EREWHON: NOWHERE OR HERE NOW?

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“Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life.” —Samuel Butler

Should we fear the technological singularity as Butler, a Victorian-age man of letters, did more than 150 years ago in “Darwin Among the Machines,” his 1863 letter the editor of the Press, Christchurch, New Zealand? Eventually yes, but a more immediate concern is that we’ll be turned into machines ourselves.

A fear that we—99% of us anyway—will be converted into, for all practical purposes, machines. We will be both consuming and consumable devices. That sound like we are to be mechanical cannibals but it’s not that nice. Let me explain.

Both roles are with us already. Large percentages of humanity have always considered by the ruling classes as consumable, objects used then discarded. But only recently have there been equally disposable machines at their sides. Therefore, from management’s perspective, workers and their machines will be identical. The overseers will feel no more empathy for the still quite human workers than they do for the machines.

Those who would make us consumable tell us we are free to choose our “path in life,” i.e. our family, job, healthcare or government. We are, their marketeers say, the freest people on earth, for all time as well. This doesn’t seem to be the case, if you take time to really think about it.

In a previous century the metaphor for life as it is, would have been that we were each one of many cogs on a gear in a transmission, also one of many in the engine of the economy. And each of us an insignificant cog at that, were one of us to break off, the gear and the economy would continue to turn,

In this century, each of us is more a point on a scatter graph. There are as many points and graphs in the current engine of the economy as there were cogs and gears in the previous and they are as easily replaced.

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The luckiest of us are still consumers. But we don’t live in a story-book free-market utopia where we knowledgeably choose the best products at the best price and producers of those, thrive and those that don’t, don’t. No, we consumers are mere pawns in a marketplace game. The real players are the producers (free-market/antisocial Darwinians) who move us around, to meet their ends. We are raw materials there to be exploited, just like any other natural resource.

The game is thus: Players wind us up with a bit of power by (wages are paid by a single player) then set us in their marketers’ maze where we bounce around, dead end to dead end until our wages are all spent, given back to any of the players. Consumers come and go, but the game goes on. From time to time the players total what they have paid out and what they’ve gotten back, and the winner is…

According to Mr. Butler, it will be the machines. He does go on to say we can’t let that happen. “Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species,” he exhorts. but what if it’s too late, “…that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.”

Butler is talking of being ruled by machines, not becoming them. But isn’t our servitude, in spite of being “commenced in good earnest,” and our media-induced “absolutely acquiescent…bondage” to the inheritor/investor/manager class more of an immediate threat; one that might make being ruled by robots look good?

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Note: “Erewhon” the title of another Butler effort, it’s a novel about an imaginary country of that name where machines are banned because the inhabitants believe that they are too dangerous. The word is said to be “nowhere” backwards, but as it is not exactly that, it could also be “here, now.” I admit that I’ve not read the book; I’ve just looked it up and read about it on a couple of sites. But I did download it for my tablet as it was free and the irony of reading it on a machine is too much to pass on.

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