The Wonderous Potency of Practice

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.

For use almost can change the stamp of nature,

And either curb the devil, or throw him out,

With wondrous potency.

Thus speaks Hamlet, in an attempt to reform the character of his mother, the compromised Queen of Denmark.

Alas, Hamlet ignores his own advice. Rather than assuming the virtues he needs to put right what is out of joint in his family and country, he chooses instead to “put an antic disposition on.”

Though intended to throw his enemies off his trail, closer consideration shows that this feigned madness stems from and perpetuates a real disorder afflicting Hamlet’s soul.

The “wonderous potency” of habit may indeed throw the devil out, or it may invite him in.

In our times, Tocqueville predicts, the science of despotism will make cunning use of this potent means of shaping characters, to render us willing subjects of its control.

Promising to make us happy while disburdening us of the “trouble” of thinking for ourselves, modern tyranny “little by little steals from each citizen even the use of himself.” Without realizing it, we are reduced to “a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

How are we habituated to cease thinking for ourselves? Consider the expanding role of “artificial intelligence” in retraining us for contended servitude.

Not long ago, Gmail began offering to craft my emails. Crunching what my colleagues, students, family, or friends were asking or telling me, its handy algorithms composed several appropriate responses, to relieve me of the trouble of reading or responding with requisite attention.

Even more recently, citizens attempting to question certain propagandistic claims, or express disfavored views, have found their Facebook posts or YouTube videos censored in accordance with what one wag has accurately styled “communist standards.”

One can seldom dispute such draconian measures, and in any case it is impossible to reason with an algorithm—or the despots hiding behind it. For artificial intelligence is no intelligence at all, only a tool that (like any other) can be employed for good or evil by persons using or abusing their actual intelligence.

In the near future, our techno utopians hope to replace human teachers with algorithms. This will eliminate the need for censorship by training us all, from the youngest age, to allow computers—or rather, those who program them—to think for us.

We are already seeing the political implications of allowing ourselves the convenience of this division of labor.

In this brave new world of ours, how can we go about reassuming the virtue of thinking for ourselves?

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