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The Machine Age

Summary:
My new book, The Machine Age, was published by Allen Lane on the 2nd November 2023. It’s available to buy on Amazon. Launch events were held at the Royal Society of Arts on the 6th November 2023 and UnHerd Club on the 28th November 2023. Links to the videos of each launch event are below: Royal Society of Arts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JX1m1RNmjd8 UnHerd Club: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3XM1WB88Ls The following is a 23 page summary of the book: Preface This book tells three stories about the impact of machines on the human condition: on the way we work, on the way we live and on our possible future. The stories follow in order, since they relate the growing intrusion of machines into our lives over time; but they are linked together by both history and

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My new book, The Machine Age, was published by Allen Lane on the 2nd November 2023. It’s available to buy on Amazon. Launch events were held at the Royal Society of Arts on the 6th November 2023 and UnHerd Club on the 28th November 2023. Links to the videos of each launch event are below:

Royal Society of Arts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JX1m1RNmjd8

UnHerd Club: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3XM1WB88Ls

The following is a 23 page summary of the book:

Preface

This book tells three stories about the impact of machines on the human condition: on the way we work, on the way we live and on our possible future. The stories follow in order, since they relate the growing intrusion of machines into our lives over time; but they are linked together by both history and anticipation, from the first simple machines to the complex technology of our own day, in which interconnected systems of machines colonize an increasing range of activities of hand and brain. Each story brings us nearer to the cliff edge at which every increase in our own freedom to choose our circumstances seems to increase the power of technology to control those circumstances. Each story contains within it a vision of heaven and hell: the promise of freedom from necessity, from religious dogma and from natural disaster confronts its opposite in the spectre of uselessness, of algorithmic dictatorship and of physical extinction. The resistance of humans to schemes for improving their conditions of life is one of the constants, and paradoxes, of all three stories. It has rarely led technologists and social engineers to conclude that their schemes might affront some basic requirement of human flourishing, preferring to attribute resistance to obstinacy, stupidity, ignorance and superstition.

Its inspiration was a short essay by John Maynard Keynes, ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’ (1930). Extrapolating from the progress of technology in his own lifetime, Keynes predicted that his putative grandchildren would have to work only three hours a day ‘to satisfy the old Adam in us’. The theological reference was explicit: machines would do most of our work for us, making possible a return to Paradise, where ‘neither Adam delved nor Eve span’. Keynes’s prediction was rooted in the very old idea that, once the material needs of humanity had been met, a space would be opened up for the ‘good’ life. Efficiency in production was not good in itself, but the means to the good, and only insofar as it was the means. Keynes did not say that individuals, freed from work, would necessarily choose to lead a good life; rather that this choice would be open to them. Machines were simply a means to an end.

The idea came to me of updating Keynes’s essay in prophecy, taking into account not just what has happened since 1930, but factors which Keynes might have taken into account in 1930. This makes for a much longer composition than Keynes’s, but perhaps not longer than his would have been had he not intended to write a jeu d’esprit to cheer people up at a time of economic depression.

It turned out that Keynes’s prognostication was only partly right. Since 1930 technological progress has lifted average real income per head in rich countries roughly five times from $5,000 to $25,000 (in 1990 dollars), much in line with Keynes’s expectation, but average weekly hours of full-time work in these countries have fallen by only about 20 per cent, from about 50 to 40 hours, far less than Keynes envisaged. He seems to have got three things wrong.

He ignored the distinction between needs and wants, leading him to neglect the possibility that insatiability might corrupt our Adam, making him not a lover of the good and beautiful, but a slave to junk. It is insatiability, natural and deliberately created, which keeps machines in business, by ensuring that the material requisites of happiness remain permanently scarce. Secondly, Keynes treated work purely as a cost,or as economists call it, a disutility,whereas it is both a curse and the condition of a meaningful life.People weigh the cost of living against the pleasure of work. Thirdly, Keynes ignored the question of distribution, and therefore the question of power. He implicitly assumed that the gains from efficiency improvements would go to everyone, not just to the few. But there is no automatic mechanism to ensure this, and since the ascendancy of neoliberal economics in the last forty years, the social mechanisms for securing real wage growth have weakened or gone into reverse. While some people have reduced their hours of work because they can afford to, many others are compelled to work longer than they want to in a desperate effort to hold on to what they have already got. For this reason the economic future facing our own grandchildren is much less rosy than it seemed to Keynes in 1930.

But this isn’t the end of the discussion. Like Marx, Keynes believed that the reduction of necessity would automatically lead to an increase in freedom: indeed his economics of full employment was designed to get us over the hump of necessity as quickly as possible. He was curiously blind to the possibility that the machines which freed us from work might colonize our lives. In retrospect the entanglement of actual machines with ideas about how to organize the machinery of living seems inevitable once science took control of both departments. It led to what I call the ‘torment of modernity’. In his classic The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek warned against ‘the uncritical transfer to the problems of society of the habits of thought of the natural scientist and the engineer’. But it was precisely the engineering ambition of making society as efficient as the factory or the office that built the modern world and turned Keynes’s realm of freedom into Weber’s ‘iron cage of bondage’. My second story, then, is about the relationship between technology and freedom. It asks the question: is machinery the agent of liberation or entrapment?

The wider possibilities of technology were dramatically visualised in Jeremy Bentham’s famous design for a Panopticon in 1786. This was an ideal prison system, in which the prison governor could shine a light on the surrounding prison cells from a central watchtower, while himself remaining unseen. This would in principle abolish the need for actual prison guards, since the prisoners, aware of being continually surveilled, would voluntarily obey the prison rules. Bentham’s ambitions for his invention stretched beyond the prison walls, to schools, hospitals and workplaces. His was a vision of society as an ideal prison, governed by  self-policing impersonal rules applicable to all. His key methodology was the o ne- way information flow: the governor would know all about the prisoners but would himself be invisible.

Bentham’s world is coming to pass. Today’s digital control systems operate not through watchtowers but through computers with electronic tracking devices, and voice and facial recognition systems. We enter Bentham’s prison voluntarily, oblivious to its snares. But once inside, it is increasingly difficult to escape. Platforms and governments can direct the flow of their online communications to us through our devices, while at the same time ‘mining’ the data about our own tastes and habits. Who gets the better of the bargain is moot.

Keynes was, of course, aware of the malign uses to which surveillance technology was being put in his own time, notably in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. But he seems to have been thrown off guard by his belief that free societies provided sufficient safeguards against an Orwellian outcome.4 He was insensitive to the possibility that surveillance might creep up, unobserved, and even unintended, until it was too late to reverse. So we must alert our grandchildren to the potential malignity of the machinery they take for granted.

‘Assuming no important wars and no important increase in population . . .’ With these words Keynes briskly dismissed the most obvious impediments to the realization of his utopia. It seems extraordinary that he should have done so at that particular time. Europe had just been through the most destructive war in its history, and in his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919)Keynes himself had predicted, accurately as it turned out, that ‘vengeance will not limp’; in the same book, he had also attributed the Bolshevik Revolution to the ‘disruptive powers of excessive national fecundity’.5 The possibility that such events might repeat themselves on an ever more horrific scale was not allowed to cloud the sunny prospect he unfolded for his grandchildren. Did he suppose that the First World War had been a sufficient ‘wake-up’ call? Such abstraction from existential challenges is not possible today. They have become too urgent and encompassing. My third story, therefore, is about the destructive power of uncontrolled technology.

Our planet has always been threatened by natural disasters – the dinosaurs were probably extinguished 60 million years ago by an asteroid hitting the earth. However, for the first time, life on earth is being threatened with anthropogenic  disasters –  disasters caused, directly or indirectly, by our own activity. Nuclear war, global warming, biologically engineered pandemics now hasten to end not just hopes of a better life but life itself. Men, wrote H. G. Wells, must either become like gods or perish. Some scientists and philosophers conceive of the new God as a super-intelligent machine able to  rescue humanity from the flaws of purely human intelligence. But how can we be sure that our new God will be benevolent? It is a sign of the times that no one pays much attention to what the old God might have advised in these circumstances.

The consensus view today is that the march of the machines is unstoppable: they will only get more and more powerful and could well spin out of control. Hence the demand, which has migrated from science fiction to science and philosophy, to equip them with moral rules before they go ‘rogue’. The problem is to find agreement on moral rules adequate to the task in face of the epistemological nihilism of western societies, and the resurgence of geopolitical conflict between the democracies and autocracies.

So what should we advise our grandchildren? There are basically two alternatives. We can either urge them to seek technical solutions for the variety of  life- threatening risks which present technology will bequeath them or we can urge them to reduce their dependence on machines. In writing this book I have come to believe that the first endeavour, while it might salvage fragments of human life, will destroy everything that gives value to it. The second alternative is the only one that makes human sense, but it requires the recovery of a framework of thought , in which religion and science both play their part in directing human life. Einstein put the case with exemplary lucidity: ‘science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind’. Such a recovery on a sufficient scale to affect the course of events in time seems to me inconceivable. The arguments of the book, therefore, lead to a sombre conclusion. In biblical terms, a plague of locusts is a necessary prelude to the Second Coming.

Introduction

For most of their history humans used tools and machines. But they did not live in a machine age. That is to say, machines did not determine their conditions of life. Today, we live in a machine age. We humans are ‘wired up’ parts of a complex technological system. We depend on this system for the way we fight, the way we work, the way we live, the way we think.

The arrival of the ‘age of machinery’ was announced in 1829 by Thomas Carlyle. As he saw it, humanity had, for the first time, crossed over into a machine civilization composed of four elements: a mechanical philosophy, new practical or industrial arts, the systematic division of labour, and impersonal bureaucracy. Carlyle’s elements would come to be united in what Lewis Mumford, a century later, called the ‘technological complex’. In the age of machinery, it is the interaction between humans and machines, not between humans and nature, which sets the terms of human existence.

Carlyle’s framework offers a helpful way of thinking about how humans have reached this point. He put first ‘mechanical philosophy’ – the view of the world as a machine (or, as it was then thought, a clock wound up by God). In this view humans were to be understood as mechanisms for the production of value; the scientific method would enable laws of human behaviour to be established, just like the laws of physics. Knowledge of these laws could be used to build a better society. In this book I use the word ‘technology’ to describe the application of the mechanical philosophy, first to the organization of work and then to the organization of life.

Second came the ‘new practical or industrial arts’. This was technology in its narrow sense of applying scientific knowledge to the production of useful things, thus obliterating the classical distinction between episteme (knowledge) and techne (know-how). The history of machinery had hitherto been one of ‘tinkering with tools’, based on experience and local knowledge. With the Industrial Revolution came, for the first time, the application of scientific knowledge to production, which, by the nineteenth century, was making possible an unprecedented increase in material wealth that would only accelerate in the twentieth century.

Third was the division of labour. The age of machinery marked a fundamental shift from the practice of a single person making the whole (or the major part of an) object (like the potter at his wheel) to breaking up the different tasks involved in its manufacture into discrete bits, as in Adam Smith’s pin factory. This greatly increased the efficiency of production. Specialization of tasks was not just for individuals but for nations: a ‘world economy’ was born, with nations trading in goods and services for which they were thought to be specially advantaged by climate or aptitude. More and more human tasks have been ‘optimized’ in this way, leading to the conception of humans as interchangeable ‘bits’ in national and global supply chains. Specialization in the production of ideas was an important aspect of the division of labour. Fields of study became ‘disciplines’ with their own hierarchies. Scholars and academics became specialists in small bits of thought, with no idea how these bits linked up with other bits to give shape and meaning to the whole product.

Carlyle’s fourth element, ‘impersonal bureaucracy’, denotes obedience to rules without regard for persons. It is what Weber would call ‘rationalization’ – the process by which conduct based on custom or emotion is transformed into conduct based on the rational adaptation of means to ends. Weber saw it as the inevitable outcome of the ‘death of God’. It is particularly important for understanding modern techniques of control. Today we are governed by digital bureaucrats, whose directions are justified by their scientific rationality and are therefore beyond the affections, compromises and animosities of religion, politics, or personal relationships. With the spread of computer networks the limited possibilities of intrusion by traditional bureaucracies into everyday life are overcome, and their vice of unaccountability is magnified.

Whereas champions of the mechanical philosophy emphasized the benefits of machines in making economic and social processes more rational and therefore efficient, Carlyle offered the key distinction between the inhuman and the inhumane. He contrasted the often inhumane conditions of pre-industrial life with the inhuman sovereignty of impersonal rules. I try to show how this disharmony between being human and humanity explains the torment of modernity. I also claim that this is a uniquely western disharmony, exported to the non-European world by western science and western guns.

The book is structured round the application of the mechanical philosophy first to work and then to society. The modern age is dominated by machine-builders of both types, engineers of the body and engineers of the soul, and by the persistent opposition to both by poets, writers, artists.

The first half of this book is principally about the effect of machines on work. The Prologue on robotic hype, ancient and modern, introduces the important mythological idea of the automaton, inanimate matter brought to life by hidden powers, from which today’s hype around artificial intelligence ultimately derives. The persistence of such archetypes as humankind moves forward from myth to science is a key feature of our relationship with machines.

Successive chapters discuss the rise of machine civilization, its material and cultural context, its material promises, the emergence of Britain as the ‘first industrial nation’ and the resistance to forced industrialization. The protest and fate of the Luddites, the doomed handloom weavers of early industrial Britain, sets the scene for the current debates about the ‘future of work’ and the meaning of ‘upskilling’. A crucial discussion point is about whether our future is determined by the technology we use.

The following questions dominate today’s discussion. Will human job holders be entirely replaced by machines or only partly replaced? Will humans want to reduce their hours of work or consume more? What social arrangements best ensure that the fruits of productivity gains are fairly distributed? What account should the drive to optimize production take of the moral value of work? We will encounter in this discussion the crucial issue of the costs of learning to ‘race with the machines’, and whether these involve the sacrifice of what it is to be human.

As Carlyle already noticed in 1829, machinery was not just affecting particular industries ‘but altering the very fabric of society through the internalisation of mechanical axioms’. The effect of the mechanical axioms was to internalize (make as if our own) a set of norms of behaviour externally prescribed by the engineers of the soul. We would obey Big Brother not because he wielded a big stick, not even because we loved him, but because he talked to us in an irresistibly rational way.

The second half of the book takes on the implications of attempts to ‘optimize our lives’. One does not, of course, need any special hypothesis to explain the quest of rulers for optimal obedience from their subjects. Spying is, with prostitution, the oldest profession. However, the purposes of control have expanded in line with the promise of science to improve the human condition. Systems of control based on the incorrigibility of human behaviour have yielded to those based on the idea of perfecting it. Since the doctrine of progress took hold in eighteenth-century Europe, social reformers have attempted to correct not specific faults or causes of discontent, but to build societies in which such imperfections are impossible. The social and psychological sciences treat humans as works in progress. The chief example of the radical social engineering project in our time was Soviet communism. It is information technology which has made such ‘scaling-up’ of control feasible. This was the message of the three great twentieth-century dystopian novels by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

Successive chapters follow the utopian trail from Plato to the Enlightenment, with Christianity offering a contrapuntal theme, in which the Platonic dream of the ideal republic came up against the implacable Augustinian doctrine of original sin. We meet the thinkers of the Enlightenment who impatiently swept aside the Christian obstacle to building an earthly paradise, and attend to the much-debated subject of the relationship between science and religion. Are they opposing principles, as many of the protagonists of both sides thought (and still think), or are they complementary forms of knowledge, and, if so, what might be the terms of their co-existence? The chapter ‘The Devil in the Machine’ identifies the moment at the end of the eighteenth century when philosophers and writers first started to take account of the disruptive power of technology in their visions of the future. I then go on to describe the political revolt against the ‘mechanical philosophy’, centred, in my reading, on the German version of Romanticism, and culminating in the barbarism of the Nazis; take stock of the important interwar debate on the ‘question of technics’; and survey the passage from utopia to dystopia in the imaginative writing of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Dominating the discussions of Part II is the question of whether the constructivist approach to building society is compatible with what Bertrand Russell called ‘the pursuit of truth, with love, with art, with spontaneous delight, with every ideal that men have hitherto cherished.’

Finally, we come to the question of the future to which our technology has led us. At the end of his life, in 1945, H. G. Wells thought that humanity could go either up or down, a thought echoed by contemporary transhumanists. Part III of this book tells of the rise of the computer from its humble beginnings in counting and calculating to the project of creating an artificial intelligence, which I interpret as a deliberate attempt to rescue the quest for perfectibility from the destructive blows inflicted on it by purely human intelligence. Natural science, social science and military science have all been heavily invested in this transformative project, mostly funded by governments and visionary entrepreneurs. The question overshadowing this part of the book is whether AI will free us finally from the tragic cycles which have marked human history or whether it is the royal road to spiritual and physical extinction.

Today it is possible to imagine five pathways to the future. The first is bullish. Arnold Toynbee extolled the benefits of machines taking over the mundane tasks of life: ‘the transfer of energy . . . from some lower sphere of being or of action to a higher’. He is in a long line of technological optimists which includes Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Lewis Mumford and John Maynard Keynes. These and many others have looked to science and technology to free the mind from mundane clutter, investing it with higher and ampler possibilities, a hope which is still alive and well, despite the blows inflicted on it by the events of the twentieth century.

A second prognosis is optimistic but conditional. One version is that a better future crucially depends on the replacement of capitalism by socialism. This is the Marxist tradition. Unlike Keynes, who believed that capitalism would end automatically once it had ‘done its job’ of supplying the world with capital goods, Marxists have argued that the end of capitalism has to be brought about by deliberate political action, otherwise it would continue to put utopia beyond reach. The other school of conditional optimists are the technological utopians who believe that the realization of humanity’s ‘best self ’ depends on developing super-intelligent machines.

A third possible future is spiritual extinction. This is the grand theme of dystopian thinking as it emerged at the start of the twentieth century. Science and technology have rendered humans not superhuman, but subhuman. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) human freedom is removed by chemical and psychological treatment. Huxley said in a 1961 lecture that:

There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.

A fourth future is apocalyptic. Almost daily, tech experts warn that technology could lead to the extinction of humanity. Technology is the modern Beast of the Apocalypse. Either it precipitates a disaster – a nuclear or ecological holocaust – or it stops working, leaving humans without the means of livelihood. Both these versions of dystopian prophecy imply the destruction of a large part of the human population and the reversion of the ‘saved’ to a simpler form of life. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is a prefigurement of technology run amok; E. M. Forster’s short story ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909) imagines what happens when the system of machinery on which we have come to depend seizes up. Films like The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) picture nuclear explosions precipitating extreme climatic events. At the heart of apocalyptic prophecy is the ancient idea of hubris, of man seeking to usurp the place of the gods, and the gods taking their revenge.

Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864) opens up a fifth way of casting the net. To the claims of the technician, his narrator responds:

You . . . want to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense. But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is desirable to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion that man’s inclinations need reforming? In short, how do you know that such a reformation will be a benefit to man . . . It may be the law of logic, but not the law of humanity.

Dostoevsky raises the fundamental question of what it is to be a person. His is a lament for the world of choice we have lost –  and the world which we might yet regain through religion and simple things. It also points the way to a non-western future for humanity.

Is a non-western humanism possible? The questions unfolded above are questions which have tormented western thinkers since the big technological acceleration in the eighteenth century. My justification for the neglect of eastern thought on these matters is that Carlyle’s ‘mechanical philosophy’ is a western invention, which has been spread round the world by western example, success and conquest. But if this version no longer offers an assured pathway to human liberation, but rather carries a strong risk of destruction, one needs a parallel history of non- western civilizations to get a proper sense of the possible futures facing our planet. In Chapter 17 I offer the briefest sketch of such a history, with a few salient reference points for contrast. It remains to be seen whether a technology with meaningful ‘Chinese’ or ‘Indian’ characteristics is possible.

The purpose of this book will have been accomplished if it dents the hubris of the engineers of the soul. As St Augustine wrote of the neoplatonist philosophers of his day: ‘They think of themselves as exalted and brilliant with the stars’ but end up ‘lost in their own ideas’. The book’s message is that these ideas will destroy the world we know.

Finale

Since the start of settled agriculture humans have dreamed of a recovery of Eden, a land of milk and honey from which toil has been banished. Only western civilization managed to develop the technology to make such a prospect feasible. Today the accelerating advance of technology promises finally to abolish the poverty which makes burdensome work necessary. However, with the promise of leisure came the threat of redundancy. There is no automatic mechanism which ensures that the consumer surplus generated by technology is spread to everyone. The continuing threat of technological innovation is to rob ever-larger fractions of people of their employment, livelihood, status, skills, usefulness and identity, and finally make them redundant. Hence the strength, since the Industrial Revolution, of workers’ suspicions of machines.

I have identified capitalism as the chief of the bundle of historic developments that caused science-based technology to become self-propelling. Capitalism uniquely started in north-west Europe and then became a world system. I follow Max Weber in grounding its dynamic and legitimacy in new ideas about human nature and the ends of human existence. Modern technology resulted from marrying the ‘spirit of capitalism’ with the natural-scientific hypotheses and action-guiding norms which made innovation and economic growth seem a matter of course. Unless we understand technology as a system of ideas rather than as a necessity, we will be powerless to choose which technology is best suited to our needs and purposes.

The role of capitalism in unleashing technology has led Marxists to believe that the humanization of technology requires the abolition of capitalism. However, this ignores the extent to which technology is itself inhuman. The opposition is not between capitalism and socialism but between humans and humanity.

Economic redundancy is just one aspect of the broader problem of human redundancy. The bigger problem arises from a mechanical philosophy which neutralizes culture and history and justifies control not just of nature but of society. Nature, including human nature, came to be seen as a machine, to be optimized. What started as a metaphor became, in the eighteenth century, a project.

There is a direct link between technological utopianism and the degradation of culture. It is human imperfection which creates culture. Humans turn their imperfections into interior aesthetic and moral values. Fallibility is a necessary feature of human nature, therefore success in ‘straightening the crooked timber’ would lead to the extinction of humanness as we know it. A culture of robots is a contradiction in terms.

The founders of modernity thought that the progress of reason would free humans from their infantilism. However, they soon interpreted Bacon’s motto ‘knowledge is power’ to mean that power should lie with those capable of knowledge (the theory of the gatekeeper). With the advent of the internet, the question of who owns or controls the information flow through this gateway has become crucial to the human future. The Machine threatens to make infants of all those who do not control it.

The founders of modernity sought to replace religious authority by scientific authority. The restrictive scientific view of man as a cognitive machine provoked the Romantic revolt in the name of authenticity. The ‘crisis of modernity’ resulted from the inability to replace religious belief by a self-sufficient humanism. A gulf had opened up between science and experience. The conflict between the ‘civilization’ of scientific universalism and the ‘culture’ of Romantic nationalism (chiefly represented by the German Ideology) provoked the disasters of the two world wars. This specifically western torment set the course for twentieth-century history. Imperialism sucked the non-European world into the destruction it unleashed.

Weber thought of bureaucratic rationalization as the final form of western civilization: an endlessly dark, frozen landscape. The only hope was the emergence of a charismatic leader capable of disrupting the otherwise inevitable process of spiritual extinction. He did not foresee the continuing dynamism, and therefore continuous disruptiveness, of technology itself, and with this, its threat to physical survival.

As early as 1820, Mary Shelley had glimpsed the possibility that technology might go ‘rogue’. After the First World War, what Spengler called ‘the question of technics’ came to be linked to the physical survival of the human species, as the result of a quantum leap in technology’s destructive power. Promethean powers were being exercised on a species too thoughtless to take heed of its humanness. Some believe – and continue to believe – that the answer lies in the development of ‘super-intelligent’ machines which would prevent humans (or for that matter machines) from misusing technology. But the programme of developing super-machines to prevent extant ones from misusing technology is itself a form of technological madness. Behind it is the simple inability of the ‘adversary culture’ to ‘define and sustain an effective anti-technocratic program of political action’. The blockage of action is caused by the blockage of thought. We cannot imagine a different paradigm because we can no longer imagine a God who cares for us.

The economist Albert Hirschman transformed the biblical idea of the ‘little apocalypse’ into one of the ‘optimal crisis’ –  a crisis deep enough to provoke a radical change of awareness, but not so deep that it wipes out the human species. And this has been the story of historical progress, at least of those civilizations that survived their Toynbean ‘ordeals’. It is through bringing about extreme events that the Devil has done God’s work. Two world wars, in which millions died, were necessary before Europe could be pacified. Thus disaster need not extinguish the great human adventure. But we cannot arrange ‘optimal’ disasters, nor should we try. In Christian theodicy, Apocalypse means ‘revelation’, and is a prelude to the Second Coming. ‘For such things must come to pass, but the end shall not be yet.’

Robert Skidelsky
Keynesian economist, crossbench peer in the House of Lords, author of Keynes: the Return of the Master and co-author of How Much Is Enough?

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