Here’s British author and journalist Steven Poole, writing for Aeon magazine in an article published just today and titled “Slaves to the Algorithm“:
Our age elevates the precision-tooled power of the algorithm over flawed human judgment. From web search to marketing and stock-trading, and even education and policing, the power of computers that crunch data according to complex sets of if-then rules is promised to make our lives better in every way. Automated retailers will tell you which book you want to read next; dating websites will compute your perfect life-partner; self-driving cars will reduce accidents; crime will be predicted and prevented algorithmically. If only we minimise the input of messy human minds, we can all have better decisions made for us. So runs the hard sell of our current algorithm fetish.
. . . If you are feeling gloomy about the automation of higher education, the death of newspapers, and global warming, you might want to talk to someone — and there’s an algorithm for that, too. A new wave of smartphone apps with eccentric titular orthography (iStress, myinstantCOACH, MoodKit, BreakkUp) promise a psychotherapist in your pocket. Thus far they are not very intelligent, and require the user to do most of the work — though this second drawback could be said of many human counsellors too. Such apps hark back to one of the legendary milestones of ‘artificial intelligence’, the 1960s computer program called ELIZA. That system featured a mode in which it emulated Rogerian psychotherapy, responding to the user’s typed conversation with requests for amplification (‘Why do you say that?’) and picking up — with its ‘natural-language processing’ skills — on certain key words from the input. Rudimentary as it is, ELIZA can still seem spookily human. Its modern smartphone successors might be diverting, but this field presents an interesting challenge in the sense that, the more sophisticated it gets, the more potential for harm there will be. One day, the makers of an algorithm-driven psychotherapy app could be sued by the survivors of someone to whom it gave the worst possible advice.
What lies behind our current rush to automate everything we can imagine? Perhaps it is an idea that has leaked out into the general culture from cognitive science and psychology over the past half-century — that our brains are imperfect computers. If so, surely replacing them with actual computers can have nothing but benefits. Yet even in fields where the algorithm’s job is a relatively pure exercise in number-crunching, things can go alarmingly wrong.
Here’s author and cultural critic John David Ebert, writing in The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake (2011):
Everywhere we look nowadays, we find the same worship of the machine at the expense of the human being, who always comes out of the equation looking like an inconvenient, leftover remainder: instead of librarians to check out your books for you, a machine will do it better; instead of clerks to ring up your groceries for you, a self-checkout will do it better; instead of a real live DJ on the radio, an electronic one will do the job better; instead of a policeman to write you a traffic ticket, a camera (connected to a computer) will do it better. In other words . . . the human being is actually disappearing from his own society, just as the automobile long ago caused him to disappear from the streets of his cities . . . . [O]ur society is increasingly coming to be run and operated by machines instead of people. Machines are making more and more of our decisions for us; soon, they will be making all of them.
Here’s science fiction legend Brian Aldiss, writing in the first chapter of his seminal 1973 study Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, titled “The Origin of the Species: Mary Shelley“:
For a thousand people familiar with the story of Victor creating his monster from selected cadaver spares and endowing them with new life, only to shrink back in horror from his own creation, not one will have read Mary Shelley’s original novel. This suggests something of the power of infiltration of this first great myth of the industrial age. [emphasis added]
Here’s literature scholar Christopher Small, writing in his (likewise influential) 1972 book Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth:
The Monster is not a ghost. He is not a genie or a spirit summoned by magic from the deep; at the same time he issues, like these, from the imagination. He is manifestly a product, or aspect, of his maker’s psyche: he is a psychic phenomenon given objective, or ‘actual’ existence. A Doppelganger of ‘real flesh and blood’ is not unknown, of course, in other fictions, nor is the idea of a man created ‘by other means than Nature has hitherto provided’, the creation of Prometheus being the archetype. But Frankenstein is ‘the modern Prometheus’: the profound effect achieved by Mary lay in showing the Monster as the product of modern science; made, not by enchantment, i.e., directly by the unconscious, an ‘imaginary’ being, but through a process of scientific discovery, i.e., the imagination objectified.
Here’s the late, great cultural critic/historian and philosopher Theodore Roszak, writing in his fairly legendary 1973 book Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society:
Long before the demonic possibilities of science had become clear for all to see, it was a Romantic novelist who foresaw the career of Dr. Frankenstein — and so gave us the richest (and darkest) literary myth the culture of science has produced.
Here’s Agent Smith, the artificial intelligence program in charge of keeping order within the simulated human reality of The Matrix (1999), speaking to the captured Morpheus, leader of the resistance movement against the machine civilization that has enslaved humans (in a film released in 1999):
As soon as we started thinking for you it really became our civilization, which is of course what this is all about. Evolution, Morpheus, evolution. Like the dinosaur. Look out that window. You’ve had your time. The future is our world, Morpheus. The future is our time.
Here’s Victor Frankenstein in the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, lying on his deathbed and lamenting his former obsessive quest to create and “perfect” life, which led not only to his own utter wretchedness and destruction but to that of everybody he loved:
My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.
. . . Do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me — let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!
If one is looking for a guiding thread of supervening meaning or moral insight here, I might be inclined to borrow and recontextualize the words of legendary and visionary music producer Sandy Pearlman — from the liner notes to Blue Öyster Cult’s epic 1988 concept album Imaginos, about the centuries-long efforts of a transcendent pantheon of “Invisibles” to intercede in human history and guide it to a preordained conclusion — by suggesting that this whole situation portends, indicates, and represents “a disease with a long incubation.”
Images: “HAL9000” from 2001: A Space Odyssey by Cryteria (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. “Frontispiece to Frankenstein 1831” by Theodore Von Holst (1810-1844) (Tate Britain. Private collection, Bath.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
From a recent essay by University of Toronto philosophy professor Mark Kingwell, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education about “the dream-logic of all technology, namely that it should make our lives easier and more fun,” and the dark side of the age-old science fictional — and now increasingly science factual — vision of creating a “robot working class” that will free humans from unwanted labor:
We are no longer owners and workers, in short; we are, instead, voracious and mostly quite happy producers and consumers of images. Nowadays, the images are mostly of ourselves, circulated in an apparently endless frenzy of narcissistic exhibitionism and equally narcissistic voyeurism: my looking at your online images and personal details, consuming them, is somehow still about me. [Guy] Debord was prescient [in his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle] about the role that technology would play in this general social movement. “Just when the mass of commodities slides toward puerility, the puerile itself becomes a special commodity; this is epitomized by the gadget. . . . Reified man advertises the proof of his intimacy with the commodity. The fetishism of commodities reaches moments of fervent exaltation similar to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism. The only use which remains here is the fundamental use of submission.”
It strikes me that this passage, with the possible exception of the last sentence, could have been plausibly recited by Steve Jobs at an Apple product unveiling. For Debord, the gadget, like the commodity more generally, is not a thing; it is a relation. As with all the technologies associated with the spectacle, it closes down human possibility under the guise of expanding it; it makes us less able to form real connections, to go off the grid of produced and consumed leisure time, and to find the drifting, endlessly recombining idler that might still lie within us. There is no salvation from the baseline responsibility of being here in the first place to be found in machines.
. . . To use a good example of critical consciousness emerging from within the production cycles of the culture industry, consider the Axiom, the passenger spaceship that figures in the 2008 animated film WALL-E. Here, robot labor has proved so successful, and so nonthreatening, that the human masters have been freed to indulge in nonstop indulgence of their desires. As a result, they have over generations grown morbidly obese, addicted to soft drinks and video games, their bones liquefied in the ship’s microgravity conditions. They exist, but they cannot be said to live.
The gravest danger of offloading work is not a robot uprising but a human downgrading. Work hones skills, challenges cognition, and, at its best, serves noble ends. It also makes the experience of genuine idling, in contrast to frenzied leisure time, even more valuable. Here, with only our own ends and desires to contemplate — what shall we do with this free time? — we come face to face with life’s ultimate question. To ask what is worth doing when nobody is telling us what to do, to wonder about how to spend our time, is to ask why are we here in the first place.
— “Mark Kingwell, “The Barbed Gift of Leisure,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 25, 2013
Also see John David Ebert in 2011’s The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake, from the chapter titled “Robots, Drones and the Disappearance of the Human Being”:
[The rise of drones in warfare] is a syndrome of thought that is currently infecting American society as a whole and is eating away at it like a cancer. Everywhere we look nowadays, we find the same worship of the machine at the expense of the human being, who always comes out of the equation looking like an inconvenient, leftover remainder: instead of librarians to check out your books for you, a machine will do it better; instead of clerks to ring up your groceries for you, a self-checkout will do it better; instead of a real live DJ on the radio, an electronic one will do the job better; instead of a policeman to write you a traffic ticket, a camera (connected to a computer) will do it better. In other words. . . the human being is actually disappearing from his own society, just as the automobile long ago caused him to disappear from the streets of his cities. . . . [O]ur society is increasingly coming to be run and operated by machines instead of people. Machines are making more and more of our decisions for us; soon, they will be making all of them.
Our technological future according to Idiocracy:
From an unexpectedly meaty piece published by — of all sources — NBC, on the current upsurge of apocalyptic cinema and its real-world meanings and implications:
Ready for the end of the world as we know it? The popular culture certainly is. When “Defiance” arrives Monday night on the SyFy channel and “Oblivion” hits theaters Friday, they’ll land on an already busy post-apocolypse-obsessed [sic] entertainment landscape that’s about to become even more crowded.
. . . For Brock Wilbur, author of Filmpocalypse! 52 cinematic Visions of the End of the World, the genre is universal. “It transforms as we do. The apocalyptic cinema serves as sort of a gateway to talk about bigger issues in an exaggerated way and in different time periods.”
. . . “Ever since the finish of the second world war when we got the glimpse of the atomic bomb there’s been this sense that the world could end in the blink of an eye,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “One of the reasons it may be so resonant now is that there are so many things we hear on a daily basis that seem to say to us that the possibility of massive planetary annihilation is within the realm of think-ability.” It’s real life informs reel life and vice versa.
. . . For Thompson, the images we witnessed over and over again in the weeks following the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings trumped every disaster movie ever made. “How do you make something seem big and shocking after that. A lot of people said, ‘Oh we’re not going to be seeing exploding buildings now, it’s going to be too soon.’ They were absolutely wrong. What we instead saw was a ratcheting up of the scope, to be bad enough now you had to be taking out whole cities. Back in the day we could be shocked by Hitchcock terrorizing a little seaside village with birds. Now we have seen and heard so much that our expectations are so extreme that we have to take out the entire world to make it seem like it matters.”
. . . [Wilbur says] “The way that we live now in 2013 has a real disconnect with what we are as a species, and post-apocalypse films get back to that idea of wanting to roam around and hunt and gather and scavenge and live in a tent and not have to answer my cell phone or worry about Facebook. It’s a chance to reset and go back to what our biology tells us we should be doing. That can make the bleakest film actually uplifting. It’s the same reason that post-apocalypse themed video games are such a hit.”
More: “The Appeal of Apocalypse“
Several years ago — almost seven, in fact (he said with a sense of temporal vertigo) — I published a series of posts here about what I then termed the “autumn longing,” that exquisite, fleeting, piercing experience of being tantalized by a vision of ultimate beauty and fulfillment that trembles just beyond the edge of our ability to attain or even fully imagine. The first post in the series was about C. S. Lewis, who gave what remains in my opinion the most complete and focused description of this experience in the English language. The second was about H. P. Lovecraft, who is far more well-known for writing about (and also for writing from) a vision of cosmic horror than a vision of beautiful longing, but whose life was centrally defined by an ongoing experience of this exquisite sehnsucht no less than Lewis’s was.
I went on to elaborate on these matters in a number of additional writings that have been published elsewhere, including “The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets: The Influence of H. P. Lovecraft on Thomas Ligotti,” published both at Thomas Ligotti Online and in Lovecraft Annual; my two-part essay “Lovecraft’s Longing” for the North Shore arts magazine Art Throb; and a column titled “Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing” for SF Signal.
Over the years I haven’t seen anybody else writing about this psychological kinship between Lewis and Lovecraft via the experience of sehnsucht, so it was a real joy to stumble upon the following a couple of days ago:
Much has been said about Lewis and Sehnsucht, the German word for “longing” or “yearning.” Lewis thought that this species of longing was itself a precious possession, more precious than anything to be found in this world, because it directs us to another world, a “far off country” whence all the good things in our world derive their goodness. We feel it in those fleeting moments when we sense beautiful things beyond our grasp. It is, as Lewis famously said in his afterword to The Pilgrim’s Regress,
that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
. . . Lovecraft was not an alien to this longing. He felt it, too, but without the satisfaction hope gives it. . . . Is this what becomes of Sehnsucht when it is disappointed? Does it become the phantasmagoria of Lovecraft? Must those who either cannot or will not believe in the promise implicit in our longing turn upon the reminders of another world and defile them? The prospect fills me with pity.
These paragraphs come from a highly absorbing essay by Presbyterian pastor, successful young adult fantasy author (under the pen name “Mortimus Clay“), and former philosophy professor C. R. Wiley about the deep philosophical disjunction between Lewis’s and Lovecraft’s respective explorations and presentations of the theme of alien worlds and alien life. The fact that Wiley clearly “sides” with Lewis — something that’s not surprising, given the fact of their shared orthodox Christian worldview — doesn’t make his insight into Lovecraft any less valid or penetrating, and in fact helps to deepen it.
Here’s are key excerpts that illustrate the point:
Both Lewis and Lovecraft were interested in other worlds, that is, in alien worlds. And using the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, they explored the implications of alien worlds for human beings. But their respective visions are as alien to each other as the worlds they wrote about are alien to our own.
. . . Lewis believed that God is good — but his goodness is unleashed from human management. As he famously said: Aslan is not a tame lion. Nevertheless, even though Aslan disturbs characters in the Narnia stories, he does not disturb the reader. Lewis is too avuncular for that. He wrote the Narnia stories with children in mind, and his hands are warm and reassuring as he holds the hands of his readers. Even the Space Trilogy reassures us.
That is not what Lovecraft was after. He wanted to disturb us. At his best, we can detect in him a longing for the power that underlies all things. But for Lovecraft, it is an amoral power. Like people as wildly different as Mary Baker Eddy and Arthur Schopenhauer, Lovecraft believed morality to be a human attempt to tame and sublimate this power and to make it socially acceptable and useful.
Lewis did not think morality was a human artifice imposed on a primal life-force. Like the Apostle John, he proclaimed that life and light have the same source and occupy the same space. For Lewis, life is found in morality, and, like life, it is a gift we do not give ourselves.
It is this alien source of morality that modern people find disturbing. Reducing morality to human origins is a human attempt to tame it. For Lewis, that effort is the source of all our ills; the refusal to submit to our given limits is what alienates us from God. And that is where monsters really come from. Whoever they may be now — the White Witch or Weston — the monsters were once people. That is the frightening news Lewis has to share about human nature. It turns out that Lewis can scare people after all.
Lovecraft also believed that there is something monstrous at the bottom of human nature. Nearly all his stories have the feel of a confessional about them. They often narrate a process of discovery, creating within the reader a sense of dawning horror. Not infrequently, there is — at the zenith of the story — some dark revelation concerning the protagonist’s origins. . . . These stories end in suicide, madness, or, as in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a disturbing acquiescence. Given the Darwinian undertones, what else could one do but acquiesce? You are what you are, and that’s the end of it.
But for Lewis, there is reason for hope. Reality comes with an “upper story,” and while we are embodied souls, we are souls above all. It is to our souls that Lewis makes his appeal. He wants us to look in horror upon our inner monster, but unlike Lovecraft, he does not want us to die. He wants us to turn to Aslan and live.
Fans of both The Twilight Zone and the realm of philosophical, spiritual, religious, and psychological inquiry represented by the likes of books such as Daimonic Reality and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness — the latter featuring contributions from Teeming Brain teem members David Metcalfe and Ryan Hurd — will find much of interest in comments made by science fiction legend George Clayton Johnson in a 2003 interview conducted for the Archive of American Television. (A special thanks to Teeming Brain contributor Richard Gavin for bringing this interview, and this particular portion of it, to my attention.)
At one point during the five-hour (!) interview, Johnson speaks at length about the actual psychological, spiritual, and ontological reality of the liminal zone epitomized by the very idea and title of “the Twilight Zone.” What’s more, he asserts that the series itself can serve as a “tool” and a “consciousness expander” for helping people — especially children — to wake up to realities existing beyond the pale of the mundane world. Read the rest of this entry
Although my work as an author has been overwhelmingly centered in realms of darkness and horror, as cross-fertilized by my deep and personal focus on matters of religion, philosophy, and psychology, I have also been a lifelong lover of fantasy and science fiction. So perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the foundational books in my life has been A Wrinkle in Time, which wraps up all of these genres, themes, and concerns inside a story, a writing style, and a sensibility that together epitomize the word “wonderful.” Interestingly, over the past decade-plus of my involvement in professional writing and publishing, I’ve found that many other authors who likewise work in the field labeled “horror” count Wrinkle as one of their most cherished books.
Yesterday I caught wind of the fact that a graphic novel adaptation has just been released. I did a bit of looking into it. This involved reading several plot summaries and celebrations of the original novel. And, appropriately enough, it all sent my thoughts and emotions soaring backward and forward through time. Read the rest of this entry