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Robots, Slavery, and iPhones

Posted on 16 Jul | 0 comments
Photo by Adrian Ilie
Photo by Adrian Ilie

My mother-in-law is a smart lady with whom I love to converse. The conversations are always a little bit manic, ranging over a lot of ground in a short time, and usually provoke some deep thought. She inspired this piece with some concerns about the iPhone, specifically its voice application, “Siri.” She cited a time a friend asked Siri if she knew the best place to bury a body; Siri asked if he preferred a drainage ditch or a swamp. (As an aside, he asked it strictly for entertainment purposes, just to see what it would do—he didn’t really have any bodies to bury and, by all reports, is a very nice man).

This took me back to a Facebook conversation about Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky was aware of Nietzsche, and when he wrote the character of Raskalnikov, probably had Nietzsche’s superman in mind. In attempting to become amoral, the very first action Raskalnikov takes is explicitly immoral.

Here we have this technological application that can make limited informational judgments but is necessarily amoral. It does not care what you use it for—getting a recipe for linguiça (a Portuguese sausage dish) or a place to bury a body. It does not care about this because it is an automaton, incapable of caring about anything.

Another friend told the phone, “I feel depressed,” and it offered a series of solutions to her depression. “Have you tried going for a walk? Talking to a friend? I found x number of doctors in your area.” And all the time she was unaware that engagement—with humans, projects or nature—was missing and not likely to be fixed by this gizmo. The phone is a device for talking to other humans. She was talking to it rather than through it.

Let’s leap off on an apparent tangent now. Imagine someone approaches you and demands to be your slave. Their one and only purpose in life, they avow, is to serve and please you. If you wish to use and abuse them, they will be compliant, pleased to be able to do what you wish. It is of little or no moment to them how they are used, only that they are used. And when you refuse this arrangement, they are distraught. They follow you around, seeking to draw you into this relationship.

How many of us would be offended by this approach? Repelled by it? Disgusted, even? Do we know somehow that going along with this person’s wishes for enslavement actually enslaves us along with them? We would be cast into a role we do not desire, that of “master” or “mistress,” unable to escape from it. Whatever we tried, the slave would merely be compliant, pleased to follow any direction except “go away.” Sitting beside us in silence, they would soak up our refusal to play our part, casting us deeper and deeper into this part.

In America, our rights end where they intrude on the rights of others. In Britain, where Anton LaVey lived, they have the same arrangement. LaVey founded the Church of Satan and advocated a life of pleasure and materialism. He thought of people as things to be used and wondered what good a friend might be if they did you no good. Even this ultimately pragmatic man saw that if everyone only used everyone else, nobody would have any rights or freedom.

In his latter years, he sought to collect or create automata that could stand in for human companionship, except minus the free will that gives them rights. These automata would complete his utilitarian utopia. Lacking in moral judgment or intent, he could use these human-shaped machines however he wished. Sexual pleasure, one of his top concerns in life, could be obtained from them without any human degradation. He could scorn them, beat them, converse with them, lose arguments without the bruised pride of another human knowing they had won.

What he did not see was that this Utopia would be a kind of Hell. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone illustrated this problem decades ago with an episode about the afterlife. A gambler, a pool hustler and womanizer, arrives in what he thinks is Heaven. His guide shows him around the pool hall where he will spend eternity. Whatever he asks for is instantly granted: cookies and milk, alcohol, beautiful women. When he goes to the pool table and breaks, every ball goes into a hole—every time. He always wins, always gets what he wants.

And very soon he is bored. At the end, he asks what sort of Heaven this is, so devoid of challenges, and his guide replies, “Oh, this isn’t Heaven…”

LaVey, wherever his soul has gone, could be grateful his Utopia did not come to pass during his lifetime. However, the iPhone brings it terrifyingly close to reality. All that it needs is a body that we can use for our own gratification, and we will have Serling’s Hell or LaVey’s utopia—a being without rights or the desire for rights, and thus no capacity for moral judgment. Like the person who seeks to be enslaved, demands it, and expresses their freedom only inasmuch as they refuse to be free, this device enslaves its users. This is what LaVey was missing—he would become less than a slave, a mere servitor of machines to no ultimate purpose.

It may be a little melodramatic to suggest your iPhone gizmo will destroy you, or even that it is the top of a slippery slope to dissolution. Certainly it is to suggest it is a tool of Satan—in the end, even LaVey denied the existence of such a being. And yet, the commercials for it are increasingly disturbing. Jackson is expecting company and talks to his phone like a butler, giving it the night off. The others—Zooey Deschanel and John Malkovitch—appear to be totally alone except for this device. They talk to it, not through it, surrounded by their beautiful possessions and hollow lives of materialism and hedonism – echoes of Laveyan Satanism.

With thanks to Rebecca Brislain whose concerns inspired much of this train of thought.

-- Jason Dias

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