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Author: Richard Barbrook

THE SACRED CYBORG by Richard Barbrook

The Search for Meaning

‘Religion is a dream, in which our own conceptions and emotions appear to us as separate existences, beings out of ourselves.’ – Ludwig Feurbach, The Essence of Christianity.

During the Cold War, we were told that we had a stark choice between two incompatible ideologies: liberal democracy or totalitarian socialism. However, as the decades of struggle for world domination continued, people became increasingly reluctant to sacrifice themselves for the utopias championed by the competing superpowers. By time the Cold War ended, it was very difficult to believe that either the American or Soviet empires provided a universal model for human development. The ‘grand narratives’ of both liberal democracy and totalitarian socialism had been discredited by the actions of their superpower patrons. As the post-modernists eagerly pointed out, philosophies of liberation had turned into ideologies of domination.

Yet the end of the Cold War has not led to the demise of ideology. On the contrary, other ‘grand narratives’ have rapidly filled the gap left by the implosion of liberal democracy and totalitarian socialism. Because the secular utopias of the Cold War are no longer credible, many of the contemporary ideologies have a strong spiritual component. From the USA to Iran, religious fundamentalists dream of returning to an imaginary past. However, the acolytes of these reactionary movements have great difficulty in reconciling the pre-modern tenets of their spiritual beliefs with the modern reality of their everyday lives. This has opened a space for more syncretic belief systems. Ever since the advent of modernity, there have been a succession of new faiths which tried to combine religion with science. Freemasonry, Saint-Simonism, Christian Science, Freudianism and Scientology are only the most well known attempts to reconcile these two opposites. But, despite their ingenuity, all these cults have been surpassed by the relentless process of modernisation. What many people now want is a more up-to-date, hi-tech way of combining religion and science.

Responding to this spiritual hunger, many different varieties of mystical positivism are now flourishing. From the mathematics of chaos to the development of hypermedia, the latest advances in science and technology are raided for their magical significance. For instance, some gurus are championing the concept of memes: the self-replicating cultural entities which supposedly control our destiny. This new faith claims inspiration from the latest researches in evolutionary theory, which used to be the fiercest opponent of religion. Yet, at the same time, the memes cult also believes that matter is controlled by spirit, which has been the basis of religion for thousands of years. While many people find it impossible to accept that gods and angels could control their lives, they are happily able to believe in exactly the same concept as long as these spirits are renamed memes.

According to some acolytes of this new faith, the ghostly memes are even about to take physical form. As in the New Testament, the spirit will actually become matter. However, the new saviour will not be in human form. Instead, in the age of the Net and the PC, the God-Man must emerge from silicon, plastic and metal. Far from being an isolated fantasy, this is now one of the most popular manifestations of contemporary mysticism. For decades, governments and corporations have been funding lots of expensive research into Artificial Intelligence and sentient robots. As Shoshana Zuboff points out in The Age of the Smart Machine, the simulation of human reasoning by machines underpins much of the rapid increase in economic productivity now occurring within certain industries. However, the disciples of Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky or other proponents of artificial life aren’t really interested in how smart machines can make cheaper commodities or provide better services. Instead they are searching for spiritual salvation in machine form. Above all, they dream of witnessing the birth of the silicon God-Man.

Like the Christian Apocalypse, the arrival of this Artificial Intelligence is perpetually postponed. Yet, it remains a powerful contemporary myth. In science fiction, conscious computers and sassy robots are essential elements of the genre. From Rachel in Bladerunner to Data in Star Trek TNG, sci-fi stories use the fantasy of artificial life to express the modernist dilemma: what makes us truly human? Yet, when embraced by mystical positivism, this sci-fi anthropomorphism ironically becomes the repository of some very pre-modern desires. As in traditional religion, the cult of Artificial Intelligence feeds off atavistic fantasies: making babies without sex; being the master of slaves; achieving immortality; and even turning into pure Spirit. With secular utopias discredited, old myths are reborn as sci-fi monsters.

Fantasy 1: Men Having Babies

‘A new species would bless me as their creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.’  Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.

The creation of life without sex is an ancient patriarchal myth. In Christianity and other pre-modern religions, the God-Man was conceived without the need for the messy emotions aroused by sexual desire. Because pregnancy by divine intervention is no longer credible, we now have virgin births produced through science. By pretending human consciousness is like a computer program, some scientists claim that they can build machines which will think for themselves. This wild assertion seems like a radical feminist parody of the masculine bias of science. Gripped by womb envy, male scientists try to make a form of life without emotion, empathy and sociability.

In contrast, in her pioneering story of artificial life, Mary Shelley portrays the monster as a tragic figure precisely because his crimes are a reaction against his exclusion from the emotional warmth of human society. Lacking Mary Shelley’s political convictions, the boosters for Artificial Intelligence miss this fundamental point. Human consciousness isn’t simply the product of electrical pulses within the brain. It is also the culmination of a long process of social development. Our intelligence is not only individual, but also collective. At the moment, we form a species of around 5 billion conscious beings on this planet. But many of these autonomous intelligences are having a bad time. About half the world’s population live in poverty and almost a quarter are destitute. Rather than dream of building God-Men, we should instead be working out how smart machines can help us to look after one another and to care for our planet. The heirs of the ‘modern Prometheus’ haven’t yet implemented the republican ideals championed by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein.

Fantasy 2: Loyal Slaves

‘”The tv set shouted, ‘- duplicates the halcyon days of the pre-Civil War Southern states! Either as body servants or tireless field hands, the custom-tailored humanoid robot – designed specifically for YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS, FOR YOU AND YOU ALONE – given to you on your arrival absolutely free, equipped fully, as specified by you before your departure from Earth…”‘ Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?.

The search for artificial life involves another retrogressive fantasy: the desire for slavery without guilt. Many white Americans are still nostalgic for the Old South. Some Europeans and Asians dream of returning to the feudal past. The advocates of Artificial Intelligence promise to realise these reactionary fantasies in a hi-tech form. In their sci-fi future, the privileged will enjoy unquestioning service from robot slaves. Programmed to obey without question, artificial life will always be content with its menial status. No Spartacus or Toussaint L’Ouverture will ever threaten the pleasures of these masters of robot slaves.

However, in reality, it is impossible to enjoy the benefits of slave labour without the reality of human bondage. Even if work is carried out by robots, humans are needed to invent, build and maintain machines. Technology is never simply a thing. It is also the crystallisation of social relationships between people. For instance, in the early-twentieth century, the technologies associated with manufacture on assembly-lines paralleled the imposition of Taylorist labour discipline within factories. Over the past few decades, the spread of the PC and the Net within the workplace has reflected the emergence of post-Fordist methods of organising work. As Douglas Landauer points out in The Trouble With Computers, the technical potential of information technologies can only be fully realised through maximising the creative imagination of humans. Rather than dream about robot slaves, we instead need to celebrate the inventive powers of the digital artisans. By acquiring new craft skills, they use hardware and software to create useful and beautiful hypermedia. For them, technology is a tool rather than a servant. The emergence of digital artisans is the latest manifestation of the Hegelian project of modernity. In this vision of the future, the rule of the masters is inevitably doomed because only slaves understand how to transform the world through hard work.

Fantasy 3: Cyborg Immortality

“You wanted to know who I am. I gave you one answer. A robot-remote. A servo-unit operated by a program stored in a bopper spaceship. But…I’m still Misty-girl too. The soul IS the software, you know. The software is what counts, the habits and the memories. The brain and the body are just meat, seeds for the organ-tanks.” – Rudy Rucker, Software.

The most potent fantasy of traditional religion was its promise of eternal life. By claiming to possess the magic needed to overcome death, priests soothed our fear of inevitable physical annihilation and made bearable the loss of our loved ones. However, this false promise has long been discredited by the advance of science. This makes people yearn for a hi-tech way to avoid bodily disintegration. Like the Ancient Egyptians mummifying their dead, Marvin Minsky and others now advocate making digital simulacra of the deceased. They even believe that they will live on after death through computer or robot models of themselves. Instead of waiting for divine resurrection, their souls will be instantly reincarnated within new silicon bodies.

Ironically, this new spiritualism is inspired by the profound transformation of our everyday lives by technology. We take it for granted that we can have light at night, fly across oceans and communicate with people on the other side of the world. Above all, we expect medical science to postpone our mortality. Unlike our ancestors, we’re unlikely to die in early childhood, almost certainly survive giving birth and will probably live for many decades. From glasses to pace-makers, we’ve invented an array of technologies to compensate for our bodily weaknesses and to prolong our physical existence. In the modern world, we’re all cyborgs now. Yet, despite these technical advances, we still remain flesh ‘n’ blood humans. We’re profane rather than sacred cyborgs. We have to accept our own mortality. As in the past, the search for the chimera of immortality distracts us from the practical problems of improving the years of life which we do have. There are no mystical solutions to the existential dilemmas of the human condition.

Fantasy 4: Becoming Pure Spirit

‘”There’s a great burning column, like a tree of fire, reaching above the western horizon. It’s a long way off, right round the world. I know where it springs from: THEY’RE on their way at last, to become part of the Overmind. Their probation has ended: they’re leaving the last remnants of matter behind.”‘ Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End.

The desire for a silicon body usually leads to an even more primitive form of mysticism: the fantasy of the separation of mind from matter. According to the Gnostics, religious fervour would allow the pure soul to leave the corrupt flesh and to merge with the God-head. In the modern world, we can’t believe that our spirits can ascend to heaven by magical means. Instead, we’re urged to fantasise about abandoning our bodies to live in cyberspace. Already, if we use Minitel messageries, IRCs or MUDs, we can adopt virtual identities distinct from our everyday selves. The adepts of mystical positivism wish to take this process to its illogical conclusion. Our avatars will no longer be simply means of role-playing. They will become our sole form of existence. They will even allow us to fuse together into a cyber-version of the Overmind.

As with its other fantasies, this manifestation of the artificial life cult partially draws on our experiences of modern life. People living in modern societies are dependent on information technologies to overcome the limitations of time and space. Both in work and at play, we spend increasing amounts of time in cyberspace. But digital technologies cannot eliminate the interdependence of our minds and bodies. Even when we’re being avatars in cyberspace, our physical beings remain sitting in front of the screen. The PC, the Net, the telephone and the media are tools which enhance our ability to work and play together. Believing that these technologies can lead to a digital nirvana simply obscures the crucial question: how can hypermedia be used to improve the lives of the majority of people on the planet. Half the world’s population hasn’t yet got access to a telephone let alone the Net. Mystical answers do not provide practical solutions to our problems.

The Modern Condition

‘Modernity caricatures and cashes in on the total revolution which never happened.’  Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity.

Although post-modernists denounce ‘grand narratives’, the popularity of the Artificial Intelligence myth demonstrates our deep desire to understand our historical past and our likely future. Far from slowing down, the recent rapid spread of PC ownership and Net usage shows that the pace of change is speeding up again. Old industries have gone into decline and new ways of working are emerging. But neither liberal democracy nor totalitarian socialism are able to explain what is going on. Because these tired political ideologies are no longer credible, an opening has been created for new explanations by non-politicians. Freed from the necessity of studying past and present human societies, priests and scientists are able to advocate fantastic explanations of human destiny. In mystical positivism, the errors of both are combined together to form a potent ‘grand narrative’ for our age. With the aid of rational science, we will fulfill our irrational fantasy of becoming Gods.

For, despite its futurist rhetoric, mystical positivism is really a restatement of very traditional ideas: virgin birth; slave-ownership; life after death; and the existence of spirits. In the writings of Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky and others, the robot is the fetishised expression of pre-modern desires. Old religious myths materialised in silicon, plastic and metal. New Age illusions expressed in the language of hard science. But, even if they are fundamentally crazy, the dreams of mystical positivism do answer the human need for some kind of ‘grand narrative’. Because the ideologies of liberal democracy and totalitarian socialism are defunct, biological reductionism and cyber-utopianism can create a new vision of our future.

However, the main effect of this mystical positivism is to hinder clear thinking about how to build a better future. As in the past, a fervent belief in supernatural nirvana is a good excuse to avoid doing anything practical about mundane earthly problems. In the USA, the ‘virtual class’ of hi-tech entrepreneurs and skilled workers is already withdrawing into its gated suburbs and encrypted cyberspace. The myth of artificial life reflects this social autism. Obsessed with creating the God-Man, the privileged can ignore the continued existence of arbitrary power and economic injustice. Believing that they’re about to become post-human, members of the ‘virtual class’ are able to suppress their troublesome feelings of solidarity with humanity as a whole.

Yet, in reality, we cannot create the good society and maintain environmental stability without a more equitable distribution of wealth and power. We therefore need a SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC ‘grand narrative’ which can inspire people to overcome the many obstacles to human happiness. The failure of the secular ideologies of the Cold War is not an excuse to abandon all rationality. On the contrary, the demise of liberal democracy and totalitarian socialism is an opportunity to revitalise the project of modernity. The principles of the French revolution – freedom, equality and solidarity – are still relevant. What we need now is some hard thinking and practical work on how these ideals can be realised within a contemporary context. Rather than using information technologies to form a new religion, we should be exploring how they can be used as tools for completing the modernist project. The introduction of smart machines will liberate us from much of the mundane work which we still have to do. The deepening of our skills in using digital technologies will allow us to invent new goods and services for ourselves. However, women will give birth to babies, slaves won’t do all the work, we can’t live forever and we will remain flesh. The rejection of the myth of artificial life is a necessary step towards the improvement of the reality of human lives. We will not be freed by any sacred cyborg. We can only liberate ourselves through intelligent thinking and hard work. We still have a really existing world to win…

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.