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Olaf Breidbach | The Progress Illusion

 
 

How do we conceive of progress? For us, the word does not simply mean moving forward in time. But an evolutionary biologist should know what it means to exist over time. In evolution it is not always the large, spectacular forms that remain; instead the seemingly unimportant models of organic constructions are the ones that just won’t give up. Shouldn’t this give us something to think about?

We conceive of the progress of our culture differently. According to the formulas of the positivists, whose philosophy largely determined the scientific and scholarly landscape of Europe in the nineteenth century, our culture has always developed ever forward. The old, comprising all prior layers of our culture, is accordingly just a moment on the way to something better, which then finally finds its way to a scientifically enlightened world. But we now know all to well that on this level as well development continues to progress.

Devices and technologies can optimize themselves, compete with one another, and thus allow for ever new developments on this supposed final stage. In the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, there is “temple” of positivism. There, a philosophy is still practiced like a religion. And to enter this temple, one has to climb the stages of human development according to the positivist theory again and again. Only then can the actually cultic space be entered that attests to a sphere of an existence subject to purely rational control. But what is rational to us? For the positivist, this was simple: he submitted to the objectivity of science, misrecognizing that the sciences themselves are also moments of a culture, and accordingly not external to history, but within historical space. What is then scientifically enlightened progress? Should conceive of this space of reason like a market economy, where continuity seems to be tied to a continuous growth of the gross national product?

But a physicist knows that the energy budget is not limitless, but that only what exists can be distributed. Energies need to be gathered, certain parts of the system recharged, but this is a) expensive and is done b) at the cost of others. What does progress mean, if I use this word more in terms of an emphatic call to things higher and better? Is it really the surplus of knowledge, capacities, power, and possibilities that is progress? The sciences themselves are familiar with this model, and long ago made it their own. Progress here simply means more knowledge. Accordingly, information is to be hoarded, so that more can develop from more.

The Ohio Center for Cognitive Sciences provided up until recently a model well-suited to such notions of progress. The goal of this project was to construct a computer that was supposed to learn to classify the things of the world properly. It was simply fed with more and more information. When it became clear that it wasn’t enough to read the texts of all available encyclopedias into such a device, the reaction was by no means to reconsider having “more” always means being better able to deal with this surplus of knowledge. Instead, it was decided to expand the information input program: now not just libraries and expert systems were to be scanned into the machine, but everyday knowledge as well. The idea was to scan into the device all potential information input modi to create a truly artificial intelligence. This experiment is reminiscent of the old myth of the Nuremberg Funnel, but the information input strategies are much more differentiated in comparison to this basic model.

We should reconsider how far such models will take us, models also familiar to us from 1960s science fiction, where humanity’s future continued endlessly. The physical limits of the planetary system seemed to downright disappear before the backdrop of all conceivable technologies. The world seemed open for a development that led to ever more space, and with this more and more humanity, and hence more knowledge. In these visions, as formulated for example by Isaac Asimov, a swarm of astronauts, like a plague of locusts, was sent out to settle outer space in a self-amplifying process that ultimately seemed endless for these heroes.

(Olaf Breidbach  |  The Progress Illusion)



// Octocer 2006
 
 
 
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