For the month of November, participants will gather in Spain to engage with each other to read, dialogue, and write about the human response to the machine.
In 1964, philosopher and social critic Lewis Mumford, already writing retrospectively about the cultural grip of what he refers to as the myth of the megamachine, provocatively formulated the reality of modernity’s technological religion:
The ultimate result of [the] mechanistic doctrine was to raise the machine to a higher status than any organism, or at best to admit grudgingly that higher organisms were supermachines. Thus a set of metaphysical abstractions laid the groundwork for a technological civilization, in which the machine in the latest of its many incarnations would in time become the ‘Supreme Power,’ an object of religious adoration and worship.
Innovation, efficiency, economies of scale, exponential technology, speed, progress — these are the divine figures of the mechanistic religion of the modern West, which has become the adopted religion of technocratic elites worldwide. So pervasive is this religion, in fact, that few people would even recognize it as a religion.
Like cave-dwellers chanting ritualistically at a torch-lit shrine, the generations born into the mimetic hegemony of the megamachine cannot begin to coherently formulate their beliefs, much less justify them rationally. Whether enthralled to dopamine or the promise of extravagant wealth, everyone from the hedonist to the egoist prostrate themselves to the airdrop, from whence, they do not know.
Impaired and impotent by the exhaustion of terrestrial frontiers, the imperial imperative of expansion that characterized Roman hegemony has been extrapolated into the abstract realm. The “frontiers of science” have replaced the frontiers of cartography, but expansion, as ever, is the way.
Like all materialistic religions, there is an inherent tension between the desire for converts and the resource capacity to include them in the largesse. As yet, there are not enough airdrops for every convert to be content with their lot. Still more expansion must be needed — and to the haves, the logic of expansion is never questioned because it already worked for them, neither for the have-nots, for they hold out increasingly faint hope that the next expansion will at last arrive at their own doorstep.
This is the distinctive disadvantage of materialistic religions: their promise to delivery ratio is tractable. At least when promising forty virgins and mansions in heaven, metaphysical religion doesn’t have to worry about not delivering.
Yet here we stand, nearly five centuries into the latest incarnation of the technological system, and in spite of the many achievements of the megamachine, modern science, and the enlightenment, we peer over the precipice of our collective mortality, faced on every side by threats we are ill-equipped and even less spiritually prepared to meet with the courage and fortitude of who would survive them.
Our unpreparedness results from the naive and misplaced faith in engineering that has softened our perceptive senses and made us slow to recognize the extraordinary costs of the technological system. Our dependence on the machine has become near-total, and thus we cannot even conceive of answers to our problems and responses to our challenges that are not technical in nature.
We have witnessed an utterly unprecedented increase in consumption, often labeled “economic growth,” and yet inequality is worse than ever. There are more people enslaved in the world today than there were 200 years ago before slavery was officially abolished in the West.
Our success in combatting pathogenic disease has now turned back on us, and with the rapid rise of antibiotic resistance, we may be faced with an unstoppable biological catastrophe in the coming decade.
Our brilliance in energy extraction and conversion has sped up the pace of life, moved goods far and wide, and simultaneously obliterated the vast majority of the Earth’s terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. We have filled our skies and waterways with chemicals that have made their way permanently and disastrously into our bodies.
The Internet and instant communication technology have made democracy more difficult, not less, and the flood of irrelevant information is at least as threatening as the proliferation of false information. Social media has exacerbated social conflict and prevented collective reconciliation, fragmenting and isolating us rather than bringing the world together under its original utopian promise.
Suicide rates are skyrocketing and never before in history have we seen the simultaneous malaise of rampant anxiety, widespread depression, substance & image addiction, obesity, chronic disease, and malnutrition.
None of these deleterious realities can be divorced from the development of the machine and our society’s religion of technics. They are, in fact, the externalities of the religion, the charred corpses of altar-sacrificed animals.
They are the hell that every institutional religion ends up making while certain it is building heaven.
The megamachine is not the result of capitalism, but rather capitalism is the foundational logic of the megamachine. The collapse of both Soviet (hard collapse) and Chinese (soft collapse) communism resulted from the inherent tension between technical materialism and non-capitalist economics. Following the engineering logic of innovation, improvement, and efficiency, will always de facto lead to capitalist economic incentives.
Yet, however much we might like to extract ourselves from these circumstances, there is no easy way out. We have lived under the dominion of the machine for so long that we no longer have a model of any other life. The total collapse of the current system would no more be a panacea than the system itself has been.
A conscious human response to the megamachine must begin with a serious, reflective dialogue. We must open a collective negotiation about our future. We cannot deal in inevitabilities, certainties, and rights, but in possibilities, alternatives, and interests.
We will not be able to restart from scratch. There are no blank slates in this universe — and never will be. Everybody everywhere must start from where they are, in the context in which they find themselves. Wishful thinking serves nobody. Refighting history’s wars, trying to undo past mistakes, re-litigating old ideological battles is the hopeless entertainment of the dead in a wasteland.
Since we cannot change the past, our only prospect is to create the conditions for the redemption of the present by embracing the fact that we are where we are. We must also accept that the work we must do will mostly benefit the coming generations and not to ourselves.
These are the concerns and cares that have motivated us to organize AI Conclave. Starting a conversation may be a humble beginning, but it is nonetheless a necessary first step. We must learn to think and act again, and this requires the withdrawal from our daily patterns of stimulus, reaction, and distraction.
Small groups of people, acting at the margins of society, have been the source of all meaningful cultural change in history. Pursuing the conscious path of reflection, negotiation, and coordination, our effort is to lead by example, calling people into dialogue, and inspiring others to start their own.
If you’d like to join us for deep thinking, fellowship, and some time in Nature, go to aiconclave.io and fill out the form at the bottom to receive an application and more information.