Call a Friend, Watch a Sunset

A digital photo is great; actually being at Calvin with my students was way better.

A digital photo is great; actually being at Calvin with my students was way better.

Years ago, I read that a firm experimenting with an electronic brain designed to translate English into Russian fed it the words: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The machine responded with a sentence in Russian which meant, a linguist reported, “The whisky is agreeable, but the meat is spoiled.”

I just returned from taking thirteen students to the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids. And at the first workshop I attended, Makoto Fujimura (“Mako”), in introducing his new book, Silence and Beauty, told a story about something similar his father tried years ago. Having studied under the American linguist Noam Chomsky, Mako’s dad later introduced the great philosopher’s theories in Japan. At that time, scientists told Mako’s dad that within ten years they’d create technology that so closely resembled the human voice that no one would know the difference.

But fast forward a few decades… Siri, anyone? Or how about that auto-voice you get when you learn your airline has cancelled your flight? (I heard that one on Sunday.) Many years have passed, but, yeah, I think we can all still tell the difference.

Now then, that story about Russians… It circulated for thirty or forty years. But only recently did I learn that it’s an officially Snopes-debunked myth. Oops. But, as Mako’s story illustrates, there’s definitely something to the idea that machines suck at picking up the nuancing of language and meaning.

Mako told his narrative to illustrate more than the inability of machines to do what God made humans to do. (And the debunked myth also hints at the same reality.) He pointed out that language, like those of us who use it, is complicated. And it communicates far more than interchangeable words.

Then, and this is the important stuff, he made a parallel with digital art vs. beauty. “Digital images are teasers,” he said, designed, hopefully, to “draw people to the real work.”

In the words of my student Collin, who attended that lecture with me, “Technological development is a means to an end. It ought to be celebrated, but also recognized for its limitations. The highest-resolution camera cannot produce an experience of beauty to replace the simple wonder of staring at a God-given sunset.”

I love connecting with people through technology. But it’s sure a cheap substitute for a hand on my arm as someone prays over me, sharing spaghetti with fresh cilantro, or smelling the campfire as we watch the embers glow.

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