We Are Machines, But Not Like Robots
There is a growing number of people who recognize and reject the rigidity of modern society. They see it treating human beings as machines that run a prewritten program, and individuals themselves treating their lives in that manner as well. This is seen as a relic of the industrial revolution which brought about the idea that everything can be structured into a machine-like efficient process, even human lives.
So we have this well known, well worn path. Kindergarten, school, college, getting a job, getting married, staying in shape, advancing up the corporate ladder, and retiring. And if at any point in this process you feel out of place, unhappy, or wishing things were a bit different you just need to grow up, get more self-discipline, and effectively train yourself back to the norm. Such deviant thoughts are almost treated as bugs in a computer program that have to be promptly fixed.
And those who by some accident or sheer inability or refusal to be “fixed” this way end up following a rather different path; they just need to “get a life”, “get a grip”, “stop wasting time” and “get with the program”. There is of course a special type of people called entrepreneurs who follow a somewhat different path, but they are a minority, and the breed of people who end up running those corporations that employ these pre-programmed drones.
It appears that our fascination with the technologies of the day subconsciously influence prevalent ideas about social order as well. We are now in the late stages of the information age, and the internet is by far the top technological paradigm. It is the modus operandi of our world. The new paradigm is decentralized networking rather than rigid mechanical machines. Just as the internet works so beautifully as a largely decentralized phenomenon a lot of people are beginning to realize that our societies could work in a similar way. The shift is slow, but it is happening.
This led to the idea that rebelliously states: we are not machines, we are human beings! We are more complex than our robots and computers, more subtle and intricate. We cannot and should not be treated like machines who can be programmed towards being productive and happy. We can do so much better.
And I agree, with one glaring exception. I agree we are more complex, and that our functioning is more subtle. I agree that a typical program for our lives is a sham our culture imposes on us. I agree that work and play should not be so strictly separate. I agree that fun physical activities are far better than robotic repetitive boring exercises.
But I disagree that we are not machines. Modern science and technology offer way too much evidence that everything in nature, including human beings, follows a particular system of functioning, a code if you will. We are machines just like everything else in nature. The big difference, however, is that we are not those kinds of machines. We are different, more complex, in many ways still superior, and in some ways inferior.
My brain may be a computer in the most basic sense of the word. It takes in data from the senses, processes them, and outputs various conclusions, from beliefs to feelings. But it is very much unlike the CPU in my laptop, or even the most powerful supercomputer in the world, and even the above may be a great over-simplification. My body may effectively be like a very sophisticated robot, but the most advanced robot in existence can’t quite compare to its complexity and sophistication, at least not yet.
I think we’ve kind of modeled ourselves with respect to our technology a little backwards. It is not technology that we mirror, it is the technology that mirrors us. That’s how we’ve been developing technology from the beginning. We made it emulate what was already there in nature, and a lot of modern technologies mirror human beings. Our computers in some ways mirror our brains. Our robots mirror our bodies. Our networks often mirror the cells in our bodies, and so on.
In many ways, however, our technologies do a bad job of mirroring humans and nature exactly. Our computers may “think”, but they follow an entirely different paradigm of doing so (Von Neumann model). Our robots may be able to walk, but their joints aren’t much like those in our bodies. The different models we use to mirror some of the human functionality in our technology also gives these technologies certain benefits and impairments. Our computers can calculate faster than our brains, and solve purely logical problems better, but they are worse when it comes to pattern recognition, understanding, and emotional appreciation.
So, we are machines, but we are different machines, and therefore we have to follow different ways of maintaining ourselves, from our physical and emotional health to our individual value to others in society (AKA productivity). Emulating other machines is not really working for us. It is like looking at what birds do to learn the best practices of human behavior. We are not birds.
Image by Adifansnet on Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.