13.4. Turnabout Is Fair Play

I willingly own up to some mischief here. "Psychologizing the opposition" is a tactic more often abused than productively employed in worthwhile discourse. But I offer two justifications for the tactic, apart from what I take to be the demonstrable plausibility of the foregoing.

First, what I have said is no mere academic exercise. The future hangs in the balance of our self-knowledge. When we lose much of ourselves to the subconscious, we become blind to our own motivations. We may also seek external powers to compensate for our loss of internal mastery. And, in fact, what we see in much of science and technology today is precisely a blind drive toward power. The idea of inevitability has widely substituted for the submerged sphere of consciousness where we might have felt called upon to exercise personal responsibility for our own actions.

In the second place (returning to Flesh and Machines), Brooks repeatedly psychologizes his intellectual antagonists and in the most shameless manner. So I thought a little turnabout would be good medicine. To give one example of what I mean: in 1963 Joseph Weizenbaum wrote the program called ELIZA, which he designed to play the role of a psychologist who largely parrots back the responses of the patient. Weizenbaum was shocked at how dead-seriously many people took ELIZA while "conversing" with it. And he was even more shocked to hear psychiatrists speaking highly of the potentials for such therapy. So Weizenbaum wrote,

What can the psychiatrist's image of his patient be when he sees himself, as therapist, not as an engaged human being acting as a healer, but as an information processor, following rules, etc.? (1976, p. 6)

This is the one and only statement by Weizenbaum that Brooks cites, and he proceeds, without any explanation whatever, to label it "nonsensical" unless you can call this gratuitous and unsupported bit of psychologizing an explanation:

Weizenbaum was fleeing from the notion that humans were no more than machines. He could not bear the thought. So he denied its possibility outright.... [He is] afraid to give up on the specialness of mankind.... It is intellectually too scary. (pp. 167 68)

Apart from the fact that Brooks offers no basis for his judgment about Weizenbaum's state of mind, he ignores the obvious possibility: maybe what Weizenbaum "could not bear" was what no one should be able to bear, namely, a completely nonsensical interpretation of machines and programs. The point, of course, needs to be argued, but Brooks casts his slur against Weizenbaum without making any reference to Weizenbaum's arguments arguments readily available in one of the classics of technology criticism, Computer Power and Human Reason.

The New York Times Book Review blurb on its back cover proclaims Flesh and Machines

a stimulating book written by one of the major players in the field perhaps the major player.... [He] offers surprisingly deep glimpses into what it is to be human.

But so far as I can tell, Brooks makes no effort at all to discuss what it is to be human. He does, however, repeatedly express the faith that machines will turn out to be alive. In the next chapter I will take up some of those points at which his faith comes closest to being argument.

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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