A Fortnightly Review of
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
by Ray Kurzweil
672 pages $20 Penguin
You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
by Jaron Lanier
224 pages $24.95 Knopf
Simulation and Its Discontents
by Sherry Turkle
208 pages $22.95 The MIT Press.
By Roger Berkowitz.
IN “THE ODE TO MAN” from Antigone, Sophocles conjures “Man” as the wondrous being who wears out the “imperishable earth” with his ploughs. This man “overpowers the rough-maned horses with his devices” and tames the “unbending mountain bull.” He flees the “stormy darts” of winter’s frost and he escapes “needful illness.” Such a man who tames nature is a wonder, according to the Ode’s opening line:
Manifold the wonders
And nothing towers more wondrous than man.
The Greek word for “wonder” is Deinon, which connotes both greatness and horror, that which is so extraordinary as to be at once terrifying and beautiful. This is how Sophocles understands man. As an inventor and maker of his world, man can remake and master the earth. This wonder terrifyingly carries the seeds of his destruction. Man, Sophocles imagines, threatens to so fully control his own way of life that he might no longer be man. As the chorus sings: “Always overcoming all ways, man loses his way and comes to nothing.” If man so tames the earth as to free himself from uncertainty, what then is left of human being?