The myth of human centrality

First published in The Guardian, August 2016

One of my favorite technological myths is, like all the best stories, both ancient and urgent. It’s about usurpation and seduction. In Greek mythology, the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with his own supremely beautiful creation, Galatea. In Ovid’s telling, there’s a happy ending. The goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, takes pity on him and breathes life into the marble. The statue’s lips grow warm under his kiss; they fall in love, marry.

The tale has an unhappier classical cousin: that of Talos, the artificial man. Created by the divine smith, Hephaestus, Talos is often depicted as a bronze giant striding through the seas around Crete. Immensely strong, almost invulnerable, Talos renders all human might redundant.

Skip forward two thousand years and we find Galatea and Talos dovetailing into one of the 1990s’ most iconic science fiction films: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron’s masterpiece of action and exquisitely honed musculature. In the second half of the film, there’s a quiet moment where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s titular Terminator – an artificial killer reprogrammed to act as the perfect protector – is hanging out with his young protectee, John Connor.

John’s mother, Sarah, watches from a distance as the cyborg plays with the 10-year-old. Arnie has flipped from one polarity to the other: from perfect assassin to perfect playmate.

“It was suddenly so clear,” she says in voiceover. “The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine was the only one that measured up.”

Tireless, infinitely patient, endlessly consistent – our creations measure up in ways we can only dream of. Who wouldn’t want an immaculate machine companion, employee, parent, lover?

Quite a few people, as it turns out. Or at least, we don’t want to want these things. Our myths warn us about the weakness of human desire and judgment. To become entirely human, as in Pygmalion’s tale, is one thing. But to supplant the human is quite another. Arnie is there to help humans do human things: save the world, blow stuff up, chase around in trucks and on motorbikes. Then, conveniently enough, he terminates himself.

Myths themselves are seductive. They structure time and the world in ways we understand. They resonate. They are about human vulnerability and greatness; our fragility and hope. They are all about us – and, unfortunately, they have little to say about our current crop of technologies that isn’t misleading in one way or another.

For a start, the most tantalizing thing out there isn’t technology at all. It’s other people, served up ceaselessly for our delectation in the form of status updates, images, likes, tweets, blogs, news and numberless other fragments. We aren’t so much being sucked in by screens as reaching through them to grasp algorithmic accounts of each other: miniature performances and unending encores.

Then there’s the question of usurpation. Aren’t people being made redundant by technology even as you read these words – neural networks learning to read legal case histories; cars and trucks learning to drive themselves; factories and farms automated to an unpeopled efficiency? Yes, and no. As the original Luddites knew in the 19th century, machinery doesn’t wake up one morning and decide to destroy jobs. People and corporations do – and precisely how far the pursuit of productivity and profit is or isn’t restrained is at root a political and ethical question.

Above all, however, most technological myths mislead us via something so obvious as to be almost unexamined: the presence of human forms at their heart, locked in combat or embrace. The exquisite statue, the bronze warrior, the indestructible cyborg – the drama and pathos of each plays out on a resolutely individual scale. This is how myths work. They make us care by telling us a story about exemplary particularities.

It’s a framing epitomized not only by poems and movies, but also by the narratives of perkily soundtracked adverts. You sit down and switch your laptop on; you slip into your oh-so-smart car; you reach for your phone. “What do you want to do today?” asks the waiting software. “What do you want to know, or buy, or consume?” The second person singular is everywhere. You are empowered, you are enhanced, your mind and body extended in scope and power. Technology is judged by how fast it allows you to dash in pursuit of desire.

This is the digital dream, for those who can afford it. Yet it barely begins to describe how the information revolution is transforming our world. The internet, the world wide web; search engines, social media; global telecommunications networks, mass manufacture, identical transistors stamped on silicon in their billions and trillions. The machine world is a network of networks. It girdles the human, beneath and beyond our attention, connecting not only person to person but also object to object through petabytes of shifting data. There is no interloping body or mind to square up against. The solicitous individualism depicted time and time again in myth and media is a consumerist category error. The “you” that matters most, like its machine extensions, is strictly plural.

The author Thomas Rid puts it neatly in his recent book Rise of the Machines (2016). “The connective tissue of entire communities has become mechanized. Apparatuses aren’t simply extensions of our muscles and brains; they are extensions of our relationships to others – family, friends, colleagues, and compatriots.” As Rid makes clear, we ought to talk not so much about the extended mind as about extended minds – selves interconnected to an unprecedented degree, both through and with machines.

We are not in competition with our creations. They are the stuff we are made of. They are stuff we use to construct ourselves, together – a language, a culture, a looping feedback between things we have made but did not choose. If this is a crisis, it is one characterized not by winners and losers, but by shifts in what we believe ourselves to be. It’s a crisis of autonomy and originality. And in this, it closely resembles crises of consciousness that have come before.

For the philosopher of technology Luciano Floridi, there have been four recent revolutions in human consciousness. First, Copernicus and Galileo demonstrated that the Earth was not the unique, unmoving center of our universe. Like the other planets, it orbited the sun; and these planets in turn were orbited by their satellites, indifferent to human claims of exceptionalism. Second, Darwin showed us humanity not as the fixed pinnacle of a hierarchical creation, but as one among countless lifeforms produced by blind selection. Third, Freud suggested that we are far from transparent even to ourselves – that our self-knowledge is at best tenuous and provisional.

Each of these revolutions is in a sense a demotion: a revision downwards of our place in the order of things. We are neither the lords of creation nor even masters of our own minds. What’s next to lose? The fourth revolution, Floridi suggests, is one in which we must surrender our claim to be the universe’s sole site of analysis and insight. Our creations approach or exceed our capabilities in areas long believed to be uniquely human: deduction, recall, reasoning, pattern recognition, the processing of language, the modelling and prediction of the world.

If you are still feeling mythologically inclined, this sequence of shocks looks somewhat like a bildungsroman – a novel of painfully won maturation. We are growing up as a species, and this means putting away childish things. Neither nature nor existence has a particular plan for people.

Our creations grow faster than we do, and may reach further. Yet we are all the more remarkable for this – if we can learn to let go of the insistence that it all still comes down to either a battle or a love affair.

We are tool-making, technological creatures; hypersocial entities; storytellers by nature, protean, grappling with a dream of what we believe ourselves to be. Reduced to the level of individual users tapping and clicking at screens, we seem all too fragile: antiquated devices ripe for displacement. But together, weaving a semi-autonomous web of information across our world, we are almost obscenely consequential.

We have the power to ruin this planet and everything that lives on it. And so we must try to grow up fast, speak a little more faithfully about the way things are – and embrace our demotion from the center of things.