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Never do anything for the first time

Whatever technology comes along, it never enters the world without a message of doom. That was true for writing, for the steam train, for the computer and now for ChatGPT. And so, just as the ancient philosopher Socrates hammered on about the dangers of writing, contemporary philosophers hammer on about the dangers of artificial intelligence.

By Ralf Bodelier

Image: Tears of Steel, by David Revoy

The fear of modern technology has deep religious roots. For centuries, biblical prophets warned of the end of time. An end that sinful humans had brought upon themselves. God’s wrath is not to be trifled with, the pre-moderns knew. Everyone knew the biblical story of the Flood.

In summary, that tale boils down to the following. Humanity, with the good Noah as the only exception, had started to live a pernicious life. Then the Almighty ravaged us with a giant tidal wave. Only Noah survived. His story was not unique. We find it in numerous cultures: from the Koran to the ancient Gilgamesh epic; in the mythology of the African Masai and in that of the Greenland Eskimos.

This fear of a self-inflicted end of time has more than survived the death of the biblical God. Today, it looms large in the image of humanity taking God’s place as destroyer of the Earth. After all, are we not in danger of ending our own existence, enabled to do so by our nuclear weapons, by burning oil and coal, or by feeding artificial intelligence like ChatGPT?

Our fears are justified. Yet this is the order: first there is an ancient fear of the apocalypse, then a cause is thought of. Fire, electricity, trains, lifts, telephones, movies, the Walkman and computers: whatever technology is born, it never comes into the world without a message of doom. The telephone, it was said, would reduce romantic interaction between people to endless chatter. Movies were accused of inciting young people to crime, of leading to feral morality, softened brains and ruined eyes. In the early 1980s, people feared the Walkman because it would be ‘embraced by mindless consumers’ who would march in straight lines under oncoming cars as ‘wind-up-non-humans’. In the 1960s and 1970s, the rampaging computer was an existential threat to many. It would rob humankind of its most important faculties: its labour and its thinking.

Fear of a self-inflicted end of time has survived the death of the biblical God. Today, it looms large in the image of humanity taking God’s place as destroyer of the Earth

Many of the best thinkers, writers, theologians and philosophers have warned against modern technology. In ancient times, Socrates strongly objected to the technology of writing. After all, those who could read and write no longer needed to memorise their thoughts. And those who wrote them down anyway were doomed to forget them. Fortunately, Plato thought otherwise when he entrusted Socrates’ ideas to papyrus after all.

In the late 18th century, English Luddites feared their own looms would put them out of work, seeing this as a reason to smash the machines to smithereens. When the first train on the European continent left Brussels for Mechelen on May 5, 1835, there was intense debate in the Belgian parliament. After all, studies showed that transport by train would lead to substantial unemployment among coachmen and boatmen, that passengers’ breathing would be cut off during the fast ride, that eggs would arrive as omelettes and cows would be so frightened by passing locomotives their milk would turn sour. A hundred years later, in Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin protested against the assembly line because it would reduce workers to robots.

In the 1950s, German philosopher Martin Heidegger warned against ‘the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology’. Heidegger feared that technology deprives us of seeing the deep, mysterious sides of existence. Today, it is the anarcho-primitivists, inspired by philosopher John Zerzan, who want to convince us how dominant technology and science have become.

Once, Zerzan believes, technology was simple and served humanity. Now humanity is subject to complex technology, which is also in the hands of a capitalist elite. Living without television, smartphones or money, anarcho-primitivists are once again distancing themselves from all civilisation in an attempt to become feral and at one with nature.

Once, some argue, technology was simple and served humanity. Now humanity is subject to complex technology, in the hands of a capitalist elite

The most outspoken representative of the current fear of technology is Israeli philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari. It seems almost no coincidence that his middle name refers directly to the story of the Flood from the Hebrew Bible. In his books Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari emphasises that we are on the verge of the dissolution of Homo sapiens. The cause, he argues, lies in the increasing influence of artificial intelligence on our lives, including ChatGPT.

We humans may think we are free, we even think we enjoy more and more freedom, but according to Harari this is an illusion. We are slowly but surely being ‘hacked’ by algorithms. Thanks to modern biotechnology, these are increasingly able to penetrate deep into our bodies and minds. Gradually, we are being sucked in by the black screen – Black Mirror – of our phones, tablets and laptops.

According to Harari, this brand new combination of biotechnology and information technology is steering us in directions we hardly understand. Google and Facebook, as well as governments and, who knows, outright criminals, now know more about us than we do ourselves. Not only do they know our life history and purchases, they also know about our diseases and genetic predispositions; they track our emotions, thoughts, fears and dreams.

And we let the hackers have their way. After all, how convenient that Strides Goals & Habit Tracker admonishes us to sleep more and sit less. Or that Google News determines for us which article we prefer to read. We simply don’t want to miss our computerised blood pressure reading and psychological check-up. Harari therefore fears that in half a century we will be at the mercy of this illustrious duo of bio- and information technology. In one of his many television appearances, he says we are in the process of creating the ideal situation for organisations reminiscent of the Gestapo and the KGB.

Harari fears that we are slowly but surely being ‘hacked’ by algorithms, and that in half a century we will be at the mercy of biotechnology and information technology

Ten years ago, Harari was still an unknown historian, specialising in medieval history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His books now appear in 65 languages. More than 35 million copies have been sold. One could explain his smooth over-the-counter sales by pointing to his compelling narrative, superior writing style and disarming public appearances. What is also true, however, is that messages of doom still sell much better than reassuring stories.

Thousands of years of stored fear in our reptilian brains are easy to activate. Even though Harari warns that he is no clairvoyant and that everything could end very differently, his grand narrative of the abolition of independent thinking and acting does fit into a tradition of cautionary prophets, passionately calling for repentance.

It is important to take Harari’s warnings seriously, just as it was good to consider those of Socrates, Chaplin, Heidegger and Zerzan. But precisely at a time of increasing anxiety and apocalyptic thinking, it is also good to read them with healthy suspicion. We can do this by detecting four patterns in their reasoning that every doomsayer eventually appears to fall back on.

At a time of increasing anxiety, it is also good to read apocalyptic warnings with healthy suspicion, and detect the patterns in any doomsayer’s reasoning

1. 'Things will go irrevocably wrong unless we do all we can to dismantle the oh-so-recent and unique danger'

Radical conversion, all prophets cry, is the only way to avert destruction. At the same time, Harari observes that such a radical conversion will never take place. We simply enjoy modern bio- and information technology too much to radically break away from them. It is precisely this realism that reinforces his apocalyptic suggestion that we are walking with open eyes towards the abyss. Looking back on such calls for radicalism years later, one notices that fortunately they rarely came to pass and the world just kept spinning.

2.'Today's problems are so new that no historical comparison is possible'

Harari, too, emphasises time and again that while there have always been systems that threatened to strip us of our humanity, the current danger from bio- and information technology is completely unique and without precedent. On some level, this is true, of course. But the introduction of fire, writing and the feature film were also new and without precedent at the time. Yet they did not end in the demise of memory or morality. Each time the challenge is new, but our fear of the new is each time old.

3. 'All present challenges will continue into the future'

Prophets always assume that today’s all too concrete problems will turn into tomorrow’s disasters. Their eye for concrete solutions is usually not so well developed. Now we have the problem that tech giants like Google and Facebook know far too much about us. At the same time, opposition to them is growing. VPN allows you to encrypt your search on the internet. Facebook’s WhatsApp can be bypassed via Signal and Telegram. The European Union has forced Google to give its users the right to ‘be forgotten’. Privacy laws and security measures are growing by the day. People don’t just sit still. As real as the problems Harari identifies are, our ability to solve them is just as real.

4. 'Let's not do anything'

Finally, prophets advocate the precautionary principle. For instance, Harari not only emphasises how likely it is that we will be finished by the illustrious combination of bio- and information technology; invariably, he also adds that we shouldn’t have started it in the first place. We should block everything as a precaution. And Harari does so via the idea that you should not put technology on the market whose consequences you cannot foresee.

Our fear degenerates into a massive ‘no’ to all the possibilities technology brings us. Apocalyptic thinking leads to little but stasis and all-encompassing passivity

During a discussion on YouTube with psychologist Steven Pinker, Harari says: ‘Suppose you are an engineer. You are about to introduce a new invention. Then you do well to imagine the most evil man you can imagine. Then think about what he might do with your invention. Then reconsider whether you want to market this invention.’

It is an interesting question and the logical consequence of any anxious look at our technological capabilities. Harari poses it in the last minute of the conversation and Pinker can no longer answer it. Therefore, I will do it for him.

Let’s turn that most evil of men into concrete Nazis like Adolf Eichmann or Josef Mengele. Suppose we could have imagined in the 19th century what Eichmann would use trains and railway lines for, would we ever have built them? Suppose we could have predicted what Mengele would invent at Auschwitz, would we ever have embarked on brain research or genetics?

And what about fire, writing, electricity and feature films, which the Nazis made grateful use of? Wouldn’t it have been better to ban these from the outset?

Our fear of a dramatic outcome degenerates into a massive no to all the possibilities technology brings us. Harari points out the pitch-black possible consequences of technology, thereby blocking its overwhelming opportunities and potential to make our lives healthier, safer and more beautiful. Apocalyptic thinking leads to little but stasis and all-encompassing passivity. It is the ultimate consequence of the precautionary principle: play it safe and never do anything for the first time.

Ralf Bodelier is a Netherlands-based philosopher with a doctorate in cosmopolitanism. He is the author of several books, including cemetery walking guides and a handbook on development aid. His latest book is Lang leve de mens (Long live man), an appreciation of human ingenuity. This article was first published in Filosofie Magazine.


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