The Ageless and the Useless

In The Religion of the Future, Roberto Unger, a professor of law at Harvard, identifies humanity’s three “irreparable flaws”: mortality, groundlessness, and insatiability. We are plagued by death. We are fundamentally ignorant about our origins and our place in the grand scheme of things. We are made perpetually restless by desires that cannot finally be satisfied. This is the human condition. In his view, all of the world’s major religions have tried to address these three irreparable flaws, and they have all failed. It is now time, he proposes, to envision a new religion that will be adequate to the challenges of the 21st century. His own proposal is a rather vague program of learning to be at once more god-like while eschewing certain god-like qualities, such as immortality, omniscience, and perfectibility. It strikes me as less than actionable.

There is, however, another religious option taking shape. In a wide-ranging Edge interview with Daniel Kahneman about the unfolding future, historian Yuval Noah Harari concluded with the following observation:

“In terms of history, the events in Middle East, of ISIS and all of that, is just a speed bump on history’s highway. The Middle East is not very important. Silicon Valley is much more important. It’s the world of the 21st century … I’m not speaking only about technology. In terms of ideas, in terms of religions, the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East. This is where people like Ray Kurzweil, are creating new religions. These are the religions that will take over the world, not the ones coming out of Syria and Iraq and Nigeria.”

This is hardly an original claim, although it’s not clear that Harari recognizes this. Indeed, just a few months ago I commented on another Edge conversation in which Jaron Lanier took aim at the “layer of religious thinking” being added “to what otherwise should be a technical field.” Lanier was talking about the field of AI. He went on to complain about a “core of technically proficient, digitally-minded people” who “reject traditional religions and superstitions,” but then “re-create versions of those old religious superstitions!” “In the technical world,” he added, “these superstitions are just as confusing and just as damaging as before, and in similar ways.”

This emerging Silicon Valley religion, which is just the latest iteration of the religion of technology, is devoted to addressing one of the three irreparable flaws identified by Unger: our mortality. From this angle it becomes apparent that there are two schools within this religious tradition. The first of these seeks immortality through the digitization of consciousness so that it may be downloaded and preserved forever. Decoupled from corruptible bodies, our essential self lives on in the cloud–a metaphor that now appears in a new light. We may call this the gnostic strain of the Silicon Valley religion.

The second school grounds its slightly more plausible hopes for immortality in the prospect of making the body imperishable through biogenetic and cyborg enhancements. It is this prospect that Harari takes to be a serious possibility:

“Yes, the attitude now towards disease and old age and death is that they are basically technical problems. It is a huge revolution in human thinking. Throughout history, old age and death were always treated as metaphysical problems, as something that the gods decreed, as something fundamental to what defines humans, what defines the human condition and reality ….

People never die because the Angel of Death comes, they die because their heart stops pumping, or because an artery is clogged, or because cancerous cells are spreading in the liver or somewhere. These are all technical problems, and in essence, they should have some technical solution. And this way of thinking is now becoming very dominant in scientific circles, and also among the ultra-rich who have come to understand that, wait a minute, something is happening here. For the first time in history, if I’m rich enough, maybe I don’t have to die.”

Harari expands on that last line a little further on:

“Death is optional. And if you think about it from the viewpoint of the poor, it looks terrible, because throughout history, death was the great equalizer. The big consolation of the poor throughout history was that okay, these rich people, they have it good, but they’re going to die just like me. But think about the world, say, in 50 years, 100 years, where the poor people continue to die, but the rich people, in addition to all the other things they get, also get an exemption from death. That’s going to bring a lot of anger.”

Kahneman pressed Harari on this point. Won’t the medical technology that yields radical life extension trickle down to the masses? In response, Harari draws on a second prominent theme that runs throughout the conversation: superfluous humans.

“But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over …. And once most people are no longer really necessary, for the military and for the economy, the idea that you will continue to have mass medicine is not so certain.”

There is a lot to consider in these few paragraphs, but here are what I take to be the three salient points: the problem solving approach to death, the coming radical inequality, and the problem of “useless people.”

Harari is admirably frank about his status as a historian and the nature of the predictions he is making. He acknowledges that he is not a technologist nor a physician and that he is merely extrapolating possible futures from observable trends. That said, I think Harari’s discussion is compelling not only because of the elegance of his synthesis, but also because it steers clear of the more improbable possibilities–he does not think that AI will become conscious, for instance. It also helps that he is chastened by a historian’s understanding of the contingency of human affairs.

He is almost certainly right about the transformation of death into a technical problem. Adumbrations of this attitude are present at the very beginnings of modern science. Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan promoter of modern science, wrote in his History of Life and Death, “Whatever can be repaired gradually without destroying the original whole is, like the vestal fire, potentially eternal.” Elsewhere, he gave as the goal of the pursuit of knowledge “a discovery of all operations and possibilities of operations from immortality (if it were possible) to the meanest mechanical practice.”

In the 1950’s, Hannah Arendt anticipated these concerns as well when, in the Prologue to The Human Condition, she wrote about the “hope to extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.” “This future man,” she added,

“whom scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.”

Approaching death as a technical problem will surely yield some tangible benefits even if it fails to deliver immortality or even radical life extension. But what will be the costs? It will be the case that even if it fails to yield a “solution,” turning death into a technical problem will have profound social, psychological, and moral consequences. How will it affect the conduct of my life? How will this approach help us face death when it finally comes? As Harari himself puts it, “My guess, which is only a guess, is that the people who live today, and who count on the ability to live forever, or to overcome death in 50 years, 60 years, are going to be hugely disappointed. It’s one thing to accept that I’m going to die. It’s another thing to think that you can cheat death and then die eventually. It’s much harder.”

Strikingly, Arendt also commented on “the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity.” If this appears to us as an unmitigated blessing, Arendt would have us think otherwise:

“The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfillment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfillment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won . . . What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.”

So we are back to useless people. Interestingly, Harari locates this possibility in a long trend toward specialization that has been unfolding for some time:

“And when you look at it more and more, for most of the tasks that humans are needed for, what is required is just intelligence, and a very particular type of intelligence, because we are undergoing, for thousands of years, a process of specialization, which makes it easier to replace us.”

Intelligence as a opposed to consciousness. Harari makes the point that the two have been paired throughout human history. Increasingly, we are able to create intelligence apart from consciousness. The intelligence is very limited, it may be able to do one thing extremely well but utterly fail at other, seemingly simple tasks. But specialization, or the division of labor, has opened the door for the replacement of human or consciousness-based intelligence with machine intelligence. In other words, the mechanization of human action prepares the way for the replacement of human actors.

Some may object by noting that similar predictions have been made before and have not materialized. I think Harari’s rejoinder is spot on:

“And again, I don’t want to give a prediction, 20 years, 50 years, 100 years, but what you do see is it’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf, that, yes, you cry wolf once, twice, three times, and maybe people say yes, 50 years ago, they already predicted that computers will replace humans, and it didn’t happen. But the thing is that with every generation, it is becoming closer, and predictions such as these fuel the process.”

I’ve noted before that utopians often take the moral of Chicken Little for their interpretive paradigm: the sky never falls. Better I think, as Harari also suggests, to consider the wisdom of the story of the boy who cried wolf.

I would add here that the plausibility of these predictions is only part of what makes them interesting or disconcerting, depending on your perspective. Even if these predictions turn out to be far off the mark, they are instructive as symptoms. As Dale Carrico has put it, the best response to futurist rhetoric may be “to consider what these nonsense predictions symptomize in the way of present fears and desires and to consider what present constituencies stand to benefit from the threats and promises these predictions imply.”

Moreover, to the degree that these predictions are extrapolations from present trends, they may reveal something to us about these existing tendencies. Along these lines, I think the very idea of “useless people” tells us something of interest about the existing trend to outsource a wide range of human actions to machines and apps. This outsourcing presents itself as a great boon, of course, but it finally it raises a question: What exactly are we be liberated for?

It’s a point I’ve raised before in connection to the so-called programmable world of the Internet of Things:

For some people at least, the idea seems to be that when we are freed from these mundane and tedious activities, we will be free to finally tap the real potential of our humanity. It’s as if there were some abstract plane of human existence that no one had yet achieved because we were fettered by our need to be directly engaged with the material world. I suppose that makes this a kind of gnostic fantasy. When we no longer have to tend to the world, we can focus on … what exactly?

Put the possibility of even marginally extended life-spans together with the reductio ad absurdum of digital outsourcing, and we can render an even more pointed version of Arendt’s warning about a society of laborers without labor. We are being promised the extension of human life precisely when we have lost any compelling account of what exactly we should do with our lives.

As for what to do about the problem of useless people, or the permanently unemployed, Harari is less than sanguine:

“I don’t have a solution, and the biggest question maybe in economics and politics of the coming decades will be what to do with all these useless people. I don’t think we have an economic model for that. My best guess, which is just a guess, is that food will not be a problem. With that kind of technology, you will be able to produce food to feed everybody. The problem is more boredom, and what to do with people, and how will they find some sense of meaning in life when they are basically meaningless, worthless.

My best guess at present is a combination of drugs and computer games as a solution for most … it’s already happening. Under different titles, different headings, you see more and more people spending more and more time, or solving their inner problems with drugs and computer games, both legal drugs and illegal drugs. But this is just a wild guess.”

Of course, as Harari states repeatedly, all of this is conjecture. Certainly, the future need not unfold this way. Arendt, after commenting on the desire to break free of the human condition by the deployment of our technical know-how, added,

“The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.”

Or, as Marshall McLuhan put it, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”

10 thoughts on “The Ageless and the Useless

  1. Another superb essay, Michael. Thank you. That we may be heading toward a society of laborers with no labor to do is the prospect on which Kurt Vonnegut based his first novel, Player Piano. As for McLuhan’s comment that absolutely nothing is inevitable as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening, the problem is that so much of our technology is directed precisely toward distracting us from contemplating what is happening.

  2. “The problem is more boredom, and what to do with people, and how will they find some sense of meaning in life when they are basically meaningless, worthless.”

    Harari assumes that human worth is tied to employment. While his is true in a limited sense, since many people derive a large part of their identity from their job, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that unemployed people are completely worthless. Worthless for what, exactly? Obviously he means the economy; but what’s the economy good for? I don’t know – but I don’t think anyone else does, either.

    Maybe the idea isn’t to find jobs for these people but to redefine what ‘meaningful’ means; and in a way that doesn’t directly associate human “worthiness” with the amount of money they generate for the economy.

    For instance, I think that if people cultivated a taste for both creating and consuming art, they could handle unemployment better; idleness can be a wonderful thing – so long as you know how to use it. I’ll sheepishly admit to having been unemployed more than a couple times; but, because I’m teaching myself to write a screenplay by writing a screenplay, I’ve never felt that my time was being wasted: in fact, I’ve often resented having to return to work because it meant I couldn’t put all my energy to life’s real work (writing the screenplay).

    I don’t know. I can only offer platitudes like ‘we need to teach people to get in touch with their inner lives’ etc., etc. There’s a good chance that Harari is right, and that we are looking forward to a future where most people spend most of their time engaged with simulated realities, numbing the pain of life with drugs. But then again, is this really an original thought? I didn’t need Harari to tell me that this is a possibility; Huxley did that years ago.

  3. This post and the previous comment reminded me of Ivan Illich’s “The Right to Useful Unemployment and It’s Professional Enemies”. He makes similar arguments to those in the comment above, essentially to the point that meaningful work/involvement need not take place within the context of waged jobs, many of which leave workers feeling even more useless and unfulfilled.

    Still, aren’t today’s computers colonizing creative and leisure activities as consistently as less rewarding forms of labor? As far as I can tell, the trajectory in pretty much every sphere appears to be toward either passive reception, or as Harari points out, addict-like escapism within a walled garden of simulations. The corners keep getting wider and easier to cut.

    The decoupling of consciousness and intelligence was interesting way of framing the hazards of AI, which seemed to me to preempt Steven Pinker’s usual straw man take down of the most extreme scenarios. Obviously, we can’t dismiss the dangers there just because conscious computers aren’t right around the corner. I am curious why Harari thinks that basic necessities will be a non-issue, but it’s just a guess anyway.

    I think you have your finger on what is truly frightening about it all: how enamored with the means we’ve become, and how they’ve obsolesced the ends. What is the good life for us? The question appears to be on hold until all of our technical problems can be solved, and the more they are, the more it too begins to seem like a technical question.

  4. There are many more ways to spend your time than taking drugs and playing computer games. I do not have to work because I would be bored otherwise. I work to feed and house myself and make a little extra so that I can pursue activities that I find enriching: writing, reading, art, physical and mental exercise and yes some games, a few of them electronic, but mostly mental and physical games. There are also relationships with other useless human beings. I want other people around so that I can play with them too. I think we might be able to figure out how to make more time work well for us. Mental health will always be a challenge as it is now, but living longer won’t make us more bored.

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