Why Do We Fear the Future of the Presence of Technology?

So far--in several posts and in my book Say Yes to No--I've emphasized the negative sides of technology--how it makes us distracted, nervous, less empathic, less spiritual, and in some ways, less human. This, in fact, is the direction of Sherry Turkle's research and her book I'm currently reading, Reclaiming Conversation. I also just re-watched the film Ex Machina, about Nathan, a computer genius and owner of a web-search company--think Google. Nathan creates Ava (whose name is obviously a play on that of the first woman of the Bible, Eve). Ava is a beautiful and alluring strong artificial intelligence (AI) robot who can also pass the Turing Test. In the course of the film, Nathan declares something significant to Caleb (one of his employees who has been recruited by Nathan to assess Ava):

"The arrival of strong artificial intelligence has been inevitable for decades. The variable was when, not if." Nathan in Ex Machina

About half way through the film, the movie pivots and begins to emphasize the dark side of technology. Ultimately, Ava turns out to be dangerous, self-serving, manipulative, and even murderous. This seems to be a parable for our fears about tech--we create something that overwhelms us. (I remember first watching this as a kid seeing Fantasia and the famous "Sorcerer's Apprentice" scene.)

Why do we fear technology--its presence in our lives and what skulks on the horizon? This question brings me back to the film.

The title, "Ex Machina" obviously plays on the old Greek tragedy's trope of Deus Ex Machina, or "god of the machine," " where a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage. The machine could be either a crane (mechane) used to lower actors from above or a riser that brought actors up through a trapdoor. Preparation to pick up the actors was done behind the skene. The idea was introduced by Aeschylus and was used often to resolve the conflict and conclude the drama." It now denotes an unrealistically resolved plot.

But here, in Ex Machina, the direction is reversed--the plot isn't resolved, but descends into anarchy. It is not a comedy--where the initial values of the film's world are restored, but a tragedy, where suddenly there is an anonymous AI robot released into the world creating chaos. The "god" of the machine--the creator of Ava--is destroyed. Here I think immediately of The Matrix or of The Terminator's Skynet.

But why do we fear technology? I mean, my smart phone is almost always at my side. Google Maps does help me find directions really easily. I enjoy music on my iPhone. More substantially, cell phones help poor African farmers find the best price for their crop and thus make enough money to live. Pico projectors offered training to stem the tide of Ebola--ask my friend Matt York at OMPT.

Nonetheless, I realize there is power over me that is sometimes seemingly impossible to resist. Sherry Turkle reminds us that, on the average, Americans check their cell phone every 6 ½ minutes. That seems a little scary because I'll bet that time interval is decreasing, and despite all the good things tech has brought, the creation seems to be overwhelming the creators. Maybe it's even an intimation of "original sin," this notion that there is something lurking in us that cannot resist the temptation to misuse what is powerful and even, at some level, good. I sense this concern, even hints of fear, running as an undercurrent throughout Turkle's recent work.

So why do we fear the future of the presence of technology? I'm not sure we're convinced we have sufficiently robust wills to properly use its powers. Maybe we need to move beyond fear. Perhaps, however the first step is to affirm the good that tech brings.

I'll leave it there for now (although you can find other reflections here) and will return to this positive side of tech in a future post.