He thought about that for a minute. Then he said, “I think when I die, I’ll be unconscious. I’ll be asleep. But you can’t breathe when you die,” he went on. “But we have to breathe.”

Driving through the sunshine, I said the kind of thing I always say when my children bring up the topic of death. “Little friend,” I said slowly, “you don’t have to worry about that — that’s not going to happen for a very, very long time. And no matter what,” I went on, “I am always always always always going to love you!”

He said, “your voice sounds funny.”

Question: When I tell my children that I will love them forever, am I lying?

I do not believe that I am.

This is why, in the last analysis, I am respectful of people of faith.

I know nothing more than they do; and they have chosen to live within the validation of a moral intuition that seems to me transcendent.

Also: its objects — such as eternal life — may not be real.

But longing is real; anguish is real; love is real.

the safe side

Bin thinkin again about dialogue – a big theoretical topic for me. My thinking about it is based on my reading of Hans-Georg Gadamer, for whom the ordinary business of talking with another person is the venue, and the model, for any understanding of anything. The significance of dialogue is primarily epistemological, not civic or ethical – except insofar as Gadamer’s insights tend to run counter to soft-left cant. There is no such thing, according to Gadamer, as seeing a given question from somebody else’s point of view. If there were, we wouldn’t need to talk to others at all. By the same token, there is no dialogic imperative to temper or suppress your own views, in the name of politeness or respect. For the only way your interlocutor can gain possible access to your perspective is if you try to express it, clearly and fully.

Indeed, Gadamer argues that we do not succesfully show respect by holding ourselves back in conversation – as though supposing that the other is too weak for us, or that we know all about him already. Quite the contrary: the true dialogic attitude is an attempt to maintain complete openness, which extends to our interlocutor precisely because it starts with ourselves. The goal, meanwhile, is not to obtain or maintain good relations, but to understand something – what the dialogue is about, its subject-matter. For the other’s view of the subject-matter is the indispensable confirmation, or disconfirmation, of our own.

Thus Gadamer’s philosophy of conversation is Socratic, and, in a sense, selfish. Conversation is the interactive game that we must play if we want to know. As in any game (contra Derrida), it is normative to try to play well. Finally, the game cannot even get going without a kickoff – which, as Gadamer puns in German, amounts to giving offense (Anstoss). Conversation is a space of risk, or it ain’t conversation at all.

So I have thought, for the last ten years or so. As a matter of fact, Gadamer’s view of conversation has seemed to me so compelling that I have not really even granted the possibility of a validly countervailing theory. Obviously, this is an attitude of meta-dialogic complacency, itself standing in need of an offensive shock. And perhaps there is another, opposing, yet possibly correct way of theorizing the very nature of conversation; which has the capacity to enrich thinking about it, without displacing the Gadamerian view.

This possibility was opened up for me, as often happens, by a student. The student was very bright and capable, but not especially keen on my teaching – you can always tell – which she seemed to find questionable or dubious or troubling. I am always fascinated by students who aren’t buying what I’m selling, in part because they frustrate me (I’m not going to lie about that), but also in part because I take it for granted that they may have something to teach me. Anyway, this student – let’s call her Leah – was a member of an upper-level, theoretically-inflected seminar I was teaching. The students in the group were all working on projects they had formulated themselves, with the help of different faculty supervisors in the English Department. The literary profession being what it is, few of these students had projects that we might call transitive to the world. Rather, their projects were reflexive to the profession. Their goal, in other words, was to write a certain kind of text – a clever essay; not to figure out, or even identify, a problem with a certain subject-matter.

As usual, in this sort of situation, my pedagogic approach was to ask questions – questions about questions, if we want to be cute about it. I pressed my students to try to tell me what they were fundamentally after; what they were trying to ask; and about what; and why. Some students responded well, and I felt that our conversations were useful for them. Leah, by contrast, clammed up. I could see that she was smart, and that she had something she wanted to push back at me. But I could also see that if I asked her what it was, she would find my inquiry aggressive and back off even farther. So I left her to herself, and kept up my hermeneutic pressure on her classmates. Leah just sat there, for weeks, dutifully and rather grumpily, poking at her laptop, looking at her nails, and rolling her eyes.

Until one day she put up her hand and said: “I guess I have some problems with the approach we’re taking here. You’re always asking us to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing, and what the theories we’re working with actually achieve. Why do they have to achieve anything? I mean, we learn these theories, and they apply to texts in certain ways, and once we know the theories we can apply them to the texts. We can do the kinds of readings that the theories let us do. You always seem to be asking us what we’re finding out about from our texts, but I’m not really sure we need to be finding anything out. We’re not like researchers in biology or computer science or anything. We’re just producing readings.”

Leah’s rant had been worth waiting for. It amounted to an indictment of contemporary literary education that was all the more damning for being offered as a defence. I had been teaching, as she correctly perceived, the standing need to avoid dialectical vacancy in literary-critical practice. Leah took that claim and responded, positively, that dialectical vacancy – not being about anything – was the point of literary-critical practice. The literary classroom, in her view, was not a place where subject-matters were opened up through the asking of questions; but rather, a place where subject-matters were kept at bay by the reiteration of answers. This was “producing readings”: the interminable application of unfalsifiable theories to incidental texts with indeterminate results. This was what Leah felt she had been taught, in the four years of her B.A. It was conversation as finger-painting. I would not have thought that the antithesis of my own position could have been stated so baldly.

I told Leah that she had certainly sketched a different view of inquiry from my own. That was true, but lame. And here is the beginning of the point – or the asking of the question. I didn’t tell Leah exactly what I thought. Why not? She had certainly done her best to hit me with a rocket – which, in my Gadamerian view, is consistent with the way in which the conversational game ought to be played. In that sense, Leah’s defence of dialectical vacancy was self-cancelling – a good starting-point for refutation. But I didn’t offer one. Why not?

I suppose because, as Leah’s teacher, I wanted to encourage her to stay in the conversation. I wanted her to feel safe there. This, perhaps, indicates a confound to the Gadamerian dialectic. True, I had left Leah alone for all those weeks because I did not want to presume that I knew what she was thinking, or how her end of the conversation ought to be managed. It was part of my own exposure – my own risk, as it were – not to claim the right to compel her participation. And that refusal of compulsion extended to holding open her retreat, and even to making her feel that she did not need to take it. In other words, I could do a work-around on my tactical reticence to make it consistent with the Gadamerian dialectic of openness and fullness. But this would be evasive. Falsifying the conversation is falsifying the conversation – especially if it is done for the sake of the conversation. I held back on the offense I could have given in response to Leah, precisely in order to hold open the possibility that the conversation might continue to be productive. And I felt, and still feel, that this was optimal dialogic procedure. And so the confound: conversation as a space of safety, perhaps, is prerequisite to conversation as a space of risk.

What do we do with this insight (if it is one)? I’m not sure. But I am grateful to my student for helping me to see the complacency in my own relative comfort with conversational risk.