Nobody Knows

I’ve been avoiding predictions about the world to come. It’s all speculation. Mark Lilla of Columbia University agrees:

The public square is thick today with augurs and prophets claiming to foresee the post-Covid world to come. I, myself, who find sundown something of a surprise every evening, have been pursued by foreign journalists asking what the pandemic will mean for the American presidential election, populism, the prospects of socialism, race relations, economic growth, higher education, New York City politics and more. And they seem awfully put out when I say I have no idea. You know your lines, just say them.

I understand their position. With daily life frozen, there are fewer newsworthy events to be reported on and debated. Yet columns must be written, and the 24/7 cable news machine must be fed. Only so much time can be spent on the day’s (hair-raising) news conferences or laying blame for decisions made in the past or sentimental stories on how people are coping. So journalists’ attention turns toward the future.

But the post-Covid future doesn’t exist. It will exist only after we have made it. Religious prophecy is rational, on the assumption that the future is in the gods’ hands, not ours. Believers can be confident that what the gods say through the oracles’ mouth or inscribe in offal will come to pass, independent of our actions. But if we don’t believe in such deities, we have no reason to ask what will happen to us. We should ask only what we want to happen, and how to make it happen, given the constraints of the moment.

Apart from the actual biology of the coronavirus — which we are only beginning to understand — nothing is predestined. How many people fall ill with it depends on how they behave, how we test them, how we treat them and how lucky we are in developing a vaccine. The result of those decisions will then limit the choices about reopening that employers, mayors, university presidents and sports club owners are facing. Their decisions will then feed back into our own decisions, including whom we choose for president this November. And the results of that election will have the largest impact on what the next four years will hold.

The pandemic has brought home just how great a responsibility we bear toward the future, and also how inadequate our knowledge is for making wise decisions and anticipating consequences. Perhaps that is why our prophets and augurs can’t keep up with the demand for foresight. At some level, people must be thinking that the more they learn about what is predetermined, the more control they will have. This is an illusion. Human beings want to feel that they are on a power walk into the future, when in fact we are always just tapping our canes on the pavement in the fog.

A dose of humility would do us good in the present moment. It might also help reconcile us to the radical uncertainty in which we are always living. Let us retire our prophets and augurs. And let us stop asking health specialists and public officials for confident projections they are in no position to make — and stop being disappointed when the ones we force out of them turn out to be wrong. (A shift from daily to weekly news conferences and reports would be a small step toward sobriety.)

It is bad enough living with a president who refuses to recognize reality. We worsen the situation by focusing our attention on litigating the past and demanding certainty about the future. We must accept what we are, in any case, condemned to do in life: tap and step, tap and step, tap and step….

It

I finally got around to watching Her, also known as “that movie where the guy falls in love with his computer”.

It was like being trapped in a futuristic greeting card. Which doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. It’s an excellent movie, but not easy to watch. It’s disturbing. And also provocative.

Theodore lives in downtown Los Angeles. It’s the near future, one that is amazingly pleasant. Future L.A. is extremely clean, with lots of big, shiny buildings and terrific mass transit, but seemingly uncrowded. Theodore has a job in a beautiful office writing very personal letters for people who can’t express their feelings as well as he can.

But Theodore is lonely and depressed. He’s going through a divorce and avoiding people. One day, he hears about a new, artificially intelligent computer program, brilliantly designed to tailor itself to the customer’s needs. Theodore assigns it a female voice, after which it gives itself the name “Samantha”.

It’s easy to understand how Theodore falls in love with Samantha. It’s intuitive and funny and loving, a wonderful companion that’s constantly evolving. Besides, it does a great job handling Theodore’s email and calendar.

Complications eventually ensue, of course, but in the meantime, Theodore and Samantha get to know each other, spending lots of time expressing their deeply sensitive feelings. It’s very New Age-ish, although the two of them can’t give each other massages and can’t go beyond what amounts to really good phone sex.

Watching Her, you are immersed in a loving but cloying relationship in which one of the entities involved expresses lots of feelings but doesn’t actually have any. That’s my opinion, of course, because some people think a sufficiently complex machine with really good programming will one day become conscious and have feelings, not just express them. 

Maybe that’s true, but I still lean toward the position that in order to feel anything the way living organisms do, whether the heat of the sun or an emotion like excitement, you need to be built like a living organism. A set of programming instructions, running on a computer, even if connected to visual and auditory sensors, won’t have feelings because it can’t really feel.

Although the movie is built on the dubious premise that Samantha can always say the right thing, appropriately displaying joy, sorrow or impatience, perfectly responding to whatever Theodore says and anticipating all of his emotional needs, there is no there there. 

I don’t mean to suggest that Theodore is wrong to cherish Samantha. It’s an amazing product. But when he and it are together, he’s still alone. He’s enjoying the ultimate long distance relationship.

Do You Know What a Photocopying Machine Is?

In the spirit of the History Channel, which interprets “history” as “anything that happened, might have happened, could possibly happen or is complete baloney”, the New York Times has begun a new feature called “Verbatim”:

This marks the debut of a new series, presented by Op-Docs, that transforms verbatim (word for word) legal transcripts into dramatic, and often comedic, performances. Here you will find re-creations of actual events from the halls of law and government. You, our readers, can help us find material for future episodes. Have you come across court trials, depositions or government hearings that you think are surprising, bizarre or baffling — and lend themselves to performance? We especially seek original, publicly available transcripts, along with details about the source.

In this week’s episode, actors perform a scene from a lawsuit that went to the Ohio Supreme Court a few years ago. A lawyer tries to get someone from the Cuyahoga County Recorder’s Office to answer the question: “Do you know what a photocopying machine is?”.

Watching the video, which is 7 minutes long and actually pretty entertaining, you’ll probably form some opinions. Maybe that justifies including this brief play in the “Opinion” section of the Times. I’m not a journalism purist, but it’s definitely a sign of the times when the New York Times starts sharing videos like this.

Moving ahead, it may not be long before the Times and other newspaper sites present dramatizations of more recent, more newsworthy events, whether or not a “verbatim” transcript exists. It will all be a modern version of the old You Are There program, in which CBS News correspondents pretended to interview historical figures like Thomas Jefferson (“Just a quick question, Mr. Jefferson! When will you be finished with the Declaration?”).

Even better, the “Opinion” section will be the perfect place to present videos in which actors portray “what probably happened” yesterday in the Oval Office or at an Exxon board meeting. A left-wing columnist can present a video that shows the Koch brothers conniving with Republican politicians to destroy democracy (which actually happens all the time). A right-wing columnist can offer President Hillary Clinton plotting to implement sharia law (probably during her second term).

The future is coming and it’s going to be (fill in your own adjective)!