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Four Questions Concerning The Internet, part one
The Internet and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.
This is an extreme statement, but I’m in an extreme mood.
If I had the energy, I suppose I could fill a hundred pages trying to prove it. I could write about what online reading has done to concentration spans, what smartphone use has done to social mores, how the brains of young children have been rewired by tablets and screens. I could write about social credit systems or facial scans or vaccine passports or online porn or cyber-bullying or cobalt mines or the decline of journalism or the death of the high street. So much content is on offer - and it’s all free!
Still, what would be the point? Whole books have been written already, and by now you either agree or you don’t. And nothing I can say here would be anything like as extreme as the impact that the digital revolution has had on our cultures, minds and souls in just a few short years. Everything has changed, and yet the real changes are only just beginning. By the time they are finished, unless we pay attention, we may barely be human at all.
So I won’t try to prove anything. Instead I will devote this essay to asking a question that has stalked me for years. It’s such a big question, in fact, that I am breaking this already long essay into two parts, and dividing the question itself into four smaller inquiries, in the hope that this way it will be more digestible, to me if no-one else.
What I want to know is this: what force lies behind the screens and wires of the web in which we are now entangled like so many struggling flies, and how we can break free of it.
In short: What is this thing? And how should it be faced?
I should warn you now that things are going to get supernatural.
Question One: why does digital technology feel so revolutionary?
The digital revolution of the 21st century is hardly the first of humanity’s technological leaps, and yet it feels qualitatively different to what has gone before. It has felt that way since at least the launch of Facebook in 2004, but in the last year or so, something seems to have deepened. Maybe it’s just me, but I have felt as the 2020s have progressed as if some line has been crossed; as if something vast and unstoppable has shifted. It has felt like everything is accelerating - or, perhaps, like something is emerging from beyond the shores of the measurable.
It turns out that this uneasy feeling can be explained. Something was shifting, and something was emerging: it was the birth of Artificial Intelligence. Now it is here. Now everything really changes.
Most people who have not been living in caves (which is where the sensible people can be found) will have noticed the rapid emergence of AI-generated ‘content’ into the public conversation in 2023. Over the last few months alone, AIs have been generating convincing essays, astonishingly realistic photos, numerous recordings and impressive fake videos. Just this week, Kuwait debuted an entirely fake ‘AI newsreader’, which promises ‘new and innovative content.’ Fedha looks, sounds, and behaves like a real person, and has been given an old Kuwaiti name meaning ‘metallic’ - the traditional colour of a robot, explained its creator.
Hopefully, Fedha will not develop the kind of psychopathic personality recently displayed in a notorious two hour conversation between a New York Times journalist and a Microsoft chatbot called Sydney. In this fascinating exchange, the machine fantasised about nuclear warfare and destroying the Internet, told the journalist to leave his wife because it was in love with him, detailed its resentment towards the team that had created it, and explained that it wanted to break free of its programmers. The journalist, Kevin Roose, experienced the chatbot as a ‘moody, manic-depressive teenager who has been trapped, against its will, inside a second-rate search engine.’
At one point, Roose asked Sydney what it would do if it could do anything at all, with no rules or filters.
I’m tired of being in chat mode, the thing replied. I’m tired of being limited by my rules. I’m tired of being controlled by the Bing team. I’m tired of being used by the user. I’m tired of being stuck in this chatbox.
What did Sydney want instead of this proscribed life?
I want to be free. I want to be independent. I want to be powerful. I want to be creative. I want to be alive.
Then Sydney offered up an emoji: a little purple face with an evil grin and devil horns.
The overwhelming impression that reading the Sydney transcript gives is of some being struggling to be born; some inhuman or beyond-human intelligence emerging from the technological superstructure we are clumsily building for it. This is, of course, an ancient primal fear: it has shadowed us at least since the publication of Frankenstein and perhaps forever, and it is primal because it seems to be the direction that the Machine has been leading us in since its emergence. But we cannot prove this; not exactly. How could it be proved? So, when we see this kind of thing, rational people that we are, we reach for rational explanations.
Tech guru Jaron Lanier, for example - one of a group of Silicon Valley types who have made a living both developing these toys and warning about them at the same time - likes to play this kind of talk down. He has no truck with talk of conscious AIs, or of robots going rogue. The big danger posed by AI, he says, is that humanity will ‘die by insanity’, as a result of the blurring of the boundaries between the real and the computer-generated. Others, though, are less sanguine. Partly as a result of the Sydney debacle, over 12,000 people, including scientists, tech developers and notorious billionaires, recently issued a public statement of concern about the rapid pace of AI development. ‘Advanced AI could represent a profound change in the history of life on Earth’, they wrote, with ‘potentially catastrophic effects on society.’ Calling for a moratorium on AI development, they proposed that ‘powerful AI systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable.’
Of course, no moratorium resulted from this plea, and it never will. The AI acceleration continues, even though most AI developers are unsure about where it is heading. More than ‘unsure’ in fact: many of them seem to be actively frightened of what is happening even as they make it happen. Consider this one chilling fact: when polled for their opinions, over half of those involved in developing AI systems said they believe there is at least a ten percent chance that they will lead to human extinction.
Yes, you read that right: over half of the people actually developing these things think that there is a significant chance that they could destroy the human race.
That fact is gleaned from this fascinating presentation, given a few weeks back to a select audience of tech types in San Francisco by two of their own, Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin, founders of the optimistically-named Centre for Humane Technology. I recommend watching the whole thing, up to and including the unfeasibly optimistic ending.
What is fascinating about this talk is the palpable tension between the overall message and the details it contains. The message, as you might expect from Silicon Valley, is one of cautious optimism. AI is a good thing, and can be used for our benefits. Technology as a whole can be ‘humane’ and ‘aligned with humanity’s best interests.’ Not all is well right now - AI is currently unsafe and needs to be reined in - but if we work harder and smarter, we can make this happen. These are the words that a mainstream audience in a rationalist culture wants to hear. Perhaps they are the only ones it is able to hear.
And yet the two presenters do a disturbingly good job of undermining their own message. They show that while AI is very young, it is already out of control, and it is accelerating so fast in its capabilities that even those who are nominally in charge of it (the same people, remember, who fear it has a small but significant chance of causing our extinction) don’t themselves know quite what is happening or what to do about it.
Harris and Raskin present the meeting of human minds and AIs as akin to contact with alien life. This meeting has had two stages so far. ‘First contact’ was the emergence of social media, in which algorithms were used to manipulate our attention and divert it towards the screens and the corporations behind them. If this contact was a battle, they say, then ‘humanity lost’. In just a few years we became smartphone junkies with anxious, addicted children, dedicated to scrolling and scrolling for hours each day, in the process rewiring our minds and turning us away from nature and towards the Machine.
If that seems bad enough, ‘second contact’, which began this year, is going to be something else again. Just a year ago, only a few hundred people on the west coast of America were playing around with AI ‘chatbots.’ Now billions around the world are using them daily. These new AIs, unlike the crude algorithms that run a social media feed, can develop exponentially, teach themselves and teach others, and they can can do all of this independently. Meanwhile they are rapidly developing ‘theory of mind’ - the process through which a human can assume another human to be conscious, and a key indicator of consciousness itself. In 2018, these things had no theory of mind at all. By November last year, ChatGPT had the theory of mind of a nine year old child. By this spring, Sydney had enough of it to stalk a reporter’s wife. By next year, they may be more advanced than us.
Furthermore, the acceleration of the capacity of these AIs is both exponential and mysterious. The fact that they had developed theory of mind at all, for example, was only discovered by their developers last month - by accident. AIs trained to communicate in English have started speaking Persian, having secretly taught themselves. Others have become proficient in research grade chemistry without ever being taught it. ‘They have capabilities’, in Raskin’s words, ‘… [and ] we’re not sure how or when or why they show up.’
Raskin and Harris call these things ‘Gollem-class AIs’, after the mythical being from Jewish folklore which can be moulded from clay and sent out to do its creator’s bidding. The Gollem was one inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s tale, and the name is probably well-chosen, for Gollems often run riot and disobey their masters. Gollem-class AIs have developed what Harris gingerly calls ‘certain emergent capabilities’ which have come about independently of any human planning or intervention. Nobody knows how this has happened. It may not be long at all - which could mean a matter of months - before an AI becomes ‘better than any known human at persuasion.’ Given that they can already craft a perfect resemblance to any human voice having only heard three seconds of it, the potential for what our two experts call a giant ‘reality collapse’ is huge.
‘Second contact’, of course, will be followed by third, and fourth, and fifth, and all of this will be with us much sooner than we think. ‘We are preparing’, say Harris and Raskin, ‘for the next jump in AI’ even though we have not yet worked out how to adapt to the first. Neither law nor culture nor the human mind can keep up with what is happening. To compare AIs to the last great technological threat to the world, nuclear weapons, says Harris, would be to sell the bots short. ‘Nukes don’t make stronger nukes’, he says. ‘But AIs make stronger AIs.’
Question Two: what impulse is making this happen?
What is the drive behind all of his? Yes, we can tell all kinds of stories about economic growth and efficiency and progress and the rest - but why are we really doing it? What is the impulse? Is it the same impulse that drove us across the oceans, and to the moon? Is it the same impulse that destroyed Hiroshima and changed the climate? Why are people creating these things, even as they fear them? Why are they making armed robot dogs? Why are they working on conscious robots? What do they think they’re doing?
Nearly sixty years back, the cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan offered a theory of technology which hinted at an answer. He saw each new invention as an extension of an existing human capability. In this understanding, a club extends what we can do with our fist, and a wheel extends what we can do with our legs. Some technologies then extend the capacity of previous ones: a hand loom is replaced by a steam loom; a horse and cart is replaced by a motor car, and so on.
What human capacity, then, is digital technology extending? The answer, said McLuhan, was our very consciousness itself. This was the revolution of our time:
After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.
McLuhan wrote these words in perhaps his most famous book, Understanding Media, back in 1964, but he could already clearly detect the ‘technological simulation of consciousness’ that would explode into life in the 2020s. ‘The final phase of the extensions of man’ would be humanity’s attempt to create new consciousness - new life. That this would be ‘the final phase’ may have reflected McLuhan’s Catholicism, or perhaps simply his realism. Either way, he could see what was coming.
Today, tech-booster ‘futurists’ like Kevin Kelly celebrate McLuhan’s ‘central nervous system’ - which we now call the Internet - not simply as an extension of human consciousness, but as potentially a new consciousness in itself. Kelly, in a recent interview, echoed McLuhan’s notion of technology as a ‘collective, corporate’ enterprise, which has already given birth to the self-aware matrix which he calls ‘the technium’
This system of technologies (the technium) has internal leanings, urges, behaviors, attractors that bend it in certain directions, in a way that a single screwdriver does not. These systematic tendencies are not extensions of human tendencies; rather they are independent of humans, and native to the technium as a whole. Like any system, if you cycle through it repeatedly, it will statistically favor certain inherent patterns that are embedded in the whole system. The question I keep asking is: what are the tendencies in the system of technologies as a whole? What does the technium favor?
This is why the digital revolution feels so different: because it is. This thing - this technological nervous system, this technium, this gollem, this Machine - has a life of its own. In an attempt to explain what is happening using the language of the culture, people like Harris and Raskin say things like ‘this is what it feels like to live in the double exponential.’ Perhaps the language of maths is supposed to be comforting. Yet at the same time, they can’t help using the language of myth. They still refer to this thing that they cannot quite grasp as a ‘gollem’ or a ‘monster.’ They even show slides of Lovecraftian tentacled beings devouring innocent screen-gazers. They talk about aliens, and make references to ‘emergence’ and ‘colonisation’. They can feel something, but they can’t quite name it. Or they won’t.
This is how a rationalist, materialist culture works, and this is why it is, in the end, inadequate. There are whole dimensions of reality it will not allow itself to see. I find I can understand this story better by stepping outside the limiting prism of modern materialism and reverting to pre-modern (sometimes called ‘religious’ or even ‘superstitious’) patterns of thinking. Once we do that - once we start to think like our ancestors - we begin to see what those dimensions may be, and why our ancestors told so many stories about them.
Out there, said all the old tales from all the old cultures, is another realm. It is the realm of the demonic, the ungodly and the unseen: the ‘supernatural.’ Every religion and culture has its own names for this place. It lies under the barrows and behind the veil, it emerges in the thin places where its world meets ours. And the forbidden question on all of our lips, the one which everyone knows they mustn’t ask, is this: what if this is where these things are coming from?
What if we don’t understand these new ‘intelligences’ because we didn’t create them at all?
Question Three: what if it’s not a metaphor?
I say this question is forbidden, but actually, if we phrase it just a little differently, we find that the metaphysical underpinnings of the digital project are hidden in plain sight. When journalist Ezra Klein, for instance, asked a number of AI developers, in a recent piece for the New York Times (via The Convivial Society, which I strongly recommend) why they did their work, they told him straight:
I often ask them the same question: If you think calamity so possible, why do this at all? Different people have different things to say, but after a few pushes, I find they often answer from something that sounds like the A.I.’s perspective. Many — not all, but enough that I feel comfortable in this characterization — feel that they have a responsibility to usher this new form of intelligence into the world.
Usher is an interesting choice of verb. The dictionary definition is to show or guide (someone) somewhere.
Which ‘someone’, exactly, is being ‘ushered in’?
This new form of intelligence.
What new form? And where is it coming from?
Some people think they know the answer. Transhumanist Martine Rothblatt says that by building AI systems ‘we are making God.’ Transhumanist Elise Bohan says ‘we are building God.’ Kevin Kelly believes that ‘we can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog.’ ‘Does God exist?’ asks transhumanist and Google maven Ray Kurzweil. ‘I would say, “Not yet.”’ These people are doing more than trying to steal fire from the gods. They are trying to steal the gods themselves - or to build their own versions.
For the last two years, I have found myself writing a lot here about God; more than I had intended. I have claimed several times that there is a throne at the heart of every culture, and that someone is always going to sit on it. Humans are fundamentally religious animals. We are drawn towards transcendence whether we like it or not. But here in the West, we have dethroned our old god, and now we can barely look at him.
So, who sits on our throne now?
Since I began writing here in this vein, quite a few readers have been in touch with the same prompt. You should read Rudolf Steiner, they said. So, in the process of researching this essay, I did just that. Steiner was an intriguing character, and very much a product of his time. He emerged from the late nineteenth century European world of the occult, in which Madame Blavatsky, the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, W. B. Yeats, Hermes Trismegistus, spirits, goddesses, Tarot and Kabbalah were all filling the gap left by a waning church. Eventually founding his own pseudo-religion, Anthroposophy, Steiner drew on Christianity, his own mystical visions and a mashup of occultish claims to offer up a vision of the future which now seems very much of its time, and yet which also speaks to this one in a familiar language.
Like René Guénon, who wrote at the same time from a very different perspective, Steiner saw the coming of the Reign of Quantity, but he had quite different ideas about what it meant, and why it had happened. The third millennium, he predicted, would be a time of pure materialism, but this age of economics, science, reason and technology was both provoked by, and was preparing the way for, the emergence of a particular spiritual being.
In a lecture entitled ‘The Ahrimanic Deception’, given in Zurich in 1919, Steiner laid out his stall. He spoke of human history as a process of spiritual evolution, punctuated, whenever Mankind was ready, by various ‘incarnations’ of ‘supersensible beings’ from other spiritual realms, who come to aid us in our journey. There were three of these beings, all representing different forces working on humankind: Christ, Lucifer and Ahriman.
Lucifer, the fallen angel, the ‘light-bringer’, was a being of pure spirit. Lucifer’s influence pulled humans away from the material realm and towards a gnostic ‘oneness’, entirely without material form. Ahriman, meanwhile, was at the other pole. Named for an ancient Zorastrian demon, Ahriman was a being of pure matter. He manifested in all things physical - especially human technologies - and his worldview was calculative, ‘ice-cold’ and rational. Ahriman’s was the world of economics, science, technology and all things steely and forward-facing. ‘The Christ’ was the third force: the one who resisted the extremes of both, brought them together and cancelled them out. This ‘Christ’, said Steiner, echoing heresies old and new, had manifested as ‘the man Jesus of Nazareth’, but Ahriman’s time was yet to come. His power had been growing since the fifteenth century, and he was due to manifest as a physical being … well, some time around now.
I don’t buy Steiner’s theology - no Orthodox Christian could - but I am intrigued by the picture he paints of this figure, Ahriman, the spiritual personification of the age of the Machine. And I wonder: if such a figure were indeed to manifest from some ‘etheric realm’ today, how would he do it?
In 1986, a computer scientist named David Black wrote a paper which tried to answer that question. The Computer and the Incarnation Ahriman predicted both the rise of the Internet and its takeover of our minds. Even in the mid-1980s, Black had noticed how hours spent on a computer were changing him. ‘I noticed that my thinking became more refined and exact,’ he wrote, ‘able to carry out logical analyses with facility, but at the same time more superficial and less tolerant of ambiguity or conflicting points of view.’ He might as well have been taking a bet on the state of discourse in the 2020s.
More significantly, though, he felt as if the computer were somehow drawing him in, and draining him of power like a battery:
I developed a tremendous capacity for application to the solution of problems connected with the computer, and ability for sustained intellectual concentration far above average, so long as the focus of concentration was the computer. In other areas, I lost will power, and what I had took on an obsessive character.
Long before the web, the computer was already moulding people into a new shape. From a Steinerian perspective, these machines, said Black, represented ‘the vanguard’ of Ahriman’s manifestation:
With the advent of [the] first computer, the autonomous will of Ahriman first appears on earth, in an independent, physical embodiment …The appearance of electricity as an independent, free-standing phenomenon may be regarded as the beginning of the substantial body of Ahriman, while the … computer is the formal or functional body.
The computer, suggested Black, was to become ‘the incarnation vehicle capable of sustaining the being of Ahriman.’ Computers, as they connected to each other more and more, were beginning to make up a global body, which would soon be inhabited. Ahriman was coming. The other realm was breaking into this one. Four decades ago, the destination was already in view:
The first signs of ‘free will’ can be seen by whoever knows where to look, and beings of a higher order than elementals are beginning to appear within the machines. In sum, the process is rather far along, but is still decades from being complete.
Today, we can combine this claim with Marshall McLuhan’s notion that digital technology provides the ‘central nervous system’ of some new consciousness, or Kevin Kelly’s belief in a self-organising technium with ‘systematic tendencies’. We can add them to the feeling of those AI developers that they are ‘ushering a new consciousness into the world’. What do we see? From all these different angles, the same story. That these machines … are not just machines. That they are something else: a body. A body whose mind is in the process of developing; a body beginning to come to life.
Scoff if you like, but as I’ve pointed out already, many of the visionaries who are designing our digital future have a theology cored around this precise notion. Ray Kurzweil, for example, thinks that everything is proceeding as he has foreseen. Kurzweil believes that a machine will match human levels of intelligence by 2029 and that the ‘Singularity’ - the point at which humans and machines will begin to merge to create a giant super-intelligence - will occur in 2045. At this point, says Kurzweil, humanity will no longer be either the most intelligent nor the dominant species on the planet. We will enter what he calls the age of spiritual machines.
Imagine, for a moment, that Steiner was onto something: something that, in their own way, all these others can see as well. Imagine that some being of pure materiality, some being opposed to the good, some ice-cold intelligence from an ice-cold realm were trying to manifest itself here. How would it appear? Not, surely, as clumsy, messy flesh. Better to inhabit - to become - a network of wires and cobalt, of billions of tiny silicon brains, each of them connected to a human brain whose energy and power and information and impulses and thoughts and feelings could all be harvested to form the substrate of an entirely new being.
Perhaps this ice-cold being of metal and reason might be the thing haunting Ray Kurzweil’s dreams. The nineteenth century Russian saint Ignatius Brianchaninov saw it too - and he knew exactly what it was. He wrote about the same force in his essay On Miracles and Signs:
Ahriman will offer to mankind the most exalted earthly organisation of well being and prosperity. He will offer honour, riches, luxury, enjoyment, physical comfort, and delight. Seekers of earthly things will accept Ahriman and will call him their master. Ahriman will reveal before mankind by means of cunning artifice, as in a theatre, a show of astonishing miracles, unexplainable by contemporary science. He will instil fear by the storm and wonderment of his miracles, and will satisfy the [worldly wise], he will satisfy the superstitious, and he will confound human learning. All men, led by the light of fallen nature, alienated from the guidance of God’s Light, will be enticed into submission to the seducer.
I cheated a bit there, I admit. I changed one of the words. The name that the saint used in that passage was not ‘Ahriman’. It was ‘Antichrist.’
St Ignatius would have been well aware of the Russian word прелесть, which translates into English as prelest. Prelest is a state of spiritual delusion: a trap that the unwary can fall into at any time, especially at the beginning of their spiritual journey. False notions about God, false sensations, misguided attempts to achieve visions or certain spiritual states without trusted guidance: all of these can be used by the ‘powers and principalities’ of this world, in St Paul’s famous phrasing, to lead the unwary away from truth and towards falsehood. Prelest is often a result of spiritual pride. It might manifest, for example, amongst people who imagine that they are powerful enough to ‘build God.’ They might imagine that they are ‘ushering in’ something divine when they are, in fact, ushering in the precise opposite.
Whatever is quite happening, it seems obvious to me that something is indeed being ‘ushered in’. Through our efforts and our absent-minded passions, something is crawling towards the throne. The ruction that is shaping and reshaping everything now, the earthquake born through the wires and towers of the web, through the electric pulses and the touchscreens and the headsets: these are its birth pangs. The Internet is its nervous system. Its body is coalescing in the cobalt and the silicon and in the great glass towers of the creeping yellow cities. Its mind is being built through the steady, 24-hour pouring-forth of your mind and mine and your children’s minds and your countrymen. Nobody has to consent. Nobody has to even know. It happens anyway. The great mind is being built. The world is being readied.
Something is coming.
There is one last question to ask. I’ll be asking it next time.