Language has the power to make us understand others, to feel like others through time and space. To almost become someone else. Used as tool, computers can help us amplifying the use of language. But if we talk to them alone, they can extract understanding for commercial use and make us die a little.
The magic and wonder unfolding when I read a Hölderlin poem from 214 years ago is that it makes me feel like a highly sensitive human being 214 years ago. And it makes me feel like that with such delicacy and clarity, that it is as if I became Hölderlin for a moment. Most of the time, I don’t read Hölderlin. I read and write about design, tech and, rarely, philosophical matters on my computers, tablets and my phone. And as much as I like computers and poetry, I avoid reading computer-generated poetry at all cost. How come?
Computers And Time
As a so-called HCI (Human Computer Interaction) designer, I know that using a computer I am, in fact, communicating with a computer. I communicate with computers all day long. I know that, most of the time, I talk to something that has no body, no feelings, and no understanding. I know that my communication with a computer has been scripted by interaction designers and programmers. As an “HCI designer”, I don’t mind that too much. I enjoy it. As long as I feel that what I do is meaningful to others.
I mostly use the computer as a tool to talk to other humans. I structure interfaces and write text that I share with other humans. I communicate more with computers than with my kids. I caress my iPhone more often than my kids. This is a bit sad. Maybe it’s very sad. But, hey, most people spend more time at work than with the family! Spending time with my computers, I support my family. And, hey, eventually, my words and designs will reach other human beings. I know that what I do on my computers will be felt by humans in some way. I fear that on my death bed I might regret these words as much as what they try to deny. But, hey… There is a difference between communicating through computers and communicating with computers.
Communicating Through Computers ≠ Communicating With Computers
There is a difference between communicating through computers and communicating with computers. I find texting with chatbots humiliating. I find speaking aloud to a computer odd if not degrading. And I avoid reading machine-generated text like I avoid sniffing the exhaust from a car. I might be old-fashioned. Maybe I read too much Hölderlin, but, to me, using computers as a tool and treating them as equals are two different things.
Computer generated neural network poetry might one day become a Shakespeare cubed. As a matter of fact, I’d be curious to see some really good computer poetry. Send me some, maybe you can change my mind. To this day, machine-generated text annoys me profoundly. And I mean annoys me profoundly. Computer poetry creates a terrifying boring vortex deep inside. Every time I read a computer-generated text, I feel like part of my life has been sucked out of me into a little black electric hole. You may find that exaggerated. But I have a point there, hear me out.
Language Transports Emotion
After years of studying philosophy, history and literature, communicating on the Internet, selling information design and writing software, again and again, I stumble over a intriguing thought: Language transports emotion. The thought comes in different shapes.
When we talk with each other, we do not exchange data, we exchange how we feel. In a great conversation, it’s a give and take: you strike a match in your mind that starts a fire between us.
A computer has no body, no mind. The emotion transported by computer-generated text is one-sided. There is no match, and mostly, there is no fire either. Reading a computer poem, the emotion carried by the words only exists in one mind, my mind. Knowing that before I read these no one felt these words is profoundly sad. It makes me feel as lonely as reading a poem by Hölderlin makes me feel connected through time.
This changes if a computer pretends to be human. Then even an average poem cam become meaningful, beautiful even. As long as no one tells us it was a computer who wrote it. We do not need to wait another 30 years, for that to happen. Chinese AI specialists already found a way to write average poems that are kind of okay and pass a passive poetry Turing test. We are already talking to computers that pretend to be human without noticing.
As a realistic, scientific, pragmatic person you may say that it doesn’t matter whether a poem was written by a human or a computer if it can fool us into believing so. I profoundly disagree. It does. The meaning of words do not just change within their tighter verbal context. They change depending on who speaks them, where and when. Imagine your mother, Barack Obama your schoolfriend or your daughter saying “I’m exhausted.” It feels like dragging the sentence through a rainbow of meaning. Now imagine a computer saying it. There is something frighteningly fake in the funny absurdity of a tired computer. The possibility of a complete collapse of any meaning.
The Digital Vortex
As a young philosophy student in Paris, my student friend David was fascinated that computers can completely erase written language without leaving any trace.
David: Computers have the power to completely annihilate hours, weeks, years of our lives. I write a text with light, it gets magnetized on a hard drive and when I delete a document it is gone forever completely, eradicated. To me, this is what is really new about computers. The ability to fully delete.
Oliver: Can you not as well burn your paper documents?
David: You can. But look: It’s messy. You have to find a good place to burn, strike matches, blow, get rid of the ashes and they may have their butterfly moments. But with a computer, you reformat the hard drive and all your words and the time and energy you put into them are clean zeros. Even words we speak are more material than that. The words we speak make waves in the air and those will eventually change people and, microscopically, things and they continue through the universe. Computers can act like little black electric holes that suck in the time and work we put into that Word document and leave us with nothing. A forensic specialist may disagree, but where there is a delicate thought there is always a smart ass farting at it.
I don’t want to put too many remembered words in his mouth—especially since he now is an expert on the very matter. This is more or less how I poetically remember it. You get the idea: Computers have the power to completely annihilate human time.
Wasting Time With Computers
Funny enough, these days, whatever we put in digital form risks to never be forgotten. Even the silliest dumbest things may live forever. Which is another form of fresh hell computers inflict on us. To be remembered for dumb things, forever. (Forgive me David, if my memory misquoted you).
Spending time with computers we still risk that all the energy we invested in communicating with them disappears into that little black electric holes that used to eat our Word documents. When we talk to computers, we risk dying a little, as we lose time to the possibility that all our energy turns to zeroes.
If I talk to a computer calculated to make me chat with it, I feel like it feeds on my mind. To understand the words processed by a computer I need to pretend that those words mean something. In order to talk to a machine, I have to give it a personality. I have to pretend that plastic, wire and silicon lives.
Pretending things are beings is easy. We can project the character of an intelligent grown-up human into cars, toasters, animals, and babies without much thought or effort. Just as we project a meta-wise human spirit into nature. And we are used to pretending the most outrageous fiction is real. But talking to computers without knowing that they are computers is not the same thing. It’s a viscous charade.
As long as I am aware that I am talking to a computer, it’s a game that I may even enjoy. Talking to a computer as if it were a puppy or Einstein may be cute, fun, and interesting. Cute, like the little thoughts we project into the imagined human mind inside the mind of a cat pic. Fun like the kid having fun talking to a superhero teddy bear. Interesting like observing rats in a labyrinth. Maybe there is a playful dimension to computer poetry that yet has to reveal itself to my body and mind.
But through a screen we don’t always know if we are talking to another human or to a machine. The moment where I realize that I have just been chatting for two hours with a computer and that everything I thought I had understood was just a ruse to extract my understanding… The moment where I realize that instead of becoming someone else for a moment, I was indeed sitting all alone in front of my computer, losing time… The moment where I realize that I was talking to something constructed to harvest my understanding for commercial use… In that moment I die a little. Not too much. A little.
Maybe, I just wasted a couple of seconds decoding a house number. Maybe I just wasted a couple Minutes sending Android information about that restaurant. Maybe I just wasted a couple of hours browsing Facebook. But these hours are potentially lost in a sea of entropy, the cellar of a database or evaporated into zeroes.
Mostly, our soliloquy with computers will not go to waste. Google, Facebook or whatever AI managed to plug into our mind, we helped them do what computers cannot do: We helped them understand. A couple of years ago we helped them understand house numbers, street signs and whether a restaurant was a restaurant for students or families. Our human understanding gets calculated into ever more complex formulas until our computer masters only need us as abstract carriers of a Universal Basic Income to keep the cash in flow.
The likely coda of the digital economy is not pretty: addicted to junk content and losing our way in the infinite memes of dubious provenance, we, the online surplus population, will be eventually asked to fend for ourselves. The tech firms will surely have superb AI protection to sell us. The cognitive elites will prosper, fasting on the digital equivalent of kale and quinoa and browsing the artisanal, handcrafted content hidden from the uninitiated. The rest will be gorging on cheap, trivial, AI-generated memes – until, at least, we buy the premium package of our favorite platform and regain some sanity. Money spent on Facebook will be money well spent. – Evgeny Morozov
Is there a better use of our time than helping machines understand and make ourselves superfluous? You don’t need to start writing poems. Just pay attention to not pour half your life into the digital void.