The Figure or the Ground?

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in What To Think About Machines That Think on 6 October 2015

Thinking about machines that think may constitute a classic reversal of figure and ground, medium and message. It sets us up to think about the next stage of intelligence as something happening in a computer somewhere–an awareness that will be born and then housed on the tremendous servers being built by Information Age corporations for this purpose. “There it is,” we’ll declare, and point: “The intelligent machine.”

Our mistake, as creatures of the Electronic Age and mere immigrants to an unfolding Digital Era, is to see digital technology as a subject rather than a landscape. It’s the same as confusing the television set with the media environment created by the television set, or the little smartphone in your pocket with the greater impact of handheld communications and computing technology on our society.

This happens whenever we undergo a media transition. So we can’t help but see digital technology as figure, when it’s actually the ground. It’s not the source of future intelligence but an environment where intelligence manifests differently. So while technologists may feel as though they’re creating a cathedral for the mechanical mind, they’re actually succumbing to an oversimplified Industrial Age approach to digital consciousness.

Rather than toward machines that think, I believe we’re migrating toward a networked environment in which thinking is no longer an individual activity nor bound by time and space. This means we can think together at the same time, or asynchronously through digital representations of previous and future human thoughts. Even the most advanced algorithm amounts to the iteration of a “what if” once posed by a person. And even then, machine thinking isn’t something that happens apart from this collective human thinking, because it’s not a localized, brain-like activity.

When we can wrest that television-like image from our collective psyche, we’ll be in a position to recognize the machine environment in which we’re already thinking together. Artificial intelligence will constitute the platform or territory where this takes place–so what we program into it will, to a large extent, determine what we strive for and what we even deem possible.