I’m not one who thinks that newspapers are going to become obsolete anytime soon, but there is no question that the new pressures faced by the media business are influencing the way newspapers represent what’s happening in the world. Consider the shameful way in which technology is often reported.
What newspaper publishers and their editors fear most is the future. For that reason, they do not approach the subject of technology with anything like the skepticism and detachment with which they report on, say, politics. Technology is synonymous with the future, and since the great apprehension is that older news forms will get left behind by the future, technology has to be appeased whenever it comes up. To doubt technology’s claims is to make yourself vulnerable to charges of being reactionary. To explore the motivations and alliances of its major figures is to risk being accused of acting spitefully out of anxiety. Instead, the news editor or reporter finds himself in the paradoxical position of wanting to appear “forward”-thinking, kissing the future’s behind whenever technology presents itself.
You would think the paper of record might be a little more skeptical of claims that the ability of humans to upload their brains into robotic systems would make human beings immortal.
So you get piece after piece in The New York Times by editorial writer Adam Cohen about the irrefutable virtues of the Internet. Not long ago, Mr. Cohen wrote an homage to Facebook, the occasion for which was his invaluable discovery on Facebook that someone he used to know had died. “I’ve decided that I am going to remain Luke’s Facebook friend as long as his family keeps his page up,” he concluded with cloying insincerity, after explaining that his “friendship” with poor Luke amounted to the latter friending Mr. Cohen on Facebook out of the blue and sending Mr. Cohen “a steady stream of updates on his life.” (Mr. Cohen, who often writes worshipfully about the Internet for The Times, also wrote a book called The Perfect Store: Inside Ebay, a valentine to the online retailer.) Or you get Professor Steven Pinker in the op-ed pages of The Times, defending the Internet against charges that it is disastrously influencing our cognitive and affective faculties-just four days after The Times ran an article (about 10 years too late) about how the Internet is making us all distracted and socially alienated. “Far from making us stupid,” Mr. Pinker obsequiously declared, “these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.” I’ll bet there are a lot of people whose interests are reported on in The Times who would also love it if any bad press that their projects (i.e. investments) got were instantly refuted on the op-ed page. Tough luck.
This past Sunday, the paper outdid itself on the subject of technology. On the front page of the business section, The Times published a 5,000-word article about a techno-trend that was some of the most irresponsible and incompetent journalism I have ever seen. Written by Ashlee Vance, the article was on something called “the Singularity,” and its hero was the futurist Ray Kurzweil.
Mr. Vance defined the Singularity as “a time, possibly just a couple decades from now, when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state.” That posed a problem right there for anyone reading for sense. If no one can “predict” or “comprehend” what the Singularity is, how can anyone claim to predict or comprehend it? But that didn’t stop Mr. Vance from spending the next several thousand words presenting a number of Singularity experts who did precisely that, claiming to predict and comprehend what Singularity is, or will be.
You would think that as the technology of drilling for oil at the bottom of the ocean has just created the worst environmental disaster in history, when the technology of data retrieval and transmission recently helped create one of the worst financial calamities in history-to take just two examples of techno-dysfunction, both superbly reported on by The Times-the paper of record might be a little more skeptical of claims that the ability of humans to upload their brains into robotic systems would make human beings immortal. But despite the requisite jokiness at moments, Mr. Vance reports on the Singularity movement-which now has its own university at a NASA-sponsored campus in California-as though its childish fantasies were about to become as handy and familiar as the toaster.
Was Mr. Vance impressed by the socially prestigious atmosphere? We read that “some of Silicon Valley’s smartest and wealthiest people have embraced the Singularity” and that “a group of very rich, very bright Singularity observers” are sympathetic to the movement. He further breathlessly reports that “hundreds of students worldwide apply to snare one of 80 available spots in a separate 10-week ‘graduate’ course that costs $25,000″ and that “more than 1,600 people applied for just 40 spots in the inaugural graduate program held last year.” We read that Google and other corporations are throwing around astronomical sums of money, $30 million here, $10 million there. With so much cash, and so much exclusivity, how could Singularity University not be a legitimate place for the study of legitimate ideas?
Some of these ideas are as follows: resurrecting the dead; allowing people to live forever-or at least to “achieve mental immortality by… backing up their brains”; being able to “steer hurricanes away from populated areas”; and tweaking “the genetic makeup of plants so they resemble things like chairs and tables, allowing us to grow fields of everyday objects for home and work.”
Now you would think that with the weight and authority of a 5,000-plus-word article on the front page of The Times‘ business section, the paper of record would want to counterbalance the legitimacy such length and placement confers on a subject with the weight and authority of an opposing view. Think again. In the skeptics’ camp, Mr. Vance presents Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber; environmentalists; religious groups; and technologists “who fear a runaway artificial intelligence that subjugates humans.” Oh, and there’s also the “popular network television show, Fringe, [that] playfully explores some of these concerns by featuring a mad scientist.” But with the exception of two obscure figures-Jonathan Huebner, a weapons designer who works for the Navy, and William S. Bainbridge, who evaluates grant proposals for the National Science Foundation-Mr. Vance quotes only people who fear-”fear” is the operative word here-the Singularity’s advent. In other words, he quotes only critics of Singularity who believe all of Singularity’s ridiculous claims. He does not quote a single distinguished person doubting that the Singularity will in fact ever come to pass.
If an economist working for Rand Paul started promising voters that a ballot cast for him meant a magical fix to the deficit, you can bet your gigabytes that The Times would hang him out to dry. They would trot out half a dozen distinguished economists to rebut him-as well they should if he was trying to put one over on us. But when a futurist starts promising a technological solution to the eternal problems of sickness and death, The Times has to lend its ear and bend its knee. Be careful. It’s the future!
You would never know that one year ago, Daniel Lyons wrote an article for Newsweek noting that many of the predictions Mr. Kurzweil had been making for years were “not just a little bit wrong, but wildly, laughably wrong,” including: Mr. Kurzweil’s prediction, in 1998, that the economy would keep booming on to 2019; his certainty that at least one U.S. company, in Mr. Lyons’ words, would soon “have a market capitalization of more than $1 trillion”; his prediction “that by now our cars would be able to drive themselves by communicating with intelligent sensors embedded in highways.”
It’s standard practice for reporters, when writing about a particular topic, to interview the author of a recent book on the subject. It just so happens that Jaron Lanier, who just published a skeptical book about digital technology’s futurist boasts called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, is one of Mr. Kurzweil’s fiercest and most intelligent critics. In an essay Mr. Lanier published a few years ago-”One Half a Manifesto”-he characterizes Mr. Kurzweil’s ideas as not only implausible, but as a type of totalitarian fantasizing. But Mr. Vance never thought to call Mr. Lanier, who is an authoritative if sober voice in the world of technological and futurist discourse.
Nor will you find any mention of Douglas Hofstadter. The distinguished professor of cognitive science-and a Pulitzer Prize winner, if you are looking for prestige-had this to say in an interview about the Singularian ideas that Mr. Vance so much admires: “It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad.” Mr. Hofstadter recounted inviting Mr. Kurzweil and another like-minded futurist to speak at a symposium and was struck by how “inhibited” the two men were: “I had to go into their books and read out loud their most crazy quotes in order to say, ‘Look, you’re not saying in front of this audience of a thousand people what you’ve said in your books. Here’s what you’ve said in your books. What do you think of this?’ The symposia weren’t satisfactory to me; the people didn’t confront their own ideas.” The biologist PZ Myers, who runs the respected science blog Pharyngula, dismisses Mr. Kurzweil’s ideas as “New Age spiritualism.”
But there is not a word from such authoritative dissenters and debunkers. Instead, Mr. Vance reverentially sums up the Singularian vision as the dawn of a literal new age, a time when “beings and machines will so effortlessly and elegantly merge that poor health, the ravages of old age and even death itself will all be things of the past.” Five thousand words. In The New York Times. On the front page of the business section-while entire municipalities and states go bankrupt, while universal access to health care is still a chimera, while the next uncontrollable environmental disaster is most likely right around the corner. If this is the future of the way the mainstream media outlets are going to report on the future, beam me up and away.