The Question Concerning Technological Humor

Curator's Note

In the clip above we see the installation of Samantha, an “OS” or Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Spike Jonez’ Her.  In the scene, Theodore (Phoenix) installs Samantha (Johansson) and we see both him find her funny and her recognize humor in his writing. The quest to create funny AI or AI that can recognize humor seems to offer us a window into exploring “the craft of comedy” and thus what humor is, at essence. Given this question, it seems that Heidegger, the (more-or-less-Nazi) German philosopher might offer us some insight into the question of making technological humor. As a caveat, I am not a scholar of Heidegger, merely a novice questioning at what he might tell us about the craft of comedy, and my hope is that this will perhaps stimulate others with more experience in reading this not particularly easy text to chime in and fill out the discussion.

In his “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger questions what the essence of technology is in order to understand not only humanity’s relationship to technology, but also why modern technology has us heading down a dangerous path (Wikipedia has a pretty good summary if you can’t decipher the original text). Along the way, Heidegger talks about techne, the Greek term for craft, as the root of technology.  Thus, we might rework the theme of this week as the technology of comedy.  If I am right in my understanding that Heidegger sees the shift toward modern technology as engendering a way of thinking (Enframing) that crams everything through the lens of value capacities for human use—something that he seems to think gets us further from the truth rather than revealing it—then it would seem that the interest in creating humorous AIs is dangerous for precisely the reason that it attempts to reduce humor to a reproducible formula. It seems that teaching a computer to tell a joke is thus less about revealing the essence of humor—the craft of learning how to reveal the humor that already lies waiting to move from concealment to unconcealment—and more about creating an instrument to suit our vision of a humorous world.  I’m left wondering, if it were possible to stop seeing everything simply as our own (enframed) construct and instead reveal a techne of comedy, whether we would find that computers already are funny?

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