Gods and Idols

The super organism that we created. The digital world. It is coming to dominate our lives more every day, and yet it does not breathe, it does not live without our continuous outpouring of love and our transfixed attention.

Why is it that people speak with a hopeful awe about what we can create, something that we offer up our sovereignty to, when we rebel against the notion of a god?

Is it that we created the digital world and are therefore happy to lend our legacy a sense of autonomy and authority? Is this our chance to ease our biologically derived sense of passing on our influence while disrupting and breaking from the past?

It may also be we rebel against the very notion of a world we didn’t create. There is a deep disconnect with the physical, natural world. It reminds us of our frailty, our impending death, our past of fighting and clawing for survival. It holds the base instincts we say would drag us down … the primacy of survival at all cost that would undo the work of centuries of civilization.

There is something offensive to the modern and postmodern western soul (perhaps all human souls) in the inevitability of death … of our own small part in a grander game. We are uncomfortable with the notion things could get along without us, or that our best attempts to improve our world may not actually make things better. Creatures die and go extinct. We call it the necessary evils of progress, the natural result of our ascent to the place of dominance we have sought in the world.

And then we have this thing we created. We have the internet. It is the one thing we have made which carries the escapist hope of our transcendence. We gaze at this thing we made which embodies our highest hopes. Our aspirations toward triumph over death, the conquering of our insecurities and our needs, commerce without effort. All these hopes lie in our eyes as we stare into our screens, hoping they will save us from our loneliness and fear and want.

Now we are approaching a strange point. All idols throughout history, everything we have ever made and placed on a pedestal with hopeful hands has sat as it was carved, inert and lifeless. Yet at this moment, with so many in breathless anticipation, we are approaching the point where we could finally make the greatest creation ever … a thinking, growing nearly alive consciousness. Artificial intelligence and machine learning lie within our grasp. We could create digital life that continues and thinks and creates independent of us. We would be gods.

This may be a good point to stop and ask ourselves what our experience with gods has been. The technology we make is made inescapably in our image. We have distilled and clarified our impression of ourselves and molded these dreams into the things we are making. We fought and struggled to throw down the gods we used to fear and serve. How likely is our creation to follow in our footsteps? Will we, as biological, compromised, finite members of the family of organisms we distance ourselves from, be cast off the way we have tried to cast off our natural heritage?

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