Who is she, the rational actor? A human being, a living creature, flesh and blood – or a mindless computer, wired and assembled so as to execute an endlessly looping programme? Is the rational actor rational, or is what we think of as rational whatever the rational actor does? Did we conceive of her as the reasonable being par excellence or is our understanding of reason and rationality (whatever their difference may be) now increasingly a product or by-product of the rational actor’s computing capacities and capabilities – in other words, can the egg lay a chicken? All of these are pressing questions, yet questions too to which conclusive answers one may not find without raising yet others again.
Since the introduction of so-called ’smart‘ technology, it has been the subject of sometimes more, sometimes less fierce debate what that label exactly could, should, or would entail. The question „What does it mean to be smart?“ may well have become one of the winged words of our decade, forgotten we may however have that one of the most eager participants of the surrounding debate is the smart product itself. She can answer, fairly easily, with „It means to be like me,“ and quickly we are absolved from further enquiry. The dictum rests with us: To be smart is to be smart is to be smart; or: fake it until you make it.
This brief illustration deserves much more far-reaching attention, yet here it serves as one symptom among several of an increased difficulty one encounters at distinguishing maker from product, smart technology from smartness, artifice from artist. This difficulty points at an unresolved debate about reason and the ways in which it relates to other supposed aspects of human nature – a debate that is as convoluted as it is inevitable if one were to try to unravel some of the mysteries of the everyday.
The problem of distinction is simultaneously one of reconciliation – as little as we are able to draw a line we find it incredibly cumbersome to bring one and another together. On the one hand, we thus conflate artificial and ‚real‘ intelligence – on this basis we quickly confuse what was thought of as separate entities. The rational actor, once an ideal type or a formal model, suddenly becomes a normative end; and likewise a smart device, once invented as a support, is used as a surrogate instead. Who is smarter, now, the device or the user? She who provides me with information, or me who I count on her provisions?
On the other hand, such conflations marginalise aspects of ourselves (and our selves) that would otherwise very well deserve ontological autonomy: If all is rational, where are the emotions? If all is smart, where is error? If all is able, where is the disabled? The holist pretensions of the above reductionist gestures stop short of any actual embrace. This is the problem of reconciliation; for if rational actorhood is presumed, if it is an a priori maxim that we hold but do not confront as the ever-questionable belief it is, we are unable to account for contrary experience in terms other than irregularity, deviance, aberration, and so on.
So once again, who is she, the rational actor? Perhaps both cerebrum and circuit, both heartbeat and hardware. Perhaps neither. Most importantly, she is a construct that we may hold dearly, but may just as well not. For when has an increase in rational sophistication, in ‚objective value‘ as some may call it, yielded a decrease in what it labels as its opposite, irrationality? When has it been clear that these were actually opposites? When were we able to provide evidence for the legitimacy of the call for evidence?
The question could, in this light, not even be whether or not the assumption of the rational actor were an accurate, defendable one or not, for that would just precisely miss the point. The question might instead be which assumptions about what kind of reasonable being and behaviour have what kinds of consequences, and what sorts of different observations one may derive from one or another starting point. In this sense, to take a product of one kind of assumption (the rational actor, the machine, the smart device) for an answer to the questions it were just about to raise appears peculiar. Is it reasonable?