Culture is an engine that transforms food into ideas. Individual bodies are responsible for turning food into energy, but it takes a mind to create ideas, and a mind is possible only in a community. Just as a body requires some sort of ecosystem to provide it with air, warmth, water, fuel, etc., a mind needs a community – a culture – to provide it with language, traditions, values, genders, social classes, and theories. Within any culture, an individual mind can do a lot of experimenting, creating new theories and rebelling against old traditions; or it can find new ways to defend the received views against the new challenges. Either way, new ideas, and, over time, new cultures.
Bound up with culture and ideas is technology, but techs, once developed, begin to live their own lives in a kind of dialectic with culture. Each tech opens up new domains for ideas, and closes down others. The new ideas – or the vacant spaces where other new ideas would have been – lead in turn to new tech possibilities. We’re not in control of the machines, and they don’t simply control us. It’s a dance, and it can be a waltz, a jitterbug, or a danse macabre. Think, for example, of the first Macintosh, the internet, and the crossbow; or the printing press, the phonograph, and artillery. And now think of how both culture and technology would have been, had any of these techs not developed.
Since ideas are developed by individual agents in a cultural tension with other agents, when techs get thrown into the mix, they act as cultural accelerants. The engine runs faster. For with the coming of new techs, it’s not just a matter of words being batted about, with institutions responding slowly over generations; but the ideas become embodied in machines, and the effects of the machines are here and now and have to be dealt with. New laws, institutions, and practices have to be developed on the fly, and these shoulder their ways into the ideosphere, inflaming new passionate arguments and theories. Culture has no option but to evolve at a faster rate.
In all likelihood, truly intelligent machines – not just clever gadgets – are coming soon. If techs are cultural accelerants, intelligent machines will be cultural fission: an accelerant like no other. For AIs will not just be problematic opportunities plunked down on our landscape; they will be active, responsive culture-producers themselves. The question will be whether culture can evolve fast enough. Or, rather, the question will be whether humans get left behind.
What does that even mean? One nightmarish scenario is the world of Terminator and The Matrix: machines rapidly evolve a culture that has no place for us, and we become at best superfluous and at worst a nuisance. They enslave us. Another scenario is a kind of technosynthesis, in which humans and machines together evolve a culture unlike any we have seen before, one in which the boundaries between humans and machines disappear, and something new – the posthuman – comes on stage. A third scenario – the bleakest – is a clusterfuck of unintended consequences that amounts to cultural armageddon. What’s left is a planet devoid of minds, or perhaps (only slightly better) a new stone age, where we return to the joys of banging rocks together.
Or it could turn out that humans are not left behind, and we manage to craft a future that allows for a fruitful symbiosis of humans and machines. Call this the Star Trek scenario. Star Trek presents a world where we have overcome selfishness with intelligence, fear with curiosity, and barbarism with civilization. The scenario is utopian, to be sure, which means it is a “good” place that exists “no” place, and the Star Trek franchise itself is long on hope and short on details. But if we find we would like to stave off enslavement, technosynthesis, and armageddon, we might start thinking through some details, and start transforming the food we eat into the idea of a future that has us in it.