Recently I have done quite a lot of research on technology. In particular, I’ve looked at technology with regard to ‘the contemporary,’ and how it might be claimed to be a central marker of the present moment. This thought presents a weird conundrum: on the one the hand, technology – throughout history – has enacted a kind of existential anxiety, a sense of the uncanny. Long before the internet, or even a whisper of A.I., the advent even of electricity was accompanied by unease[i]. On the other hand, though, technology does in fact seem to play a more dominant, or perhaps more embedded, part in contemporary life. In the absence of knowing any other era other than my own, my life feels saturated, almost thoroughly bisected, by technology. On this unstable ground the difficulty lies in both being attendant to technology, and resisting any existential and/or conservative hyperbole. It is a difficult stance.
One of the things I have grappled with is the way in which humanity is being mediated by technology. Of course, this has always been the case – one can say that what we call the human is predicated on it becoming technological in nature. Culture, for instance, is technological. At the current moment, though, technology appears to take root in a bodily sense – it mediates the production and indeed perpetuation of life itself. This being entertained, does this not also lead to a different conception of the human?
Let’s look at the sphere of work. Increasing automation, an offshoot of digital and remote technologies, means that the realm of work is becoming reconfigured (see above figure). Roles that workers once filled are now inarguably filled by computers, or algorithms. This will only intensify by manner of degree. Increasingly, also, it is low-skilled, generally low-wage jobs that are being eliminated through automation[ii]. Through this, the realm of work – an undeniably crucial factor of human life – is being redefined, with jobs being valorised only to the extent that they embody something almost supernaturally human: that is, wholly creative. This might, of course, be thought in positive terms – with humans now being able to fully devote themselves to creative and fulfilling activity. To take one such positive – no, rapturous – view:
Advancing technologies will cause so much disruption to almost every industry that entire professions will disappear. And then, in about 15–20 years from now, we will be facing a jobless future, in which most jobs are done by machines and the cost of basic necessities such as food, energy and health care is negligible — just as the costs of cellphone communications and information are today. We will be entering an era of abundance in which we no longer have to work to have our basic needs met. And we will gain the freedom to pursue creative endeavours and do the things that we really like [iii].
With regard to such automation, the impetus is to become even more human (if that makes sense): the pressure consists in the ability to do something only a human could do, and economic worth constituted only to the extent that we differentiate ourselves from a computer. But what if we can’t do that? Or, contra that: what if a computer could in fact be more creative than a human? How would we define ‘the human’ if it is carried out more successfully through an algorithm, for example.
Recently I watched Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina. It is an accomplished film, shot and in particular paced marvellously with a ever present sense of dread [iv]. The possibility of A.I. is in the film given form in Ava, an advanced robotic prototype secured under lock and key by Nathan, a tech genius seemingly incapable of humility. Nathan is a pseudo-Google tech-guru monstrosity: both staggeringly rich and arrogant, he employs women (Kyoto) who (apparently) speak no English in order to demean them without recourse. (That being said, it’s likely he’d do that even if they did.) Into this picture comes Caleb, a suspiciously low-ranking, albeit talented, employee of Nathan. Brought to Nathan’s modernist fortress on the pretence of carrying out a Turing test on Ava, Caleb submits to Nathan’s eccentricity, conducting the test through an unconventional series of face-to-face conversations with Ava. Of course, she passes. She is inarguably intelligent, capable of making jokes, of thoughtful self-evaluation, even of sincere empathy. The imaginative potential of Caleb and Ava’s relationship – and the actions made upon this potential – shape the rest of the film.
The crux of the film, as I understood it, is the muddying of the waters of the human/non-human. More specifically, actually human characters and their inverses – Nathan and Caleb/Ava and Kyoto – seem to swap places. Nathan is – by traditional and sentimental understanding – almost inhuman beside the heavy humanity of Ava. And yet though she might be moral she is a machine – a highly intelligent one, but a machine nonetheless. In such a way, the film for me presented new ways of thinking humanity and indeed inhumanity. If we are living in the anthropocene, and the means by which humanity and its environment are increasingly delimited by human (say, scientific, or technological) markers, then doesn’t a definition of humanity in itself, by extension, also change? What would it mean, then, to become even more human, and what happens if we can’t?
[i] See, for example, Melissa Gronlund (2014) Return of the Gothic: Digital Anxiety in the Domestic Sphere, e-flux no. 51 (January 2014).
[ii] For more on automation and employment, particularly with regard to the internet’s role in it, see Andrew Keen (2015) The Internet is not the Answer.
[iii] Vivek Wadhwa (2015) When Machines Can Do Most Jobs—Passion, Creativity, and Reinvention Rule, available at http://singularityhub.com/2015/07/27/when-machines-can-do-most-jobs-passion-creativity-and-reinvention-rule/.