The Big Machine

In a scene which sticks in the mind, Winston and Julia in George Orwell's 1984 escape from the numbing uniformity of dormitory life in Big Brother's world and find a few hours of stolen happiness in a shabby little room above a tea-shop. In their private haven, Julia puts on rouge and powder and looks prettier and more feminine. " 'And do you know what I am going to do next?" she says, 'I'm going to get hold of a real woman's frock from somewhere and wear it instead of these bloody trousers. I'll wear silk stockings and high-heeled shoes! In this room I'm going to be a woman, not a Party comrade.' Stripping off the regulation Party overalls was, like their love affair itself, a gesture of rebellion. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act."'

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of socialist economies, liberals all over the world are breathing easier. The Orwellian nightmare, they think, has passed. They delude themselves. Big Brother has gone but the Big Machine has come. The overalls have been discarded but soon cargo pants will be the only wear. Encroachment into the mind, the ironing out of individuality and the extirpation of creativity are all round the corner. What is in store will make 1984 look like a Hans Andersen fairy tale.

Long John Silver needed a wooden leg and Captain Hook needed a substitute for a lost hand. Most of us use less obvious kinds of prosthesis. With arthritis, failing vision, deafness and failing memories come walking sticks, false teeth, spectacles, hearing aids, and jotting pads. However, in the modern world we resort to prostheses even where they are not needed. When we use an elevator in preference to a small flight of stairs, when we use a calculator instead of doing a simple mental calculation, we are not making up for any deficiency in our mental or physical make-up. We are yielding to the human predilection for the soft option. Or in Willem van Loon's words, we are showing instances of "the effort of man to let someone else or something else do his work for him while he enjoyed his leisure sitting in the sun or painting pictures on rocks."

A watch enhances your ability because it helps you to tell the time accurately. But when the watch you are wearing needs to remind you about your mother's birthday, you are entrusting to the device functions that you should he performing as a simple, autonomous human being. You are attaching yourself to something you do not need. This is what Socrates had in mind when looking at a display of things offered for sale, he said to himself, "How many things I have no need of!".

The wheels of commerce, however, do not operate on the Socratic principle of minimum wants. Vance Packard and before him Thorstein Veblen showed us that modem commerce is geared not only to satisfy our most hidden desires but that hidden persuaders are constantly at work to create new wants. This syndrome finds free play in the electronic and digital world, with its cell phones, its palmtops, its Walkmans and its hand-held TVs, enough gadgets to till the multi-pockets of a cargo pant. Currently, the most powerful "hidden persuaders" are those at work in the computer markets of the world. No house feels complete without a desktop. No lap feels comfortable without a laptop. The little black book is giving place to the digital diary. The spread of the new technology is propelled by the giant forces of the global market for digital goods and services.

Whether these technological changes are disruptive is only of passing concern to the global computer salesman. In developing societies, the changes result in absurdly misplaced priorities. Take India, where computerization is the current buzz word. Vast state-of-the-art digital estates are being constructed in areas surrounded not by global villages but by real villages where drinking water is a problem, where goods are taken to the market in bullock carts, and where society is feudal. Computers are bought for schools and offices even in those places which do not have reliable sources of electric power. Schools have been supplied with computers in many places where the need is really for more teachers and for properly trained teachers. In a country where there is a serious limitation of funds for education, high-pressure salesmanship has led to the supply of thousands of computers which have not been put to use.

Against such adventurism, the safety of Asia in the past lay. paradoxically, in its weakness, its conservatism and its slowness to assimilate change. Global commerce is now busy breaching this psychological bastion. The merchants on the digital superhighway are busy teaching the Asians that to be cautious is to be unwise. They are being told that "willingness of the people to embrace any and all technological innovation" is a virtue. It is now being touted that this will be Asia's hidden asset 'in its emergence as a global technological center, rivaling the silicon valleys... of the west'. All this talk is often, uncomfortably reminiscent of the vision of a perfect society with which Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti tried to fool his people.

The computer technology which Asian countries will assimilate in the initial stages will be of a prosthetic nature. The state-of-the-art computer technology which the West is assimilating is much more of the nature of surrogates. These surrogates have reached a stage when machines are programming machines. The Van Loon syndrome is at work. We are letting machines think for us while we draw pictures and laze around in the sun. Herein lies a clear danger to humanity as a whole. For, in the process the West lies vulnerable to attack on the sources of human creativity which have produced not only its technological advance but its contribution to civilization itself.

In 1958 in the early days of artificial intelligence, Newell and Simon aimed at inventing machines "that think, that learn, and that create," and to develop them till they could ultimately handle a range of problems "which would be co-extensive with the range to which the human mind has been applied." The aim appeared to be naively ambitious at that time to even perceptive commentators like Dreyfus who felt that even simple applications like chess at the championship level or workmanlike translations from one language to another would be beyond the scope of artificial intelligence. However, by the turn of the century, machines which think. learn and create are commonplace. As Kurzweil, so convincingly argues, we are on the threshold of the Age of Spiritual Machines. The surrogate mind is a reality.

Apprehensions that advances in technology have dimmed or diminished some human faculty are not new. They are as old as Socrates' complaint about writing being bad for memory. The inevitable offshoot of the invention of machines is the retreat of some human faculty. The wheel, the lever, the telescope, the microscope and the internal combustion engine are, each in its own field, superior to the human faculties in that they have come to the aid of. In the course of their use there has been some loss of human skill, some loss of human physical competence. But in none of these inventions has there been an abdication of the human mind. The mind which directed the activity was always human. The position is different with computers. With the levels of machine intelligence which computers have already reached it is difficult to say any longer with confidence that it is the human mind which is in control. And what lends urgency to this view is that it is not merely the view of the philosophers like Jacques Ellul. It is also the view of computer scientists like Weizenbaum.

In the world of 1984, the members of the Party were forced to wear regulation overalls on their bodies but there were some like Winston who rebelled against wearing them in their heads. We face the same insidious hazard today. The drive of digital technology is forcing us to wear cargo pants in our brains.

Last Frontier of the Mind - Challenges of the Digital Age, Mohandas Moses

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