19 April, 2005

Please, take my robot wife!

This morning I caught ten seconds of BBC Newshour between smashing my alarm clock and ten minutes of high-powered catnap. They had on two dudes talking about computers - one was a fatuous blowhard named Ian Pearson and the other was Barry Fox from New Scientist. NS is hit or miss, so I was expecting the worst, but ole Barry surprised me. Ian opened with the usual starry-eyed clap-trap: in 40 years, computers will think, feel, do our taxes, be our best friends. Barry responded with: "No. No they won't."

But never mind that I think Barry is correct, that the future is never going to arrive in a way that ever fulfills the promise of our imaginations. Ian is really the more interesting man of the pair, because he is not the cynic realist that Barry is; his viewpoint is fairly representative of what we're striving to achieve. That is, a world where humans don't work, don't think, don't even share emotions with each other. The best way I can describe that state is: death.

I've never understood this drive to think harder, and faster, and better, so we can get it all out of the way, so we can be DONE. When we have our slave army, we can all relax on the beach, drinking mai-tais* and groaning, "Oh, YEAH, this is the LIFE!"

I've never understood it, because that's a stupid impulse. Beyond the fact that it'll never happen. It's a stupid impulse because we wouldn't want it. We want to live, after all. Most of us, anyway. We want to do things with our otherwise pointless lives that make them feel meaningful. When we don't have those things, nothing to keep our hands, our minds, our souls busy, we suffer. Why would we orient ourselves as a society towards such a bizarre goal?

Those of you who know me may find it ironic that I am advocating this viewpoint, since I've historically been a big pooh-pooh-er of the idea of a work ethic. I've been pushing this Bertrand Russell quote (from this essay) for years:
The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.
But I am not misspeaking. I think we orient ourselves the way we do because we are overworked; because our relationship with work is so tweaked. Leisure is a premium item that we ration out. It's the gold nugget we're digging for: who wouldn't want it in infinite abundance?

But imagine this: you travel to the future and find your great-grandson, fat like Crassus, drinking protein syrup from a straw while robot masseurs keep his flabby limbs from atrophying. Ah, he doesn't have to work, doesn't have to think, doesn't have to emote. Don't you just hate him?

Two things fall out of this+:
  1. Take it easy. We're never going to get there, so why work so frantically to do it?
  2. The ride has got to be enjoyable.

* Whatever those are.
+ I realize this essay should be about 20 pages longer to really tear into its intellectual meat in the way that it deserves. But I'm not that serious a writer, and you're not that serious an audience. So... exercise for the reader.

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