georg_diez's picture
Writer, Journalist, Der Spiegel & Spiegel Online; Author of weekly and widely read column "Der Kritiker"; Former Cultural Editor at Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Sonntags Zeitung and Die Zeit.
Progress Free From The Burden Of Humanity And History

The thinking machine, Turing's turmoil: Does it really change everything? It is, after all, a human folly to believe that this is how things work, that there will be a single event that separates time, man, thinking. A sort of self-negating and at the same time self-elevating sentimentality, both optimistic and pessimistic, nihilistic and idealistic.

Because, really, what does it mean? And who is to judge? What is everything? And what is change? What is before and what is after? We would first have to agree about the state of affairs, and that itself is difficult enough. Are we free, for example? And free from what? Is biology a system that allows for freedom? To a certain degree, yes. Is democracy a system that allows for freedom? Very much so, but only theoretically sometimes, and tragically less and less so. Is capitalism a system that allows for freedom? Not for everybody, that's for sure.

So is freedom, after all, the right approach, the right thing to ask for? Yes, if this is what we as humans fear from the thinking machines: Domination. But should this be the way we think about thinking machines? Is negativity equal to critical thinking? Is critical thinking the right way to produce some real insight? Or is this onanistic logic, meant to please oneself without regard for others and the outside world? Who is it that we address in such a critical way? Is it people whom we would like to convince? Is this really possible? Or is this a chimera? A strange turn of reason, the conceit of the "enlightened" community?

Not that progress is not possible. Quite the contrary, and the thinking machines speak of this. The thing is: Maybe the idea of progress itself is not necessarily tied to the idea of humanity. Maybe humans are not the eternal carrier of this idea. Maybe the idea will eventually detach itself from humans and develop its own reality. Maybe this is what the thinking machine is all about: A difference, a mirror, a chance to reflect. Free from ourselves. Free from the burden of humanity and history.

Human history is in large part the history of man piling mythology upon mythology—and then of the more or less strenuous effort to unravel the whole lot, to straighten it out, to get it right again. It is as if we set up barricades and obstacles, purely in order to remove them, to give us a sense of meaning, of purpose. This is ridiculous, like so much that we humans do. So to think about machines means to think about humans less as humans. Which sets us free from all the old lore in which we have been caught up, old concepts of order, life, happiness.

Family, friendship, sex, money, everything could be different, these are not the only possible answers to the question of human freedom and how to create it and, more so, how to constrain it. The thinking machine is thus the necessary question mark behind our very existence. It is a blank space. Just like everybody's life. It is the possibility to free ourselves from evolutionary, psychological, neurological assumptions—in a truly anti-humanistic humanistic sense, in the romantic tradition of ETA Hoffmann, this could be a poetic and thus a political proposition.

It could free us from us.