New Technologies, Old Attitudes

March 5, 2023
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do our reactions to AI, UFOs, and DMT have in common? Ross Douthat, in today’s Times (here), has an answer:

There is a shared spirit in these stories, a common impulse to the quests: the desire to encounter or invent some sort of nonhuman consciousness that might help us toward leaps that we can’t make on our own. The impulse is an ancient one: The idea tha one might bind a djinn, create a golem or manipulate a god or fairy to do your bidding is inscribed deep in the human imagination.

Surprisingly, Douthat does not remind us that these deals with nonhumans always turn out badly for the humans. He seems to share in the optimism for, as the column’s title has it, “the return of the magicians.” In his mention of Dr. Faustus, Douthat says only that “the scientist and the magician were often overlapping figures in the early modern imagination, blurring together in vocations like alchemy and characters like Dr. Faustus.” Douthat sees blurring. Not so bad. What’s a little blurring? But the central plot element in the story is that Dr. Faustus sells his soul to the devil.

I was reminded of Philip Slater’s far less sanguine take on this kind of thinking in his book The Pursuit of Loneliness, published in 1970. That was more than a half-century ago, but it still seems accurate. Here is a long excerpt..

All societies, optimally, must allow for both change and stability.... Every society evolves patterns for attempting to realize these mutually incompatible needs.

Our society, as many have pointed out, has traditionally handled the problem by giving completely free rein to technological change and opposing the most formidable obstacles to social change. Since, however, technological change in fact forces social changes upon us, this has had the effect of abdicating all control over our social environment to a kind of whimsical deity. While we think of ourselves as a people of change and progress, masters of our environment and our fate, we are no more entitled to this designation than the most superstitious savage, for our relation to change is entirely passive. We poke our noses out the door each day and wonder breathlessly what new disruptions technology has in store for us. We talk of technology as the servant of man, but it is a servant that now dominates the household, too powerful to fire, upon whom everyone is helplessly dependent. We tiptoe about and speculate upon his mood. What will be the effects of such-and-such an invention? How will it change our daily lives? We never ask, do we want this, is it worth it? (We did not ask ourselves, for example, if the trivial conveniences offered by the automobile could really offset the calamitous disruption and depersonalization of our lives that it brought about.) We simply say “You can't stop progress” and shuffle back inside.  

We pride ourselves on being a “democracy” but we are in fact slaves. We submit to an absolute ruler whose edicts and whims we never question. We watch him carefully, hang on his every word; for technology is a harsh and capricious king, demanding prompt and absolute obedience. We laugh at the Luddites (Nat Turners in the struggle for human parity with the machine) but they were the last human beings seriously to confront this issue. Since then we have passively surrendered to every degradation, every atrocity, every enslavement that our technological ingenuity has brought about. We laugh at the old lady who holds off the highway bulldozers with a shotgun, but we laugh because we are Uncle Toms. We try to outdo each other in singing the praises of the oppressor, although in fact the value of technology in terms of human satisfaction remains at best undemonstrated. For when evaluating its effects we always adopt the basic assumptions and perspective of technology itself, and never examine it in terms of the totality of human experience. We say this or that invention is valuable because it generates other inventions-because it is a means to some other means-not because it achieves an ultimate human end. We play down the “side effects” that so often become the main effects and completely negate any alleged benefits. The advantages of all technological “progress” will after all be totally outweighed the moment nuclear war breaks out (an event which, given the inadequacy of precautions and the number of fanatical fingers close to the trigger, is only a matter of time unless radical changes are made).

Let me make clear what I am not saying here. I do not believe in the noble savage and I am not advocating any brand of bucolic romanticism. I do not want to put an end to machines, I only want to remove them from their position of mastery, to restore human beings to a position of equality and initiative.

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