We make myths whenever we make technology. To assert that the telegraph would bring world peace, that the telephone would speed gender equality, that radio would end war, and if not radio, then television, was to make a myth of communication technology. Today, myths about technology anchor sublime visions contained in the promise of using digital systems to extend life, even achieve immortality, in what mythmakers call the Singularity, the merging of humans and machines. Inspired especially by the Internet of Things, another mythology is taking hold: the ability to make things come alive. They are both key myths propelling the Next Internet and masking the significant social problems facing citizens in the digital world.
The concept of the Singularity has been around in one form or another since the 1950s when the polymath John van Neumann used the term to describe a process whereby machines equipped with artificial intelligence enter an accelerated learning phase to produce a superintelligence. The computer scientist, inventor, and a director of engineering at Google, Raymond Kurzweil, is most responsible for popularizing the term, gaining notoriety for insisting that if humans take full advantage of this development, they can achieve immortality. It all certainly sounds like the stuff of science fiction but proponents are very serious and supporters, including some of Silicon Valley’s elite, are investing large sums to help make it happen. These include Kurzweil’s employer Google, which in 2013 injected a billion dollars into a secretive anti-aging project, Google Calico, that received the enthusiastic support of the company’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. In 2017 the founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk, in spite of his professed fear and public warnings about the dangers of artificial intelligence, set up a new company called Neuralink that works on brain implants it hopes will some day connect human brains with AI systems. Much of this thinking is based on new developments in syringe-injectible electronics, whose supporters believe that the brain-machinery connection can be made minimally invasive by using wireless technology rather than, for example, a suppurating, infection-prone piercing of the skull. The research arm of the Defense Department, always on the lookout for the latest in cyber-technologies that might produce the next generation of transhuman warriors, is also investing in the direct brain-machine connection.
Kurzweil’s ideas received additional affirmation in 2017 when the best-selling historian Yuval Noah Harari published a book with the less than subtle title Homo Deus. Harari makes the case that within a century technologies will fundamentally transform the human race into god-like creatures powered by artificial intelligence and a host of technologies that emerge from a revolution he calls dataism. To be fair, Harari recognizes that this vision can all too easily be turned into a religion of technology. Nevertheless, he fully embraces the vital core that underlies his concerns. When asked if people should resist a future of seemingly inevitable technological advancement and create a different futurism, he is quick to reply: “You can’t stop technological progress.”
Whether or not, as Kurzweil insists, “the Singularity is near,” and whether or not the entire project has scientific warrant, as myth it tells a compelling story: technology, especially digital technology, is powerful, benign, and irresistible. One can understand why this would appeal to Silicon Valley leaders and their gurus. The merger of people and machines, whether it is called the Singularity or transhumanism, supports practically everything Big Tech stands for.
If the Singularity myth tells the story about how we become digital, then the myth of bringing things to life tells the tale of how digital becomes us. For thousands of years, people have told stories about giving life to objects. In the classical myth, Prometheus used clay to fashion humans and gave them the new technology of fire. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, subtitled the Modern Prometheus, featured the creation of a monster from things found in a lab. These are two of the better known among the many stories featuring the creation of life from ordinary matter. Over the year magicians, conjurers, tricksters, and ordinary people have been portrayed attempting the same feat. Today, companies and governments invest billions to do what amounts to the same thing. Only, instead of dust, it is the crystal powder we call silicon. And instead of living, breathing human beings, it is robots that build cars more efficiently than humans can, intelligent systems that drive them more safely than humans can drive them, and drones that kill humans more effectively than humans can kill one other. We give them names like smart car (or smart home, smart city) and weaponized drone. These are the products of the Internet of Things which, when connected to the Cloud and Big Data, perform the ultimate conjurer’s trick: they appear to make things come alive. It is a supreme form of the sublime.
"Sublime excitement can quickly turn into terror when... systems break down or because someone else, the hacker-trickster, for example, steals control."
The promise and the allure of the sublime is that it will lead to transcendence, lifting us out of the banal routine of everyday life. The latter is governed by the babble of words. The former leaves us speechless. Throughout history the sublime has been most often linked to religious exaltation (behold the face of God) and the wonders of the “natural” world, such as towering mountains, majestic canyons and vast oceans. Later, the concept of the natural world was extended to outer space where the Hubble telescope brought visions of a universe spread out over unimaginable distances. Now, in the twentieth-first century, the sublime is linked to visions of a digitally enabled superintelligence and virtual worlds that open new avenues of transcendence. We are in the process of building a mythology around the Internet of Things, infusing it not only with the latest in technology, but also with a narrative vision of the digital sublime.
As the mythology and the magic of creating intelligent things grow, it is useful to remember what happened to the iconic figures that once tried to bring good things to life. For creating life from clay and providing his creation with the gift of fire, Prometheus suffered the wrath of Zeus. The giver of life is chained to a rock and every day, at Zeus’s command, an eagle arrives to chew on his liver. The Modern Prometheus did not fare much better as Dr. Frankenstein’s creation brought him nothing but pain, heartbreak, and ultimately a terrible death. Most Internet of Things enthusiasts would rather see themselves more like the god of the Christian Bible who used dust to create the human race and, occasional regrets aside, remains faithful to its creation, a sublime manifestation of pure love.
What is arguably the more appropriate mythic analogy to the Internet of Things is the golem, an icon of Jewish folklore. Like the other mythic creatures, golem made the transformation from mud or clay to living being at the hands of religious authorities. But like the Internet of Things, the golem is, at best, a mixed blessing. Lacking innate intelligence, it follows instructions by rote and is perfectly obedient. In rare cases it can become uncooperative and, in one instance, this led to a golem’s deactivation. When that happened, this particular golem, having grown to enormous size, crushed its creator. The sublime arouses not only transcendent bliss beyond speech. It also conjures terror. Such is the golem, a prime exemplar of the sublime mixed blessing, representing all those who come alive with uncertain consequences for themselves and their creator. That may be why Karel Capek, who coined the term “robot” in his 1921 play R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, is thought to have modeled his creation, arguably the first robot, after the golem. Today’s robotic devices, upgraded with sensors and connected to the global networks of the Internet of Things are also obedient followers of their preset programming to build machines in factories, drive cars autonomously, manage traffic flows, order milk when we need it, and kill on the orders of someone thousands of miles away. Having driven hands free in a Tesla on an L.A. freeway, I can understand the sublime feeling of watching the car change lanes with no hands on the steering wheel. But sublime excitement can also quickly turn into terror when this modern golem fails to carry out its orders because systems break down or because someone else, the hacker-trickster, for example, steals control. Then cars crash, assembly lines fail, roads fill with anarchy, weaponized drones attack innocent civilians, and personal information flows in the wrong direction. The thrill of coming alive turns into damage, destruction, and, sometimes, even death. Today, citizens of our digital world face growing problems of surveillance in the service of ubiquitous commercialism, cyber-warfare led by robot warriors and drones, and a jobless future. The golem reminds that the wonder of coming alive can quickly dissolve into the terror of global upheaval.