Albert Borgmann, Philosopher of Science

Excerpt from Albert Borgmann’s Crossing the Postmodern Divide.

The section ‘Hyperintelligence’ from the chapter Hypermodernism pp. 102-109:

With security and liberty reasonably provided for, hyperintelligence seems destined to be the final instrument of fulfilling the promise of technology; it will enable us at last to “make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature” as Descartes has it.” That is the way it appears. But in reality, hyperintelligence, left to its hypertrophic tendencies, will lead to a severe diminution of human intelligence. Not that the hyperintelligent assault on the substance of human life will be an unprecedented and incomprehensible campaign. After all, pieces of hyperintelligence have been in place for a generation or more. What will be new are the intensification and coordination of these presently incipient and scattered effects.

Again we can get a sense of the gathering force of hyperintelligence by considering its analogy to human intelligence. While our native nervous system animates us and allows us to move with purpose and grace, the hyperintelligent system will be so extensive that it is everywhere already, obviating the need to move anywhere. It allows us to be in touch with everyone all the time. This ubiquity is often thought to favor universal connection and community, and this is surely so in a superficial sense. More deeply considered, however, the nervous system of hyperintelligence will disconnect us one from the other. If everyone is indifferently present regardless of where one is located on the globe, no one is commandingly present. Those who beas come present via a communication link have a diminished presence, since we can always make them vanish if their presence becomes burdensome. Moreover, we can protect ourselves from unwelcome persons altogether by using screening devices. Since I in turn am unwelcome to others, it will not be strictly true that everyone will be indifferently accessible to me. Yet that leaves a practical infinity of conversation partners.

The telephone network, of course, is an early version of hyperintelligent  communication, and we know in what ways the telephone has led to disconnectedness. It has extinguished the seemingly austere communication via letters. Yet this austerity was wealth in disguise. To write a letter one needed to sit down, collect one’s thoughts and world, and commit them laboriously to paper. Such labor was a guide to concentration and responsibility. One was brought face to face with one’s circumstances and forced to gather them into a succinct account. Correspondingly, readers of letters, faced with so spare and brief a document, had to concentrate on their correspondent and immerse  themselves thoughtfully in the sender’s world. A correspondence  used to amount to a life’s monument, carefully constructed and gratefully treasured.

Telephoning has also diminished the visits that bring us fully and really face to face with one another. To a visitor we perforce disclose our entire being such as it is here and now, in the sadness of our facial expression perhaps, the slump in our posture, the carelessness of our clothing, the disarray of our dwelling. But having so revealed ourselves, we can also hope for real consolation-a concerned look, a reassuring  hand from someone who will clean up the table, wash the dishes, and fix the chair.

The extended network of hyperintelligence also disconnects us from the people we would meet incidentally at concerts, plays, and political gatherings. As it is, we are always and already linked to the music and entertainment we desire and to sources of political information. This immobile attachment to the web of communication works a twofold deprivation on our lives. It cuts us off from the pleasure of seeing people in the round and from the instruction of being seen and judged by them. It robs us of the social resonance that invigorates our concentration and acumen when we listen to music or watch a play.

This brings us to the effect that the ubiquitous senses of hyperintelligence have on the ways we appropriate our world. Again it seems that by having our hyperintelligent eyes and ears everywhere, we can attain world citizenship of unequaled scope and subtlety. But the world that is hyperintelligently spread out before us has lost its force and resistance. There is a symmetry between the depth of the world and our bodily incursion into it. In the real world, humans have a natural inclination to satisfy that symmetry daily through bodily intimacy with the world, walking about, feeling the weather, going on errands, handling things, and carrying burdens. Of course, humans have always been dependent for their wider world appropriation on indirect intelligence, on tales and gossip, and then on books and newspapers. But even when print mechanized and privatized the gathering of news, intelligence of the world retained a spatial and bodily reality. You have to get your paper, bring it in, sit down, unfold and hold it. The paper itself has its tangible extension and organization, its smell and its rustle.

The hyperintelligent sensorium, just because it is so acute and wide-ranging, presents the entire world to our eyes and ears and renders the remainder of the human body immobile and irrelevant. The symmetry of world and body falls to the level of a shallow if glamorous world and a hyperinformed yet disembodied person. When we witness the moving decline of a person’s memory, we come to realize that you are what you remember. What makes you a person in the world is the comprehension of the world, gathered and secured in your memory. Having collected and composed reality in our minds, we can meet the world at large on its own terms, as a microcosm standing over against the macrocosm. Literacy has extended our command over the world and rendered it more precarious. It made it possible to deposit knowledge rather than command it. But the literacy of writing and print again had an extended and spatial reality: it enforced a real competence of ordering and remembering the location of one’s books, letters, notes, and papers.

Hyperintelligence disburdens us from having to remember either the immediacies of schedules, tasks, and appointments or the expanses of history, science, scholarship, literature, languages, or whatever else. A person might be stricken with amnesia while asleep. But as long as, on waking up, one remembers one’s name and how to log on to hyperintelligence, one will be guided from appointment to appointment and furnished with summaries of what needs to be done. One can search out in minutes whatever information is needed and give it the appropriate form in a few minutes more.

Conversely, there are today people of sound minds who without their fledgling hyperintelligent support lapse into a helplessness not too far from amnesia. Nicholas Negroponte, who labors mightily at MIT’s Media Lab to advance hyperintelligence, had entrusted vital data to his wrist watch and was worried about the finite life of his exterior memory. “Sure enough,” Stewart Brand reports, “a few days later his watch battery ran down and the data evaporated; he was information-crippled for week.”

While truly hypermodern people will be crippled without their hyperintelligent information, traditional knowledge has become absurd with hyperintelligent information. If in the days of real scholarship you had a question about facial features in Renaissance paintings or about the origin of certain aphorisms in ancient Greek texts, you would consult scholars who had become intimate with art or literature through decades of travel and observation, or reading and study, and who had collected in their memory what was scattered in reality. Such people were venerable figures, revered for their diligence and intelligence.  Today, computerized images and hypertexts allow the novice to summon and select, within hours or days, answers more complete and accurate than the recollections of a scholarly lifetime.

People who lose their memory lose their orientation. At first there are breaks and gaps in the command of their context; gradually the gaps of oblivion connect and surround them. Their past disintegrates  into unrelated chunks of recollection. Their present shrinks to  an ever smaller island of awareness and competence. At the limit, the  person has become a thin wisp of humanity. Something less severe  and yet troubling happens to people who surrender their substance to  hyperintelligence. Plugged into the network of communications and  computers, they seem to enjoy omniscience and omnipotence; severed from their network, they turn out to be insubstantial and disoriented. They no longer command their world as persons in their own right. Their conversation is without depth and wit; their attention is roving and vacuous; their sense of place is uncertain and fickle.

At the center of hyperintelligence is software that sustains the structure and facilitates the flow of information. It discharges an extraordinarily difficult and crucial task. But enthusiasts of artificial intelligence have been looking for it to take on yet more elevated responsibilities and to perform feats of judgment and ingenuity that will at length surpass human intelligence. These hopes have been blown up for more than a generation now. There is good reason to believe that an intelligence as widely ranging and commandingly present as that of a person is essentially and necessarily embodied in just the way it is now. Artificial reality most likely will remain confined to limited and instrumental tasks. The fear or hope that artificially intelligent creatures will make human beings obsolete is misplaced. Nor, accordingly, will hyperintelligence in either its peripheral or its central parts threaten humanity with extinction.

Still, its power, if we indulge it, will be sufficient to attenuate our substance greatly. It has already begun to transform the social fabric, our commerce with reality, and the sense we have of our place in the world. At length it will lead to a disconnected, disembodied, and disoriented sort of life. The human substance will be diminished through a simultaneous diffusion and individuation of the person. Hyperintelligence allows us to diffuse our attention and action over ever more voluminous spaces. At the same time, we are shrinking to a source of instructions and finally to a point of arbitrary desires.

Hyperintelligence is neither a total nor an unavoidable overlay on the real world and human intelligence. It is obviously growing and thickening, suffocating reality and rendering humanity less mindful and intelligent. At an earlier time, as Thomas Aquinas shows, quoting his favorite philosopher Aristotle, human intelligence was intimacy with reality: “in the human soul there is something whereby it becomes everything and something whereby it makes everything. Hence we must emphasize that there is an active intelligence.”


  1. The Hyperaware Consciousness » Future of Humanity: A Map of the Conversation Said,

    October 30, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    […] Author of Crossing the Postmodern Divide (select passage online here) […]

  2. Jonny Said,

    May 9, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

    So, why can’t a lifestyle in a world with Hyperintelligence include maybe 18 years of intensive, more traditional education. And then when you understand enough, you can log on, as if you were going to work. Then you log off to go about other, maybe more recreational things or perhaps log on to a smaller network with limited information to work with. I’d think in a more advanced world, the kind of recreational things we do now like video games and sports would be adapted for stimulating memory better, because of it’s importance. The point of having a worldwide network of information isn’t just to change our state of consciousness and to share updated, meaningful knowledge, but to use those things to utilize and continually improve an efficient society. Improving intelligence would be vital to that, I think the culture would change with the evolution of the mind.


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