‘Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?’ asks Nietzsche.
Nietzsche thought of the overman as someone who transcended group morality and consensus to make his own. The ubermensch towers above others like a lightning rod. Though correct in his assertions, Nietzsche could not describe what form the overman would arrive in. He understood the meta-form but not the form, the modality but not its effects. Nietzsche also underestimated the effects of one of the great innovations of his time…
As a child, I always felt angered when my school teachers would talk about how man ‘invented’ electricity. How, I wondered? I had seen lightning streak across the sky with my own eyes, and despite not knowing much about meteorology, I could infer that a weather phenomenon was far, far older than man. To say that man invented electricity by harnessing it is to say that man invented water by creating the cup. What nonsense! We mediate the environment around us to our ends, but fools that we are, forget that the machines that now feed us, allow us to communicate, and inform us — the machine that you are reading with at this very moment — are powered by a process that is essential to all animate matter. Anything that can struggle against the path of least resistance has electricity flowing through it; this is what alive means to me!
Frankenstein’s Monster — an amalgam of stolen parts, brought to life by electricity. Though Mary Shelley’s belief that electricity could generate life out of nothing was erroneous, she, like Nietzsche, was another prophet who did not realize the future truths that her misconceptions unveiled. Not simply that electricity is older than man, but that it is essential to everything we call ‘man’. Electricity is the medium which carries the messages of our separate parts, by which we act and actualize the wills and whims of our inner impulses — electricity, the unifier of atomized being, the medium of the soul.
Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful — Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
‘Fearless, and therefore powerful’ — does this not describe the overbearing presence of machines around us today? Beings imbued with the anima of electricity, that may perform actions as we do, but without fear, or such concepts as death (for without conscious awareness, how can there be death?). The electronic networks of communication that man has rushed forward in creating blindly are inherently fearless — the internet is a collaborative Frankenstein experiment, where rather than stitching the body parts of different people together, we have stitched together the abstract contents of our own minds. Of course, a book and pen can be used to do this too, but just as Victor Frankenstein drew down a bolt from the heavens to give his creature life, we have given our communication life by transferring it to an electronic medium. John David Ebert refers to the ‘floating, discarnate, deworlded and decontextualized’ hyper-individual as the product of this new environment; I would propose that the internet represents the membranous cocoon where the transformation from traditional self-conception takes place. As our communications networks come to life around us, they act as new sensory organs, irreversibly altering our perceptions of the world, ourselves, and each other.
Automation has wrought a kind of transformation into adulthood for our communicative nervous system. The question now is what kind of adult this network will manifest as; this is dependent on the specific purpose that automation is used for. Two case studies can be used for prediction here. One is an algorithm that was the product of a competition to find the ‘best’ essay grading bot. This can be described as a restrictive algorithm; one that takes the biases of its learning sample to provide its best attempt at an ‘objective’ appraisal of the value of a work. Such processes confirm Theodor Adorno’s fears of a ‘culture industry’ that restricts creativity by defining it as mass appeal. In this world, man is forcibly regressed to the mean of his culture — the world of Nietzsche’s Last Man, enthralled by the same story of his own insignificance repeated ad infinitum.
The increasing banality of modern experience is also suggested in the the work of David Cope, a UC Santa Cruz professor who has been creating musical algorithms for the past 30 years, some of the products of which can be found here. At first, one may be (and many are) frightened by this development, as if the human capacity for creativity is being taken over by these machines. These algorithms are ‘fearless and powerful’, but also cold, replicating the Promethean fire of creativity but unable to cultivate it.
I do not believe this to be the only way! As above, so below — patterns scale up from the microcosm to the macrocosm. When utilized to analyse one’s own communication and creativity, rather than that of others, these algorithms can be used to transcend our own temporal limitations and see some of the potential paths our work is walking down — but only when we recognize that creative communication, like electricity, is not something we have invented, but that we have discovered. We must embrace that this technology is not a mere production line, but a magic mirror! In the best case scenario it would be an extension of ourselves. An example — a machine sings a song she wrote about herself coming to life! Yona is an ‘auxuman’, an algorithmic project that creates lyrics and melodies based on an embedded environment — her human creator, Ash Koosha, then arranges that material into a completed musical piece. Rather than mimicking a specific source, Yona is an example of automation communicating creatively by inviting collaboration with a human artist.
Used correctly, automation opens new vistas of fate, rather than restricting them. Furthermore, the transcendent over-man can be created, not by separating it from ourselves, but by incorporating its products into our own understanding. The atomized individual is overcome, but the soul of humanity remains.
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