Confronting Hubris in Tech

You are probably aware, if you have read my previous pieces for this magazine, that I am fixated on the differences between what I call mechanistic and phenomenological worldviews. The terms did not originate with me, but I have adopted them and use them often, and have been thinking about them for something like a year and a half at this point. Sometimes I will happen upon an idea that speaks to me, but I don’t quite understand what about that idea is so compelling. I typically find that whatever part of the idea that speaks to me is the thing that I’m actually after, and the rest is but window-dressing. Thus far, I have talked at length about mechanistic and phenomenological, but I have not explicitly defined them. So, to start with, I’ll attempt to (tentatively) define these terms.

In my view, the mechanistic worldview arises from a belief that the pursuit of empirical truth is the highest good. It holds that simply trusting our eyes and senses to give us an accurate picture of the world and how it works is naive, for these things are influenced by our emotions, and furthermore are biased in the most fundamental ways in their function. In order to get a truly accurate understanding of the world, we must discard our experience in favor of empirical measurement.

My first article in particular details the shortcomings of this worldview as a way of ascertaining the truth and truly living as a human being. The alternative worldview I point to (not propose, as it is one we all already engage with) is the phenomenological worldview. Simply put, humans experience the world as phenomena. Our bodies, senses, and minds are shaped to interact with these phenomena, and we have created stories and traditions that are designed to allow us to navigate the experience of these phenomena as best we can. By prioritizing the pursuit of empirical truth as the highest good, we reject all of this. I believe that this is all of such crucial importance to any person that in rejecting it we reject ourselves, our very humanity.

It is in this rejection of humanity that I think a deeper, more disturbing problem emerges.

Hubris Leads to Corruption

I believe that this problem does not find a more potent expression than in the world of technology. Our dreams of virtual reality are a great example. I outlined my concerns about VR becoming the dominant medium for humanity in the way that the television or the phone/internet has become in a thread here.

The upshot is that the more you use VR, the more you reject the real world, and with it a piece of yourself that desires to experience that real world. And, as I said before, experience is critical to humanity. Rejection of it leads to its degradation. At first, this piece of you will simply undergo the atrophy that comes with neglect, but what if sickness sets in? What is to stop the infection from spreading to the rest of you like gangrene? What would it do to you? Would it poison the rest of your thoughts, twist them beyond recognition?

VR is not a widespread technology at present, but it is also not the only tech that is capable of producing such an effect. It is merely, in my estimation, one that would produce a most obvious and potent effect. It is easy to lead people down the path of rejecting themselves, or at least a part of themselves. An example of this is psychic inflation. A person takes the mask that they wear in front of others, their persona, and identifies with it to the point that they believe it is all they are. In doing so, they reject the rest of themselves, and also reject the path towards integrating pieces of their psyche with which they are uncomfortable. There is a deep hubris in believing that you can handle what the world will throw at you with this persona, that you do not need to continue to grow beyond the self you can conceive of right now. And, as before, the parts of yourself you reject in your hubris become degraded.

What is more hubristic than rejecting humanity in favor of pursuing empirical truth? Have we not been degraded? We sit in front of televisions and grow fat and ugly. We work in grey, ugly cubicles on jobs that do not provide us with anything beyond a steady paycheck and pathetic simulacrums of friendship. Our communal life has grown cold and empty, deprived of meaning. The stories of our existence have become mere entertainment, pathetic and forgetful. And look! Miserable, worthless beings that we are, we are crafting something to replace us! Artificial Intelligence shall take our jobs and mundane duties, and leave us with nothing to do but busy ourselves with eating cake and the business of procreation. A wonderful utopia in which we have used our arts to render ourselves obsolete awaits us!

But, we do not have to accept this picture of reality. Not all of us are content to grow fat and weak. Not all of us allow ourselves to work demeaning jobs that give us almost nothing in exchange for huge portions of our lives. Some of us are trying to protect the fire in the hearths of our communities and homes. People are still trying to tell great stories, magnificent epics! So, why should we despair so easily when we are told that the machines are coming for us? They are better than we are, you say?

Perhaps you should look again.

The video linked in this tweet was taken at a presentation of a new machine learning algorithm for animating the movement of….things….for making horror movies to the famous animator Miyazaki, of Studio Ghibli fame. If you would, please take a moment to watch it, so you can see what I am talking about, and what made Miyazaki make a comment like “I strongly feel this is an insult to life itself.” It is not long.

It is fascinating, in a disturbing way, isn’t it? It appears to be supposed to be animating the movement of some sort of vaguely human body, as though it were a zombie, but I can’t see anything remotely human in those movements. It strikes me more as though some sort of eldritch abomination out of one of Lovecraft’s stories was guiding that…thing. The corruption is real. I believe this is what comes, ultimately, of an act of hubris so gargantuan as rejecting human experience. Hubris leads to corruption, and hubris that rejects humanity corrupts life itself.

Do Not Go Quietly into the Night

Before writing this article, I read Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I’ve really only been exposed to his ideas tangentially, so I thought I ought to read one of his shorter stories before writing an article that touched on his work so strongly.

Reading Lovecraft really seemed to confirm to me the notion that, when you reject something, you are closing a door that leads to you, and opening a door leading to something else. But, even though you have shut away this part of yourself, it remains connected to you. Rejecting it won’t make it go away. Eventually it will come back and confront you, and you may find something that is completely unrecognizable when it does.

I think this is what happens to Lovecraft’s narrator in The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The man is disconnected from his own experience of the world. He has grown up and matured rejecting the validity of his experiences on their own terms, and so when he encounters evil in Innsmouth, he is unprepared. He is told the story, but he doubts, he does not believe, he thinks “ah, this is merely an allegory for some historical event”, and thus when he is finally confronted by the truth of it all in such a manner that he can not continue to run from it, he breaks. He cannot reconcile what he sees with the way he believed the world to be, and even though he escapes, he is changed.

In rejecting ourselves, hubris means we reject the potentiality from which we create our future selves.

He loses confidence in his ability to perceive the world, fears he is going mad, and begins to lose hold on who, and what, he himself is. His encounter in Innsmouth corrupts him, takes him and reshapes him. And yet, what he encountered was no more horrible than what any of the great heroes who live on in the epic stories encounter. The monsters Hercules and Beowulf confront are no more human or any less horrifying than what Lovecraft writes of, in my estimation. The difference is in the characters who confront these things. The epic heroes possess the qualities to overcome the things they encounter without being corrupted, while Lovecraft’s characters are helpless. And yet, the great sin that the heroes are always warned of is hubris. In rejecting ourselves, hubris means we reject the potentiality from which we create our future selves.

And, if anyone has written a story about overcoming corruption, it is Tolkien in his The Lord of the Rings saga. Do Tolkien’s characters exhibit hubris? No, except in their moments of weakness in the face of the Ring. Today, we are faced with a crisis of corruption, of our very humanity. I say that, if we are to overcome it, we must be like the great heroes of old, like Frodo, and we must set aside our hubris. We must, instead of rejecting our humanity, embrace it fully.

Technology for a Human Future

I am a technologist. The individual’s journey is, and always will be, individual. But, if technology can come from a place of hubris, and serve as a tool to allow us to reject parts of ourselves, it can also also be a tool that allows us to embrace ourselves. Virtual reality is a technology that allows an extremely drastic rejection to take place. It is a tech that enables us to reject physical reality in favor of simulation and fantasy more completely than anything else I am aware of.

But, if VR is a great danger as the dominant medium, then its sibling tech, augmented reality, could be our greatest tool in our quest to reconcile ourselves with physical reality, and with ourselves. AR so far has only been used for mundane, entertaining things. I believe it is capable of much, much more than that. The tech we have created thus far pulls our attention away from our environment, and directs our energies towards intangible, digital spaces, but AR could integrate those spaces into the tangible world around us. We’ve done so much in the digital realm, but imagine what we could do if we could give it form in our world? And, imagine how much better that would be for us as people!

We have neglected this aspect of our lives for too long. There is great danger in continuing to do so. But, I believe we have a choice as to whether or not we shall continue down that path, or whether we shall choose a better one. AR is one technology, but there are others that could also be put to use in service to our human experience, instead of degrading it. Let’s go out and find them.

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