Machines And Humankind

Christine Rosen reflects on humanity's changing relationship with machines:

In the early age of machines, they inspired awe by proving capable of doing what man could never do alone (such as power an entire factory), or what we once believed only man could do (play chess). Now we expect our machines to do just about everything for us, from organizing our finances to writing our grocery lists. Our machines not only ease the mundane burdens of daily life (cooking, cleaning, working), but also serve, increasingly, as both our primary source of entertainment and the means for maintaining intimate relationships with others. Henry Adams's dynamo has been replaced by Everyman's iPod, and awe has given way to complacence and dependence. Your computer's e-mail program doesn't inspire awe; it is more like a dishwasher than a dynamo. Nineteenth-century rhapsodies to the machines that tamed nature, such as the steam engine, have given way to impatience with the machines that don't immediately indulge our whims.

The decline in humility toward our machines comes at a time when we know almost nothing about how or why they work.

Although overwhelmed by its power, Henry Adams nevertheless had a basic understanding of how the dynamo operated. Most of us know very little about how our laptop computers run or how to repair our washing machines. Today we are less likely to feel awe in the presence of our machines than we are to experience what historian Jacques Barzun called "machine-made helplessness." This, too, is a form of blind faith, like the people who, devotedly following the instructions of their car's GPS device, drive right off a hill, all the while certain that this must be impossible - how could their perfectly calibrated machine be wrong?

David Gelernter anticipates the arrival of thinking machines, and argues that Jewish tradition can help guide our relations.