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artifical life

The Modern Condition
part 6

'Modernity caricatures and cashes in on the total revolution which never happened.'

- Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity.

Although post-modernists denounce 'grand narratives', the popularity of the Artificial Intelligence myth demonstrates our deep desire to understand our historical past and our likely future. Far from slowing down, the recent rapid spread of PC ownership and Net usage shows that the pace of change is speeding up again. Old industries have gone into decline and new ways of working are emerging. But neither liberal democracy nor totalitarian socialism are able to explain what is going on. Because these tired political ideologies are no longer credible, an opening has been created for new explanations by non-politicians. Freed from the necessity of studying past and present human societies, priests and scientists are able to advocate fantastic explanations of human destiny. In mystical positivism, the errors of both are combined together to form a potent 'grand narrative' for our age. With the aid of rational science, we will fulfill our irrational fantasy of becoming Gods.

For, despite its futurist rhetoric, mystical positivism is really a restatement of very traditional ideas: virgin birth; slave-ownership; life after death; and the existence of spirits. In the writings of Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky and others, the robot is the fetishised expression of pre-modern desires. Old religious myths materialised in silicon, plastic and metal. New Age illusions expressed in the language of hard science. But, even if they are fundamentally crazy, the dreams of mystical positivism do answer the human need for some kind of 'grand narrative'. Because the ideologies of liberal democracy and totalitarian socialism are defunct, biological reductionism and cyber-utopianism can create a new vision of our future.

However, the main effect of this mystical positivism is to hinder clear thinking about how to build a better future. As in the past, a fervent belief in supernatural nirvana is a good excuse to avoid doing anything practical about mundane earthly problems. In the USA, the 'virtual class' of hi-tech entrepreneurs and skilled workers is already withdrawing into its gated suburbs and encrypted cyberspace. The myth of artificial life reflects this social autism. Obsessed with creating the God-Man, the privileged can ignore the continued existence of arbitrary power and economic injustice. Believing that they're about to become post-human, members of the 'virtual class' are able to suppress their troublesome feelings of solidarity with humanity as a whole.

Yet, in reality, we cannot create the good society and maintain environmental stability without a more equitable distribution of wealth and power. We therefore need a SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC 'grand narrative' which can inspire people to overcome the many obstacles to human happiness. The failure of the secular ideologies of the Cold War is not an excuse to abandon all rationality. On the contrary, the demise of liberal democracy and totalitarian socialism is an opportunity to revitalise the project of modernity. The principles of the French revolution - freedom, equality and solidarity - are still relevant. What we need now is some hard thinking and practical work on how these ideals can be realised within a contemporary context. Rather than using information technologies to form a new religion, we should be exploring how they can be used as tools for completing the modernist project. The introduction of smart machines will liberate us from much of the mundane work which we still have to do. The deepening of our skills in using digital technologies will allow us to invent new goods and services for ourselves. However, women will give birth to babies, slaves won't do all the work, we can't live forever and we will remain flesh. The rejection of the myth of artificial life is a necessary step towards the improvement of the reality of human lives. We will not be freed by any sacred cyborg. We can only liberate ourselves through intelligent thinking and hard work. We still have a really existing world to win...

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