Crooked timber and tangled wires
Perfect solutions in an imperfect world
This is the first in a series connecting the themes of ‘imperfect notes’ to thinking about the role of technology in society, supported by a grant from the Toshiba International Foundation.
‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made’ is Isaiah Berlin’s famous rendering of a line from Immanuel Kant, reflecting a scepticism in the capacity of imperfect humans to create perfect solutions. Echoing the logic of tragic thought, Berlin proposed an acceptance of some differences being irreconcilable, some ends being unattainable. Instead of aiming for the best, one should instead try to avoid the worst:
The best that can be done, as a general rule, is to maintain a precarious equilibrium that will prevent the occurrence of desperate situations, of intolerable choices – that is the first requirement for a decent society; one that we can always strive for, in the light of the limited range of our knowledge, and even of our imperfect understanding of individuals and societies. A certain humility in these matters is very necessary.
His cautious stance is comprehensible, writing at a time burdened with the ghosts of Auschwitz and the spectre of nuclear war. This context reflected and informed what Berlin identified as the two most significant trends of the twentieth century: first, the development of natural sciences and technology; and second, the battle of ideologies. He observed that ‘these great movements began with ideas in people’s heads’, and these ‘ideas are the substance of ethics’. From this perspective, the consideration of ethical matters is not incidental, but a vital part of making sense and acting in the world. Berlin explained that, ‘ethical thought consists of the systematic examination of the relations of human beings to each other, the conceptions, interests and ideals from which human ways of treating one another spring, and the systems of value on which such ends of life are based.’ Doing this unavoidably means reckoning with the part played by technology.
In the twenty first century, one could suggest that the two trends Berlin identified have fused together: science has become one of the great ideologies of the contemporary world. Belief in it is something that unites otherwise increasingly divergent political models. Yet, as David Cayley has argued, science has been turned into myth, by which he means that the plural, contested nature of science is flattened out, and instead presented as a singular voice of truth. In so doing, what is removed is the unavoidable political and ethical questions that are present in science. Connecting these observations, technological development is again one of the most important drivers of this century, and how it is understood, pursued, and incorporated into societies is not a neutral or objective process, but one fundamentally shaped by beliefs about who and what is valuable and meaningful. Put differently, it is about ethics.
Coming to terms with this includes thinking through how technologies are being pursued and applied, and for what purposes. It extends, however, to the ways that technologies shape and condition the context within which ethical reflection occurs. In this regard, L.M. Sacasas proposes:
the more deeply we reflect on the ethical quandaries posed by technology the more we realize that this or that technology is not the problem. The problem is the morally fractured and impoverished field from which they emerge and into which they proceed.
This dynamic is one that contemporary technologies reinforce and exacerbate, with social media being the most immediate example of how we interact with each other and understand the world is being reshaped and distorted. Yet part of the issue is that the way social media operates is profoundly human; it just is not very humane. Even if we can restrain some of the worst tendencies such technologies provoke, we are still left with the residual challenge of finding agreement around issues over which there are profound, and sometimes irreconcilable, differences. That we are still grappling with many of the same dilemmas as the ancients is not from lack of thought or effort.
Berlin’s injunction – of forgoing ‘the search for perfection’ and instead ‘promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium’ – is one that retains relevance for thinking through our present predicament. What does that mean in the context of big data and AI, algorithms and social media? As Berlin pointed towards, our limited knowledge and imperfect understanding inevitability shapes our capacity to act. The rise of surveillance capitalism, as Shoshana Zuboff has detailed, is perhaps the most pervasive and impactful example of how technologies can evolve in unexpected ways. Not only have these developments exceeded our expectations, much of what has occurred has been profoundly harmful. ‘Move fast and break things’ makes little sense when the things being broken are people’s minds and social bonds. Given that we are now struggling with the perverse consequences of such technologies, it should be apparent why there is a strong logic for a more cautious and humble approach. Ultimately, such thinking is informed by a deeper recognition that the perennial problem of technology is the crooked timber it is made from.