The Ghost in the Machine

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It has long been noted that technology has come to serve a religious function in modern societies. We revere our machines. Our ancestors depended upon God for many of the services that machines now provide better and more reliably. Health technologies have dramatically reduced the infant mortality rate, made us healthier, more likely to recover from disease, made the blind see and the lame walk, and given us longer lives. Household machinery (furnaces, hot water heaters, electric lights, burglar alarms, stovetops and ovens, refrigerators) provides us with hygiene that keeps us healthy, fresh foods deliciously prepared, extended evenings with families and friends illuminated by electricity, safety from marauders, and with a shelter from which we can find major storms fascinating events instead of life-threatening catastrophes. Industrial technologies make us powerful beyond what our ancestors could have imagined, with the capacity to level mountains, melt rocks, build skyscrapers, produce massive quantities of goods at low cost, and re-engineer crops. Military technology can monitor suspicious activity from outer space, target the enemy, and destroy whole cities within minutes after the command is given. Transportation technology allows us to transport goods around the world, ensuring those of us in wealthier nations an unfailing food supply, and to travel vast distances at great speed, enabling us to live the highly mobile lives that we do - a physical mobility we have come to equate with freedom.

By way of these achievements, modern technology has largely supplanted the role of divine providence in our lives. It is our machines and the industrial sector that produces them that are the primary providers of our security, well-being and prosperity, and our primary defense against misery. It is not a fresh revelation to suggest that machines have become our many "shiny gods," the source of the good life we have come to expect. Those who honestly face the prospect of surrendering the machines that buffer our lives, for any reason other than a temporary exotic vacation, can testify to how completely technology has come to function as an ultimate concern in our culture. Philosopher Albert Borgmann calls this "the device paradigm."60 But the tendency of technology to acquire God-like attributes does not stop there. It has been ratcheted up in the era of telecommunications and digital technology, not to mention the enormous ramifications of robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology.61

Consider the claims made in Hewlett-Packard's "everything is possible" ad campaign in which they promote how their technology has enhanced the performance of other corporations and organizations like Porsche, Starbucks, the National Gallery of London and the US Postal Service. One commercial boasts:

HP technology is building efficient miracles, helping access the web wire-lessly in coffeehouses, and letting citizens talk to their governments twenty-four hours a day. It's powering the engine of the world economy, and making art timeless. For the world's great companies, thinkers and doers, HP makes more things possible.

Another commercial, more humorous if more audacious, claims:

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor temporary loss of gravity, nor grumpy robots made of old washing machines, nor black holes that swallow the entire known universe, will keep the U.S. Postal Service from its appointed rounds. HP technology helps make sure the mail never stops.

Everything - including miracles, participatory government, a thriving economy, art appreciation, and the delivery of mail in the face of monster robots and cosmic disaster - is possible with computer technology.

Or, consider the theological content of three commercials from Accenture that premiered during the 2001 Superbowl, itself an annual event surrounded by religious fervor and a showcase for the global market's hottest products and most critically acclaimed advertising. Accenture is a company that provides management consulting and technology outsourcing services to corporations and governments around the world. Accenture, in other words, provides services to the service providers, and is thus one of those deep background firms, practically an abstract, whose products are seldom experienced directly by the consuming public.

The first commercial begins with a shot of microscopic blue-green cells, swimming and pulsating in rhythm to a triple meter waltz. The camera pulls back slowly, revealing more and more of these waltzing cells, and continues to pull back until it becomes evident that these cells are the constituent elements of a single microchip, and their movements are following the intricate circuitry of the chip. At this moment, a newspaper headline, torn from the newsprint, is superimposed upon the chip, announcing: "Bacteria Tested as Digital Circuit." The screen fades to black, and Accenture's motto appears in brackets: "[now it gets interesting]."

The second commercial is composed of fast cuts that tell a story with the following sequence: An ambulance with siren wailing races through the nighttime streets of an Asian city; a man hurries across a university campus, judging from its architecture one located in the US or western Europe, and up a marble staircase; a gurney rushes down hospital corridors, concerned family members accompany it; the man reaches the top of the stairs, enters a room containing some serious technology, dons virtual reality goggles and gloves and plugs himself into a computer; an operating room back in Asia; hands in gloves maneuver in midair, holding nothing; close up of actual scalpel cutting actual flesh; an Asian man lying in a hospital bed, awake, smiling, being caressed by his wife. A newspaper headline appears: "Virtual Surgery." The screen fades to black and the motto returns: "[now it gets interesting]."

The third commercial opens with a few small candles burning against a black background. In several cuts, more candles come into view, burning fiercely, then an ashtray piled with burnt matches, and more flaming candles. Next we see a woman's face, smiling at the candles, easily one hundred of them, topping a white frosted cake. This time the superimposed newspaper headline announces: "Lifespans without Limit?" and we can see the first line of the story, "Genome breakthroughs..." The woman blows out all the candles, and people gathered around her clap. Screen fades to black, then the motto: "[now it gets interesting]."

Organic matter transformed into intelligent technology; life-saving surgery performed by a physician whose patient is on the other side of the planet; the prospect of immortality thanks to genetic engineering. Accen-ture doesn't do any of these things, but it provides the services to others who will make these miracles happen. The expanding infrastructure of information technology has within its reach, we learn from these commercials, what have traditionally been thought of as divine prerogatives: the power to render molecules intelligent, to heal across space, and to grant immortality. And we also learn that hovering in the background of these technologies are global companies like Accenture, which are responsible for making our lives this interesting.

With search engines like Google and the expanding availability of databases through URLs, an invisible grid of nearly infinite information has come to permeate space. And now with wireless technology, this grid can be accessed from practically anywhere. One recent commercial for AT&T's wireless service, mlife, consists of a long montage of the navels of people of all shapes and sizes - an old man getting dressed, a beer belly at a barbeque, a woman body builder flexing, a belly dancer, a toddler in a sandbox - and concludes in a hospital delivery room with a woman giving birth, nurses stretching out the newborn's umbilical cord and a doctor picking up surgical scissors. The closing voiceover intones: "We are meant to lead a wireless life. Now we truly can. Welcome to mlife. From AT&T Wireless." We are invited into a new phase of life, or mlife, which has come about as the result of a painful process, but the message is that this newest advance in telecommunications is part of the perfection of human nature, made possible by those cellular service providers who are cutting our wires.

This is reinforced by the character of the messenger in the advertising of several of the cellular service providers. The Sprint PCS Guy, for example, who appears on the scene to resolve various "cellular miscommunica-tions" caused by static on the line, such as the woman who phoned her husband asking him to bring home "shampoo," and later finds him in the backyard with "Shamu" the Killer Whale in their pool, or the man who called his wife asking her to "bring home some soup from the store," discovers that she has returned with a handsome, Lothario-esque "soap opera star." The Sprint PCS Guy lives to connect people to the only nationwide, all-digital, fiber-optic network. His look (black suit, long overcoat) resembles that of the angels in Wings of Desire, which is fitting given his role as liaison between two worlds (the world of the flesh and the world of digital, wireless technology) and his peculiar benevolence and dedication to his mission.

Alan Cohen, the vice president of one of the new Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) providers, a technology that uses radio frequencies to allow highspeed Internet connections to anywhere in the world, was recently quoted as saying,

If I can operate Google, I can find anything. And with wireless, it means I will be able to find anything, anywhere, anytime. Which is why I say that Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God. God is wireless, God is everywhere and God sees and knows everything. Throughout history, people connected to God without wires. Now, for many questions in the world, you ask Google, and increasingly, you can do it without wires, too.62

This invisible grid laden with knowledge, art, the freshest news, the fruit of the labors of geniuses throughout the ages, and voices of all sorts reaching out for all sorts of reasons - the datasphere as Rushkoff named it - that anyone with a laptop or cellular phone can tap into around the clock and query at will - does conjure up associations with the invisible God who sees and knows everything all at once, who is everywhere, whose energies hang in the air, and whose counsel is sought through scriptures and prayer. When we find ourselves in a jam, many of us have now been habituated to turn to a search engine and begin navigating the Web for guidance. In that ethereal realm, we anticipate that some URL will know what is going on and clarify our confusion and possibly even protect us from the consequences of our ignorance. That we can now do it wire-lessly, at any moment of the day or night wherever we are, lends itself to extending such classic attributes for God as omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence to the World Wide Web (see Figure 4).

Bill Joy, one-time chief scientist and CEO of Sun Microsystems and the designer of the Berkeley version of the UNIX operating system, which became the scaffolding for the Internet, forecasts that with the development of the kind of molecular electronics celebrated in Accenture's advertisement, we are now 25 years away from building personal computers that are one million times more powerful than those in use today. In roughly the year 2030, he anticipates that computers will become capable of thinking for themselves. The Internet will at that point become what may justifiably be called a transcendent mind, with a capacity for self-consciousness and agency that will not necessarily be limited by designers' assumptions that technology exists to serve human ends.63 This is the sort of evolution of artificial intelligence that dystopian writers have been warning about for several decades, most recently in the Matrix trilogy brought to the screen by the Wachowski brothers. In their dark vision, human beings float alone in pods of amniotic fluid, serving as batteries for the Internet (the Matrix), and are pacified in a somnolent state through electrical signals that are downloaded into their minds through ports that have been implanted into their brains. These signals produce a neural interactive simulation within their brains, conjuring a computergenerated dreamworld, so that these organic batteries lead virtual lives while floating unconscious inside their pods for their entire, short lives.

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