It's a Cookbook!
The Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” begins with a familiar premise: an alien ship arrives and makes contact with humanity’s leaders.
Like in The Day the Earth Stood Still, humans seem small, petty, and mistrusting before a superior intelligence. But rather than lecture us on our myriad failings as Klaatu does in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the aliens in this Twilight Zone episode are nine-foot-tall humanoids called Kanamits who communicate telepathically and seem to have no ulterior motives. They inform humanity that they come in peace and are here only to do right by us. They will bring new technology enabling cheap energy, they will end famine, and they are driven only by a singular goal written ominously on the cover of a book: “to serve man.”
The Kanamits can easily function as a stand-in for the rise of major tech companies and the new products and services they offer. Like Google with their now-disappeared mantra “Don’t Be Evil,” they arrive on the scene suddenly and promising only to make our lives easier and better—for proof, just look at these new products. “There is nothing ulterior in our motives. Nothing at all,” says the Kanamit representative, played by Richard Kiel, “You will discover this for yourselves before too long simply by testing the various devices which we will make available to you.” Perhaps a smartphone? Taste and see that our new lords are good.
Humanity quickly adapts to this new situation, and after the initial mistrust is overcome by a lie detector test, they embrace their new sovereign-servants. Many people even sign up to take a trip to the Kanamit homeworld. As the human codebreaker Michael Chambers says, there’s a “fantastic ease with which human beings make adjustments.” We get accustomed to things quickly and easily—even things that should arouse more suspicion. “The strange and complex sanity of man,” he continues, “Nothing fazes them.”
But the moral of the story, of course, is not to be so trusting. In the hilarious and horrifying conclusion of the episode, it is revealed—at the last moment and too late—that the book “to serve man” is in fact a cookbook. All the pomp and circumstance of the new technology, all the song and dance about helping us live better lives, was merely a facade to cover up a far simpler need: food.
So the key question I’d like to investigate here revolves around our relationship to contemporary technology, as framed by this episode. Who serves whom? And how? Does our technology serve humanity? And if not, how can it?
Whom Does Our Technology Serve?
The downsides of social media are now well known, as are the nefarious practices of hegemonic companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon (and, to a lesser extent, Apple)—though their manipulations are more insidious than most realize, as chronicled by Shoshana Zuboff in her extraordinary and horrifying book Surveillance Capitalism. Even something as seemingly innocent as Pokémon Go was little more than a Google-backed global experiment in targeted advertising and customer tracking. These companies came claiming “to serve man,” but they have not followed through on that promise. Humanity has been sold a false bill of goods and offered up on the altar of surveillance—which, Zuboff reminds, is joined at the hip with AI—as the delectable feast for our overlords, who see us not as human but as, in the parlance of our times, “data.”
But deep learning approaches to AI only work as well as they do because of us—because they harvest all our information and train on it. This technology is made of digital soylent green. We live in a vicious cycle where we provide the data upon which the great companies feed, and then they spit back to us more and more of what they believe we most want to buy, thereby providing them with more data when we oblige. And if we don’t want to buy it, then the algorithms have ways of hoodwinking us into thinking we do. Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders chronicled this in the 1950s, but the only thing that has changed since then is the persuaders’ increased capacity for control and manipulation.
The gradual awareness of this process makes it hard to remember some of the technological hope from fifteen years ago, but there was once a time when we thought the internet, smartphones, and social media would free us, leading to a new era of democracy and liberalism (remember social media and the Arab Spring?). Not so any longer. Along with the big tech companies, governments, too, have caught up, with autocrats from China to Russia figuring out new ways to deploy the internet against humanity, as described in LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. The net has become the authoritarian’s best friend. And it happened so quickly we have not really noticed—like Chambers says in The Twilight Zone, what was once unthinkable can quickly become commonplace.
There is a clear danger in this. As Lewis Mumford wrote in Technics and Human Development (1967), the first part of his monumental duology on techno-human interaction, we are in a precarious situation. To be sure, our technology and our economic system makes us incredibly productive. But it also makes us incredibly wasteful. Such waste and excess are linked far more strongly to environmental and ecological devastation than was apparent one hundred years ago, though some could see it coming, as Mumford did. All that said, it means that rethinking our easy relationship with technologies of consumption is not only morally necessary, but biologically too. As Mumford wrote in the second half of his study, The Pentagon of Power (1970), “All thinking worthy of the name must now be ecological.”
My question is what our proper relationship to technology might be. I make use of it like everyone else. I am writing on the internet, after all, and posting it to Twitter, all from the convenience of my home PC. I also do not want to go back to a time without modern medicine, and I have always been a fan of movies, television, and video games.
But, I don’t want to live in a world where machines are prioritized over humanity—though this is the world we have.
Instead, I want to think about alternatives. As Shoshana Zuboff reminds us, surveillance capitalism is a contingent form of economy, which means that it does not have to be this way. Contingent things can be changed. There are alternatives. But what are they?
In the spirit of Aristotle, I want to look for a middle way. First, I'll look at the radical environmentalist Philip Sherrard, before turning to Lewis Mumford again. In studying them both, I contend that we cannot embrace all technology uncritically, but neither can we renounce it completely.
Philip Sherrard and the Path of Renunciation
In his book on modern science, Philip Sherrard (1922–1995) wrote that he wanted help his readers “understand how and why we find ourselves in a world in which it is increasingly difficult to live as a human being.” Framed as an “enquiry into the origins and consequences of modern science,” the book focused on the effects of technological civilization on humanity and the Earth.
Sherrard lived a memorable life. Born in England, he went to Greece after WWII and fell in love with the country—its land, its people, and its religion. He learned Greek and was the first person (along with Edmund Keeley) to translate modern Greek poetry into English. He was drawn to the Orthodox Church and was received into it in 1956. He published his own poetry and essays on modern Greek literature. But, over time, he started to grow alarmed about Greece’s modernization, and fretted about the effects it was having on the environment—both in Hellas and around the world. His solution was a two-pronged one: 1) renounce all modern technology and live in a haven without it, and 2) write a series of books on the environmental crisis (which, for him, was simply a symptom of much deeper spiritual desolation).
There have always been radical critics of technology. Some, like Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, or Wendell Berry, in “Why I am not going to buy a computer,” have pushed the limits of technological asceticism. But Sherrard went even further.
In the late 50s, he purchased an abandoned magnesite mine on the Greek island of Evia. Over the next two decades, he and a host of local workers transformed it into their permanent residence. His wife Denise Harvey joined in later. Sherrard left academia in the late 70s and never looked back, living the rest of his life on Evia.
It is significant that Sherrard chose to repurpose an old mine as his refuge. As Mumford argued in his early opus Technics and Civilization (1934), it was the mine that was the birth of the modern economy. Later, in Technics and Human Development, he contended that “it was mining, mechanization, militarism, and their derivative occupations that took the joy out of daily work and turned it into an implacable, mind-dulling system of drudgery.” Sherrard wanted a refuge from this drudgery, so he fashioned one out of the remnants of a destructive enterprise, perhaps hoping to redeem it.
Even by the standards of techno-pessimists, Sherrard’s approach was extreme. His home had no electricity, no phones, and no heating except by fire. No cooling was possible but for shade from the trees.
I had the good fortune to visit his home last year. Sherrard is dead now, but Denise Harvey still lives there and runs a publishing house that sells his books, as well as many other modern Greek classics that have been translated into English. I will have to tell the long story of how I got there another time, but for now I will relate that the refuge is every bit as Arcadian and bucolic as one would expect.
For the rest of his life, Sherrard wrote about religion and the environmental crisis. Its scope was one of “appalling dimensions,” he lamented in Human Image: World Image, and it is so obvious that we do not even need to be told. “Our entire way of life is humanly and environmentally suicidal,” he continued, “and unless we change it radically there is no way in which we can avoid cosmic catastrophe.” Modern civilization is ensnared by a monstrous, polycephalic creature—whose many heads take the form of “computerized wilderness,” “bigger and better banking systems,” and chemically poisoned crops. Our way of living is like a “collective psychosis,” and we could not be ruining the planet better if we were intentionally trying to.
In his last, posthumous book Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition, he returned to the same theme. “The technological, industrial, political, economic, educational and practically every other sphere,” he wrote, “has led us to build a type of society that desecrates and mutilates human and natural life in all its aspects.” Moreover, and along the same lines as Wendell Berry today, Sherrard argued that simply promoting renewable energy like solar or wind was not enough, because “the fight against pollution and mass starvation or anything else [cannot] have any chance of success, so long as the means through which it is waged involve the same ‘logic of production,’ the same free-market selling techniques and the same ruthless competitive exploitation that have produced these ecological and social catastrophes in the first place.” Or, as in Berry’s view, we can get to 100% sustainable energy and still ruin the oceans with plastic and soil with chemicals.
The crux of the issue, for Sherrard, is that we view the world in an “inhuman, god-forsaken manner because we see things in an inhuman, god-forsaken way.” While it is common for environmental activists to blame humanity—and fault anthropocentrism—for ecological disaster, for Sherrard the situation is reversed. Anthropocentrism is not the problem; it is the solution. The failure is that we do not live in a world that actively centers human flourishing as its main objective. After all, he argued in Human Image: World Image, “how we see the world depends above all on how we see ourselves.” If we saw humanity properly, we would see the world properly. But we don’t—we see the world, and humanity within it, as either machines or machine-supplicants. And this is the real issue.
While this may seem far afield of the complaints about social media and AI which launched this essay, it’s in reality close to the bone. As Kate Crawford demonstrates in Atlas of AI, digital technology has fooled us into thinking it is disconnected from material reality. We habitually think it is in “the cloud,” and is therefore removed from the greasy, oily industrial ravages of the factories and mines. It might even be “green.” But this is misleading at best, and a lie at worst. AI depends not only on enormous energy reserves but is also grounded in the earth through the relentless mining of lithium and other rare earth materials. It emerges from the physical earth as much as oil and coal.
In most avenues of life, what we see—as I think Sherrard would argue—is the priority of the machine over the human. Our economic and political systems make the world more convenient for the machine, not for us. The world—the land and the culture—suffer precisely because it is not human-centric and it does not serve us. Even the short-term gains in the elimination of food scarcity are not the goods they appear to be, for we are robbing the future to pay the present, and the main benefactors are a tiny sliver of humanity that gorge themselves on profits so exuberant they can’t even spend it all in one lifetime (a sane soul would buy the collected Penguin classics and work through them for fifty years, but such study would require a degree of refinement our robber barons don’t possess, so they shoot themselves into space instead).
All that said, it is difficult to see how Sherrard might provide a path forward. I count myself as a great admirer of his—I have a book chapter and a journal article on him due out soon, and I hope one day to write a book about him. But completely detaching ourselves from modern technology is not something most of us can do, even if we wanted to. We are enmeshed into the machine, and our modes of resistance against it—against the things that make human life worse even as it promises to make them better—must take place within it.
To assist with this, Lewis Mumford (1895–1990) provides a via media. The great historian of technology, though sadly not as appreciated today as he was in his life, is hugely important for us as we think through this. I read him as asking a repeated question throughout his long life: who is served by technology? Humanity or machine? Rather than rejecting everything, we must instead ask this question each time we encounter a new manifestation of technology.
Rage Against the Megamachine
“We have to confront, then, a culture that is over-organized, over-mechanized, over-directed, over-predictable,” wrote Mumford in The Pentagon of Power, “Unless a response takes place sufficient to bring about a reconstitution of our dominant ideology, its institution structures, and its ideal personalities, mere withdrawal, even on the scale achieved by Christianity in the fourth century, will not suffice.” Retreat won’t lead to victory.
Thoreau learned this, Mumford argued: “he realized that [Walden] was not good for a lifetime, nor attractive either, except as a vacation from a more demanding economy that denied him the leisure he needed for his true life as a feeling, thinking, reflecting observer.” Moreover, it requires a degree of luxury, or at least good fortune, to undertake such an adventure. Even day-to-day detachment can be a struggle for us. I tried to live without a smartphone for about six weeks this year, and it was even more difficult than I anticipated—and for reasons I would not have guessed. The alternative “dumb phones” out there are limited in their functionality (texting via the old T-9 system feels positively barbaric now), but I was caught off guard in April when I realized I could not even park on campus anymore because the university had switched to using a smartphone app rather than meters for payment. The experiment was a failure, and I eventually stopped using the “dumb phone” when its battery failed.
For Mumford, rather than wholesale rejection, the better question is—Do our machines help us? Do they actually make our lives easier? They certainly can, but they clearly often don’t. And so, if they are often not making our lives better—even, at times, making them worse—then whom do they serve?
For Mumford, the answer is the megamachine.
The megamachine is the vast, interconnected network of our global, social, and economic industrial complex. Mumford described it sometimes as a “mechanical collective.” He did not mean, however, that it is a giant, planet-spanning machine. It is a social system, not a device, and it manifests in different ways. It is sustained by our economies (either capitalism or socialism, both of which are highly mechanized), our schools and colleges (which promote conformism to the machine), and our political and cultural orders, too. It is everywhere, but it permeates life so deeply that we often don’t notice it. Why, if it is so omnipresent, does it evade our attention? Because it is, according to Mumford in Technics and Human Development, a machine composed of organic parts. It is all of us.
There are certain scales of megamachines. The Manhattan Project, for instance, was one that Mumford highlighted. It was not global, but it was part of a vast network in which human actors were bit players in a system which they cannot control (and which might achieve something they regret). Kate Crawford, in Atlas of AI, suggests AI is another such megamachine.
One apt way to describe the global megamachine is the way it often perpetuates itself at the expense not only of human flourishing but even explicit human desire. In The Grapes of Wrath, the bank dispossessing the people of their homes is described this way: “The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.” The enormous system, composed of human parts but functioning as a machine, is so powerful that it can override the expressed wishes of every single person within it.
The megamachine is not compatible with authentically human life. This mechanized world is a Procrustean bed, in Mumford’s view. It is not limited by human interests and it forgets all modes of life that are not mechanical. The consequence is that we remake humanity to fit into the tech world, and this mechanized environment is one in which only machines are fit to live. When we try to force ourselves to live in it, the result is ennui and anxiety, and we flee further and further into the escapism of endless “content” to compensate.
Gotta Serve Somebody
So who is actually served by our technology?
Often, we must intuitively feel, the answer is not us. It serves the machine, serves itself. It seems a bargain, wrote Mumford, until you read the fine print. But, critics might complain—don’t we like our machines? I know I do (mostly, anyway). Mumford granted this, but also wrote that they are good only if human concerns are not overlooked as a result—which they usually are. He used his refrigerator as an example (something none of us could or would want to do without) and noted that it did an admirable job preserving food for a decade. However, the issue here is planned obsolescence—which, in a new 21st century wrinkle, often takes the form of smart technology. Our old fridge works fine, why would we need a “smart fridge” with a third-rate computer? The new machine is no real improvement over the old. In many ways it is worse. But it does serve its purpose in extracting more data from us and in breaking down much sooner, thereby needing a replacement machine, and thus producing more profit. We reach the height of parody when one’s smart fridge needs to be quickly replaced in order to not fall behind on digital security updates. This preposterous scenario is akin to replacing a car because it can’t adequately walk your dog. Here we can see where a technology that does serve humanity is transmogrified into one that does not.
There are positives, of course. AI has great uses in medicine (as it did with halicin—though hospitals are less sanguine on AI than they were a decade ago) or in perhaps reducing automobile accidents. Banks use AI to help quickly detect and halt identity fraud. These are good things.
But in the grand total of things, these are incidental positive effects of a type of technology that is overwhelmingly being deployed in order to maximize profit and extract even more productivity from overworked employees. While there are pro-human uses of such technology, it is emerging from a vast, essentially anti-human system and so its benefits are frequently secondary to its abuses. We’ve been living with widespread AI for over a decade, and one could argue that its most salient effect has been political extremism and the proliferation of conspiracy theories stoked by social media algorithms. Likewise, ChatGPT has made my life harder, not easier, as now I must contend with another avenue of deceit and treachery in the classroom. Other devices, like Apple’s new Vision Pro, seem to have nothing in mind other than a simulacrum of human life, such that no single experience can avoid being filtered through mechanical intermediaries.
In many ways, there is a spiritual battle being waged here. As Mumford argued in Pentagon of Power, the megamachine can become a religion in its own right, demanding total fidelity like a capricious ancient deity. When traditional, institutional religion faded, “these new [mechanical] activities were what gave fresh meaning to life, no matter how unfortunate the actual results on any cold rational appraisal might be.” It helped erode religion first, then it replaced it—and we embraced it even though it made us unhappy. “When an ideology conveys such universal meanings and commands such obedience, it has become, in fact, a religion, and its imperatives have the dynamic force of myth.” And in a spiritual contest like this, what we might need is a spiritual revival. “For effective salvation,” he closed The Pentagon of Power, “mankind will need to undergo something like a spontaneous religious conversion: one that will replace the mechanical world picture with an organic world picture, and give to the human personality, as the highest known manifestation of life, the precedence it now gives to its machines and computers.”
Perhaps this sounds impossible—I certainly feel that way. But to return to Sherrard and his book on science, “However perilous our situation, we do not on that account regard it as inevitable that we are doomed.” As long as we live, there are ways to resist—to, as Mumford demanded, choose life.
We should remember the question of service. Who serves whom? Do our devices, machines, and, now, our artificial intelligences serve us or serve the megamachine?
One of my main goals on this site will be to think through this question. Our response to technology should not be one of full-scale renunciation, but rather a middle path of critical engagement. We can’t turn back the clock (and we shouldn’t romanticize the past), but we can be discriminating in the present.
Finally, as we live on a planet that is getting hotter and are reckoning more and more every day with the ecological effects of our rapacious economic and social systems, we must remember that those claiming “to serve man” might just be chefs rather than saviors.
This is the beginning of my thinking on this subject, not the end. I hope you might join me in working through these problems.
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Articles on AI-in-the-classroom, the subject of the viral tweet that drove a lot of traffic here, will be featured externally. The first one has already appeared in Wired Magazine.
I’ll post a roundup of these pieces when they are all published.