Demonic Machines

I have a strange obsession: I am determined to understand the world – and people in particular. People are the ones that give me the most trouble.

I am convinced we have changed greatly, and we now are only partly human. But saying just what we have become has baffled me. It is clear that we have become more like machines – but it is also clear that we have become demonic: intent on destroying ourselves. The two parts didn’t seem to fit together.

But this morning, after a night of nightmares, I can see (or rather, feel) how they fit together. The two metaphors I just used: (seeing and feeling) are those used by the two hemispheres of the brain. The right hemisphere is identified with the whole body while the left is identified with our extensions (as McLuhan put it), such as our machines. And as Iain McGilchrist tells us, it is not longer the Emissary, but has become the Master.

We have always considered our machines to be our helpful servants. And for hundred of thousand of years they were. But then, all of a sudden, they took over our world, with the advent of civilization – which was a complex of our technologies, and our reactions to them. Mankind struggled to cope with these, mostly unsuccessfully.

In our time, we have been hit with the most overwhelming of them all: the computer/software/internet/wireless complex. I have been alarmed to see how this has overwhelmed people, even down here. These new technologies have not made us better, but worse – by taking over more and more of our lives.

I am now reading The Condition of Man by Lewis Mumford, one of my gurus. In the first part of the book, he is quickly going over these developments in the Greek and Roman worlds. I wish you had the time to read it. Everyone should be forced to be a failure (like I was) and then given time to recover (like I have been). But I am getting off the subject, which is demonic machines.

Now that I have realized that such a thing is possible, it begins to make sense (as we say). My twenty years of working in high-tech were full of just such insanity – which nearly drove my crazy myself.

When I tried to explain to the friends I still had back in Silicon Valley that software development was a social process, and therefore subject to the problems of our society – they abruptly stopped listening to me. They were completely enmeshed (like a gear in a machine) in that society, and they were not about to question it.

For that society, the end of the world has already happened. They are on a one-way track that is going nowhere – with no awareness of this, or anything else. Their things become more and more, while they (as persons) become less and less.

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The Ubiquity of the Social Network

My scripture this morning is from James S. Hans’ The Question of Value, page 162. This is my third pass through this section, and I am determined to get it down.

I have two criticisms of this guy, the brightest person I know: (1) he doesn’t appreciate the impact of technology – something Lewis Mumford is much better at; and (2) he doesn’t realize that people no longer exist. To be fair, I have a hard time with this last point myself – and keep asking myself: if they are not people, what are they? I cannot come up with a word that satisfies me. It will no doubt take future generations to understand this phenomena – and to name it – if there are still generations around.

It seems to me, to make an extreme simplification, that Computers Have Taken the Place of People . And this should be the realization we should start from.

But we should also make it clear how this technology has affected society in two ways: (1) by integrating all the power structures in the more advanced countries to make local power complexes and (2) integrating all the economies in the world (globalization). The social network has been replaced by the Internet, a technical network. In the process people have disappeared, because they are no longer necessary – or even desirable. It takes some work to dig this out of Hans. The following is an example of his brilliant writing (on page 165):

We are masters of the anxious moment, the aporias of boredom, the never-ending sequence of disappointment and reversal; we have probed the interstices of these orientations like true devotees and pride ourselves on our ability to bear the pain we have engendered and so fully exploited…We make use of them simply because they are an essential aspect of the narcissism through which our values have come to be defined.

Ouch! It is hard for me to admit he is right. But I have a contribution to make too – as I said above.

The Divine Machine

Man has always wanted to be divine, and in our secret heart of hearts we believe we are really divine – with perhaps some of the Devil in us too – just to make us interesting. But there has been something else in us too: the machine, which we have worshiped also – and also been a part of. The kind of machine that made the Pyramids, and also the Roman Empire.

The history of the modern world is the history of a new kind of machine, where mechanical parts have replaced the human ones. (Footnote: Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine) The clock was replaced by the steam engine, and then the internal combustion engine. But it would be more accurate to speak of the internal combustion engine/pneumatic tire/petroleum/home in the suburb complex.

This was supplanted by electronics/television complex. It and the car coexisted uncomfortably, but not too incompatibly. We simply added radios and 8-track tape tape decks to our cars. And kept buying more gasoline.

All was well except for one thing: our society was fast collapsing – and we were completely unaware of it. But this was unimportant – what was important was that our machines kept getting better and better. And they were ready for a quantum jump.

This was the jump to the computer/software/internet complex. Or really the computer/software/internet/cyborg complex. We had become part of the equation – in a greatly altered form. I refer you to a TED presentation where Amber Case explains We are all cyborgs now. It’s not hard to understand, it’s only 8 minutes long.

The Divine Machine had finally arrived – in a fully etherealized form.

And it was quickly integrated into a global complex: the industrial/governmental/financial/media/educational/penal complex. In other words: everything. We were now gods – but in a form we could not have previously imagined.

The Digital State of Mind

Just as I went to press with this, this article popped up Who will win the battle for control of the web? My state of mind seems to coincide with others here – who are much brighter than I am. Technology continues to be irresistible.

Technology has always had a strong effect on us, effects we don’t usually recognize – and, for that matter, don’t want to recognize, because we like to think of ourselves as independent beings, unchanged by the world around us.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We are extremely adaptable beings, and change frequently – so much so, that that there is no longer any basic human nature left – only a human body, which has not changed much because biological change is much slower than social change – which, as I said, is happening constantly. The Germans recognized this before we did and have a word for it Weltanschauung, which we translate as world view or state of mind.

Recently, change has become so rapid that we have developed strong defense mechanisms to cope with it – but this only makes the situation worse. By engaging in constant war in exotic places, for example, we direct our attention away from our domestic situation, which has become desperate. The Roman Empire did the same thing when it ignored its internal collapse.

I have been much influenced by Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine – which says basically that we have been more influenced by the machine than we have realized. This was especially true in the Modern Era, where one of its main drives – humanism – was swamped by the dehumanizing influence of the Industrial Revolution. Like Mumford, I acknowledge the advantages of the Modern state of mind. It gave us huge advantages, which most of the world – Latin American, for example – do not have.

But it also made us more like machines – which was a decided disadvantage. This was a way of life that could not continue its rapid improvements (which were awesome) – and it collapsed. But it did get us used to thinking of the world as a vast machine – and this heritage has not left us. The Scientific world view, a big part of the Modern World, had strong elements of this, but has still permitted us to have a human world view at the same time.

This flexibility ended with the Computer and the Internet – which produced the digital state of mind – which has affected my state of mind also.

I decided recently to re-learn my programming skills, and catch up on what was going on there. After some stumbling around, I realized the Java programming language and the NetBeans IDE were a core competency that any programmer had to have – and I started on that. Before long I was back in familiar ground, since many of Java’s basics are derived from the C programming language I was once expert in. I quickly learned that many new things had been added also – so many I felt swamped by them. I also realized to be proficient in this world I had to adopt its world view, and take it seriously. And I began to feel uneasy about this.

I am not a big enough person to be a computer and a human at the same time – I know this from experience. I can be a writer and still be more-or-less human – but being a computer and a person is too much of a stretch for me. At the same time, I noticed something else was going on – I lost my interest in poetry, a new interest I had greatly enjoyed. I became alarmed – what was going on here?

I decided I needed to continue Mumford’s train of thought – which ended before the Digital Revolution burst upon us. The basics are simple: the computer is simply the logical extension of the mechanical state of mind. By digitizing everything we made it much more capable of a mechanical treatment. Indeed, this has been a breakthrough (or a paradigm shift) that has changed our world. It is useless to ask if this new world world was better or worse – it was both – but it has a strong social downside that needs to be recognized. It has changed us much more than we have realized – and once again, we have refused to recognize this.

I went into this in my last posting People Have Become Things. Basically it says our powerful new technologies have overwhelmed us – and made us forget ourselves (our selves, our human selves). Poetry does just the opposite – it emphasizes our humanness – and celebrates it.

I need not tell you how unpopular poetry has become. We do not want to be human anymore.

The Axial Religions Were a Reaction to Civilization

I am still reading Lewis Mumford, who continues to amaze me. The following is copied from Page 258 if his book Technics and Human Development:

This revolt began in the mind, and it proceeded quietly to deny the materialistic assumptions that equated human welfare and the will of the gods with centralized political power, military dominance, and increasing economic exploitation – symbolized as these were in the walls, towers, palaces, temples of the great urban centers. All over Europe, the Middle East, and Asia – and notably out of the villages rather than the cities – new voices arose, those of a Amos, a Hesiod, a Loa-tzu, deriding the cult of power, pronouncing it iniquitous, futile, and anti-human, and proclaiming a new set of values, the antithesis upon which the myth of the megamachine had been built. Not power, but righteousness, these prophets said, was the basis of human society: not snatching seizing and fighting, but sharing, cooperation, even loving: not pride, but humility: not limitless wealth, but a noble self-restricting poverty and chastity.

It’s hard to better that!

I wish you could read the rest of this section, entitled The Moralization of Power.

Origins of the Machine

Lewis Mumford does an excellent job of describing how this happened, and where it happened. It happened a long time ago: in Mesopotamia and Egypt at the same time early civilization was developing – from about 3000 to 600 BC.  Its first components were people, who functioned as easily replaceable components – much like any functionary in any large organization today.

This machine culture, the origins of modern culture, developed in what we now call the Middle East – not in Greece, as we fondly claim. The Greeks remained a collection of city-states, incapable of acting on a larger scale – which made their conquest by Rome easy. Rome, on the other hand, took large-scale organization to new lengths – too far, actually. And we, in our time make the same mistake – trying to grow too large.

The Egyptians, during their pyramid-building era were able to devote 100,000 men, on a permanent basis, and provide bread, onions, and beer to feed them. This was the first example of a modern economy – which is devoted to wasting much of its manpower on useless projects, just to keep the economy moving.

The Sacrifice of Life to Power

I am still on a Mumford kick – this time on a book I just got The Pentagon of Power. Mumford himself is circumspect about being seen as too much of a radical, but it doesn’t take a genius – indeed, it only takes someone like me – to see the radical implications of his writing, which in this case was done in 1970. I quote from page 163. He is talking about Leonardo da Vinci here, as a representative of late medieval thought.

It is an error, nevertheless, to hold that Leonardo’s example is an impossible one for our age. The example is impossible only because those who seek power are unwilling to pay the price of achieving balance and are not attracted by the human reward. What one must give up, in any effort to achieve a many-dimensional and coherent world picture, is the idea of early achievement and instant exploitation. Whatever the field of invention, or organization, one must be ready to go forward at a slower pace, looking before and after, to make fewer discoveries, to spend as much time as possible assimilating knowledge as in acquiring it; to do less perhaps in a whole lifetime in any one department than the concentrated specialist is able to do in a decade.

From the standpoint of the power system, this demands a impossible sacrifice: the sacrifice of power to life.