Alpha, Omega and Lamda

Whether a whistleblower or a gaffe-blower, Google’s employee went on administrative leave. A Google chatbot sounds as though it is speaking for itself, and a Google employee spilled the beans. What sounds like a sentient algorithm communicating is being broadcast through the world, reminding everyone — again — of the android in I, Robot and HAL in 2001. But the problem (like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov themselves) goes back to the 1940s and 1950s. ‘The logic was simple enough: university = knowledge = technology = prosperity’, wrote Norman Stone; ‘Sputnik was in the end a deadly weapon, because it destroyed the Western university.’ (The Atlantic And Its Enemies, 2011, p.272.) When the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik in 1953, by that shocking achievement they galvanised the American military-industrial complex into zinc-ing education over with an obsession regarding STEM. The West became terrified that ‘liberal arts’ was a kind of decadence which might lose us the Cold War, and Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, became the chief goods.

You can see the same thing at work in the strategy countering China more recently, when the Oxford Arts graduate Dominic Cummings attempted to displace all the Oxford Arts graduates from government because he had read enough History to know that it had to be done. As a result, hardly anyone now is educated in the subjects and styles of thought that might equip them to consider the issues posed by AI and the human-sounding Google chatbot. Humanities subjects were held to be easier to learn, to teach, and to staff — and were certainly cheaper to resource — and they got crowded out by the ‘priority’ subjects. With the commodity as our fetish and money as our aim, we gave them last place in our list of educational goals. Capital has driven the whole eviscerating, cannibalising process, as universities were converted into business hubs, and their fattier parts spat out. Goodbye, Arabic. Farewell, Art — unless as a niche for the rich or some vanity course.

Mind you, it is a complete misunderstanding that universities provide a universal education. They do not have to teach everything. The medieval word universitas just means corporation. Since the 1950s they have done what always they did: followed the money. Whereas past generations saw some advantage in literary flair or depth, or scriptural knowledge, our economy has been structuring itself in such a way that this has become a ridiculous claim. No one needs rhetoric and oratory today. That did not stop ‘religious education’ making the claim, of course. RE tried to survive the 1990s by claiming that it taught ‘transferable skills’: knowledge = prosperity, in that RE ‘knowledge’ got you a job without the trouble of studying something hard to get those ‘skills’. The corporations were happy to run with that for as long as it showed a return, and the production of grades that on paper looked like A, and whole new degree courses that could fill the accommodation halls, certainly seemed to fit the bill. There is nothing about this which fails to fit the mission of the university, any more than Classics and Theology failed to fit it, before the rise of industrial chemistry. There is no ‘moral’ reason that universities should not have become what today they are, but as technical schools for the immediate future, they are hardly places in which to plumb the depths of philosophy and conscience.

Knowledge is Prosperity

What Sputnik started, the dollar completed. Not only was it a cannibalisation of the liberal curriculum: it was an evisceration of all the humane parts. Theology itself was one of the humane pieces, with its claim that full humanity could not have the world — or the human body which is part of the world — as its highest good. To be human above and beyond being an assemblage of atoms required some other horizon and end. Christianity put forward Christ as the Alpha and Omega, using the words of Revelation; the Beginning and the End. On the other hand, in the 1950s, literature was advanced as the subject that could engender that vision. Leavisites thought conscience could be exercised through engagement with fictional others. Even history could have been seen like that: Bolingbroke thought it was a series of moral exempla, for instance. (Michael Burleigh still wrote History like that.) But, whether it was theology or literature or history under discussion, it has been those very subjects that pose as candidates for preparing us for the Next Gen AI questions — the ‘ethical’ subjects, the ‘humanities’ — which have lost the style of thought that once was their preserve. They have been purchased entire by grade-production.

Language and literature, in schools, now is mostly language. Language, in those subjects, is mostly prepared responses to predicted questions, and phrase-book approaches without grammar. So-called ‘religious education’, similarly, is a set of pre-digested debating positions based on the exam board’s framework. The exam boards do not frame the subject in terms of God, but rather, see it in terms of ‘the human religious quest’. Religion for exam boards is a set of bolt-on historical details and accidents, whereas they see ‘the essence of religion’ as basically the same in all its ‘forms’. Religious education does not start from God, as French, from French. Instead it starts from whether or not God exists. It is hard to imagine anyone getting away with this in another school subject. Topic 1: But does French exist? With that question always in the back of her mind, a student might be forgiven for coming away with a completely wrong idea of the language. Meanwhile, History has always been easy meat for the Gradgrind approach — now liberally cut and spliced with visual clips and ‘hot tips’ for tests.

Freedom is Slavery

All that matters in RE today is that the RE candidate masters the exam-specific techniques; what is deemed important is that the language candidate memorises the phrases in which she is drilled, and that the so-called historian has her essay plans and stock approaches. The real subject of study, in any subject, is now the exam. Knowledge = exam technology = prosperity. That is the result of refusing to fund education as protected time, even in genuine childhood. Most damaging of all, however, was the effect that has proved most pervasive. The collegiate notion of spending time together in ‘a place of learning’, however pretentious it might seem, gave way to factory time. (I have worked in both places: even normal workplaces have less factory time than schools do.) Nothing should be taught or done unless it were the optimal use of one’s time. As university was monetised more and more minutely (not least by increasing student fees), the ‘best use of time’ came to be conceptualised in the same way as cost/benefit. I say ‘conceptualised’, but if so, it was unthinkingly: it is the unasked questions which would matter; no one had time to ask ‘why’ with any seriousness; as mentioned, even in RE, the subject supposedly bang on this money, students could not question the exam game. They did not study theology, which proceeds from belief in God; but comparative religion, which repeatedly defers that question.

The natural sciences had become guilty of this before ‘religious’ education joined them. Mathematicians, physicists, chemists, but especially biologists might never ask ‘why’. These natural sciences induce great wonder, and unsurprisingly physicists seem to be those who are most likely to broach metaphysics; but when Richard Dawkins asks ‘why’ he means ‘how’. By why is X like that, he means: how did X evolve? He does not mean: why are the laws of physics such in the first place, that I and my subject do exist? That is outside his box — where he prefers it. It is far from the case that no student in science will be taught to ask those questions. But it absolutely is the case that the natural sciences do not teach ways to answer them, while the so-called ‘religious’ education provided prides itself (on its ‘comparative’ convictions) that there is no right answer. Students are being taught to be creative, enquiring, and problem-solving — as long as they do not think out of the box of the system itself. So when something truly paradigmatic threatens to shift — like AI sentience — we are not accustomed to face it. We look on it with the kind of wonder that our education has allowed us. We marvel at an apparently sentient chatbot, like medievals seeing a comet; and like passive and uneducated people, we simply accept that things are so. Gene-editing is so. Artificial intelligence is so. Whatever the defence establishments and capital interests of China, Russia, India or the West decree, shall be so.

Not all the utilitarians were wrong, of course. John Stuart Mill’s basic conviction was that in a marketplace of ideas, tried and tested ideas survive in the competition between thinkers. Those who have tried them and tested them are able to judge, in conversation with each other, which seem most cogent, coherent, and likely to be true. JS Mill wanted all university to be like scientific peer review. Yet it was the thinner, earlier and more bizarre version of utilitarianism that won out. Students now perform a simplistic, Benthamite ‘hedonic calculus’: the effort put in, against the results guaranteed. They consider that they have no time to waste, and also that time not accounted for in advance must be wasted. What may make students happy within the system, per Bentham, is exalted; what may be to their true benefit, per Mill, is not sought; and as teachers get measured on both their students’ results and their students’ impressions, the more thoughtful are driven out into some more authentic line of work.

The force of money throughout what has become an education industry has twisted even utilitarians out of their better shape. In the same decades in which the UK has extended the range of childhood and vulnerability from the early teens into the mid-twenties, it has taken up the time of all young people with a schooling that is quite unlike childhood. They have been rewired by social media and the thresholds for concentration, literacy and workload have been lowered accordingly, but at the same time we have offered them little in school which is richer and better. The way we school people ill-equips them to think about Lamda before Lamda can think about them. For some years now in politics we have seen the destructive effect when people’s mindset is the binary one of whether another person’s pattern fits or fails to fit their own. AI may perform with algorithms far smarter, but cancel culture does not.

The Google chatbot is a spectacular example of pattern-recognition, but it has not made the qualitative leap into personhood, able to pick up common knowledge of the world around it and to understand itself as someone in the world (rather than mimic the words making such a claim). At the same time as our brightest and best push AI further than ever before, however, most of our young people are being pushed through an endless rite of passage that is not much more than glorified pattern-recognition. As we build better chatbots, we make less humane education. We could have consoled ourselves with the thought that one day it will be the chatbox that is worrying about us — but even the Lamda chatbot will have its paymaster.


Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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