Friday, February 18, 2011

Machines of Loving Grace

I'm ashamed to say I've not read much in the way of poetry or great classics. One of the few books of poetry I read was "The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster" by Richard Brautigan. There is a poem in there which I reproduce with attribution.

 All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

I'd like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
   (right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
   (it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

copyright 1968 by Richard Brautigan      

From a craft standpoint, it's not really that good of a poem. From a visionary standpoint, I'd say Brautigan rivaled Stanislaw Lem in clairvoyance. (If you are unaware of Lem, go to the library and check out The Cyberiad for starters). I'm not entirely sure that Brautigan coined the term "machines of loving grace". I would not be at all surprised if it goes back to Mark Twain. I seem to recall a dystopian SF short story by that title (or perhaps it just employed the phrase). The story was about how people had become completely dependent upon machines, to the point where they were just fat blobs waited upon hand and foot by mechanical creatures - coddled and swaddled so much that they had no exposure to any form of Nature or even their fellow human beings. Thus unable to breed, or breed successfully, or thrive, humanity is pampered out of existence.

In retrospect, the story was arrogantly flawed. There is no doubt that we as a species would allow ourselves to be pampered thus, but the idea that so much energy and resources would be devoted to these overgrown infants defies any realistic expectations. At the very least, the Universe would come up with a way to bollox the whole operation - resulting in either our demise as a species, or at least a very sobering return to a more challenging way of life.

But thoughts of our relationship with technology have bugged me of late. No, I'm not thinking of the Jeopardy! games with IBM's Watson. That is, big-picture-wise, hardly the news item the media wishes to inflate it into. We are years, decades away from an artificial intelligence, perhaps even never (though I am loathe to say that, seeing as predictions of impossibilities are almost always wrong).

No, I'm thinking more along the lines of how we always, always overestimate the impacts of our technology. Case(s) in point: Alfred Nobel believed that his explosives would deter men from making war. Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, declared that his invention would "make war impossible". Jules Verne stated that with the submarine, war would become impossible. Orville Wright: "The aeroplane...will have a tendency to make war impossible". Marconi: "the coming of the wireless era... will make war impossible". 

Do I really need to go on? Pretty sad, actually. You'd think, after so many utterly failed predictions, that someone would catch on, and not say something silly like that. And yet, it's not only the theater of war where we are so comedically wrong-headed. David Nye, historian of technology, points out "Each new form of communication, from the telegraph and telephone to radio, film, television, and the internet, has been heralded as the guarantor of free speech and the unfettered movement of ideas".

Yeah, well. The techno-cheerleaders didn't count much on human behavior. Given the deluge of crap that came out of radio, TV, and film, one has to wonder how much of the promise of enlightenment and edification will occur through the internet. How many lies have been propagated over radio, TV, film,  the Internet? How much dis- and misinformation will be out there forever and ever and ever? Did any of the cheerleaders see google versus China coming, profit preferential search engines, censored search results, the Egyptian shutdown of the internet, or the vapid tweetings from the likes of that fucking shrill shriek Sarah Palin, or being wholly dependent upon Facebook for any kind of social interactions, or similar troglodytic usages...?

Chimps waving loaded guns, for the most part. That seems, on the face of it, to be where the 21st century is heading.

And so, like all abrogations of responsibility, I've got to wonder just how much we are relying on technology to save us from ourselves, when the fact of the matter is, technology is ourselves.

Was Pogo right? "We have met the enemy, and they is us"? 

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