Copy: Eva Book Illustration: Mario Wagner, Photo: Steven Pinker
Her protagonist, Plato, pioneered the dialog as an alternative to the classic treatise. This approach leads philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein to surprising conclusions 2,500 years later.
Silicon Valley has always been a kind of spiritual melting pot. Built on the foundations of ‘60s counterculture, it has inherited an aura of starry-eyed idealism. It celebrates the revolutionary, the nerdy, the staunchly eccentric: from yoga and Zen Buddhism to veganism and transhumanism. Here, technology is widely viewed as a path to self-actualization. Many things now considered integral to our culture initially took root in the fertile soil of hippie communes. In 1968, for example, activist Steward Brand published the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, containing product reviews of early synthesizers and personal computers as well as alternative energy production methods such as wind and solar power. Steve Jobs called the catalog a paperback version of Internet search engines. It brought the personal computer to hippies, who celebrated it, like LSD, as a technology to expand your mind.
Outside spirituality, digital pioneers have discovered an abiding interest in something else, too: philosophy. Companies seek advice from “chief philosophy officers” like Andrew Taggart, who preaches the gospel of self-examination to tech elites. “Philosophers arrive on the scene at the moment when bullshit can no longer be tolerated.” “And there’s plenty of it in Silicon Valley,” says Taggart, citing the rise of growth hackers and programming “ninjas,” for example. Budding programmers at Stanford University take classes on the impact of cognitive science, philosophy and psychology on computing and artificial intelligence. Humanities scholars are now hailed as the future of technical innovation, a debate the venture capitalist Scott Hartley kicked off earlier this year with his book, “The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World.” In the future, new jobs will demand philosophical skills, particularly in the development of artificial intelligence. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil are ultimately philosophers. And as technology fuses more and more with man, we will urgently need critical intellectuals like Evgeny Morozov.
Fictional dialog between neuroscientist Dr. Shoket and his graduate student, Agatha, from “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Silicon Valley’s true philosophical love is Stoicism. Digital start-ups pursue the very same virtues espoused by Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius: justice, temperance, courage, wisdom and, most importantly, self-discipline. Their credo is now “Omnia mea mecum sunt” (All of my things are with me). However, instead of exploring Stoicism’s nuanced interplay of logic, ethics, physics and cosmos, the emphasis is on bite-sized tidbits of wisdom aimed at self-improvement. Some are served up by Ryan Holiday, an author and former American Apparel marketing manager. Book titles like “Ego is the Enemy” and “The Obstacle Is the Way” make plain this neo-Stoicist’s pop philosophy of self-discovery. On Twitter and Instagram, hundreds of thousands of followers get prettily packaged pointers on managing stress in the digital world: “To resist is not mere folly, but madness.”
For those experts who see philosophy as not simple self-reflection, but a critical world view, this philosophical renaissance is an opportunity to explore the ways in which the ancient teachings dovetail with 21st century life. One such thinker is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who earned a PhD in philosophy at Princeton University. In her latest book, “Plato at the Googleplex – Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away,” she sends Plato on a journey through modern-day North America and asks readers to join her in a thought experiment: What would happen if Plato could see today’s society? If he could Google questions instead of thinking about them? And what happens when knowledge can be crowdsourced?
LEAP IN TIME
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: “Plato at the Googleplex. Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away” Atlantic Books ISBN: 978-1-78239-559-1
The 2,400-year-old Greek thinker’s ancient arguments collide with today’s everyday life. Goldstein, who borrows Plato’s technique of packaging messages in dialogs, confronts the ancient philosopher with contemporary characters like a Google programmer, a talk show host and a neuroscientist. Plato comes to the neuroscientist, Dr. David Shoket, for an MRI scan of his brain. The fictional Shoket argues that science eclipsed philosophy long ago. Philosophy is incapable of revealing the kind of insights that databased knowledge provides, he claims. “‘Philosophical data’ is as oxymoronic as ‘military intelligence’ or ‘airplane food.’” On the examination table, Plato tries to convince the neuroscientist that science alone cannot answer questions about consciousness, free will and morality. Shoket disagrees: “Science is like a sewage treatment plant. Scientists take the philosophical bullshit and reprocess it into knowledge.”
At first, Goldstein’s Plato encounters objections to his philosophical teachings in the here and now. However, the philosopher deconstructs the opposing arguments so completely that nothing remains – except facts and good will. Truth must be sought elsewhere. Nonetheless, Plato, who adores e-learning and constantly has his Google Chromebook nearby, says, “I love the Internet.” That’s no surprise – in ancient Athens, he believed that knowledge should be available to everyone, not just the elites. The digital age provides access for all. Everyone gets a voice. However, access has a dark side, too: fake news, echo chambers and voter microtargeting. And that may even overwhelm the Silicon Valley people who unleashed this flood of data in the first place. A disillusioned world in which Donald Trump is the US president gives us the impetus to look inward, analyze our inner self and improve it with a little philosophical support. After all, the ancient Stoics focused more on enduring the world than changing it. Today, after many believed that science had rendered philosophy obsolete, the tide appears to be turning. If Silicon Valley engages in thought experiments like Goldstein’s, it will recognize that technology has nowhere near as many answers as expected. And that it may be time to take a closer, deeper look at a thing or two.