The Machines Are Us



As various contributors point out in this issue of Montreal Serai, we are obviously now living in an era of immense technical change, most of it centered on digitalization, computers, and nano-technology. At the same time, a large number of the world’s population are cruelly exploited and manipulated, while the 1% enjoy a completely unjustified share of global wealth and power. Worse still, the convergence of “real socialism” with modern capitalism has meant that totalitarian forms of organization, be they in corporations or states, are now universal and can  even co-exist, albeit uneasily,  with the protest movements of civil society and the institutions of liberal democracies.

The men and women at the apex of modern capitalism look down at the world below them from a great height and a principal element of their control is the command of technology.

And the major ethical questions raised by the new technology have everything to do with the economic structure that it serves.

In a recent issue of the Financial Times newspaper, an anglo-american journalist who is a prominent, enthusiastic admirer of capitalism, Sebastian Mallaby, wrote a telling commentary: “Inequality may lead to rage against the machines” (Friday March 9, 2012). Mallaby described the Citigroup’s super-computer “Watson” that earns $1 billion annually for its banker owners, advises healthcare companies, and even won the top prize on the TV quiz show Jeopardy. This is a world of transistors so tiny that 3,000 of them can fit in the width of a human hair, observes Mallaby admiringly, and “As a result, companies can store and analyse information on every aspect of the world around them.” The commentary ended with an assurance that all will be well in the end, but Mallaby meanwhile offered a striking description of the present situation:

“We are in the midst of a technological upheaval; and financial rewards are flowing to the elites who create and control the new machines. Almost everybody else is threatened…”

This threat for the many– inequality, unemployment, immiseration – poses the largest ethical question raised by our machines. Is the new technology good or bad? Does it contribute to our enslavement, or could it further human freedom? And by freedom I mean the capacity to shape our fate and to guide our actions rationally toward a just and democratic society for ourselves and other people.

When Aristotle gave the lectures known as The Politics in ancient Athens, he made it clear, from the outset, that politics must be the pursuit of good for others, what we call “the good of society.” But unlike us, Aristotle believed in inherent inequality, and the 100,000 slaves in his city, out of a population of a little over 300,000, were considered the natural inferiors of their masters. They were the “mechanicals,” the machines of Athenian democracy.

2,000 years later, as Marx, Charles Dickens, and many other writers have pointed out, modern capitalism, for all its complexity, still resembles ancient economies because it depends upon the treatment of workers as machines, passive instruments to be allocated tasks either through a cleverly skewed market or by sheer state power.

Now that we are 7 billion, human beings are still the living and breathing “mechanicals,” the pyramid of labour upon which our inventions rest.

Technology is indeed congealed labour, as Marx said, nor can we forget where this kind of technical wealth comes from. We can look back and remember that in the United States, at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the slaves in the country were equal in monetary worth “on the market” to all the capital equipment in the country at the time. Then we can fast forward to today’s India, the world’s “largest democracy.” The country has an advanced high-tech sector, and is increasing its aggregate wealth, while 50% of the children are malnourished. Or we can think of  China which will soon have a higher GDP than the United States. What of the Chinese labourers who produce so much?

The industrial revolution is ongoing and today’s machines are a “meta order,” an outgrowth of all the work, effort, and thinking of a vast number of human beings linked together. Because the underlying social relations are so multi-layered, the machines are indeed “clever,” and their complexity mirrors the social fabric that has produced them. They are, at the same time, the embodiments of the needs both of the workers who produce them, and, more significantly, of the capitalist/bureaucrats who dominate all the world’s societies at this time.

Our needs, purposes, and ethics are in our machines since they are nothing more than our activity. We need to recognize that action as our own and reclaim it for the common good. The argument I am making here is not new and it is straightforward.

The machines are us.

One of the most chilling newspaper pieces that I read in the last year was in The New York Times. The report began with a description of a special team in the American military seeking to kill individual opponents in Afghanistan. Tension, even revulsion, filled the first paragraphs as the reporter described what seemed to be sharpshooters killing a relatively large number of targeted individuals in one day.

Then a surprise came: the most stressful part of the day for the American specialists …was getting through the “traffic jam” when they left Langley, Virginia,  to go back to their homes in the suburbs. The killing had been done in an office using laptops to target and fire drones 10,000 miles away.

That “ethical distance” was at work throughout the carpet bombing during the Vietnam War. Those who execute action in such a context cease to think in a fuller sense and the technology literally removes them from what they actually do. The results are catastrophic because you frequently do not know what you have done or whom you have killed, although you believe the exact opposite.

Of course, the new technology can be also be used in non-destructive ways –to promote freedom and justice and to fight alienation. Activists now are able to communicate effectively and rapidly. E-mail correspondence has soared, producing an electronic version of the correspondence societies that led to political revolutions in the 18th century. Nano-machines, particularly, may bring enormous benefits in medicine, the search for clean energy, and a multitude of other areas.

At the present time, though, we are trapped in a deeply unequal distribution of power, jobs, and wealth. We need to change that injustice if we want to make technology serve ends that are good and not evil. Without profound social change we will not see the possible good of the technical achievements of this age.


Patrick Barnard is a Montreal green space activist, teacher and Serai editor.