The Third Culture


With the blessings of the U.S. public, the American theoretician and computer expert Ray Kurzweil prophesies that within our lifetime, computers will exceed human brain power. In Germany, hardly anyone knows his name. This may be partly because his bestseller The Age of Spiritual Machines appeared in German last year under what could pass for the parody of an outdated title: "Homo [email protected]"

The European intelligentsia is entering the 21st century in silence, stubbornly or clumsily avoiding the issue. It is easy to imagine one of these intellectuals, fumbling over a new word-processing package: the infuriation at this "not coping", the alleged lack of "technical know-how," the antipathy (often justified) which sets in at the slightest whiff of leads and sockets. All this also characterizes prevailing attitudes to the revolutionary paradigm shift itself. The new age didn't come to us Europeans in a flash of inspiration, it came as a "retraining program": from typewriter to computer, from computer to Internet.

This may be why many European intellectuals equate current developments with previous technological adaptations made after the invention of the automobile or the refrigerator. In this they are certainly mistaken. Ray Kurzweil may be wrong when he predicts that over the next 20 years, bio-, nano- and computer technology will bring greater changes to the way we live than the entire 20th century. But it is definitely worth talking about, especially in these times of tech-conscious, "green" government. But we just keep on fumbling with our leads and plugs and sockets, while people elsewhere are busy programming our future.

"Europe has stopped thinking," proclaims Jaron Lanier, "but it has supplied the software." In his view, it will not be long before all the questions Western philosophers asked themselves, all the questions of being, illusion and consciousness, begin to be asked by computers. "And when they do, they can use the software written by Kant and Heidegger."

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