Unexpected at Ford’s ‘Go Further’ Conference: Thinking About Panglossian Futurism

"The dystopian is represented as utopian."

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Matt Peckham / TIME

The "Returning to Your Senses" panel at Ford's 2013 'Go Further with Ford' conference. From left to right: Jenny Lykken (Google), Gary Strumolo (Ford), Neema Moraveji (Stanford University), Sherry Turkle (MIT), Amy Marentic (Ford)

The most interesting thing so far about Ford’s ‘Go Further’ conference, which I’m currently attending in Dearborn, Mich., isn’t all the newfangled auto-gizmos, but how willing Ford’s been to promote what you might call unconventional or even dissonant thinking about technology.

Take Sherry Turkle, an MIT psychologist perhaps best known (recently) for her TED Talk “Connected, but alone?” and the corresponding book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. No, she’s not a luddite — she’s made it clear that she’s not opposed to technology like smartphones, tablets and the like — she just wants to have a candid dialogue about how technological shifts may be harming our ability to be confidently alone as well as meaningfully social. “Mobile technology is taking us to places we may not want to go,” she said as she began her talk.

Turkle was on a Ford-sponsored panel called “Returning to Your Senses,” along with Google’s Jenny Lykken (a learning and development specialist), Stanford University professor Neema Moraveji (he runs a “calming” lab and conducts breathing-related studies) and Ford’s own Gary Strumolo (he manages Ford’s research labs and the company’s VIRTTEX driving simulator). Turkle took the position here, as she has elsewhere, that as we become less and less separable from our technology (mobilization), we may be compromising crucial social skills, “sacrificing conversation for mere connection,” as she put it.

An aside: When I taught world literature some years ago, the course included Voltaire’s 18th century French satirical novel, Candide. Among other things, Candide is Voltaire’s amusing critique of the 17th/18th century German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz had argued “Die beste aller möglichen Welten,” or “the best of all possible worlds,” meaning ours, arguing in so many words that the world is as it is because it was always meant to be (good, bad, whatever). In Candide, Voltaire creates a character named Dr. Pangloss — an analogue for Leibniz — who’s constantly trotting out the phrase “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” as, among other things, disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis kill tens of thousands. (Another version of this sort of que sera, sera thinking might be the phrase “Why ask why?”)

You might thus think of Turkle as a critic of what I think of as “Panglossian futurism” — the notion that everything we do, technologically, is for the best (in this best of all possible technological worlds). In Turkle’s view, we live in a world where “children are getting used to being together without being together,” would “rather text than talk” (perhaps as an escape from confrontation), that we “live a flight from connection” and that “we experience interruption as ‘another connection’,” valuing connection only for connection’s sake.

I admit, I’m intrigued by what Turkle’s getting at here. It stands against the almost blithe positivism you tend to see in aggressively optimistic projections about humanity from futurists like Ray Kurzweil (I’m with Kurzweil on many things, I just wish he wasn’t so reductively and optimistically certain that the whole point of humanity is just to grow into something like Dr. Who’s “Great Intelligence,” eventually projecting our foglet-ized selves out into the cosmos, Robert Charles Wilson-style). At the risk of sounding like a luddite (which I’m not), I’m suspicious of this idea that just because we can, we should. We can project Netflix movies onto tiny pieces of glass that hover above our eyes while we drive. Should we? Common sense makes that an easy one. But it gets trickier when we’re talking about tablets, smartphones and babies — areas where we can (and many already are) use the devices as pacifiers, but no one’s fully studied whether we should. And what about, as Turkle’s studied and found, our increasing tendency not to fully engage with people in situations that warrant our full attention, pausing to text or check email and “multitasking” in ways that arguably sacrifice intellectual depth for superficial breadth?

One of the more disturbing pictures Turkle showed during her slideshow was of an elderly person hugging a robot animal. Turkle talked about situations in which people are “tempted by machines that offer companionship,” but where these machines, to which people might speak as if these were their bosom companions, offer nothing of the sort, unable to consciously understand anything being said: illusion marketed as intimacy. “The dystopian is represented as utopian,” she said, then taking a dig at the narcissistic aspects of social networking by adding “I share, therefore I am.”

None of this is to say “bad technology” — it’s how you use this stuff that matters most, countered Ford’s Strumolo — but Turkle is one of a relative few respected academics sounding warning notes. Not that we need to abandon our smartphones, tablets and autonomous cars, but that we need to be more mindful than ever, fast as the tech industry keeps changing, that we don’t rush headlong into a world in which we conflate the undisputed efficacy of mobile technology at liberating and interconnecting us with its simultaneous and ironic tendency to diminish things like meaningful person-to-person interaction.