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Offbeat: Friday 27 June 2014



I suppose, at the extreme end of the spectrum, the most convinced and optimistic computer geek is really not much different from your average religious fundamentalist.\

‘President Joe once had a dream’. I wonder if you recognise the song?  It’s ‘Saviour Machine’ from the early David Bowie album, ‘The Man who Sold the World’. The machine is built to solve all problems, and does so, but ends up miserable and disaffected. It’s obvious that the thing was a computer, but the word ‘machine’ works better in the song.
If you haven’t heard the song yet, it’s worth a listen. You can find it on YouTube. During those years, David Bowie made songs that still sound modern. That was before he learned to sing ‘properly’ and became poppish. If you do head in that virtual direction, you might also want to listen to the track, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.
At first glance, the song sounds like an oddity, pardon the pun, a preposterous notion. If you go a bit deeper into things and put aside the concept of the machine, you are left with another player, President Joe who built the machine. President Joe is not particularly preposterous. There are a bunch of people out there, just like him.
The notion of the omnipotent machine is nothing new. It’s one of the common strands in science fiction, and has been for a long time. The idea of an intelligent machine is old hat as well. The Turing Test scratches the surface by seeking a computer that can fool a human into believing that it too is human. Some or other machine managed to fool a couple of experts into thinking it was a 13 year old a couple of weeks ago.
Next on the horizon, we have ‘The Singularity’. That is supposed to be an intelligent machine that is able to replicate itself. After that comes extropianism, the idea of transferring a soul to a machine.
All of these phenomena are fetishes, I suspect on the part of people who cannot cope with other people. “If I can’t cope with the vagaries of real human emotions, I’ll hope that machines are more predictable.” Sad. It makes me think of Pinocchio as an object of affection, if not desire.
Perhaps it’s not so much Pinocchio’s wooden nature that is the problem, but the people who worship machines that need to get real.
There is something else that is interesting about the song. The machine is called ‘Prayer’ and its answer is ‘law’. There is definitely something in that as well, yet another get-out-of-jail card for people who really don’t want to have to deal with their own thoughts and emotions. The line that divides the two sides of the thing is the internal and the external. There are a huge number of people who need external systems to get by, not just in the starry-eyed worship of tools like computers, but in slavish, slack-jawed belief in and acceptance of thought systems.
I suppose, at the extreme end of the spectrum, the most convinced and optimistic computer geek is really not much different from your average religious fundamentalist, if not in intensity of and reliance on belief, then possibly as in need of control as a bog-standard hell-and-damnation preacher or some angry worshiper at the altar of Dawkins’ atheism.
Machines are becoming the new cult. They define us and our lives, to the point where personal values and our own judgments become secondary resources and measures of value.
The proof of this lies in processing and graphics capability. Apparently the higher the capability, the more able the person. Yet, at the end of the day, there aren’t all that many people who use much more than a browser, mail and a productivity suite.
It’s about the same with religion. Why do people need theological sophistication and loopholes when the actual object of the exercise is to break as many commandments as possible and ignore the validity of strictures against venal sins? One proof of this lies in the church that handed out guns to people who converted.
If there is a truth to be had from this, it is that tools make things easier but don’t make them better. Systems create their own messes. Computers become more complex and less predictable. Religion needs to create more enemies and more violence.


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