Robert Harrison: “Our culture is getting more and more prosaic…We’re trafficking in concepts and not in spirit.”

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You could easily miss this long article with the long title, “Writer, podcaster “Robert Harrison challenges A.I. brain delusion, the Humanities’ deathbed and Fear & Loathing with the Love Bots.” I wouldn’t pass it up I were you. Scott Thomas Anderson has a conversation with Robert Pogue Harrison, Stanford’s leading humanist and Dante scholar, and Aqsa Ijaz, who writes for The Marginalia Review (we’ve written about her on the Book Haven here) and it shouldn’t be missed.

An excerpt:

“We were talking about the horrifying and exciting possibilities of Chat GPT, and I asked, ‘What if it starts to write books like you?” Ijaz reminded Harrison. “And you said, ‘I’m not worried that A.I. will be able to think metaphorically, or write books like mine. I’m worry that it will hasten the day when human beings themselves will no longer be able to think metaphorically and lose access to those depths.’ What do you think is happening in the Humanities? Have students already lost access to their metaphoric depths?”

Robert Pogue Harrison

“I think so, yeah,” Harrison admitted. “At Stanford, when I arrived in the 80s, there was the whole war over the Western canon. It had gone from Western Civilization to ‘Civilization, Ideas and Values.’ So, when they changed the reading list from Western Civ. to ‘C.I.V.,’ essentially, they threw out all the poets. They retained Thomas Aquinas but threw out Dante. They retained Machiavelli and threw out Shakespeare. They retained the theorists, the people who think in terms of concepts, but not in terms of images. So, this isn’t even due to technology, it’s just the fact that our culture is getting more and more prosaic, and professors are more and more in the profession of trafficking in concepts and not in spirit. So, it’s that de-spiritualization. And we’re becoming completely illiterate in terms of the language of imagery, symbol, metaphor. This increasing literalization of reality is a terrible blight on the poetic imagination.”

For Harrison and many of his listeners, that has consequences: This weakening of the full breadth of the human experience is accelerating at the very same moment that the zealots of Tech utopianism would have A.I. replace the human creative capacity all together. Harrison thinks that many of his colleagues are too consumed with indoctrination to see this grim writing on the wall.   

“Rather than them being an antidote or tonic or some kind of corrective to the general disaster that has been visited upon our ordinary human intelligence by technology, and the whole sorcery of the screen, I think the majority of my colleagues in the Humanities – according to my general awareness of the tribe to which I belong – won’t be in a position where we should expect much from them,” Harrison offered. “They won’t be providing a productive alternative or some kind of counter-impulse to the worst disfigurations … It seems to me that it’s just going to render everyone more and more vulnerable to fraud, propaganda, ideological manipulation and greater political polarization. And it’s the same technology that enhances and enables all of these exploitations of human loneliness.”

Aqsa Ijaz

The conversation turned to AI, perhaps inevitably: NYU professor Gary Marcus, who spoke recently about the extreme confusion society will now face between reality and unreality.

“What criminals are going to do here is create counterfeit people,” Marcus said. “It’s hard to even envision the consequences of that. We have built machines that are bulls in a China shop. Powerful, reckless and difficult-to-control.”

In other words, as these forms of machine learning teach themselves how to play to people’s egos and vanity, breathing in our collective online behavior – and how we use social media to desperately grasp for breadcrumbs of affirmation – these bots get better and better at gauging how a person secretly likes to imagine themself. They will learn to cater to such vulnerabilities, doing so from the guise of some vaguely independent, apparently all-knowing ghost. This alone gives A.I. the potential to be as addictive, or more addictive, than any force we’ve yet encountered in our mammalian experience, especially when love and sex are forced into the equation. And Marcus’s reference to criminals? Up until this point, con artists of average intelligence have been successfully preying on isolated, withdrawn and hurting people, often managing to catfish those victims for tens of thousands of dollars; or in some cases hundreds of thousands. Now imagine what a predictive “super-intelligence” can do to isolated, withdrawn and hurting people.  

Can Silicon Valley and the academic breeding ground that bolsters it somehow chain this part of the genie?  

Having taught at Stanford University for 38 years, Harrison has little faith that the ivy league institutions will be the answer … Read the whole thing here.


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