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Machines Will Not Replace Us

Today I share this post Of Charles Eisentien

Enjoy and share with your friends!!

As I await the seven-figure checks from investors flocking to my typewriter venture, I will offer a few more thoughts on reclaiming life from digitization.

My nostalgia for typewriters and fountain pens isn’t just nostalgia. It also attunes to a real loss of capacities, a flattening and dispiriting of life, and a desire to rekindle a hidden spark of vitality.

I have found that writing on a computer fragments my thinking. When I write by hand or by typewriter, I have to plan out the whole sentence or paragraph before I start writing it, because if I write myself into a corner I cannot so easily erase, modify, or cut and paste. Writing on a computer (like now), I can think carelessly and in shorter chunks. For example, that last sentence — when I began with "Writing on a computer" I still didn't know exactly how I would finish the sentence. In fact, I went back and modified the original version. When I write by hand, I take longer pauses in between ideas so I can think them through to the end before putting them onto paper. This also demands a longer span of concentration. I have to hold more in my mind at a given moment. If I never do so, that ability atrophies.

Of course, manual writing or typewriting requires a lot more time, not only for the first draft but for revisions and corrections. It is less efficient. Efficiency motivates digital technology generally. The computer at its very inception was a tool to perform computations quickly. The first computers were adding machines. In principle, humans could do the tasks that computers perform, if only we had enough time (eons, in the case of climate modeling or 3D video rendering), because at bottom they are only the manipulation of zeros and ones.

Practically speaking, computers and especially AI extend our reach to otherwise unattainable goals. But that extension comes at a severe cost that we must understand if we are to avoid creating hell on earth. I choose those words deliberately. Let me unfold what I mean.

The concept of efficiency — how much one can accomplish per unit of time (or per dollar, etc.) — requires a quantitative numerator as well as a denominator. It requires a metric. Therefore, it tells us nothing about results we cannot quantify or measure. When we gear our society around efficiency, we produce more and more of the measurable, while the immeasurable, the qualitative, and the things we don’t think to measure drain away. Bedazzled by quantitative abundance, we might not be able to see what is lost, but we can definitely feel its absence.

The first significant industrial machine — the power loom — could weave a thousand times more cloth in an hour than a human being could. Cars and airplanes vastly increased the number of miles a person could traverse in an hour or a lifetime. Artificial intelligence can produce millions of poems in a few minutes. Synthesizers allow a human to produce and upload songs much faster than a band or orchestra would take to practice and play them; AI accelerates that process thousands of times further.

In each of these surges in efficiency, we lose something that we may not recognize until later, if at all. Car travel (even more so, airplane) blurs out the places in between here and there. Our lives become a concatenation of destinations linked by the same basic travel experience. Whereas, when we travel at biological speeds, like at a walk or on horseback, we can attend to the succession of distinctive plants and animals, hills, terrains, smells, and sounds on the way. A journey becomes a succession of contiguous places. Life takes on more texture and continuity, more sense, and more physical intimacy. Moving from one place to another becomes not just about location, but also exertion. Riding in a car or airplane, the body does not feel like it is going anywhere, yet all of a sudden there you are in a new place. A disconnect between body and mind develops that harms both, and encourages other forms of disconnection. It foreshadows the descent, or shall I say ascent, into the digital world, in which the kinesthetic sense diverges from the visual and auditory senses. So much happens on the screen, yet the body stays still. The online adventures of video games happen in complete bodily stillness.

Immersion in the digital world begets an impoverishment that seems to contradict its apparent hyperabundance. Digitally, you can go anywhere, have anything, and do anything. You can “visit” websites. You can “surf” the web. You get the illusion of unlimited freedom. Yet, immobility contains all of these digital “experiences.” Therefore none of them meet the embodied need to go, to travel, to risk, or to play.

Digital hyperabundance takes to its extreme the poverty already inherent in industrial mass production. Right now, I am looking at a bed sheet. It has quite a nice pattern of birds and ferns on it. Someone must have taken forever to weave that. Of course, not really. A machine made it in seconds. True, a succession of engineers designed that machine and its precursors; others designed the tractors that harvested the cotton, and numberless workers ran those machines. But none are in my orbit. None are connected to me in any way other than through the act of purchase. None of them cared about me personally. No one made that sheet for me. It is a generic, impersonal, and alien object, and therefore cheap. It may still become precious as it wears and stains and takes on a history of use and relationship, but it starts out cheap.

Certainly, cheap is better than nothing at all. Cheap calories are better than no calories. Better have a roof over your head than having it shattered by bombs with nowhere to go. Many people on this earth suffer a poverty of quantity, not just the poverty of quality I speak of. Nonetheless, their quantitative poverty is not the result of actual scarcity, but rather of maldistribution. It comes because some have much more than they need, depriving the rest through debt and violence. Why do they do that? Because they are impoverished also — just not impoverished of anything money can buy.

Modern society compensates us for this poverty of uniqueness, relationship, intimacy, and quality through an endless expansion of quantity. To be wealthy as a person or a nation is to have more. That is inevitable when we conceive wealth as something that can be measured. Ironically, then, the origin of poverty lies in the foundational measure of wealth, money. Money has no physicality whatever. It bears even less trace than a factory commodity of its history and relationships. It is pure symbol.

Again, in a monetized society one is richer having money than not. But even the richest in money is poorer in most ways than a hunter-gatherer, traditional pastoralist, remote peasant villager, or anyone living in what Orland Bishop calls “cultures of memory,” as pilgrims to the Hadza or Quero or Kogi or other remote, gift-based societies will readily confirm.

It is no wonder that a society conditioned to accept money as the right measure of wealth also accepts digital abundance (which is also at bottom pure symbol, zeros and ones) as a substitute for embodied life.

Thus we descend (or, again, “ascend,” for this is a dematerialization not a sinking into the ground) into the hell of which I speak. It is a transition into a degraded level of reality. We are being tempted to become less real.

It reminds me of an experience I once had on a powerful psychedelic medicine. As the medicine took hold, I had the momentary experience of clinging on to a tiny scrap of paper held between finger and thumb that said on it, “Charles Eisenstein.” Clinging onto it, I thought, “Whatever is happening isn’t real, it’s just chemicals in my brain.” But as the psychedelic hurricane ripped it out of my grasp, my last words to myself were, “No. THAT wasn’t real.” Charles Eisenstein wasn’t real. My entire identity wasn’t real. And so “I” spent some timeless time in a much realer reality. Then I came back to this paler one, this incarnation as Charles. I trust that I have incarnated for good reasons that my soul knows even if “I” sometimes question it. Fortunately, none of us can lose ourselves permanently here, because of the pre-programmed safeguard we call death.

Immersion in digital reality feels akin to that step-down into a paler reality, but I doubt we are applying the same wisdom to it as we do in choosing an incarnation. Those technologists who fantasize about achieving immortality by uploading their consciousness into computers aspire, in fact, to a hell that intensifies modern life’s superficial excess and inner vacuity. Can you imagine a reality in which, after the novelty wears off, you have nothing but an eternal ennui of pixels and bits?

Art credit: “Breakthrough” by Natasza Zurek

Welcome, welcome, welcome — to the Machine! The Pink Floyd song still stirs me. But I am sure that if I heard it a thousand times, endlessly, reshuffled in various permutations, it would be the soundtrack to hell.

None of this is to imply that human beings should repudiate the technologies that make us more efficient. We just have to recognize which needs greater quantity can meet, and which it cannot. For example, AI chatbots cannot meet the need for intimacy. LLMs cannot meet the need for creativity. AI-generated art cannot meet the need for aesthetic nourishment. These simulations assuage the need, yes, but only temporarily.

Those who believe otherwise draw from the notion that ultimately, numbers can capture everything. If so, then a perfect simulation of intimacy, beauty, and love is possible.

If I am right, though, that fundamental human needs are forever beyond the capacity of digital technologies to meet, we can look to those needs for a durable source of economic, social, and spiritual development. Our machines can never replace us — provided we recognize the limits of what they can do, and validate the importance of what they cannot. This means that a future of mass unemployment is by no means inevitable. We will have ample opportunity to perform beautiful labor, if we as a society value its fruits.

It is not only the fruit, but also the process of labor that bears a kind of wealth that eludes efficiency. Just as air travel entails disconnection from the places in between origin and destination, so also does mechanized, distributed, and anonymous production alienate us from the material world. It may seem a privileged indulgence ever to take time to, say, knit a hat that is functionally no better than a $5 Wal-Mart hat. But to knit a hat is to visit the places in between materials and product, to be intimate with the terrain of materiality, and therefore to feel more at home herein.

My wife Stella is reading a book about the afterlife. The author’s deceased son starting speaking to her from the other side, describing what it is like there. In the afterlife, he said, you can manifest anything you like with a thought. A cabin in the woods, for example. You don’t have to find the property, source the materials, dig the foundation, erect the pillars, measure the boards, and so forth. You just “manifest” it. That sounds nice, but in what sense then is the cabin yours? It did not grow from a relationship demanding labor and attention. It just appeared, an alien object. That reminds me a lot of the things I “manifest” every day. I need only open my computer, twiddle my fingers, and voila! — a set of bed sheets appears in my driveway. I feel little attachment to things that come so easily. And if I could manifest a cabin in an instant without labor, I would feel little attachment to it either. It would be a throwaway. All the more for digital objects, like AI-generated songs and poems and images.

Non-attachment may seem to be a virtue, but our disconnection from the processes by which our bed sheets and everything else are produced enables us to ignore its grievous environmental and social consequences. When someone gives me a blanket they painstakingly wove themselves, when I have witnessed other such weavings, then I know it as precious. So also with the rest of life. It is precious because it takes so much care to build. The point of this whole sojourn into the material world is to become attached. Why did each of us leave the spiritual realm in the first place? Or why did God send us here? It is to develop the soul in the ways unique to this realm. It is to pour our gifts into creation. It is to form attachments and hold our contribution to creation precious. It is to build relationships with people and matter, relationships that grow us, relationships that always end in grief because they cannot last forever. We are here to love and to lose and to love again. That is why, when life fills up with objects that required little effort to obtain, we feel less present, less alive, and hungry for something consumer culture cannot name.

Fueling consumer desire is an authentic unfulfilled creative desire. Seeking intimacy with matter, instead we get a succession of new relationships. The unfulfillment of vapid consumption feels akin to that of casual sexual encounters. The human sex drive seeks something more than momentary gratification. It seeks to attach. It seeks to create. It seeks relationship. It seeks family.

A friend of mine is extremely wealthy — the majority shareholder of a billion-dollar company. His grandfather lives in a nursing home. Every day, my friend makes breakfast for his grandpa and drives it over himself to the nursing home to feed it to him. He could easily hire someone to do all that, but he is somebody who understands what real wealth is. The spiritual dividend from his “investment” in his grandfather is a kind of wealth that fires cannot burn and thieves cannot steal.

A lot of people, working two desperate jobs, pinned down by poverty, may not have the luxury to care for their own aged grandparents, or even for that matter their own children. Daycare may be the only financially viable option. But this is the consequence of our system, not a fundamental scarcity of resources. It was not always so. A great paradox of modern life is that, despite its unprecedented efficiency, despite the centuries of inventions to save us time, we have less time than ever. We are the first culture in history to be so poor that millions of us cannot attend to the most precious, intimate moments of life. That poverty of the sacred is the result of the obsession with the measurable.

It is also built into our financial system, in which money originates as interest-bearing debt, necessitating its endless increase (called “economic growth”) in order for the system to function. This systemic imperative for more and more and more coincides with the ideological emphasis on quantity and the measurable.

There is another path. It is not to purposely use less efficient means to copy the output of the machine. It is to recognize, prioritize, and value that which the machine is incapable of producing. This has a systemic expression and a personal expression. Each sustains the other. I have written about the former in depth in Sacred Economics. As for the latter, as individuals we can reclaim something of what has been lost. It’s not just to make and do things for ourselves again; more importantly, it is to make and do things for each other, for people we know, for people who make and do things for us too. Then none of us will live so much anymore in an alien world.

“Machines will not replace us” is not a prediction. It is a declaration.

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