the machines are not our friends…

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

I.J. GoodSpeculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine (1965)

Sometimes when I sit back and think about it, I’m astonished at how much of my life is mediated by machines. My art, music, writing, communications, even relationships… all run through whatever channels that (mostly my laptop) allows me. An example: when I teach Pure Data workshops, I often start by showing a screenshot of Ableton Live, explaining that this is a piece of technology designed for the very rapid creation of “music”. However, “music” is defined in a very specific manner here, by a room full of programmers in Berlin to whom minimal techno is the apotheosis of sound! And what they have created is an environment wherein a caveman could dump a bucketload of sound samples into it and come out with a passable minimal techno track. Getting Live NOT to make minimal techno is actually harder than getting it to. [see the COMMENTS below for an expansion on this theme…]

Modern technology is held by primitivists to be distinct from simple tools in many regards. A simple tool is considered a temporary usage of an element within our immediate surroundings, used for a specific task. Tools are not viewed as involving complex systems which alienate the user from the act. Primitivists claim that this separation is implicit in technology, which creates an unhealthy and mediated experience which leads to various forms of authority. Domination is said to increase every time a modern “time-saving” technology is created, as primitivists claim it necessitates the construction of more technology to support, fuel, maintain, and repair the original technology. It is argued by primitivists that this leads very rapidly to the establishment of a complex technological system that seems to have an existence independent of the humans who created it. Primitivists believe that this system methodically destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world, constructing a world fit only for machines.

Extrapolate to culture at large, and you have a situation where our expressive moments are guided by strict, technological channels which have become so endemic to our lives that they are virtually invisible. For me, this techno-socialist model of “progress” breaks down when the emphasis lies in the technology and not the connections between people that the technology could engender. Most of my “cyber-communist” friends spend much more time recompiling software, browsing for new hardware, managing their databases and typing over IRC (sometimes to people in the same room!) than they ever do “communing” with their comrades. Or making art for that matter. And the techno-art model? At a conference on “open source media architecture” (whatever that might be, as the tag “open source” on anything seemed to be an instant subsidy generator for a few years) in Riga in 2004, I watched a presentation about the glorious future of GPS art. One French architect stood up at the end and said, “You just showed us a geo-tagged photo of a jar of peanut butter. Where is the content here?”

A distinction should be drawn between tools (or implements) and technology. Perlman shows that primitive peoples develop all kinds of tools and implements, but not technologies: ‘The material objects, the canes and canoes, the digging sticks and walls, were things a single individual could make, or they were things, like a wall, that required the cooperation of many on a single occasion …. Most of the implements are ancient, and the [material] surpluses [these implements supposedly made possible] have been ripe since the first dawn, but they did not give rise to impersonal institutions. People, living beings, give rise to both.’ Tools are creations on a localised, small-scale, the products of either individuals or small groups on specific occasions. As such, they do not give rise to systems of control and coercion.

John Moore“A Primitivist Primer”

Having just left the lushly funded forest of the Netherlands’ media art scene, I can testify to many examples of technophilic art created in a virtual void of content or artistic ideas. A typical, only slightly abstracted, scenario follows: Dutch media artist “E” picks up the Volkskraant (left-center daily newspaper) and sees an article on Muslim integration on the front page. She quickly turns to the Technology section and discovers that RFID is the hot topic of the moment. Put two and two together and voila! She has her next subsidy proposal–an installation using RFID tags to discuss the social problems of Muslim migrants between, oh let’s say Rotterdam and Marrakesh. The subsidy boards love it, as it combines the latest progressive woes with the newest popular consumer gadgetry, thus guaranteeing a wide audience appeal in a country which only judges the success of a project by how many visitors see it. Of course the problems start once the money starts flowing. Since she knows nothing per se about either Muslims or RFID technology, she hires “consultants” to research the social aspects of her project, and “technicians” to build the technological part. Once these skilled laborers have essentially created her project for her, she steps back in to slap her name on it and rolls off to Ars Electronica to collect her Golden Nica from the hands of some of the same people who subsidized the work in the first place.

Technology, on the other hand, is the product of large-scale interlocking systems of extraction, production, distribution and consumption, and such systems gain their own momentum and dynamic. As such, they demand structures of control and obedience on a mass scale – what Perlman calls impersonal institutions. As the Fifth Estate pointed out in 1981: ‘Technology is not a simple tool which can be used in any way we like. It is a form of social organization, a set of social relations. It has its own laws. If we are to engage in its use, we must accept its authority. The enormous size, complex interconnections and stratification of tasks which make up modern technological systems make authoritarian command necessary and independent, individual decision-making impossible.’

John Moore“A Primitivist Primer”

There is no coda here, no “what is to be done”, no hammer, no mirror. Growing up in two of the three New Age Meccas of North America, I’d heard enough moralizing and utopian pipedreaming to last me the rest of my life by the time I was 13. A simple assertion: the machines in fact are not our friends. They have their own agenda. Recently I had a fantasy of the Large Hadron Collider, which somehow turned out not to be the cosmic doomsday machine everyone thought it would be and rather was quite a dud–at least until they manage to get it repaired next Spring. I imagined what the LHC would dream about at night, when the technicians left and turned out the lights. So much power concentrated into such a relatively-speaking small space. If it could dream, I’m sure it would dream of gathering even more power into itself. It would dream quite literally of becoming a star.

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended.

Vernor VingeThe Coming Technological Singularity (1993)

Images: Large Hadron Collider, CERN, Switzerland


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