-Wendell Berry, ca. 2000
Marshall McLuhan, 1967
How willingly people have surrendered their humanity to their devices! Watching people’s souls get sucked out of them by their smart phones has not been my idea of fun. But that’s life in the 21st century.
Way back in 1972, Francis Schaeffer anticipated where we were headed:
Consider Marshall McLuhan’s concept that democracy is finished. What will we have in the place of democracy or morals? He says there is coming a time in the global village (not far ahead, in the area of electronics) when we will be able to wire everybody up to a giant computer, and what the computer strikes as the average at a given moment will be what is right and wrong.
You may say that this is far-fetched and there may never be such a worldwide computer system. But the concept of morals only being the average of what people are thinking and doing at a given time is a present reality. You must understand that that is exactly what Kinsey set forth in Sexual Behavior of the Human Male (1948) as statistical sexual ethics.
This is not theoretical. We have come to this place in our Western culture because man sees himself as beginning from the impersonal, the energy particle and nothing else. We are left with only statistical ethics, and in that setting there is simply no such thing as morals. (He Is There and He Is Not Silent, pp. 294-295)
I’m not sure about the precise McLuhan passage that Schaeffer had in mind, but McLuhan said a great deal about the electronic future. In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), McLuhan observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: the acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. He wrote:
The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment….
In a 1959 letter, McLuhan stated:
When the globe becomes a single electronic computer, with all its languages and cultures recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture becomes irrelevant and impossible, no matter how precious.
And there is this:
The ordinary person senses the greatness of the odds against him even without thought or analysis, and he adapts his attitudes unconsciously. A huge passivity has settled on industrial society. For people carried about in mechanical vehicles, earning their living by waiting on machines, listening much of the waking day to canned music, watching packaged movie entertainment and capsulated news, for such people it would require an exceptional degree of awareness and an especial heroism of effort to be anything but supine consumers of processed goods. (The Mechanical Bride, 1951)
Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth's atmosphere to a company as a monopoly. (Understanding Media, 1964)
Now that “singularity” is more than just a hypothesis, I know better than to be surprised at how quickly people will embrace their amoral cyborg replacements. AI? VR? GMO? Bring it on!
It is interesting to see how the same people who, in decades past, might have hit the streets to protest nuclear weapons or nuclear reactors, exhibit so little concern about technologies that will be far more disruptive to humanity and the planet. I guess they are too busy ridding the world of politically incorrect pronouns and Civil War statues.
I've heard it from the Madman, I've heard it from the Sage:
The years in which we're living are the dwindling of an Age.
Machines will liberate us from the limits we have known,
Polymer and alloy will replace our skin and bone.
Our current form of life will gradually dissolve
As the species, Homo sapiens, continues to evolve.
We are entering an Era called "Transhumanist,"
Becoming dots on a screen small and luminous.
Will we recognize it, the day the threshold's crossed?
When what it was we used to be becomes completely lost?
We could test the waters cautiously, as human frailties we expunge.
More likely we won't know our fate 'til the end of a headlong plunge.
The final word (for now) goes to Francis Schaeffer:
Now having travelled from the pride of man in the High Renaissance and the Enlightenment down to the present despair, we can understand where modern people are. They have no place for a personal God. But equally they have no place for man as man, or for love, or for freedom, or for significance.
This brings a crucial problem. Beginning only from man himself, people affirm that man is only a machine. But those who hold this position cannot live like machines! If they could, there would be no tensions in their intellectual position or in their lives. But even people who believe they are machines cannot live like machines, and thus they must “leap upstairs” against their reason and try to find something which gives meaning to life, even though to do so they have to deny their reason.
This was a solution Leonardo da Vinci and the men of the Renaissance never would have accepted, even if, like Leonardo they ended their thinking in despondency. They would not have done so, for they would have considered it intellectual suicide to separate meaning and values from reason this way. And they would have been right. Such a solution is intellectual suicide, and one may question the intellectual integrity of those who accept such a position when their starting point was pride in the sufficiency of human reason.