A little over sixty years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien defined what he meant by machines:
By the [word “machine”] I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents—or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised…. The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines.
E.F. Schumacher similarly commented upon technology in the modern world. He cited briefly the “crude” philosophical materialism that dominates the West in its efforts for technological prowess, and he succinctly states the issue: “We have developed a technology as if it was a thing by itself. Not from the point of view of ‘what do people really require?’ but from the point of view ‘what can we actually do.’”
The thought of these men is all the more relevant as today’s headlines carry the latest efforts of Google to develop robot technology, Amazon delivering goods by drones, and various techie-whizz-kid hackers who seek power for pure sport. Couple this with the US government’s recent penchant for killing the nation’s enemies by drones and spying on anything that has a pulse, and we have the rising of a terrifying spectre of a world dominated by rich and powerful masters who will dispose of human interests, human flourishing, and yes, human life, by a standard of none but themselves.
Am I being apocalyptic? Perhaps. But Tolkien and Schumacher are right: the powerful in these areas wish to “dominate,” “bulldoze the real world,” and “coerce other wills” just because they “can actually do it.” Just because one can, doesn’t mean one ought.
Consider tech giant Google. Its robotics efforts are aimed at “manufacturing–like electronics assembly, which is now largely manual–and competing with companies like Amazon in retailing.”1 As New York Times reporter John Markoff reports, “A realistic case…would be automating portions of an existing supply chain that stretches from a factory floor to the companies that ship and deliver goods to a consumer’s doorstep.” The same article quotes Andrew McAfee, an M.I.T. research scientist, “The opportunity is massive. There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.”
Is this a bad thing? Apparently to the machine makers. According to the Times, Google co-founder Larry Page has argued that “technology should be deployed wherever possible to free humans from drudgery and repetitive tasks.
This is truly terrifying. This technology, these machines, and the minds behind them are not benign. They are the result of–at best–a misguided will. Far from encouraging human flourishing, they will destroy it. We are seeing the re-emergence of human sacrifice–this time upon the altar of technological and economic power. We have already seen the beginnings of the disastrous results:
1. Schoolchildren fed a steady diet of technology from iPads to new computers, yet cannot memorize the St. Crispin’s Day speech (or the Gettysburg Address) and comprehend the virtues contained therein.
2. Universities which were once the bastions of the liberal arts and the guardians of the Western intellectual tradition selling their inheritance for technological and utilitarian–and therefore ephemeral–training.
3. Young tech nerds seeking to “dominate others” for sport. We can even see the beginnings of a “war of the machines.” Hacker Samy Kamkar mentioned, “How fun would it be to take over drones, carrying Amazon packages … or take over any other drones, and make them my little zombie drones.”2
It is rare that I agree with Maureen Dowd,3 but this indeed is like an episode of the Twilight Zone. Perhaps more than ever we need to fight for the little guy–the mother at home in the drudgery of her repetitive task of changing diapers, the factory worker making a living for his family in the drudgery of his repetitive task of providing goods or services, and the grocer who performs the drudgery of the repetitive task of stocking shelves. The smart machine guys aren’t all that smart. Theirs is a world that will not make people happy–developing “their inherent inner powers and talents” for the end in which they were created–but rather a world of domination of the weak by the powerful.
For my part, I’ll stick with Tolkien, Schumacher, and the drudgery of repetitive tasks–like reading my own books, washing my own dishes, thinking my own thoughts, and blowing my own nose. I refuse to sacrifice human persons to machines; more so, I refuse to be made into one.
Originally published in The Bellarmine Forum.