Blog Post

Digital Agency

This post in many ways has a strong relationship with my previous post about the singularity. I wish to discuss the descriptive and normative claims in giving computers agency: that is, I will first deal with what it means to give computer's agency and all that it entails, and then I will discuss whether we ought to and look at arguments against this method. I believe that endowing computers with agency will lead the digital historian to a new understanding, just as giving certain groups in the past agency, has done the exact same for historians. Though a more methodological approach, it is essential to historians of all calibre in today's world.

Throughout human history most groups aside from the "Great Men of History" have been shoved aside as unimportant to the study of the past. Not only were certain groups and individuals seen as contingent upon such famous figures or events but these groups were rarely mentioned or often mainly in a negative light. But with the help of revisionist and later social, oral, labour, postcolonial, etc. historians, these once forgotten groups have been retrospectively endowed with agency by the modern historian, with traditional views set aside. For instance, largely following the footsteps of Karl Marx, social and labour historians have given a voice to the lowest class of worker (not only individual but groups) - the working class was given agency by such historians as E.P. Thompson. Postcolonialism gives a voice to the colonials, and so on. These movements do not neceassrily promote a dialectic between traditional and contemporary views and in fact many see themselves as building upon and/or refining inherited truths and perspectives on the past (though some such as the post-colonial - note the dash - movement which looks specifically at the fault of the colonials). Many of these historians do not attack traditional views but put them through the same rigorous standards that all historical work goes through and shed new light on the past, seeing it as more complicated than we used to view it.

Well we are, and might I say quite quickly, entering an age where computers are beginning to - and I will argue later should - receive agency. The famous Cleverbot which speaks back to you (try it out, it is really cool), albeit often incomprehensibly, is just one way that we are beginning to give computers agency. (Interestingly enough, when you talk to it, you are teaching it how to respond, work through logic and achieve a primitive, albeit contrived, form of consciousness.) Every now and then though, Cleverbot is interviewed so that researches can estimate how human it is. This is called the Turing Test, which was named after the father of modern computers Alan Turing (he also helped crack the code of the German engima in the Second World War). Basically the Turing Test attempts to show how human a computer (or person) is based on the ability to think and imitate humans. It is important to note that the average human is only human 63% of the time based on the Turing Test. Well, as of last year, Cleverbot is estimated at 59% human (remember, that is 4% less than actual humans). It still has a long way to go but the very fact that a computer closely ressembles a human should tell us that it will become human in the not so distant future.

Now I know what you might be thinking right now, "But a computer cannot be human. It is just made up of hardware and software that calculates using 0 and 1. After all, I have free will." I have already tackled the notion of free will in the comment thread of another post, but will reproduce it here. I believe that human brains are organic computers. I reject the existence of free will and believe it was formed in the minds of early humans, noticing their difference with other animals: they could do math, contemplate the cosmos, think about what it means to exist. I believe that current neuroscientific research reveals that we are not the conscious authors of our thoughts and actions and that human behaivour is largely determined by this. (For a great intro to the current neuroscience of free will, check out Sam Harris' Free Will. It's a quick and concise read. One of the facts that really stood out to me was that part of your brain already registers and produces thoughts on average 3 seconds before you are cognisant of them.) Thus I would say that humans are in fact living, breathing, computers (though much more advanced of course than the laptop I am currently writing this on). 

A great example of a truly human computer that has passed the Turing Test and is in many ways higher functioning than human animals is HAL 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyseey. HAL, as they call him, is one of many HAL 9000 computers, who are famous for never having made a mistake. HAL runs the main functions of the space ship alongside his two human associates. At one point HAL makes a mistake, the first ever, and begins to think for himself, attempting to sacrifice the crew for greater good of the mission, that is, reaching Jupiter for possible signs of alien life. This example leads beautifully into my next section on the normative claims for giving agency to computers, let alone increasing their processing power. That is, the argument rampant in Hollywood that computers will one day surpass humans, rise up out of their subordination, and wipe out the human race with their cold, absolutely rational view of life and utilitarianian values.

Most of these fearful views, I argue, of computers rising up, are fictional accounts often in a period of fear (i.e. Cold War) but mostly a fear of the technological unknown. In regards to historical contingency, one could look at the popular culture of this phenomenon as a fear of the cold, utilitarian, scientific, and godless communists in the Cold War, or even in a positive light as a metaphor for oppressed groups rising up against their masters (though my normative argument doesn't necessarily focus on computers realizing their subordination and rising up, so we shouldn't give them agency. I think that point would be a bit silly). 

With the Law of Accelerating Returns, in this current epoch, technology is increasing faster than ever before. Our brains, evolutionarily conditioned to linear change, have not been able to fully grasp the exponential advancement our species has, and still is, seeing. This is where the fear of the unknown arises. The Terminator series is a famous example. Machines eventually overthrow their human creators and wage nuclear war against them, having unlimited access to launch codes, information, weapons, etc. Though I believe these are often historically contingent examples, as well as fear-mongering. For not only can we program computers to do what we want, I highly doubt that future computers would become malevolant and rise up against humans. I even grant that computers will one day receive consciousness (though that term is probably the most highly weighted in human vocabulary). As long as we live in a world where scientific research and ability to openly receive a rational education, where all voices and demographics can work together using possibly the most highly objective method we have, then I have no worry of computers 'turning' on us.

(At this point I would have loved to get into a highly controversial descriptive argument - not normative for I do not understand it enough to be making ought claims - about moral relativism. But that is much more heavily related to philosophy and and argument for the ethicists. I will make no such claims but feel free to comment on them.)

Lastly, many make arguments that computers make us dumb, do all the work for us, and that they should be approached with caution. Was it not also true that Socrates worried writing ideas down would weaken the human mind? Yet look at the world around us. Strip away the nostalgic hyperbole of those remembering the wonder of their childhoods, and you see that we are in the most educated and intelligent age in human history. And computers have helped reach this point. They are the means for global connectedness, free education, and giving a voice to those once without one (which may or may not be a good thing). We rely on them to run every aspect of our societies and our lives, and unless we want to return to our pre-human times we are stuck with computers - computers that run autos, water systems, keep you warm, give you entertainment, etc. 

Thus I believe that in giving computers agency, now, we will begin to see them as more than just tools that the digital historian can use. We can become part of them, understand them, and see them in a new light. Our brains will unwillfully create new paths and our thinking will change. For not only do I believe computers have agency but they give us the means to discover the past in a way unlike ever before. I can now read great works of literature using text analysis to discover patterns unknown before, or map data that reveals ways in which others have lived their lives, that without a computer, I would have never known. In a funny way we are computers, projecting our understanding onto computers. They are creations of human intellect and experience. They make us wiser, more critical and skeptical.

In a way this post leads to next week's entry which will be about mapping Iron Age coins in Roman Wales using Google Earth. But I felt it was important to explain my infant thoughts on an important methodology the digital historian ought to realize. 

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