notes towards “Freedom in the Machine”

by Sebastian Benthall

I have reconceptualized my dissertation because it would be nice to graduate.

In this reconceptualization, much of the writing from this blog can be reused as a kind of philosophical prelude.

I wanted to title this prelude “Freedom and the Machine” so I Googled that phrase. I found three interesting items I had never heard of before:

  • A song: “Freedom and Machine Guns” by Lori McTear
  • A lecture by Ranulph Glanville, titled “Freedom and the Machine”. Dr. Glanville passed away recently after a fascinating career.
  • A book: Software-Agents and Liberal Order: An Inquiry Along the Borderline Between Economics and Computer Science, by Dirk Nicholas Wagner. A dissertation, perhaps.

With the exception of the song, this material feels very remote and European. Nevertheless the objectively correct Google search algorithm has determined that this is the most relevant material on this subject.

I’ve been told I should respond to Frank Pasquale’s Black Box Society, as this nicely captures contemporary discomfort with the role of machines and algorithmic determination in society. I am a bit trapped in literature from the mid-20th century, which mostly expresses the same spirit.

It is strange to think that a counterpoint to these anxieties, a defense of the role of machines in society, is necessary–since most people seem happy to have given the management of their lives over to machines anyway. But then again, no dissertation is necessary. I have to remember that writing such a thing is a formality and that pretensions of making intellectual contributions with such work are precisely that: pretensions. If there is value in the work, it won’t be in the philosophical prelude! (However much fun it may be to write.) Rather, it will be in the empirical work.

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