Culture is an engine that transforms food into ideas. Individual bodies are responsible for turning food into energy, but it takes a mind to create ideas, and a mind is possible only in a community. Just as a body requires some sort of ecosystem to provide it with air, warmth, water, fuel, etc., a mind needs a community – a culture – to provide it with language, traditions, values, genders, social classes, and theories. Within any culture, an individual mind can do a lot of experimenting, creating new theories and rebelling against old traditions; or it can find new ways to defend the received views against the new challenges. Either way, new ideas, and, over time, new cultures.
Bound up with culture and ideas is technology, but techs, once developed, begin to live their own lives in a kind of dialectic with culture. Each tech opens up new domains for ideas, and closes down others. The new ideas – or the vacant spaces where other new ideas would have been – lead in turn to new tech possibilities. We’re not in control of the machines, and they don’t simply control us. It’s a dance, and it can be a waltz, a jitterbug, or a danse macabre. Think, for example, of the first Macintosh, the internet, and the crossbow; or the printing press, the phonograph, and artillery. And now think of how both culture and technology would have been, had any of these techs not developed.
Since ideas are developed by individual agents in a cultural tension with other agents, when techs get thrown into the mix, they act as cultural accelerants. The engine runs faster. For with the coming of new techs, it’s not just a matter of words being batted about, with institutions responding slowly over generations; but the ideas become embodied in machines, and the effects of the machines are here and now and have to be dealt with. New laws, institutions, and practices have to be developed on the fly, and these shoulder their ways into the ideosphere, inflaming new passionate arguments and theories. Culture has no option but to evolve at a faster rate.
In all likelihood, truly intelligent machines – not just clever gadgets – are coming soon. If techs are cultural accelerants, intelligent machines will be cultural fission: an accelerant like no other. For AIs will not just be problematic opportunities plunked down on our landscape; they will be active, responsive culture-producers themselves. The question will be whether culture can evolve fast enough. Or, rather, the question will be whether humans get left behind.
What does that even mean? One nightmarish scenario is the world of Terminator and The Matrix: machines rapidly evolve a culture that has no place for us, and we become at best superfluous and at worst a nuisance. They enslave us. Another scenario is a kind of technosynthesis, in which humans and machines together evolve a culture unlike any we have seen before, one in which the boundaries between humans and machines disappear, and something new – the posthuman – comes on stage. A third scenario – the bleakest – is a clusterfuck of unintended consequences that amounts to cultural armageddon. What’s left is a planet devoid of minds, or perhaps (only slightly better) a new stone age, where we return to the joys of banging rocks together.
Or it could turn out that humans are not left behind, and we manage to craft a future that allows for a fruitful symbiosis of humans and machines. Call this the Star Trek scenario. Star Trek presents a world where we have overcome selfishness with intelligence, fear with curiosity, and barbarism with civilization. The scenario is utopian, to be sure, which means it is a “good” place that exists “no” place, and the Star Trek franchise itself is long on hope and short on details. But if we find we would like to stave off enslavement, technosynthesis, and armageddon, we might start thinking through some details, and start transforming the food we eat into the idea of a future that has us in it.
We’ll have to change human nature. That’s not as hard as it sounds, since human nature does not really exist. We have an endless supply of studies from the social sciences, ranging from the trivial to the disturbing, but these only tell us how humans typically behave, given the fact that they are enmeshed in the communities and cultures we now have. “Human nature,” apart from culture, is an empty ideal, like a perfectly inertial body in a frictionless space. We only know what humans tend to do in the spaces we have developed. What we will do in new spaces is an open question.
“Changing human nature” means changing culture, or changing the many dialogues in which we find ourselves. Nietzsche recognized this. His own culture in 19th-century Europe was, he thought, enmeshed in values and beliefs that were holding humans back. More specifically, he thought we would be capable of many more great things if we just got beyond Christianity and the smug set of pseudo-pieties that comes with it. He preached the death of God and the coming of the übermensch, or the one who stands to humans as humans stand to apes – a new species. But bringing this about, he thought, did not require genetic engineering. It required advancing a new culture of skeptics, artists, and scientists who were willing to think a new world. It was a bold and frightening idea. A culture does not abandon its traditions lightly, especially the ones involving religion.
But Nietzsche’s revolution has now come about, in large measure. There are still many ardent religionists, but culture is evolving steadily past them. This is evident in the extreme measures religionists often take to protect their beliefs: they feel threatened, and they are. The tenets and values of monotheism have become ornamental, the things we tip our hats to before getting down to business. The heroes recognized by our age are the innovators in technology, the scientists, and the “producers of content,” which is our way of regarding artists. Were Nietzsche alive today, he would have to start sketching stage two of his grand scheme.
Why bring up Nietzsche? We are certainly not bound to develop stage two on his behalf, nor would it be right to think that it was just his writing that forced our culture to evolve in a “God is dead” direction. He recognized a possibility, and it became largely real. The point of bringing him up is to recognize that what might appear to us to be fixed can change, and that what we dare to dream up can become real – through a change in culture.
So what should we start dreaming, if we want Star Trek?
In times of shortage, liberty gives way to obligation. We have very good and deep reasons to value liberty. Each of us gets one life, and it would be nice to have a say in how it gets spent. We want to be able to dedicate our limited time to our own aims and inclinations; and if we screw up, we want the chance to self-correct. Along with this, we can recognize that the value of liberty extends to everybody, and if we have any conscience at all, we should not let our own pursuits limit or harm someone else. We can call this the “right” to self-determination, though calling it a “right” doesn’t mean anything more than we really value it, for everyone.
But, with this planet being what it is, and with world population being what it is, we live in a decidedly limited environment. There is only so much water, air, and food energy to go around, and the demand for it is unprecedented. Barring any massive catastrophe, we will be in a time of shortage for a long time, maybe forever. In conditions of shortage, liberty has to give way to obligation – at least, if we want the sort of future we are dreaming up. Not giving way – insisting on liberty as an absolute value – means that some people end up with far more resources than they need, while others haven’t enough to even start on self-determination. (Sound familiar?) If we value self-determination, and if we recognize that value for everyone, then there has to be some careful resource management – which means redistribution.
This means that the boundless liberty of a few must take a hit for the sake of some liberty for all. Not everybody gets all the self-determination they could possibly have. By doing so, everyone, let’s hope, would get enough for a reasonably self-determined life, a life that has a shot at being spent in the way the person living it wants, for the most part, given available supplies.
Expert systems can deliver resource management. There’s nothing new in the ideal of trying to make sure everybody starts from a livable platform. The problem is in rigging up a system in which this is likely to take place. Previous efforts have ranged from massive, centralized bureaucracies, which succeeded only in squandering resources and failing in any case to achieve their ends; to laid-back attempts to allow “the free market” to ensure, as if by magic, that all needs are met, while also allowing unlimited liberties to those hoarding the greatest share of resources; to systems falling somewhere between centralized bureaucracies and lopsided oligarchies. No system has really worked – except on very small scales, like those of some smaller European nations.
One sizeable obstacle to achieving a workable system is that economic institutions are crafted by legislators, and legislators are inevitably corrupted by oligarchs without conscience. Utopias since Plato’s Republic have been predicated upon the notion that, somehow, we could evolve a ruling class that would be untouched by greed, and it’s this feature more than any other that has stranded them in the unreal world. But with the advent of AI and expert systems, we have some new possibilities.
It will not do to imagine some massive computer – call it “Big Brother” – issuing commands that we slavishly obey. We should instead think about several expert systems running in competition with one another, employing different models. Each system tries to model what current demands are, and what future demands are likely to be; what resources are currently available, and what we will need more of or less of; and how those resources have to be distributed if everybody is to have the basic platform for practical liberty; and, alongside all this, the logistical difficulties and expenses of getting the resources to the regions of demand. These are hugely complicated computational problems – but exactly the sort of problems expert systems are good at solving. The systems to be put in competition with one another could in principle be created by anyone – nation state think tanks, groups of private individuals, private corporations, academic teams. Each is held to the same standard: how well it gets things right, and how well its advice captures the end results we want. There would be some easily identified complete losers. But there probably would not be any unique winner; there would instead be several systems that seemed to do equally well, or that issued different sets of advice that were arguably equally good.
Think of the winning systems as a council of “Big Advisors” – but ones that, in their operations, are not subject to corruption by oligarchs without conscience.
There are two obvious weak spots in this proposal. The first has to do with who runs the machines – who programs them, maintains them, reprograms them, and so on. The second has to do with what would compel any nation state to actually act on the advice given by the Big Advisors – particularly when they stand to lose by doing so. Of the two, the second is the bigger problem.
If we can agree on what qualifies as a successful distribution of resources – and that is a serious “if,” admittedly, but it does not seem implausible that we will be able to sort out overall successful results from overall disastrous ones, at least – then the first problem is only technical. It is only a question of which systems are better at generating the results that align with real world results – that is, which systems are better predictive engines. Putting the systems in competition with one another and weeding out any that fail automatically puts constraints on how the systems will be designed and what changes can be made to them. Indeed, there is no reason why we shouldn’t let systems program systems, or let systems reprogram themselves with the aim of improving their performance. This is exactly the sort of challenge AI systems would excel at.
The second problem is political and ultimately cultural. Nation states would have to be expected to act on the advice of the Big Advisors, under the threat of losing the support of the nation’s citizens and the good favor of other nations. Citizens of nations would have to accept the “liberty gives way to obligation” rule, and fellow nation states would have to hold one another accountable. This is where cultural evolution is required: people would have to believe in the Star Trek scenario, and insist on it.
It might seem like naive, rose-spectacled optimism to claim that such a cultural shift is possible. And perhaps it is; time will tell. But history has many examples of younger generations refusing to fit themselves into the expectations of their elders. And it may be that the simplifying assumptions made by economists – that humans are, at all events, narrowly self-interested individuals – is an oversimplification, and at times we can “jump the gap” and accept individual losses for the sake of projects that, we can all recognize, would constitute a better world.
Only knowledge and curiosity can save us. This is the easiest component of the Star Trek package. Indeed, perhaps we have installed it already. We know better than to lapse into nostalgia, and to think that earlier times had magical recipes (moral values, fervent prayers, ancient myths) that will save us now. Our solutions, if they exist at all, are in the future, not the past. We get to the future by learning new things, creating new techs, and experimenting with possibilities. The only way is the way forward.
There are obvious dangers. Any new tech is not limited to humane uses: rockets can deliver explosives as easily as they can deliver supplies or astronauts. And, as has been said, new techs are cultural accelerants, creating new problems and possibilities at rates often faster than we can adjust and respond to. It is here that the threat of a purely unintended cultural armageddon is most severe. But these dangers cannot be avoided by simply refusing to be curious; in any event, they won’t be. All we can do is respond and adjudicate as best we can, as intelligently as we can, with every sophisticated tool we possess – and hope we luck out.
While we have already accepted, as a culture, the value of knowledge and curiosity, we are failing to make that value available to everyone. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, as legislators at the hands of oligarchs without conscience returned our economy to the industrial revolution norm of concentrating wealth in a few and systematically disenfranchising the rest, education became a commodity priced out of reach to the poor. This, along with the deregulation of the media, has had two consequences: first, a legion of uneducated, uninformed, and distracted citizens; and second, a great loss of intellectual diversity. In making education elite, and in replacing news with entertainment, we have simultaneously made our problems worse and our range of solutions more narrow. This is precisely the wrong way to go. There is no way to Star Trek without making the value of knowledge and curiosity available to all.
I have to admit it; this little essay expresses more optimism than suits me, and I don’t think Star Trek is likely to happen. Armageddon is more likely, and perhaps most probable of all is “we-muddle-through-with-disaster-and-cool-stuff-in-nearly-equal-measure.” But it would be heroic, would it not, to put my flat-footed pessimism to shame and actually create a future?