Tim Wu, who writes often about technology, once suggested this thought experiment:
A well-educated time traveller from 1914 enters a room divided in half by a curtain. A scientist tells him that his task is to ascertain the intelligence of whoever is on the other side of the curtain by asking whatever questions he pleases.
The traveler’s queries are answered by a voice with an accent that he does not recognize (twenty-first-century American English). The woman on the other side of the curtain has an extraordinary memory. She can, without much delay, recite any passage from the Bible or Shakespeare. Her arithmetic skills are astonishing—difficult problems are solved in seconds. She is also able to speak many foreign languages, though her pronunciation is odd. Most impressive, perhaps, is her ability to describe almost any part of the Earth in great detail, as though she is viewing it from the sky. She is also proficient at connecting seemingly random concepts, and when the traveler asks her a question like “How can God be both good and omnipotent?” she can provide complex theoretical answers.
Based on this modified Turing test, our time traveler would conclude that, in the past century, the human race achieved a new level of superintelligence.
Superintelligence, eh? Tim Wu is no pie-eyed tech apologist, but in this scenario, even he succumbs to the wild romanticism built up around smartphones. The temptation is always to judge a new technology by what it could achieve, not by how it’s actually used, as with those early commentators who applauded television as a promising educational tool. Through rhetorical sleight of hand, our shiny new devices are presented as having their own wants, their own dreams, their own destiny, and like the immaculate, faceless figures inserted into architectural drawings, human beings barely figure in the picture.
The view on the street is always a bit messier, and if my experience is any guide, Wu’s hypothetical conversation would go something like this.
Time Traveler: Well, I must say, it really is a wonderful opportunity we’ve been presented with here, and I hope we’ll both be able to profit from this rare meeting of minds, so widely separated in time and experience, but not, I should hope, in their essential sympathies.
Modern Person: Uh, yeah.
TT: I hope you won’t mind if I, as the more ignorant party, pose the first question.
TT: I’ve heard that people of your time have remarkable powers in matters of calculation, philology, geography, and indeed, general knowledge. Would you mind giving a short demonstration? I’d like to pose to you four challenges: first to calculate, to the tenth decimal, the natural logarithm of 97, second to give a short description of the terrain of the African interior, third to offer a brief treatise on the philosophical topic of your choice, and fourth, to give this last in French.
TT: Hello? Perhaps I’ve been too bold in my–
MP: No, I’m sorry, wait, I was just … what were you saying?
TT: Well, I was hoping, if it wouldn’t be too presumptuous, to ask if you might–
MP: No, sure, I mean, it’s OK, I just … hold on a sec.
TT: Is everything all right?
TT: Have I said something to offend you?
MP: No, no, sorry, I–hold on, hold on.
TT: I’m afraid I really must … I hope you won’t think it impolite if I ask what you–
MP: Oh my God!
MP: Oh. My. God.
TT: I’m afraid something has gone badly wrong with this interview.
MP: No, it’s just, this guy posted this video here, and there’s this, like, goat, and this baby, and they’re both eating this big pile of … no, no, I’m sorry, OK. You were saying?
TT: Well, given the extremely rare experience afforded us, here, I made so bold as to dispense, as I thought, with idle chitchat, and to present you with four mental challenges intended to assess–
MP: Uh-huh. You wanted what, some math thing?
TT: My first challenge, yes, was to have you calculate, as quickly as possible, the natural logarithm of 97.
MP: Sure. Logarithm. Can you just spell that for me?
TT: Certainly. L-O-G-A-R-I-
MP: Got it. 1.9867717342.
TT: Astounding! Remarkable! And so quickly! But … no, wait, that can’t be correct. That’s not even close. May I ask what method you used?
MP: That’s, you know, that’s the answer. That’s what it says.
TT: But that can’t possibly be–
MP: Well, I don’t know what you expected, but that’s what it says.
TT: It seems to me you must have confused the natural logarithm with–
MP: Wait, what, natural logarithm? Is that, like, something different?
TT: Of course. The natural logarithm is–
MP: Well, why didn’t you say so?
TT: But I did say so. I don’t believe you were listening to me at all.
MP: Well, whatever. It doesn’t matter. What was the other question?
TT: The second challenge I posed was to give a description of the terrain of central Africa. And I must admit, I’m especially eager to hear your answer in this case, given the fragmentary nature of the reports the people of my day continue to have from that dark and savage–
MP: Yeah, I see, sure, it’s … well, it looks like mostly jungle.
TT: Yes, that’s what the travelers of my own day have reported, but I was hoping you could–
MP: No, that’s it. Jungle. There’s the Sahara up top, and then there’s some desert in the bottom, and in between, there’s all this green stuff. Lots and lots of green stuff. That’s what I see on the map, anyway. Let me zoom in. Yep. Trees. Bushes. Green stuff.
TT: I see. But would it be possible to furnish–
MP: Wait, let me see … OK, OK, here we go. Central Africa, located along the equator, consists primarily of wide plateaus that are smooth in the central areas and more rough along the exterior of the region. The plateaus in the region exhibit a huge range in altitude, reaching up to 16,795 feet at Margherita Peak (the highest point in Central Africa) and descending into the ground in deep and narrow gorges near the Kouilou and Congo.
TT: Well, I’m impressed, that’s really quite informative. I suppose it’s time to move on to our–
MP: Oh, God.
TT: Is something the matter?
MP: No, I just … I was scrolling through this stuff, and I … oh, shit. It’s just that there’s all this stuff about the ivory trade. And it’s like, ugh. It just makes me want to vomit or something, you know? It’s like elephants are practically as smart as people, you know, and then we just go and … oh, God.
TT: Are you well? Should we take a rest?
MP: No, I just, I’m looking at all these pictures, now, and I just, oh, Jesus. Oh, God.
MP: It’s just that people are just such complete shit, you know? People are such complete, total shit.
TT: I’m afraid I find myself a bit out of my–
MP: And now there’s all this stuff about gorillas … and Dian Fossey … and the stuff going on the in the Congo and … God, they’re actually eating people, there. They are actually hunting and eating human beings. It’s genocide. It’s genocide plus cannibalism. It’s genocide plus rape plus cannibalism. And I mean, it’s like, why? I mean, seriously? Why the fuck does the human race even go on existing? I’m sorry, I’m having kind of a meltdown, here.
TT: I can understand how you might–
MP: And you’re the ones who started it, you know. You fucked everything up, and now it’s still all fucked to shit. It’s like it’s just this endless story of horror, horror, horror, and it’s all your fault, and I … I really don’t even know what to think right now.
TT: I’m sorry, I don’t understand what–
MP: No, I’m sorry, it’s me. I mean, it’s mostly me. I mean, you’re still a racist, evil bigot, but I know that’s just how you were raised. It’s just, I can’t even stand thinking about this stuff anymore. And now, looking at all these pictures, it’s like, I really want to die, right now. I literally want to die.
TT: Well, I’m not sure I follow. And all I can say, with respect to your last assertion, is that I sincerely hope it’s untrue. But perhaps it furnishes a topic for my last challenge. You’ll recall Hamlet’s famous question: To be or not to be. If you feel up to it, I’d be gratified to hear you give a brief account of your era’s views on Hamlet’s dilemma–perhaps, some would say, the most crucial puzzle in all philosophy.
MP: I’m sorry, I’m still thinking about those elephants. Now I’m going to be depressed all day. Well, anyway, what were you saying? Hamlet? You want, like, the Cliff’s Notes, or something?
TT: I want to know how a person of your time might respond to Hamlet’s complaint. And then in French, remember, if you’d be so kind.
TT: Hello? Would you like to change the topic? Is this too upsetting or delicate a choice? Or are you still having a–what did you call it? A meltdown?
MP: No, I’m just … I’m skimming through all this stuff, here, and … it looks like there’s a lot of different interpretations.
TT: Yes, certainly, but I’d like to hear the one you favor.
MP: You mean, like, my take? Well, I don’t know. I never really liked Shakespeare. I mean, he wrote all his stuff like a million years ago, and it just makes me feel, I mean it goes on and on, and he’s just this old white guy who wrote some plays, after all, and after a while, I’m like, OK. You know?
TT: I’m afraid I don’t quite follow.
MP: Oh, right, you wanted it in French. Here goes. Je n’ai jamais vraiment aimé Shakespeare. Il a écrit son truc, il ya très longtemps. Et il va sur et sur, et il était juste un gars blanc qui à écrire des pièces de theater. Et après un moment, je commence à me demander, pourquoi devrions-nous prendre soin?
TT: Well, I suppose that could be called French. Of a kind.
MP: But I’m just saying, it’s like, Hamlet, so, OK. He wants to kill himself, sure. But, you know what, everybody feels like that sometimes. What makes Hamlet so special? I feel like that a lot.
TT: Yes, just now, in fact, you were saying that you shared some of Hamlet’s frustrations.
MP: Was I?
TT: Yes, only a moment ago! And I said that we might use the case of Hamlet to frame or clarify your feelings by giving an interpretation of his famous–
MP: Oh, right. I don’t know. I’m looking through this list, here, and you know, it seems like there are a lot of different interpretations. I guess you could just pick whichever one you want.
TT: But that’s precisely my point. I’d like to hear what you in particular would say–
MP: Oh my God!
TT: Dear me.
MP: Oh. My. God.
TT: I’m sure there must have been some mistake. I was told I would be speaking with a college graduate, a person with over sixteen years of education, someone with the intellectual advances of a century to draw on, inconceivable leaps in research, technology, a world of knowledge at hand, even a kind of superhuman intelligence–
MP: No, I’m sorry, you’re right, I’m still here. It’s just, my friend just posted this picture of this incredibly gross chimichanga he’s eating, and I have to–hold on.
TT: Yes, I can see you’re very busy. But before we conclude this interview, I thought you might like to ask me some questions about what it’s like to live in my day, in the past.
MP: Yeah, sure, I just. Hold on.
TT: You do realize that this opportunity will never come again.