In the last couple of weeks we had studied several theorists and novelists trying to measure the impact of advanced technologies on society. While it is impossible to generalize their ideas as they have vastly different approaches, one can find a unifying theme among these intellectuals. Shelley's Frankenstein gave us an ominous prediction to cloning: A human equipped with science can bypass nature to create another being in his own image. This raises the ethical issues very much in the public conscience today with the pending decision as to wether government will fund stem cell research.
Plato, Postman, Baudrillard, Bruyere, Gerbner and even Helmreich to name a few had all reiterated one central point: They argued that the more advanced society becomes, there occurs a shift in our perception and understanding of the world around us. While they all had different ideas as to how those perceptions would affect us as a society. They all maintain that there is a radical change in our nature [physical and mental], our humanness as we know it is evolving and we are on the precipice of redefining what it means to be human.
Postman stated that we have quickly descended into vast triviality. We haven't quickly descended anywhere, vast triviality has always existed. It was tasteless then much as it is now, it's hardly the fabrication of recent media influences. Every generation (in the West) has reserved the right to add or omit elements in their cultural conventions, triviality has just taken a different form which reflects the times we live in. The issue of mass entertainment influence is important because mass media reiterate the social and cultural status quo, through advertising and other mind-numbing programming. Television in effect acts as a socializing agent for many people particularly children.
Postman also expresses his concern over society's inability to disengage itself from 'testing' and therefore classifying. The concept of testing creates hierarchical order of competence and obedience to the system in which we exist. Central to the idea of being human is our natural distrust of government, society, or anyone whose desire is to make obedient persons. From this we can surmise that biological humans can become equivalent to android by allowing ourselves to be manipulated, made into a means without one's knowledge or consent. To be an Android requires obedience and predictability.
The effect on a society that is becoming attuned to visually processing information, as opposed to reading new information can be assessed in changing curriculums in our schools; more film cable and colorful interpretations to age old mathematical questions. But literate societies think that their visual bias is natural and innate. In The Republic Plato contemplated the impact of recording information in the form of literature, as opposed to the oral tradition of his time. The concern was that society would gain knowledge without deriving the wisdom in the message. Literacy is still the base of all programs in industry, but it also limits the minds and senses of its users, who need to discover the mechanical matrix in their brains in order to survive. This affects the course of human history to the present , from the first tools until the present ones, it is imperative to understand how our advances affect the next stage in human evolution.
The written word certainly changed the course of history. Did the written word change our physical being ? are we shorter, taller, faster ? We imagine we know more than our ancestors. I think that they knew things about our nature that we can't even contemplate. Bruyere explains at length in her book Wheels of Light the ability of humans to communicate and exist in various planes. Most intriguing is the first level beyond three-dimensional reality, Astral plane where we are able to travel in sleep, and visit with others. This human ability has been numbed and replaced by telecommunications, planes, trains and automobiles.
On the polar end to this issue is the fact that technology has contributed positively to our lives. Modernity has brought innumerable influences into our daily lives that all in all has given us a choice in how we choose to live our lives. Choices that for most people particularly women, did not exist. Unfortunately we are still only limited to one life per body, per spirit or soul. This monotheistic interpretation to our sojourn on this planet has limited the human psyche to remain within the physical boundaries of this planet. That way the power of our (human) intelligence was invested in trying to invent slaves to make our lives easier on this planet. Producing artificial intelligence is the result of such an endeavor. We must recognize that now artificial intelligence has the ability to remember and perform logical manipulations. In his book The Age of Spiritual Machines Kurzweiler said:
Evolution has found a way around the computational limitations of neural circuitry. Cleverly, it has created organisms who in turn invented a computational technology a million times faster than a carbon -based neurons. Ultimately, the computing conducted on extremely slow mammalian neural circuits will be ported to a far more versatile and speedier electronic (and photonic) equivalent. (viii)
We are slowly turning into androids - not a sudden shift in government policy were we all get battery packs in our backs; but slowly, a gradual degradation of our central nervous systems will occur. Correction - is occurring. According to Marshall McLuhan, it's a processed world now. As we enter the electronic age with its instantaneous and global movement of information, we are the first humans to live completely within the mediated environments of the technostructure. The content of the technostructure is largely irrelevant. It was McLuhan's genius that grasped at once that the content of new technologies served as screens or filters obscuring the technological experience in it's purely formal or spatial properties. he wanted to invent a new metaphor by which might restructure our thoughts and feelings about the subliminal, imperceptible environments of media effects.
In this understanding of how technology affects the Homo sapien; technology is an extension of biology: the expansion of the electronic media as the metaphor or environment of the twentieth-century experience implies that, for the first time, the central nervous system itself has been exteriorized. It is our plight to be processed through the technological simulacrum. Mcluhan seeks a way out of our present predicament by recovering a highly ambivalent attitude towards the objects of technostructure. We are to adopt the eye of the artist and stop being helpless illiterates and victims in the new world technology. We ought to accept the new world, learn the new language and view the world with new techno-literate eyes.
The inevitability of the physical evolution the Homo sapien must undergo is quite clear: in order to survive in this new technostructure we must adopt the attributes which will help us survive in it. The movie A. I , although it was Stanley Kubrik's brainchild, Steven Spielberg subsequently directed it. The film was true to Kubrick's obsession with blurring of reality, and mechanical replicas indistinguishable from their originals. Kubrik's specialty was straight faced satire, parts of Artificial Intelligence seemed absurd, but in true Kubrik tradition, they were (hopefully) meant to be. Kubrick comes from a generation of artists and novelists such as Philip K. Dick who took as their task the criticism of American mass society. In Dick's futuristic novels he depicts postmodern worlds, Android and humans as mortal enemies fighting to control the Earth. His recurring themes are of nuclear war, rampant capitalism, mass entertainment media and drug induced hallucinations. The novel Being There by Jerzy Kosinski reiterates as Dick's work does the question of how technology affects us: physically. The protagonist in his book Being There is a man whose only socializing and enculturating agent is the television. Thus he goes through life repeating phrases and motions from soap opera's or any other shows that he deems appropriate at various life circumstances. He is devoid of feeling or emotion, but becomes unexpectedly successful. He fulfills many peoples ideals with his limited knowledge and mechanical responses. The human ideal being a mechanical person, who goes through the motions simulating life. However, he is completely detached from what we call the emotional experience that is inseparable from the human experience.
By pointing to the frigidity of the foundations of many of our basic beliefs these artists manage to expose many of society's shared assumptions for what they often are: assumptions. When posing the question of humanness and artificial intelligence, they depict the android and human in a variety of roles, from a variety of perspectives and they don't hold back. Human beings are rational, but they have other identifying marks as well. Philip K. Dick's novels much like the movie AI ask what we can expect from humans as a mirror to test for androids, and the converse of what we can learn from androids as mirrors to test for humanness. Speilberg debunks the commonly held notion that androids are devoid of autonomy. He makes us attempt to answer the question of what it means to be human, or run human software [in the functionalist interpretation of intelligence].
Another theme which pervades the purpose of this thesis is more personal; dreams and waking confused together, a world of simulacrum indistinguishable from the one in the drug induced hallucination of a world more real than reality. In this world the bare essence of a human reduced to a vial of precious perfume if inhaled would induce what effect ? The quest for the humanness in the Homo sapien is continuous. We can look to our history to gain further insight as to what could separate us from the Android, and why is being an Android the epitome of the human ideal.
Every generation is so radically different from the previous one, it was always like this, of course, to a degree. In the last fifty years it seems that every generation came equipped with their own languages and values. Every generation is gaining technological skill while they seem to be losing some other intellectual, physical or metaphysical ability. When I was in High School, I used to write my homework without a computer. Today I doubt I could do that. Students graduate from elite universities and have yet to read a book in its entirety. . Older physicians posses superior diagnostic skills, as compared to recent graduates whose (manual) diagnostic skills are eroding because they rely heavily on diagnostic imaging. The result is Physicians are touching their patients less. We are literally losing touch, no pun intended.
Touching our pets, children and each other brings about empathy. Empathy is perhaps the only human quality which cannot be emulated: it is derived from touching. Our concepts of space and time are deteriorating. It is so exciting to speak to friends and colleagues across the Atlantic, online, shopping while chopping onions. It is wondrous how everything and everyone is within reach. I question the integrity of a conversation without seeing the countless expressions that come from our eyes, the window to our neurons. Part of our Android conditioning lies in the fact that we do not commonly ascribe everyday technology as miracles. The more knowledge we acquire the less faith we have. In other words faith in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is present in the absence of knowledge. When all else fails we turn to religion, the more knowledge we acquire, the less we will turn to our faith.
As we see each other less, touch each other less we've become experts in camouflaging our odors, flaws and other less desirable elements of our human condition. Unconsciously we move closer to the spiritual ideal that we have been bombarded with for the better part of two thousand years. We become more like Jesus. Spiritual perfection in monotheistic interpretation is to be Android. Perhaps Jesus was an Android, perhaps that is the reason he was able to withstand as much pressure as he did during his last days. Maybe his resurrection was not what Christians had been imagining maybe his system was re-booted. That would explain life in continuum, that is translated to eternal life, in Christian tradition. One cannot reach the Christian ideal: committing oneself to Jesus is tantamount to a life of failure, and guilt. Spiritual perfection is to commit no sins according to the commandments that God passed down to Moses. To live as Jesus or Buddha did, requires a certain numbness, that we can ascribe to a non-human entity. Thus the more fervently we pray, the closer we may get to our spiritual ideal which is Jesus, or Buddha. Whose serenity is so surreal, something is switched off.
We can look to books such as 'The Rule of Saint Benedict', to gain further insight into the ideal spiritual being according to Western Christian theologians. In this text which put roughly , is a set of do's and don't for monks. We see an extraordinary list of prohibitive rules, here are some of those rules :
To chastise the body...
Not to speak much...
Not to love boisterous laughter...
To obey the Abbot's command in all things, even if he strays from his own path...
Not to succumb to desires of the flesh...
To despise one owns will... (53)
Obedience is a great requirement for monks, it ensures the harmony of their lives. . Since the sixth century this text became the basis for most monastic communities in the West, these communities had a great influence over Western civilization.
According to this text and most current Christian communities to be a good Christian one should suppress, deny oneself very basic human emotions and needs in varying degrees. There is a demand for obedience which runs contrary to the nature of the human animal. The Android and the monk [ideal Christian] bear striking similarities as they are both programmed to act in a predictable manner, in all their actions they will answer to a higher authority: the programmer or God. The important distinction between the two beyond the obvious, is that the Android by virtue of its physical exactitudes will be more efficient in fulfilling the Christian way of life.
The most commonly prescribed remedy for spiritual imperfection, is suppressing one's physical presence. Either through silent meditation, a person is forced to endure quite and solitude for long periods at a time. Repeating rituals can be habit forming, and thus essential to persons emotional well being. Silence and mechanical ritual motions are activities that could be better suited to machines.
The increasing influence of organized religion on our society is moving us farther away from discovering our 'chakras' as Bruyere would put it. An inordinate amount of rules are added to our lives not only to gain membership in a religious group, but in order to survive in the frenetic pace of contemporary urban life. We may imagine that we have more freedom, but in fact we are shackled with the burden of knowledge with little wisdom.
To exorcise the unpredictable emotional life from the human experience is the common theme between the effects of media and religion. Monastic communities require obedience primarily so as to ensure harmony and peace. Mass media command our attention because they teach us about the social environment in which we live. If we accept the status quo presented to us by the media, we may have less conflict in the world. What creates disunity are the varying interpretations of social events and conflicts.
Technology may shift us into an old and a more familiar direction in his book Understanding Media McLuhan wrote:
By imposing unvisualizable relationships that are the result of instant Speed, electric technology dethrones the visual sense and restores us to the dominion of synethesia, and the close interinvolvement of the other senses. (111)
In closing we can see that all these elements combined manage to reacquaint us with those forgotten aspects of ourselves that we have forgotten, and in a sense, create a human where a moment before there was only dust. Being is essential to empathy, and both are essential to being human. To stay human requires a sense of paranoia and creativity. Yet all these things temper and are tempered by our logical capabilities. We shift and alter in the continuum of humanness according to our context, yet to be human is a gift we who so have earned.
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