Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reductionism Is Bad?

Jaron Lanier has seen fit to establish at book length that You Are Not A Gadget, an excerpt of which appears in the February 2010 Harper's. This bit captures the tone of the piece:

What computerized analysis of all the country's school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database. Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things that computers cannot currently do. Whether one expects computers to improve in the future is a different issue. In a less idealistic atmosphere it would go without saying that software should be designed only to perform tasks that can be successfully carried out at a given time. That is not the atmosphere in which Internet software is designed, however. When technologies deploy a computer model of something like learning or friendship in a way that has an effect on real lives, they are relying on faith. When they ask people to live their lives through their models, they are potentially reducing life itself.
If you have a Facebook account, don't kill yourself, Lanier seems to say: there's likely nothing left to kill. Oddly enough, the same issue of Harper's includes Lorin Stein's review of a new translation of Guy de Maupassant:
By the time he was in his early thirties, not just Flaubert and Zola but Turgenev, James, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, and millions of ordinary French people, were reading everything he wrote. He had become "a lion in the path," as James put it -- a writer so "strong and definite" that he seemed able to reduce life almost solely to a matter of animal urges. "In the face of the demands made by the art of Maupassant," Chekhov complained, "it is difficult to work." His French was notoriously vivid and to the point.
Maupassant "reduced life?" Has anyone broken the news to Jaron Lanier? Stein is citing Henry James's Partial Portraits, in which he defines Maupassant's strongest "instrument":
... that of the senses, and it is through them alone, or almost alone, that life appeals to him; it is almost alone by their help that he describes it, that he produces brilliant works.
James elaborates on this brilliance:
As regards the other sense, the sense 'par excellence, the sense which we scarcely mention in English fiction, and which I am not very sure I shall be allowed to mention in an English periodical, M. de Maupassant speaks for that, and of it, with extra- ordinary distinctness and authority. To say that it occupies the first place in his picture is to say too little; it covers in truth the whole canvas, and his work is little else but a report of its innumerable manifestations. These manifestations are not, for him, so many incidents of life; they are life itself, they represent the standing answer to any question that we may ask about it.
The idea of reductionism hovers around this characterization of Maupassant's work -- the richness of human experience distilled into words as mediated principally through the senses. Whatever else may be said of James's view of Maupassant, it establishes that thoughtful people were suggesting the presence of reductionism long before the internets ruined everything. It's also worthwhile to note that James is lauding Maupassant's writing even as he accuses it of a form of reductionism.

In light of this, maybe Jaron Lanier could lighten up a little. Perhaps human beings are not doomed to degradation by our own clever tools (robots run amok!) after all. Concretely, those who cherish a form of friendship that web-based social networks cannot provide will do well to seek it beyond the web; likewise, those who wish for literary representation that goes deeper than Maupassant's concupiscence should likewise turn to other authors. Those who can't bear to witness the universe described in terms of equations, constants, formulas, numbers, forces, particles, and the like should avoid physics. And so on.

Reductionism takes many forms, and it is not new. Its uses and results vary.

A nobler person than I would decline to note that an electronic edition of You Are Not A Gadget is also available, but I am not that person. I add the wild guess that the electronic edition contains exactly the same sequence of words bearing the same insights as the paper edition.


1 comment:

larryniven said...

"...thoughtful people were suggesting the presence of reductionism long before the internets ruined everything."

Ah yes, but those thoughtful people were wrong, because obviously the web is satan's binary playground. It's amazing that we humans have lasted this long already!