The age of mechanical spirits

As with any window, the light from our minds shining onto our perceptions of the world cast our own reflections upon the scene we see through them. People have always seen minds like their own within or behind nature. In the earliest forms of society people believed (and in some places still do) animate spirits to exist not only in clearly living things but also in fire, rocks and the wind, later only in the God or gods that created and/or controlled them. Today this inexhaustible enthusiasm for seeing life in everything leads some to see it, or at least some of its defining characteristics, even in technology, as though the ancient spirits, having been expelled from the forest by no-longer-intimidated minds, had, like the demons exorcised by Jesus in the Gospels, been forced to take roost in lesser hosts, the clanking, jointed legions which, though machines, then became to some extent their own masters.

And not only the AI idealists with smoke-hazed fantasies about the creation of “spiritual machines” at some point in the future. Whether in the old jeremiads from the industrial age about machines having subverted humans to serving their purposes rather than the other way around or by calling the technological realm a “technium” and defining it as the “7th kingdom of life”, there seems to be a continuous process of deliberate mythologization of technology whose level of metaphorical self-awareness isn’t entirely clear. It’s one thing to claim that machines will become alive someday, it’s quite another believe they already have, or at least substantially perform the functions of a living entity.

Because while it might seem that machines have not made the world a happier place, or even that they subject people to untold misery both in the job of operating them and in their effects, even in the deepest holes of the earth they are in all things driven by man out of greed for wealth or sex or fatted calfs. Of course technology survives and is replicated and spread throughout the world, but crucially always through the medium of human brain and action. Technology is dynamic and constantly changing with many of the characteristics of evolution. It is (sometimes literally) the engine of history. But what, to invert a metaphor, is the engine that drives the engine? It is human life, driving along technology for its own purposes, maybe shortsightedly or even perversely, but in always as the dynamic force. One might call technology an example of Dawkins’ concept of the “extended phenotype,” separate from the body of a living creature but yet a product of it which serves it in the evolutionary game. Not a a successor to humanity, but rather its extension.

2 Responses to “The age of mechanical spirits”

  1. shonk Says:
    Because while it might seem that machines have not made the world a happier place, or even that they subject people to untold misery both in the job of operating them and in their effects…

    Although I think the question is rather ill-posed, if forced to make a binary choice I think I’d be more inclined to say that machines have made the world a happier place.

  2. Curt Says:

    Not saying they haven’t, but that’s my point. I agree that the premise is rather crude, but I’m simply granting it for the sake of the argument. The point is that whether they have or haven’t makes no difference, people are still ultimately in control of them.

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