Boons and Perils of a Mechanized Future

Today is the bicentenniel of my all-time favorite author. Her mastery of the language rewards my close attention to her choice of words, so the more I read into her work, the more I learn.

Not only does she understand human nature deeply, she writes with compassion, even when her characters do bad things, even when she is poking fun, she invites us to open our heart to the characters she has created.

In this passage from her last, quirky novel, she manages to spoof futurology, while displaying a striking prescience about where our species was headed in the century plus after she wrote this (1879).

Eliot is keenly aware of the Darwinian thought and of the impending land-grab by a scientific (mechanistic) world-view that threatens to take over the moral and aesthetic realms. She is talking here about (and laughing at) the prospect of an artificial intelligence taking over and disposing of its creator.

“Nothing of the sort!” returned Trost, getting angry, and judging it kind to treat me with some severity; “what you have heard me say is, that our race will and must act as a nervous centre to the utmost development of mechanical processes: the subtly refined powers of machines will react in producing more subtly refined thinking processes which will occupy the minds set free from grosser labour. Say, for example, that all the scavengers work of London were done, so far as human attention is concerned, by the occasional pressure of a brass button (as in the ringing of an electric bell), you will then have a multitude of brains set free for the exquisite enjoyment of dealing with the exact sequences and high speculations supplied and prompted by the delicate machines which yield a response to the fixed stars, and give readings of the spiral vortices fundamentally concerned in the production of epic poems or great judicial harangues. So far from mankind being thrown out of work according to your notion,” concluded Trost, with a peculiar nasal note of scorn, “if it were not for your incurable dilettanteism in science as in all other things—if you had once understood the action of any delicate machine—you would perceive that the sequences it carries throughout the realm of phenomena would require many generations, perhaps aeons, of understandings considerably stronger than yours, to exhaust the store of work it lays open.”

“Naturally,” I persisted, “it is less easy to you than to me to imagine our race transcended and superseded, since the more energy a being is possessed of, the harder it must be for him to conceive his own death. But I, from the vantage of a common fish, can easily imagine myself and my congeners dispensed within the frame of things and giving way not only to a superior but a vastly different kind of Entity. What I would ask you is, to show me why, since each new invention casts a new light along the pathway of discovery, and each new combination or structure brings into play more conditions than its inventor foresaw, there should not at length be a machine of such high mechanical and chemical powers that it would find and assimilate the material to supply its own stock, and then by a further evolution of internal molecular movements reproduce itself by some process of fission or budding. This last stage having been reached, either by man’s contrivance or as an unforeseen result, one sees that the process of natural selection must drive men altogether out of the field; for they will long before have begun to sink into the miserable condition of those unhappy characters in fable who, having demons or djinns at their beck, and being obliged to supply them with work, found too much of everything done in too short a time. What demons so potent as molecular movements, none the less tremendously potent for not carrying the futile cargo of a consciousness screeching irrelevantly, like a fowl tied head downmost to the saddle of a swift horseman? Under such uncomfortable circumstances our race will have diminished with the diminishing call on their energies, and by the time that the self-repairing and reproducing machines arise, all but a few of the rare inventors, calculators, and speculators will have become pale, pulpy, and cretinous from fatty or other degeneration, and behold around them a scanty hydrocephalous offspring. As to the breed of the ingenious and intellectual, their nervous systems will at last have been overwrought in following the molecular revelations of the immensely more powerful unconscious race, and they will naturally, as the less energetic combinations of movement, subside like the flame of a candle in the sunlight Thus the feebler race, whose corporeal adjustments happened to be accompanied with a maniacal consciousness which imagined itself moving its mover, will have vanished, as all less adapted existences do before the fittest—i.e., the existence composed of the most persistent groups of movements and the most capable of incorporating new groups in harmonious relation. Who—if our consciousness is, as I have been given to understand, a mere stumbling of our organisms on their way to unconscious perfection—who shall say that those fittest existences will not be found along the track of what we call inorganic combinations, which will carry on the most elaborate processes as mutely and painlessly as we are now told that the minerals are metamorphosing themselves continually in the dark laboratory of the earth’s crust? Thus this planet may be filled with beings who will be blind and deaf as the inmost rock, yet will execute changes as delicate and complicated as those of human language and all the intricate web of what we call its effects, without sensitive impression, without sensitive impulse: there may be, let us say, mute orations, mute rhapsodies, mute discussions, and no consciousness there even to enjoy the silence.”

“Absurd!” grumbled Trost.

The following metaphysical poem was discovered in her notebooks in the 1960s, after it didn’t make the cut in  College Breakfast Party, a multi-party philosophical/religious discussion in the form of a long poem.

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A cave in Malibu CA, photo by Marcel on Reddit

………………I grant you ample leave
To use the hoary formula ‘I am’,
Naming the emptiness where thought is not;
But fill the void with definition, ‘I’
Will be no more a datum than the words
You link false inference with, the ‘Since’ & ‘so’
That, true or not, make up the atom-whirl.
Resolve your ‘Ego’, it is all one web
With vibrant ether clotted into worlds:
Your subject, self, or self-assertive ‘I’
Turns nought but object, melts to molecules,
Is stripped from naked Being with the rest
Of those rag-garments named the Universe.
Or if, in strife to keep your ‘Ego’ strong
You make it weaver of the etherial light,
Space, motion, solids & the dream of Time —
Why, still ’tis Being looking from the dark,
The core, the centre of your consciousness,
That notes your bubble-world: sense, pleasure, pain,
What are they but a shifting otherness,
Phantasmal flux of moments? —

George Eliot was born Mary Anne Evans, 22 November, 1819

Jean Liedloff on Socialization

These children I met in the Amazon jungle played wild, they played rough, but they were never antagonistic and they rarely hurt one another. It’s not that they were obeying strict rules. Just the opposite. They had no rules. That got me thinking about the way they raise children and the way we raise children.Paperback The Continuum Concept: In Search Of Happiness Lost (Classics in Human Development) Book

We have created an anti-social population. No child is born bad, but you can make them bad, make them anti-social. We expect our children to be greedy and selfish and destructive, and because our children are born so social, they meet our expectations by becoming that way. 

Why do we have to lock our doors? Why do we have police forces? Why do we need armies? We have conditioned our whole population with rules and policing that assumes we are all bad people, just waiting for the opportunity to misbehave.

Good for what ails you

I once met a dead man in Barcelona
who has been with me ever since.
I showed him my hypochondria
and my disdain for my body
and the scars that cruel men have rent in my flesh,
and I said,
“Well? What can you do with this?”

He turned me around on the balcony and showed me the universe.
“This is medicine,” he said.
“Swallow it.”

— Caitlin Johnstone

Just Now


In the morning as the storm begins to blow away
the clear sky appears for a moment and it seems to me
that there has been something simpler than I could ever
simpler than I could have begun to find words for
not patient not even waiting no more hidden
than the air itself that became part of me for a while
with every breath and remained with me unnoticed
something that was here unnamed unknown in the days
and the nights not separate from them
not separate from them as they came and were gone
it must have been here neither early nor late then
by what name can I address it now holding out my thanks

~ W.S. Merwin (via Joe Riley’s Panhala email list)

How much of our thinking about happiness is culture-bound?

“For most of human history, life was solitary, poor, brutish, nasty, and short…Food was scarce; health was poor; a day of work was long, and when you got up in the morning, your entire To-do list was trying not to die today.”
— Daniel Gilbert, in a World Minds video

 ….And yet, by the close of the colonial period, very few if any Indians had been transformed into civilized Englishmen. Most of the Indians who were educated by the English-some contemporaries thought all of them-returned to Indian society at the first opportunity to resume their Indian identities. On the other hand, large numbers of Englishmen had chosen to become Indians-by running away from colonial society to join Indian society, by not trying to escape after being captured, or by electing to remain with their Indian captors when treaties of peace periodically afforded them the opportunity to return home.
James Axtell

[Benjamin Franklin told a story about this, but Google won’t find it for me. Perhaps you will comment below if you can locate it. Thanks!]

Daniel Gilbert may be the world’s foremost expert on happiness, but the picture he paints of the lives of hunter-gatherers is badly out of step with what anthropologists have learned from present-day hunter-gatherers in New Guinea, South America and Africa. More basically, his recommendations are valid only within the context of modern Western society, and, even his concept of happiness seems culture-bound.

Before agriculture, people were less numerous and more dispersed. Food was plentiful, and on average, pre-agricultural peoples spent much less time than we spend obtaining the necessities of life. More important, their work was not onerous or demeaning. They didn’t have to stuff down resentment of the boss or frustration with traffic. Can we even imagine what it would be like not to be alienated from our work, to experience no separation between what we are moved to do from moment to moment and those activities that support our existence? Maybe happiness is feeling whole, feeling integration between what we find it natural to do and what sustains ourselves and our communities. 

It may be that the Native Americans were not hunter-gatherers but engineers and stewards of a rich and completely sustainable ecosystem, which they maintained almost effortlessly with well-timed fires and plantings of fruit trees and food plants within natural ecosystems. While the Europeans developed expertise in the short-term efficiency of monoculture, American Natives were wisely intuitive ecologists, experts in a traditional brand of permaculture. I have heard this often enough that I begin to believe it.

Gilbert’s reference to the “to-do” list is just a quip, of course, but it betrays his prejudice that ties happiness to activities of some particular types. He imagines that because pre-agricultural people were less secure against weather and disease they must have lived in fear. But the opposite is almost certainly true. It is we whose cortisol levels are chronically high, we who live in anxiety about whether we will lose our jobs and our homes, we who listen every day to reports of random, insane violence, and perk up our ears when the terrorist threat level goes from red to orange and back to red.

Image result for africans dancing joy

To Thomas Hobbes’s famous “nasty, brutish, and short”, Gilbert curiously adds the adjective “solitary”. He knows from his data that lonely is miserable, and relationship is the most important factor in individual happiness. But he doesn’t seem to know that Western culture has torn us asunder, framed our relationships as transactions in a zero-sum game, and devalued the cooperative relationships that contribute so much to a fulfilling life. He doesn’t seem aware that contemporary America is the most pathologically individualistic, isolating, alienated culture in the history of humankind.   

We live in a transactional economy, carrying the existential fear that maybe we have nothing to offer, or that tomorrow’s robot will make us obsolete. Our forebears lived in the grace of a caring extended family, in which a place was assured for everyone without calculation of the balance between what they offered and what they received. We live on an earth that we are transforming into products in a one-way dive toward global ecosystem collapse. They lived as animals in nature, trusting the bounty of Mother Gaia to provide their needs. We have power and control. They had faith and relationship.   

We live under the shadow of a belief that our precious selves are products of the nerve impulses in our brains, and that oblivion awaits us when those nerves cease to fire. They knew (instinctively and culturally) that the short lives of their bodies are woven into nature’s cycles, and that their core awareness will cycle into another birth and yet another. 

More speculatively, hunter-gatherers had senses which, in us, have fallen into disuse. We have learned to focus on the outer five senses, shutting out, suppressing or fearing mystical experiences, out of tune with our intuitions and the transpersonal messages that animals and less “civilized” humans experience every day. Gilbert knows that people are happier when they are surrounded by nature, because it has been documented and quantified (most famously by Gilbert’s Harvard colleague, E.O. Wilson, who popularized the term Biophioia).  But does any one of us know—can we even begin to imagine—an unshakable sense of wellbeing that is deeply grounded in a life in communion with nature?

                         Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

— Wordsworth wrote this in 1802! What would he make of the alienation which we routinely tolerate today?

Our Western culture and the science that undergirds it have brought us knowledge and a richness of possibilities unimaginable to our ancestors; but I would not count happiness among the boons of a 21st Century Western lifestyle.



The meanning of time has changed, just in the last 300 years.

The present, and by that is meant not the point which indicates from time to time in our thought merely the conclusion of “finished” time, the mere appearance of a termination which is fixed and held, but the real, filled present, exists only in so far as actual presentness, meeting and relation exist. The present arises only in virtue of the fact that the Thou becomes present.

The I of I-It, surrounded by a multitude of “contents” has no present, only the past. Put in another way, in so far as a man rests satisfied with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no present content. He has nothing but objects, and objects subsist in time that has been.

The present is not fugitive and transient, but continually present and enduring. The object is not duration, but cessation, suspension, a breaking off and cutting clear and hardening, absence of relation and of present being.

True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is in the past.

— Martin Buber, I and Thou, Gregor Smith translation

Tempus Fugit
FLY envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.
— John Milton

Counseled in Humility…

…by the only person from whom I can accept this message.

Stances Marotiques À Mon Esprit

Non mon esprit vous n’êtes sot,
Mais onc ne fûtes Philosophe,
Point n’est sagesse votre lot,
Pourtant ne manquez pas d’étoffe.

Point trop mal vous dites le mot,
Assez bien raillez sans déplaire,
Or un sot ne le pourrait faire :
Non mon esprit vous n’êtes sot.

Mais flatter ne fut mon métier,
Partant souffrez cette apostrophe ;
Bien êtes un peu singulier,
Mais onc ne fûtes Philosophe.

Triste, gai, libertin, dévot,
Sans fin variez votre assiette,
Et donc à bon droit je répète :
Point n’est sagesse votre lot.

Or évitez des esprits vains,
Commune et triste catastrophe,
Car certes n’êtes des plus fins,
Pourtant ne manquez pas d’étoffe

Joseph Quesnel est né cette journee en 1746

Stanzas for my heart, after Clément Marot

No, dear heart, you are not dumb,
But nor are you a mystic sage,
Of wisdom you have ne’er a crumb
But you can read what’s on the page.

Well-mannered you know how to be
And when you’re rude, you know your bound
That proves to me your mind is sound
None charge you with stupidy.

But flattery is not my craft
And as myself I do address
(This makes me just a little daft)
We are no sage, we must confess.

Sad, gay, devout or libertine—
At life’s buffet you’ll choose your dish;
You can be generous or mean,
Live freely as you freely wish.

You need not fall flat on your face,
Or spring the traps that tempt our race—
Just know you’re not a know-it-all
And fix you eye upon the ball.

— Translation by JJM