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Twin Pages

Engineers of Human Souls

03 Jan 2021 10:27 - 01 Jan 2022 07:48

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    • My father is from Czechoslovakia and I got him this as a present many years ago. I read it too and don't really remember it that well, but I always loved that title. It's a reference to a Russian saying, promulgated if not authored by Stalin about the role of the writer:
    • During his meeting with writers in preparation for the first Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers, Stalin said: "The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks.... And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul" (Joseph Stalin, "Speech at home of Maxim Gorky", 26 October 1932). It was taken up by Andrei Zhdanov and developed into the idea of Socialist realism.
    • AI people take this phrase overly literally, or perhaps not literally enough. Although arrogant by nature, most are humble enough to know that if there is such a thing as a soul, our current techniques don't really approach it. Instead the aim is to construct "intelligence" which is a somewhat de-souled way to talk about minds. But intelligence without soul is a recipe for horror (see paperclip maximizer).
    • What about the original usage, that is, writers as soul-engineers? I can see many of the most creative novelists in that light. They are exploring the architecture of the self, their characters often represent various stances the self can take to the world – this is kind of soul-engineering. Writers like David Foster Wallace or Vonnegut don't just tell a story, they construct an entire stance of their own, a stance which is somehow shared with their readers. To the extent this construction is deliberate, maybe it is a kind of engineering.
    • Of course today we have actual engineers rebuilding the human soul. These are the computer technologists who have invented and reinvented the media by which people communicate and interact with each other. To the extent our souls are social, bound up with one another, this must drastically affect not just how we talk with each other, but what we are. Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin, Slack and Tiktok, are the designers of our group consciousness these days.
    • This is alarming, because like Stalin, they are kind of crude in their methods.