I am a bit worried about what I am writing at the moment. People see me spend long stretches working, and ask me in a roundabout way actually I am working on, and I don’t really want to say. There are two reasons for my uncool evasiveness. Firstly I only have a few central ideas and a new raw stylistic idea for what I am working on, and the newness of these ideas are a little scary. So my evasiveness is borne of insecurity.
Secondly the actual plot of what I am working on is something of a moving target these days. this also is new. Generally, I am the type of guy who sits down, makes a plan, then executes it. I mean its not that I usually know every plot move, but I generally know. So I am doubly insecure, in as much as I am not sure where I am going or how long it will take.
This leads me to the third question I get asked:
‘When are you going to be finished?’
‘How long is a piece of string?’ I say, meaning I don’t know and I worry when actually I will be done.
My novel started out as a nice respectable middle aged crisis type book with a few literary and thriller elements attached. Now, three major drafts later and three years later, it has become a monster. Now its got more to do with horror and thriller elements than the tame reflective rather self absorbed piece I started out working on. And as I go through drafts and as it subtly changes me, I become more and more uncomfortable with how raw and visceral the book is becoming.
It also makes me think about the art and craft of writing. Where am I going with all this work, all this drafting and redrafting and rewriting? Is there a point when one runs out of ideas, a limit to the amount of books your produce before you begin to be a cliché? Someone who produces a slim tome every eighteen months to keep up with contract requirements? What’s the point of writing?
I don’t have and don’t really want an answer to that question. But I do think once you learn about writing, the craft, how to plot, how to pace, the elements of story, using different types of styles for differing elements of a text, you find that having the craft is not enough. One wants to go deeper, certainly I do. One throws away language games and well worn plot clichés to get at the core of things.
I think that writing is an act that leads one to shed elements of a false self and it leads you to ones core, that’s if you want to go there. J D Salinger famously stopped publishing because he wanted his writing to be as free of the demands of others as possible. The thread or piece of string one leaves down as one journeys through the labyrinth of words is just long enough to get to the centre. That’s how long the string is.
Its good to begin with a joke or a parable. I don’t like gimmicks, but I got two little stories.
This is one I heard today while listening to a website called You are Listening to Deep Thought. I heard it as I was trying and failing to move forward on the latest draft of the book I am working on. I don’t know who the speaker was, but I enjoyed the story, so I am sorry to whomever I am appropriating this fishy tale from. It’s about two fishes swimming along in the deepest part of the ocean, and, as they swim along, they pass an older, bigger fish, who says “Hi Guys, how’s the water for you today?” The two fish pass on and then after a while stop and turn to one another and ask “What the hell is water?”
I chuckled when I read that. Good stories like that come and go all the time. The ones that stay with us have something clever and funny and poignant to say. Like the idea of being surrounded by something so all pervasive, so all consuming, that you don’t even see it or sense it or count it into ones worldview. Like the catch phrase “The Matrix Has You” But what is the matrix?
In the 1999 movie The Matrix, a hacker learns, to his world-shaking shock, the true nature of reality. He learns that everything he thought was real was actually fake. He realizes his lifelong sense of alienation was a true gut instinct. He learns there really is something fundamentally wrong with the world. That’s interesting. Its clever and poignant. It’s also shocking. The knowledge that things you thought were true and real are really unreal stays with you and changes you perhaps forever.
Here’s another parable I like. Its a Japanese proverb that says that we have three faces. You probably heard it before. I did too. Only recently it struck home. So, anyway, we have three faces. The first ‘face’ is the socially or culturally accepted mask we wear when we are out in society. The second one is the one we wear with our family and our intimates. The third one, this is the most secret one. This third self is one inside, the secret self, the truest one, that few ever see. I like that idea too.
The idea that we have secret selves appeals to me and is shown to be true over and over, by life, if not by science. The other idea, as depicted by the fish story, I love too. These two little stories merged in my mind – (1) the idea we are surrounded by a world we don’t see but affects us all the time, and that because of (1) we are (2) wearing masks that are not our truest selves.
Of course that could be all nonsense. Except, well, its not. We have an online world now, one where we interact and use every day, sometimes for long hours. Imagine if we actually added up how many hours a day we spent online. I did, and the number shocked me. It was a world shaking realization of the amount of time I was wasting. I realized just how addictive Facebook can be. In a sense, as there are billions online, on and off Facebook, we don’t realize its an addictive practise. Its also true that who we are offline is very often nothing remotely like who we are on for instance, Facebook, or Tinder, or Twitter.
It’s interesting too, that this online self is the one subject to so much scrutiny and manipulation by security services and marketing analysis and advertising targeting by Facebook itself and companies like Cambridge Analytica. On Facebook, you and I are the product. Our Profile is sold every time we are targeted with an Ad or a political post or we join a group. Each time we make a click or a like we get a little endorphin or dopamine kick. That’s the addictive effect, the need for stroking which is satisfied with a like, or even a love.
Online there’s so much to read, see, and experience. Yet we have so little time. In the ever shortening attention span of online life, we get three minute videos, witty pics, specially edited punchy journalism, and cat videos. Its catered to us, all based on previous reads or clicks or comments. We get summaries of movie plots and animal videos and bits of news and jokes and memes and cartoons. We are amused. We read or click or comment, and that gets analysed and calibrated. And on it goes.
The benefit the online user gets for being on Facebook is stroking, the sense of belonging, amusement, love, distraction and the ability to comment and at times debate. Online, especially, there seems to be an increasing polarization and entrenchment of views, possibly because Facebook or Twitter isn’t really an arena for dissecting and carefully discussing incredibly complex multifaceted ideas be they political, religious, scientific, philosophical, or literary. It leads more often than not to misunderstanding and polarisation.
Facebook was formed in a dorm room by a gifted hacker who wanted to compare photographs of people who were pretty and who were not. It has grown and changed and evolved and enriched him beyond anyone’s wildest imagining. Facebook is a place for people to meet. Facebook is popcorn. Its too simplistic a vehicle for self expression. This is why, I think, one is left with a mask on when one goes online and its so easy to misinterpret things. I’m relieved, despite my present state of headachy withdrawal, to have left it behind me.
It’s extraordinary how much a city can change in a short period of time. Take Dublin. In 2013 when I last lived here full time, Dublin was a vibrant city in the midst of change, just pulling out of the last vestiges of a huge economic slump. There was a sense of hope, of expectation, of burgeoning change. People were angry and yet hopeful. Now the economy has taken off and a type of lonely impersonal self-absorption has set in.
The city is bustling with busyness and smartphones and businesses and commuters. I see traffic and armed police officers, huge shopping queues, coffee shops with laptop wielding nerds and professional couples, people with baby strollers decompressing during lunchtime, solitary folk texting during break-time, stone faced professionals performing at breakfast meetings wielding busy clipboards and watching their tone and body language, restaurants filled brimful on weekday evenings when they should be half empty, and hordes of daily commuters trudging to work in obligatory reflective gear while I walk my dog at seven AM.
I am stuck in Dublin. But only for a short time. I am trapped in the city while I await the sale of my house to go through. It’s a frustrating depressing time. I have no job. I am recently unemployed having worked in a school in Karpacz, Southern Silesia in Poland. I loved my job. I loved teaching, and Poland was beautiful, if not a country grimly drifting so far rightward to becoming autocratic and living in a forbidding past. Some reports since my own departing seem to validate my choice to get out. Friends who live there right now are planning their departure in the forseeable future. However I had to come back to see through my house sale. Most of all, I had to come back because Ireland is my home, and I love Ireland.
The house I live in is empty. And, as I said, I have nothing to do. Moreover, its Christmas – ugh. And I just don’t do Christmas. From my early teens Christmas has always been a meaningless time for me. So as I pen this, I am aware how my own emotional filters colour these impressions and word pictures. Yet despite this caveat, the things I pen here have that gut feeling of a deep truth.
Its morning. I am still in Fairview Park. It’s dark and frosty and a huge half-moon hangs in the morning sky. Workers whizz past along bicycle tracks in generic helmets and reflective gear and it all seems so correct and legal and safe and, well, boring. I just couldn’t do it. Not now…
Truly I say to myself (as my dog drags me round the park chasing pigeons), the life of a writer is incomprehensible to someone who does not write, who has never experienced its thrill, its seduction, its consciousness altering potential, the sheer rush of producing something good (though as Bob Dylan says you have to write ten bad songs to write one good one).
Once one enters into the dragon’s cave of being a writer, once one discovers the gold the Dragon sleeps under, nothing else in life is as beautiful or as enthralling. One has to befriend this Dragon. Not tame it, but befriend it. Accept its awesome power and beauty, and never be tempted by the gold.
There’s a lot of gold in the city now. Maybe its a different gold to the one that I am tempted by. And people are chasing it. I wonder if they know there is usually a Dragon guarding it down there. Dragons take no prisoners. They look busy, these people. Focused. They are travelling as though they have a purpose. They are clean. Rested. Drinking coffee from one of those cappuccino stands that dot thoroughfares. The sun is coming up. Others have swung out on their bikes onto the main roads. Traffic is obscenely busy into the city centre. These people have got about twenty minutes to be at their computers. Or desks. Or meetings. Clients are waiting. I am going home. Have to make a sandwich. Or something. I haven’t decided yet. Yes, I guess I am hungry. Definitely a sandwich.
One of the most refreshing and unusual pieces of television I have seen is the strange story of Olive Kitteridge. An HBO mini series based on the Pulitzer winning book by Elizabeth Strout, Olive (Mc Dormand) is an interesting character to be sure. Sharp tongued, incredibly witty, dismissive, self contained, cerebral, self reliant, she is an unpopular and foreboding character in the neighbourhood of Maine, US where she lived her life.
Olive is most likely clinically depressed (her father committed suicide). She is married to a loving kind intelligent humorous man called Henry, works as a maths teacher, is world weary, misanthropic, and deeply irrevocably bored. Henry, though not quite comprehending the full complexity of Olive’s detached, acerbic, cold disassociation from any kind of emotional life, still loves her. It is a complicated love each has for the other, involving much compromise, excessive personal space, denial, and suppressed anger. Both their love for each other also covers over their desires for a more compatible partner, the confession of which occurs under the intensity of a near death experience for both of them. Olive pines for a witty intellectual Jim O Casey (who dies in a car crash), and Henry secretly longs for other, more emotionally available women (a young widow who ends up marrying another man). Perhaps more than anything, aside from the depression she endures, is the fact that Olive never achieved anything that actually fulfilled her. She is more a blocked force than a spent one. Filled with much intellectual energy, and yet afraid to act in a world she has already depressively rejected, Olive hates herself and yet cannot forgive the foregone conclusion of her own failure.
Depressingly, she remains on the periphery of her own life, a person sitting watching her life quietly drift away. She is bored, bored beyond any possibility of feeling anything other than a sense of gathering annoyance with the world and what she perceives to be irrevocably absurd, and behaviour that is vain, selfish and cruel on the part of humanity. Death haunts her – her fathers death, the suicides of friends she tries vainly to save, her own death and her longing for death. Surrounded by the absurdity of death and clouded by depression she seemingly sits close to edge of oblivion while simultaneously scoffing at it. The anger she feels against herself is equally directed at persons, family and those unfortunate enough to cross paths with her. Exacting, angry and jealous – she is nonetheless capable of acts of tremendous compassion. She understands depression,understands that the condition has in many ways shaped her personality. She sees it in the behaviour of other self destructive depressives. She saves many people from ending their own lives, as well as spotting someone accidentally falling into the sea. But nothing, no altruistic act gives her joy or leads her out of the cell of her isolation and frustration. She sees time as the worst enemy. She watches the years pass. She watches one cycle of life ends all too quickly, meaninglessly replaced by another. And Olive feels her own time passing by. She wants some meaningful connection or to do some meaningful action. But she cannot. Whether if a fear of being in the world breeding her depression, or whether it is depression holding her back, it seems she is doomed to forever remain frozen in a kind of amber of unfulfilled desire.
Ultimately her own inner void swallows her (it always does) and she reaches the point as an old woman that she wants to kill herself. And yet she cannot. Children playing in the woods interrupt her suicide attempt, and she snaps out of it and has something of an inner breakthrough. She had reached her lowest point and there at that point she discovered a place of self belief she never hitherto known. The world remains utterly incomprehensible, pointless, and yet it is somewhere she is not yet ready to leave. And she watches birds fly off. A wonderful mini series that looks unflinchingly at untreated depression and the ravages of suicide on the lives of others, and a deeply touching examination of an unfulfilled life, Olive Kitteridge is simply a gem – and I haven’t read the novel – yet.
Ireland is replete with literary events and poetry readings. All literary events are literary, but not all of them are equal. O Bheal ( www.obheal.ie ) is a particularly good one, and it was a marvelously enjoyable evening for me.
1. Resistance is futile. You are made just so welcome. I am not a particularly nervous reader of my work (or indeed of anyone elses). That is, except about two minutes before I stand up. Then and only then do I generally get the most dreadful attack of nerves, which dissipates pretty quickly. Even if I were a sufferer from chronic stage fright, it wouldn’t matter. Paul Casey and his team of MC’s make one so welcome and comfortable. No need to be afraid.
2. Practice before. O Bheal, to my mind is an important reading. It had been over a year since I had given a reading, so, feeling rusty, I prepared, maybe too much on reflection. I should have had more of an edge on me. Less smooth. Though when I turned up for the reading (way too early as it happened and wandered around Cork City for an hour) I was glad I had. One is reading to a discerning and humorous audience. If they don’t like the poem, they don’t clap. They aren’t rude or unreceptive or snobbish. Its clear, all too clear one is dealing with an audience who are there because they love poetry. I was relieved. I chose my words had my stuff ready, and read acceptably. So, even if you read twice a week every week, prepare yourself.
3. Its Not Trying to be Cool or Clever, It Just Is. O Bheal is run by writers and artists for writers, artists, and lovers of good writing. Terrible readings generally are either (a) over formalized or (b) over controlled by tradition or (c) given to a reactionary rebelliousness, or (d) so replete with establishment self congratulation true self expression is impossible. Real innovation exists somewhere between the twin horns of the dilemma of established tradition and innovation. O Bheal segues around this difficulty as it embraces both sides of the aisle. You can, within reason, read whatever you like, and nobody gets offended. I have had, in the past to temper my material to avoid giving offense to people. In actual fact, in order to avoid any such eventuality, I actually asked if there was any subject I might avoid so as to no offend anyone. I was told not to worry.
4. Winthrop Street in Cork is a Super Venue. Its not too big, not too small. Its a kind of Goldilocks venue, just the right size. Homely and welcoming, I loved it. Here’s a map:
5. Its Got a Good Mix. O Bheal combines an open mic, a featured reader, and what is known as the ‘five word challenge’. People suggest five words. and you have to make up a poem from the five words. The winner gets a pint free from the bar. Some of the poems are remarkable. My own offering was absolutely dire, by the way.
6. Its Social. Like Seven Towers events O Bheal has a strong social element. I got involved, despite being really tired from five hours traveling, and giving a reading, in all kinds of discussions about writing mostly. These included such arcane topics as second century atheistic poetry in Muslim countries and Doris Lessings post colonial guilt. I got into my rooms about 2 AM, completely wrecked. Then I had the joy of listening to the loudest snoring I ever heard ever from downstairs. It sounded like the bed and breakfast had a dragon staying.
7. You get Paid and B&B. They put you up in a really nice B&B and they pay you. Enough said. This is important. Writers need to be paid. Thanks to Paul Casey and the team. Kudos.
8. The Reading. And heres my reading 8th June 2015 at O Bheal Winthrop Street. Cork
Directed by Stephen Frears. With Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings.
The notion of any kind of hereditary monarchy simply incomprehensible to me. It is a system of government so riven with problems as to be potentially catastrophic for a country. This is why the UK have reduced the monarchy to figurehead status. That being the case, the UK remains with a Queen, and Helen Mirren (who won an Oscar for her role in this movie) plays Elizabeth II just after the death of Diana Spenser in 1997, formerly Princess Diana. Diana Spenser is named by Blair as the peoples princess (Tony Blair is played by the creepily brilliant Michael Sheen who also should have gotten an Oscar for his role as the obsequious power hungry worshipful Machiavellian Tony Blair )
Blair, though ostensibly promising to modernise the UK, in many ways sees his path to power along the road of maintaining the status quo. Blair wants power and is intelligent enough and a gifted enough politician to be no socialist revolutionary anti monarchist. He is not long in office and Elizabeth II is wary of him. Diana is dead and she refuses to treat the death as a royal affair despite a very public outpouring of grief and the fact that Blair refers to her as the ‘people’s princess’ – a divisive term to say the least and something that causes a deep division in the Royal household. Elizabeth couldn’t compete with Diana in terms of popularity, or even her capacity to communicate with people. Diana was a girl chosen to be the wife of Charles, who was already deeply in love and in a long term passionate relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. Not a recipe for a sound long term arrangement.
Diana surprised the royals. She was beautiful warm and charismatic and was unafraid to display her many flaws in public. Elizabeth was the polar opposite. She was precise and cerebral, cold and driven by duty. There was a sense that she loathed this person, this Diana, who had invaded their carefully controlled royal cosmos and refused to conform to its mores. In some ways the movie is more about the ghost of Diana Spenser and her effect of Elizabeth II than anything else.
Blair pressurizes the Queen to come down out of the hermetically sealed forty thousand acre estate in Balmoral in Scotland and meet the people in London. The sheer distance between the Royal Family and the lives of the ordinary people becomes apparent as the Queen reads the news day by day, watches the interviews Diana gave after her divorce, unprecedented interviews which broke the code of silence, and sees her own ratings plummet as the tabloids turn on her. She concedes to Blair’s entreaties and returns to Buckingham Palace and meets the people and looks and the swathes of flowers and expressions of regret and she is horrified. It is obvious that many hold her and the machinations of the Royal family household personally responsible for Diana’s death. Which is both interesting, tragic, and at the same time not unusual. A much loved public figure with royal connections dies in a Parisian tunnel with her boyfriend while being chased by rapacious paparazzi. The driver of the vehicle was drunk. Had he not been drunk the crash may not have happened. Anyway when a terrible unforeseen tragedy occurs, such as this one, there is an outpouring of grief and of anger and people look for someone to blame (something I can understand only too well from my own life experience). They blamed the Royal Family and particularly Elizabeth II.
The pain of this very public condemnation struck her to the core, but like all leaders and political figures, she summoned the resources necessary to survive, to maintain her distance and her dignity and to keep the Royal Family as a central facet of English life and culture at a time when a Labour Government was in power, a time when there was real talk of abolishing the Royal Family as a historical anachronism. Mirren shows the intelligence and the depth and the coldness of Elizabeth II. Michael Sheen shows Blair as the untrustworthy nasty piece of work he seems by all accounts to be.
All in all this is a great film, an ensemble performance about a truly surreal world, the world of the Royal Family and how deeply dysfunctional they are. I was glad I saw it. I switched on the TV and there it was. How Fortuitous.
One of the most common themes in Science Fiction movies, from Terminator flicks to the Cylons in Battlestar Galatica to the Matrix franchise, to the more thoughtful poetic philosophical Stanley Kubrickesque 2001, is the notion of the Earth being taken over by robots ( in the movie 2001, for a time the fate of the Earth hung in the Hands of Hal) The word ‘robot’ is Czech for slave, and its very existence implies forced labour. Robots are intelligent nonhuman slaves, in other words, machines able to perform complex tasks automatically. The takeover of the machines is a paranoid fantasy of loss of control similar to the ‘red’ scare in movies like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ or Zombie flicks where mindless forces take over our nature and threaten to destroy our humanity. But to move away from paranoid Hollywood movies and back to robots , what caught my eye was how seriously the AI (artificial intelligence) ‘threat’ it was being taken in certain quarters.
For instance in the rather restrained language in an open letter from the Future of Life Institute “Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence“. Artificial Intelligence research is steadily increasing and concern seems to be sufficient for the FLI to write this open letter so that we all could sign it. I did, so that the impact of the rise of AI/Robotics remain positive for life and for humanity.
I have long held a deep skepticism over what is happening in Robotics. It also seems that only technologists who aren’t bought and paid for, science fiction writers and Stephen Hawking (who signed the aforementioned document) seem to be really worried about the rise of the robots) This rather surprised me, but then I am used to being surprised. Once, according to Hawking, AI was developed it would take off and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate, and thus pose a mortal threat to any life form that would oppose it. for the full statement – see here
1. Robots are now clever, far cleverer than we imagine they are.
In some regards its absolutely fascinating what can be done now with robots. For instance Amazon, the massive corporation selling everything from shoes to silicone implants recently began testing online delivery drones for packages under 2.3 kg in a delivery time of 30 minutes or less in Canada, as it couldn’t get the license to test them in the USA. An extraordinarily clever use of airspace exactly below airline travel routes.
This is but one of the applications of robotics that are literally limitless, and most of them have already been written about in science fiction, technical manuals, and economic texts and are going into production from automobile production, to cleaning, to medical applications, to the health and service industries, military and agricultural, prisoner monitoring, policing, fast food industries, and road maintenance. I saw some footage today of a grape harvester that moves through the vines, and leaving them intact, harvests the grapes into giant vats. Don’t forget our every online keystroke is monitored by a vast AI system. We imagine robots as mobile. Many of them are stationary, squatting buddahesque in vast kilometer long underground supercooled rooms maintained by technicians, for instance as worked on by Google.
Few large corporations, given the size of the market and the potential revenue one can bring in via the Internet, have skimped on investing gargantuan sums in building better, faster, stronger, smarter machines. Soon your favourite piece of apple pie and coffee will be served not by a waitron, but a machine. Its not just production, what we want is creativity too from our artificial life. Robots write novels, poetry, paint portraits, and compose music. If you like the meal cooked by the local robot chef, soon you won’t have to leave a tip. AI write reports, poems, short pieces of journalism, and, as I mentioned, novels – probably a lot better than some of the fiction being written. But this is rather high brow. Think of the guy who pumps gas for you. He too will soon be made of metal. But by then you probably won’t have to pump gas. Your car will be a self-driving robot too, run on biofuel from hemp.
2. Humans are fragile: we break, die, and fall ill rather easily.
So what happens when most blue collar work is replaced by AI? What happens when the bank tellers are for instance replaced by sophisticated automated tellers and loan distributors? – Not that too many loans will be given out. There will fewer consumers. Why? Well, as we will mention, it’s expensive to raise humans. Its easier to have fewer humans and more machines running things. After all robots are robust, easier to replace and never get old. Humans require a share of the wealth. They need insurance, wages, holidays. Robots need good technicians to keep them going. For humans there is the issue of health care, housing, feeding, educating them. And humans are fragile despite their big brains. They have soft bodies that need constant maintenance. There are other health issues as humans get into adulthood in terms of the diseases that can fall prey to, new interesting diseases that one has to spend time and money developing cures for (yes drugs are a massive business, but not as massively profitable as robotics). Not to mention the panoply of psychological and psychiatric ailments that humans invariably acquire or inherit that need costly intervention.
Initially robots, for instance in the last few decades primary work among others, is to monitor humans and make sure they don’t step out of line. Again that sounds a bit reactionary and paranoid, but think of the number of cameras and screens and investment in listening to just what we are doing right now. This is because of the sheer numbers of humans and the diverse nature of the population. This is not a situation that will remain. In time because the the expense of maintaining and educating people, it will probably be necessary to enact laws to cut down on the number of humans. Overpopulation is a huge issue.
In future, because of the robots, those humans who are allowed to raise families will have to be intelligent and trained and maintained and brainwashed and compliant. We cannot have divergent thinkers in a world where so much expense and investment has gone into training a human to a specific supremely complex task. Genetics are an obvious human outlet here, but there are so many others. We could possibly forbid the robots to do any genetic work while we design the next evolutionary cycle of human being, perhaps to try to keep up with whats happening with the robots evolution.
So lets focus on the humans in this imaginary world. Allow for the fact that there will be fewer of them. Many of the non-robot workers will be working on higher wages maintaining the robotic software and machinery that generates wealth and capital for those who own the robots. As most of the highly sophisticated work, in other words the intellectual capital necessary to run most of the main pillars of the economy, will be bought and owned by those who provide the populace with most of the services needed to run the economy, including the universities, hospitals, prisons, heavy industries, military and governmental, only a small proportion of the population will physically be allowed to reproduce. If they do reproduce, it implies a further division of wealth, which is bad business practice and cannot be allowed. Thus they may do so at a loss of citizenship and the possibility to advance themselves within the technologized world. In other words those who do reproduce without permission will find themselves in a severely economically disadvantaged position. Robots and humans always remain at odds. They are two competing life forms and one or the other will inevitably gain absolute control, despite the fact that for a lengthy period of history, humans might the owners of Capital.
3. Karl Marx was a genius of historical proportions, which is partly why we don’t like him much, but he sure knew about human alienation.
Anyway the problem with all of this it does not have a kind of historical inevitability in the way I am describing the logic of robotization here. It’s probable, but not absolutely so. Moving on, to paraphrase Karl Marx’s theory of alienation and to extend it a little, if capital alienates humans from the product of their work, in other words if I work for a living wage, then the person who pays me owns my work. Anyone interested have a read of Marx’s Paris manuscript (1844). It runs to about fifty thousand words, about the size of a short novel.
You or I may not like the idea of alienation, but it’s how society works. People possess what they buy, including our time, our ideas and our creations. So I am undeniably alienated from my work through the process of my boss paying for it. My boss who paid for my time is the possessor of the capital necessary for me to get a job to earn a living wage. But what happens if I lose my job? What happens if a robot does my job, for instance the way an ATM does the job a bank teller used do? If this happens I am completely alienated. I am without any means of working in the way I was working before. Whether I am living in Greece and believe me in Greece where I write this there is serious alienation going on, or in the heart of Germany, it makes no difference. Whether the population of the Earth swells to fifteen or even twenty million, it makes no difference. This is because my skillset has been superseded by a robot and I am without an income. I can become all revolutionary and blow up all the robot factories I like, it also makes no difference. Robots are replaceable. More are being made as I blow them up. The word sabotage originates from the sabo, or shoe, weavers used to throw into the cotton mills to stop them depriving workers of a living during the first Industrial Revolution. The upshot of all of this is my company needs to hire fewer workers (human) and in the end I am turned back on myself, on my human nature. Either I upskill or I lose my income altogether. Reskilling is a short term solution unless I am on a lifelong upward learning curve. Realistically it becomes an increasingly limited option open to fewer and fewer the more robots are made, and better smarter more skilled robots, and even then we have to start assuming at a certain point an evolutionary curve in robotics. In other words some go obsolete and we build better robots to manufacture better robots.
4. Labour options.
So people have less labour options open to them. What can they do that cannot be done faster cheaper and more efficiently by AI? They might turn to crime or to black market operations, but even that has a limited lifespan. So at a certain point we enter into a period of massive population decline with huge supernormal profits being few into the coffers of multinationals and fewer and fewer being
born, or we ship off planet altogether. Let’s assume that happens and life on Earth settles down to a billion or two of us living with the robots, robots which have already in effect conquered the Earth for an elite group of industrial capitalists who own the corporations, the leaders of the ‘free’ world, and the raw materials left on the planet. Robots begin the process of rehabilitating the planet, its climate, its nuclear waste for clean energy, and the Earth becomes a nicer cleaner place to live. Soon it becomes clear, after a few hundred robotic evolutions that they are the master race. They have evolved past us. I am reminded here of Shelley’s Frankenstein. We build something that in so many ways supersedes us and it destroys those who created it. And the thing about it is this is something we have already witnessed as happening. I don’t have a solution to this scenario.
5. Isaac Asimov was also a genius, but his three laws were naive.
Isaac Asimov, science fiction writer, devised his famous three laws of robotics, and in 1942 included them in a story called ‘runaround’
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws
The problem with Asimov’s theory is that the of the first and most obvious applications of robots is and always has been the battle field. Unmanned vehicles against humans and other robots is arguably one of the most efficient military uses of robots. It’s certainly something worth thinking about, and has me scratching my head.