It’s time to disconnect from techno-fetishism

When the computer Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov it seemed to many that we had crossed a threshold. By beating us at our most complex intellectual task, man had at last been defeated by a machine.

Kasparov’s defeat prompted anguish from those fearful of the colonizing power of the machine world. Newspapers framed the battle as a contest that pitted humans, with all of our cleverness and weaknesses, against impersonal machines robotically pursuing their objective.

For others Deep Blue’s victory was an inspiration, a harbinger of humankind’s transition to a technological utopia. They foresee an imminent “technological singularity” in which computers pass a critical point to attain a super-intelligence beyond human capabilities. Then technology will set its own course according to its own intentions.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil is the guru of an informal cult of those who believe the singularity is near and will take us to a kind of paradise, an afterlife in which the barrier separating humans from machines dissolves and we transcend the limits of our physical bodies and unenhanced brains.

In truth, though, a computer did not beat the Russian champion. With help from several grandmasters, a couple of programmers defeated Kasparov. They worked out how to program a computer with such exactitude that it could perform enough calculations of the right sort to win. That’s all.

If Deep Blue had defeated not Garry Kasparov but Deep Red we would rightly have concluded that Deep Blue’s programmers were cleverer than Deep Red’s. So why did Kasparov’s loss cause so many to rend their shirts and dread the day computers would take over the world, reversing the ascendancy humans have always had over machines?

The answer, I think, is that we have turned the computer into a fetish, that is, an inanimate object worshipped for its apparent magical powers. We have been persuaded that computers are vastly more powerful than we are and are capable of breaking free of our control. Neither of these is true.

Take the first. When we get up in the morning we have breakfast, shower, dress and leave our bricks-and-mortar homes for work. If we drive instead of taking the bus, our cars have computers that make them operate more effectively and give them more functions; but 30 years ago our cars got us to work just as well. We might stop at the ATM on the way to withdraw money, which is convenient. But is it so different from having a teller pass the notes over the counter?

At work we send some emails. It’s a quick way to communicate, but the world worked quite well when we communicated by post, fax and telephone. We play games on our laptops, watch movies and shop, but it’s not as though we lacked entertainment opportunities 30 years ago.

So what is really different in our lives as a result of computers? When we stop and think about all of the basic things we do each day the answer is “not much”. Computers have had nothing like the impact on daily life of the industrial revolution and urbanization, yet we tell ourselves we live in a digital age, one defined by computers.

We have fallen into a world of hype created by those whose lives are bound up in building, operating and selling computers, and boosted by breathless reporters, futurologists on the make and an IT industry on which we rely too heavily.

Undoubtedly this is due in part to an infatuation with our own technological prowess, our limitless ability to gaze in awe at our own inventiveness and reach. Yet at the same time we are frightened of technological over-reach, of ceding to machines things that are essential to our humanity, afraid that the machines themselves will take on a life of their own.

It’s an anxiety forged in the industrial revolution, one that has inspired numberless authors, from Mary Shelley to H.G. Wells, and film-makers, from James Cameron to Stanley Kubrick. The computer age has vindicated and turbo-charged these fears, which helps explain the panic over the Y2K bug, which was fed by newspaper editors who understood and stoked our primitive fear of alien powers.

Why do we constitute computers as an independent and alien power threatening to deprive us of our autonomy? After all, a computer can no more break free from its human programmers than an abacus can take over the bazaar. To imagine otherwise is a projection, like Dorothy’s mental picture of the Wizard of Oz before she drew back the curtain to find a little old man pulling the strings.

When we think about it, it’s hard not to conclude that in this secular world we have made computers occupy some of the space vacated by God. Psychologists have for decades measured a personality trait known as ‘locus of control’, which measures the extent to which we feel our lives to be controlled by ourselves, rather than outside forces.

Over the last 50 years young people (in America at least) have become much more likely to believe that external forces control their lives. Despite the successes of the women’s movement, the increase in perceived loss of control is more pronounced in young women. We give away our autonomy, assigning it to exterior powers.

Deep Blue is a piece of equipment and could defeat Kasparov only because chess is a game that lends itself to precise algorithms. Even so, it is a machine that works through brute computing power rather than the creative intelligence of the human mind. A computer can never be intelligent, or autonomous. Besides, playing chess is not what makes us human.


Published by The Conversation, 3 July 2013.


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