Cutting corners

As someone interested in the past and future of the book and of reading, I prick my ears, cock my eyes and focus my mind whenever the debates around A.I. come in collision with the world of books and especially with the practices of reading. 

Computers read files faster and better than humans can. I always prefer a PDF of a journal article to a hard copy. I can find what I’m looking for faster because computers were at it before I was. Files belong to their world, not mine. I need to interpret their world to get any sense out of the files’ digital content, which was made according to their rules written by humans.

And faster usually means better and better focuses the conversation on degrees, rather than substance. 

We believe in the future of intelligent machines partly because we don’t understand our own intelligence. And we are confident in the computers’ ability to achieve better reading results because we don’t recognise what reading does to us and what we do to reading.

Unlike an algorithm, reading results in an experience. Philosopher Mircea Eliade was one of the first to imagine the superhuman ability to read books simply by touching them. But although he lived before the coming of age of the digital age, what he had in mind was closer to file-reading rather than book-reading.

The result of reading is not just the acquisition of information, but the experience of it including its impact on the self of the one reading. We remember the act of reading as much as what we read. And this is an irreducible process.

What many sci-fi writers and apostles of deep A.I. often get wrong is that reading is not a mechanical process. It is space-generative. It makes a serious dent in the reader, going beyond a response reaction, which a machine can easily emulate.

Computers cut corners by finding ways to improve efficiency – straight lines and frictionless code are preferred to detours and energy-consuming operations. Humans, on the other hand, love to expend energy and bestow inefficiency on so many things that computers would love to get their digital hands on. The experience of the outside world, including that of the book you’re reading is irreducible and unique. It can’t be replicated and short-cut, uploaded or downloaded.

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