Humans, machines, and the cocktail parties in my head

Here is a loose reflection, set rolling by Mark O’Connell’s “To Be a Machine“. 

Thoughts mingling in my mind: imagine a cocktail party with crowds of unexpected guests sipping margherita and snacking on grapes. In my head’s cocktail party, you can hear lots of voices, buzzing, sloshing around, bumbling from ear to ear and making new and unexpected sense, or perhaps no sense at all. You can hear delighted laughter – “Oh, what a curious thought!” – but also sighs and frowns, and grumbles, and even a few sotto voce, barely suppressed, arguments.

As I try to make my way through the hubbub, unsure whether I am looking for the buffet or trying to locate anyone in particular (maybe a reassuring friend?), I catch wafts of phrases from left and right. “Are you sure this will be the liberation from your flesh and not the tyranny of technology?” – “But isn’t there more to humans than mechanistic improvement?” – “Oh, no, no, no, you’re getting me wrong. I just want there to be more happiness in the world – don’t you?”.

Wary from all these opinions – all this emotion – I find myself a quiet corner on the margins of the party, a small canopy of leaves that opens to the night sky. I try not to think about whether I want space to be colonized or not. I try not to think about the many times someone said “man” or “mankind” in the film I watched yesterday, Apollo 11. Can I please sort my own little life out before figuring out what I think about these matters of cosmic importance? There is a nagging thought that appears as O’Connell’s smirking face, and just his face, settling down on the bench beside me; or rather, hovering somewhere in mid-air where I can’t ignore it. Nonchalantly, he mentions how in his transhumanist explorations, he almost always came across white men talking about the fate of humanity. He lingers a little longer, then vanishes before I can ask what I should make of that. Does it mean that they are just a club of nerds with their own very specific perspective shaped irredeemably by their own culture, and therefore I should not take them seriously, or should I boldly push my way into their ranks, and exclaim: “Jolly ho – time you thought about how to include other folks in this future of yours!”. Or maybe both. I feel the need to tell him, this ghostly Mark (now that I’ve talked to him, or rather, he to me, it seems more appropriate to use his first name) that I have no intention to join the ranks of those he calls futurists – but then, maybe I already have. I feel the need to apologise to this Mark I have never met, for I am very sympathetic to what he’s gesturing at. “Well, I promise I’ll finish reading your book!” I shyly mouth to the leaves that still surround me, unmoved by my internal turmoils.

I shudder, and get up and, after I have furnished myself with a cool and bubbling drink, I go for a walk. I am resolute, now, to figure it out, or at least figure something out. Out there are the stars, again, and I now feel consoled by being so small: it means that what I do probably won’t matter quite as much. And even though I haven’t read quite as much of the book as I’d need to get at its argument (unless there is no argument), I feel this sense of, for want of a better word, humanity, stirring up in my limbs. It feels like that is what is feeling threatened by a world that is just machine, or perhaps by what it looks like people want who like to think of the world in mechanistic terms. And the confusion becomes more palpable and condenses into a question in the clear nighttime air: Can I care about the future, care very deeply and make it my life’s work, if I don’t subscribe to a stripped-down version of the world – because I want to conserve the wonder and amazement that feels so dear to who I am? But also: would I? And, more elusively: should I?

I prefer, for now, to treat this question just within myself, instead of daring to make a statement of what someone else, or some community or other, is like and thinks like. It is easier to access what I feel, and to distinguish the modes of thinking that I slip into, and then what they do to me.

And here it is, what feels like a great and daring truth to me: when I think about the world in terms of utility to be maximized, the joy within a lot of my personal world vanishes. One interpretation of this is that I am simply doing it wrong, that I should throw some more CBT at my ill-adapted brain and get out of thought patterns that cause me to be unhappy when I adopt this worldview. Or that I am adopting an incomplete or distorted version of it. For how could it make you unhappy to want the most happiness for all? Another interpretation is that perhaps it is for the good, after all, that maybe I should be willing to incur some expense on my own happiness, if only it causes more happiness. At that point, a red-crested bird grazes my shoulder and stays on my chest (I am too baffled to see how it does that, but I can feel its claws sting through my clothes). It gawks and flutters and, unsurprisingly for such a dream-like night, I can hear clearly what it is telling me. It basically cackles into my face, reminding me of the last time I thought it was fine to sacrifice some of my happiness for what seemed like the good thing to do. I don’t want to replicate its uncivil words, but it is clear that back then, the events turned out to the benefit of none at all, and definitely not to mine. And so I draw a deep breath and turn to the question from a positive side, and the bird takes off, satisfied.

By now I know, by virtue of who I am (knowing that others operate differently), that if I am to do my life’s work for anyone’s benefit at all, I must do so joyfully. And I am acutely aware that if I follow this joy, this love and curiosity, this taste for silly adventures and crazy “what ifs”, I might end up doing random things that don’t fit into a grand scheme and have no coordinated use. Well, they will have the use of one human being that truly shines (and sometimes rages, and cries, but very definitely lives), and might shine some of that joy on to at least some others.

I notice that the red-crested bird was not the only animal with me tonight: very quiet, very still, a small owl-like creature has been perching on my right shoulder all along. Now, it slightly, very subtly, tenses it claws and reminds me that I want to be sensible, too. Where that means something like being able to sustain myself and perhaps avoid some of the worst dead-ends that life might have in store. The little owl, for I have no better word for describing what it is, takes consolation in how mouldable my curiosity is. It feels lucky to have discovered that I am not only amazed by the historical changes in language, or idle speculations about the meaning of knowledge, but also by questions that seem more directly useful to the world. The little owl wants at least some indication of my direction being a broadly good one, and I am happy to concede to that. The owl quietly hoots in assent.

I halt on the gravelly path, still hearing the chatter of the cocktail party at a distance. What has made me stop is the sudden and rich feeling of being back in harmony with myself, an internal compass swung back into equilibrium. As long as the people at the party don’t unsettle me again, I think I actually know what I want.

And, finally, I smile a happy smile and make my way back to the lights and the sounds of a pleasant evening gathering.

One thought on “Humans, machines, and the cocktail parties in my head

  1. Pingback: Zooming in: Writing Sequence Number Two | Ronja's blog

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