JEREMY NAYDLER makes numerous fascinating observations in his history of the emergence of the world-view that hopes for so much from machines. Here is one that stands out, a detail that I had not noticed before.
There is one day of creation in Genesis that God does not call good. It is the second day, when God separated the waters. Unlike the separation of light from darkness, dry land from seas, seed from plants, day from night, and so on, the division of the waters happens without comment. So, why?
Jewish and Christian mystics interpreted it as the day when discord, duality, and exclusion came into the world: up or down, in or out, yes or no, us or them, right or wrong, saved or damned, grow or decline, win or lose, off or on. It is the world required for machines to flourish, particularly computers. They can work only when reality can be broken down into that most abstract division of all, noughts and ones.
This raises the central question that Naydler highlights. What gets lost when machines become the environment in which we live and move and have our being? The short answer is sight of our humanity. It is the reason that one of the anxieties of our times is that Artificial Intelligence will soon rule us. It alarms us not because machines are about to become conscious or self-conscious, but because we have lost a keen sense of what it is to be alive.
Alternatively, think of the habit that people now have of referring to surges of chemical hormones rather than their feelings, or to the amygdala firing rather than desires. It is as if we need reminding that we are not machines.
If you are not sure, then remember: we cannot be disassembled into our component parts and then reassembled. We don’t calculate: we comprehend. We are not either off or on; we are animated. We are not coded, but impulsive, loving, and longing. We are not objects, but subjects. This important book illuminates contemporary consciousness powerfully, and offers a crucial exploration of what it means to be human.
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer.
In the Shadow of the Machine: The prehistory of the computer and the evolution of consciousness
Temple Lodge Publishing £22.50
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