Just starting Anselm Hollo's fascinating Guests of Space, I came across a poem that captures, with admirable concision, an experience uniquely common to our era:
My first computer:
Poor old workhorse machine
Just an advanced version of the clay tablet
Archaic box, you still work
Humming that hum I found so irritating
22 years ago
(used to say "this thing's
no smarter than an amoeba")
Waiting for me to write
A word and then another
But I shouldn't have said what I said just then
Because only a few days later
It went from hum to loud groan And died
As I read it, the poet here starts out by viewing his old machine with bemused affection -- as a projection he is no more able to really empathize with than a microorganism. And yet, in the end, he finds himself -- by a mildly superstitious reflex if nothing else -- almost thinking twice about such a judgement.
What adds a humorous touch to Hollo's poem for me is the degree of identification I feel with this thought pattern. According to Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of virtual reality, the "thinking twice" I noticed is a bit of a trend.
He tells us that ever since IBM's Deep Blue beat chess champ Gary Kasparov -- and fueled popular fantasies about Artificial Intelligence -- it's become increasingly difficult to avoid psychologically projecting intellectual and emotional traits onto computers.
The possibility of now or future AI, Lanier argues, forces us to wonder about how wide to "draw our circle of empathy" -- because we increasingly wonder what separates persons from non-persons. As in the case of debates about when life begins, "the borders of personhood remain variegated and fuzzy." (p. 39)
Hollo's poem suggests, indirectly, one of the many possible answers to such questions. What separates the poet from the computer is the simple fact that he, not it, is writing the poem.
Coincidentally, the ability to make art as proof of selfhood is an idea explored directly, if in a much less playful way, in a movie I saw last week: Never Let Me Go.
The film version of Ishiguro's novel (which I haven't read) portrays a society that "manufactures" clones, as it were, in order to harvest their organs (in early adulthood). Of course, it seems odd that clones wouldn't be considered fully human -- they're the equivalent of identical twins, after all. But what's even weirder is that, during their schooling (in special boarding schools) these supposedly not-fully- human clones are encouraged to be creative; they make art (which is collected and shown in a gallery).
As they mature, some wonder what purpose their art served. A sort of urban legend springs up among them that there is a chance for clone couples "truly in love" to defer their (organ) "donations" (as they're euphemistically called) for a few years (and enjoy each other).
The clones believe the reason they are told to create is that such artworks allow their wardens to see into their souls -- and to judge whether they are truly in love, or just faking it to escape their unpleasant fates.
What one clone couple discovers, though, is that the art was not to "read" their souls, but to determine if they even had souls or personhood in the first place. And that no "donation deferrals" were ever granted.
Why Does Making Art Make You Human?
The idea of art-making as proof of humanity is common enough. But why is this? I think here again of a point made in Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology." As Daniel Pinchbeck puts it:
"Technology...is based on an ordering of reality that turns everything -- including people -- into a 'standing reserve,' a resource to be utilized for rationalized ends." (p. 105)
To be "standing reserves" (for fresh organs) is exactly the fate of the clones in the movie. And this is due not only to (genetic) technology, but to a society so in love with its own rationalizations that it can deny personhood to a segment of its people.
Heidegger saw the arts as a sort of antidote to such tendencies. He reasoned that paintings and poems valued things and people not only for their uses, but for themselves. According to this logic, the ability to make things for their own sake, and that are relatively useless for practical ends, is a key trait that separates mere machines from intelligent beings.
This is why when people debate the possibility of AI, they sometimes present examples of computer art. It may also have something to do with the fact that Hollo's own computer inspires a poem precisely when it breaks down -- and is good for nothing.