How to Outsmart the Machines

Machines are taking over. So how smart do you have to be to outsmart them?


Smart, stupid. Stupid, smart. What does it mean to be either? And how do mere humans stay competitive with bots, computers, and algorithms — indeed, can they?

Sure they can. But not in the way that we often think. In this little essay, I’m going to argue that there are different ways to think about intelligence. But it’s how we think about intelligence that defines us as smart or stupid. In short, there’s smart smart, stupid stupid, and the categories in between. And whether or not we live fully depends very much on whether we choose to become smart smart — not just stupid smart, and especially not stupid stupid.

Let me explain. In the same way that the rise of superstores let people choose between fifty different flavors of deodorant, so the internet creates a cornucopia of information. But you know and I know: that’s not really intelligence. Intelligence consists, in some way, of what we can do with information. Whether or not we can transmute it’s lead into the gold of knowledge, reason, wisdom, meaning.

Smart, stupid. There are many kinds of intelligence, and many kinds of stupidity. But not all are created equal. The intelligence of a computer is not the stupidity of a human, and vice versa. Which one would you rather be? You and I would rather be humans. Why? We alone have the ability to imagine, defy, rebel, create, dare, wonder, love. And only those higher faculties of intelligence hold in them the spark of meaning, happiness, purpose.

Stupid, smart. One can be smart in stupid ways, then; or stupid in smart ways. Like a computer, one may be smart in ways that don’t yield one meaning, happiness, or purpose. That are deterministic, empty, programmed, meaningless. Or like the human being at its highest, one can be utterly stupid in the terms of a computer; incapable of routine, formula, determination, programmability— but be, for that very reason, all the fiercely more capable of freedom, rebellion, love, meaning, happiness, purpose.

I think technology’s making us stupid stupid — not just stupider, but stupider in stupid ways — or at the very best, smart stupid. Smarter, but in stupid ways. And so to outsmart the machines, you’re going to not have to fall into these three traps. They are ways in which technology seems to be diminishing us to being mere shells of the people we should be.

Literalism. What do machines do? Read their instructions…their code…literally. And yet. The internet makes us literalists. We read something — anything — a tiny chunk of a fragment of a sentence, paragraph, thought, idea — and we make the mistake of treating it as a whole. OMG!! Can you believe what that person said? It’s unbelievable!! And so as literalists, we’re ever outraged, disgusted, repelled, furious. Because anything taken literally sounds pretty stupid.

Think I’m kidding? Let’s try a simple example.

“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date”

Wait? Summer doesn’t have a lease! It’s not rented! What, is Shakespeare a secret profit-seeking capitalist? What a bastard!! And what are these “darling buds”? Whose “darlings” are they? Buds aren’t anyone’s darlings!! They’re just fiber and chlorophyll. Jesus, who does this guy think he is?

Perhaps you see my point. To treat everything we read as purely literal robs us of the higher faculties: symbolism, context, nuance, historicity. We are diminishing ourselves to read ideas literally, as though they were commands and directives, not ideas and illuminations — but the machines will always be better at us than that. And so when we read the written word as purely literal, we are less than human and less than computers. Neither smart enough to parse a billion words a minute…nor smart enough to understand what even a hundred words truly mean, signify, communicate. And so we are dumb in all the ways that truly count.

Reactionism. Technology is taking away our agency. How? By turning us from actors to reactors. Think about it for a moment.

You’re walking through the park. Not a care in the world. You see a beautiful rosebush. You stop to admire it.

You’re walking through the park. Not a care in the world. You see a beautiful ro — bzzttt!!!! It’s your SmartWatch telling you You reached a thousand LikeHearts on your latest InstaSelfie. OMG!!! You only need another five hundred to unlock the next level of TruSelfEsteem!!

See what just happened? Your agency got subtracted, nullified, vaporized. In the first scenario, you’re an actor. Free to choose your own actions, spontaneously, in the moment, according to the full moral weight of your inner scales of meaning, seeking not just an extrinsic reward, but an intrinsic sense of worth.

But in the second, you’re something else.

Not quite a robot — but not quite a human, either. You’re ever-yoked to a digital cattle prod, conditioning you to reach a set of illusory goals, which may or may not comport with any sense of higher purpose or greater meaning. You have ceded your agency. For convenience, disposability, ease of use. But what is truly being used is you.

You’re less than a computer — but also less than a human. Because a computer doesn’t care about meaning — it’s absence doesn’t trouble the algorithm one bit. But you do. Every instant that you go without meaning is another parched moment in the desert of your life.

And so, as a reactor, not an actor, you are a sleepwalker. You have given up another little bit of responsibility over your own choices, decisions, actions. That, after all, is what is convenient. But that is precisely how, also, to give up your freedom. Which is stupid stupid.

Reductionism. Right about now, (yet another) person’s leaving a comment on this essay saying something precisely like:

Hey!! This idiot thinks the internet makes us dumber!! LOL, tell this guy about…books!! I bet he also thinks written language made us dumber!! OMG!! ROFL!!

See the problem with this non-argument? Maybe it’s true that written language made people dumber, long, long ago. But that has precisely nothing to do with what we’re discussing. It’s a reductio ad absurdum; a reduction to absurdity, for it implies that the extreme case of every argument is the only case. In this, case, that if technology diminishes people in one regard, so it must also diminish people in every regard. But when it’s put like that, the faulty logic is transparent.

And when it’s put like that, you can begin to see reductionist unreason everywhere. Dude, that person supports women’s rights. They must an SJW! That person thinks men have it tough. They must be an MRA!! Oh man, that guy? He actually thinks comics aren’t art. LOLOL, he must be an elitist!!! And so it goes: instead of actually considering a thing in it’s substantiality, we simple reduce it to the extreme, and the result is the absurd.

The truth is that anything reduced to the absurd sounds stupid. But what is truly stupid is reducing in the first place. For when we reduce, and reduce, and reduce, we are again less than fully human — and also less than computers. A computer can reduce, eliminate, subtract — beyond the point of absurdity. Far more efficiently than you or I ever could; it can mine millions of statements in a second, and reduce us right down to a handful of words. But only a human can abstract the essence, distill the substance, purify the meaning — and so expand a thing from what it has been, into what it can be. That is precisely how we being to find meaning in the world around us. And if we are too busy reducing it the meaningless, then of course it is little surprise that our lives end up feeling empty, stunted, worthless.

Here is my point.

The slowest, dumbest, computers in the world today can do the three things above better than the faster, smartest humans. They can react and reduce in nanoseconds. They can read volumes of code, literally, faster than you’ll ever read be able to read a single word.

But.

The fastest, smartest, computers in the world will never be capable of meaning, happiness, and purpose — for the simple reason that those are not merely computations of information, but transformations of consciousness. And if they are, in some techno-fantastic future, they surely won’t be “computers” anymore. To say that you’re conscious of a thing isn’t merely to say that you hold a set of facts about it in your mind, nor is it merely to be able to sort through those facts in some way. It is to be able to experience the meaning, the purpose, the anguish, sadness, glory, triumph, despair, happiness, of an evanescent phenomenon. And then to transform it. And that includes yourself.

Smart, stupid. Humans will never be computers, machines, tools, bots. Nor should we want to be. We should not let ourselves become beings who desperately react, literally, reducing the world around us. For that is precisely what computers are — and they will always be better than us at it: swifter, smarter, cleverer, at reacting, filtering, assorting, processing, shrinking, reducing, storing. They are smart in stupid ways.

Let the computers have their empire. It is a meaningless one. Like a spring without a rebirth; or a river without an ocean. Our lives are something greater still than empires. They are the greatest creation of all. Miracles. Each and every one. For they, and they alone, of all there is and all there ever has been, hold the possibility for meaning, happiness, purpose, self.

That is why we must live them as fully and nobly as we may. Not as reactors who diminish and reduce. But as actors who expand and enlarge. Not merely as scurrying things preying on one another in the night. But as beings who lift one another up, with gratitude and wisdom, into the waiting arms of life.