2018 Newsletter 12: Megamaya

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

The machines are coming, the machines are coming. I know quite a few people who spend their waking hours imagining scenarios in which the world will end inside some metallic belly. Are machines eating the world? Will robots take our jobs and then our souls?

The term "machine" is inadequate to describe the ruler of our current condition; the cyborg systems we are building today have moved so far beyond the Victorian era machine that we need a new term for them. I prefer to use the term globe as shorthand for human power in the anthropocene. The globe is much more than a machine. It's a system of machines. Even a system of system of machines; one layer stacked upon another until we don't know where the machine ends and the earth begins. As a result, the power of the globe extends across the earth, subsuming farm, forest and factory into one system. There's no doubt that the globe is unstable and will collapse of it's own weight, but that day lies in the future. As of now, its reach is increasing. The global empire extends from the microbes in our guts to the clouds in the sky. Rule by foreigners can be opposed by sending the foreigner home, but what do we do about rule by genetic transmutation? Rule at a human scale can be opposed at a human scale. What resources do we have at our disposal when the sphere of control extends from cells to continents? How do we respond to a power that threatens to transform the entire biosphere? To take just one example, when I read proposals for geoengineering the earth's atmosphere, it's clear to me that even our response to the globe is mired in the same consciousness that's the cause of the problem. The globe is nothing but the earth swallowed, digested and represented by humans, or to use a more modern analogy, the globe is the transformation of the earth into a simulation. Except that I don't like the term simulation, for they are fake. In contrast, a drone raining fire in the mountains is all too real - even if the drone is operated by a kid in California manipulating it with a joystick. Don't believe me? Ask the mourners at the funerals that follow. There's reality and then there's the simulation and while we can pretend that the simulation is reality, we know well that it isn't so. We're quite smart that way: children who're playing know that they're playing. A war game isn't war. Then again, it feels like simulation and reality are coming together isn't it? We have been into make-believe as a species for ever: we grow up playing games and even as adults, we entertain ourselves and each other with novels, theatre and movies. The suspension of disbelief is at the core of being human. That's because make-believe has many of the properties of the real. We take driving classes before taking to the open road. Scientists conduct experiments in controlled conditions and use those to make claims about reality. Paradoxically, play helps us get a surer grip on reality. Unfortunately, our play has run amuck - it threatens to cover all of reality. If you've seen the movie "The Matrix," you have an idea of what I am talking about: to its inhabitants, the matrix appears perfect. Beautiful houses and perfect streets; everyone is tall, white and rich. Except that it's an illusion: in reality, the earth has been taken over by machines. In the movie, things get interesting when a few brave humans wake up to the nightmare outside. If only we were so lucky. Our overlords would be sweating buckets if all it takes is cutting off a few wires, grabbing a few guns and going after the bad guys. The globe is much more insidious. First of all, it's not an enemy; it's us. Second, it's not us being bad, but us being good. Who doesn't like living in a pleasant neighborhood with a plush house and two cars? Who doesn't like a society which makes those luxuries available to everyone? Except that we might all die when the climate collapses from all that luxuriousness. Let me ask you a question: what if a demon - or a deva, depending on your ideology - replaced one tree, animal or person every second with a robotic counterpart, so that after a few million years there were no biological creatures left on this planet, only silicon ones. Let's assume that these silicon creatures would live and love just as we do, complete with a Silicon Bollywood making movies in which robotic heroes and heroines danced around silicon trees. Would that be a tragedy? If so, why? If not, why not? I am guessing almost everyone who's reading the previous paragraph thinks it's an unmitigated tragedy. Except that most of the tears are fake: the horror may have nothing to do with replacing creatures by robots and everything to do with replacing humans by anything else. We would be equally horrified if we were replaced by a super-intelligent race of octopuses. Our revulsion is a sign of human tribalism more than genuine care. Otherwise, wouldn't we be rejecting the story of development and progress that's been sold to us for the last two hundred years? Doesn't development mean replacing farm and forest with factory at an ever increasing pace? Let me also admit the hypocrisy in these statements - for I am very much a beneficiary of the transition from carbon to metal and silicon. Isn't the computer on whose metallic surface I am typing these words made in a factory built out of the ruins of a forest? Here's a core problem: the worst long term changes are often caused by genuine concern in the short term. Consider the following example: at the beginning of the twentieth century, most transport was animal powered. Horses were everywhere. Unfortunately, those horses were not and could not be toilet trained, so horse shit was a major problem. In contrast, cars were a clean and sanitary alternative. Now fast forward a hundred years: there are no horses left in our cities and not only have we removed animals from urban areas, we have replaced that animal life with perpetual gridlock, air and noise pollution and the threat of climate collapse. A similar problem has emerged from the overuse of antibiotics - you can't go to a doctor in India with a slight fever and come back without antibiotics. Surely that's saved lives but no one calculated what rampant use of drugs will do over the long run. What happens when drug resistant strains of Tuberculosis spread throughout the country as a result? So what I am trying to say is that the globe isn't sustained by evil. Moralizing will not make it go away. Instead, we are much better off seeing it for what it is: a form of Maya. A supersized maya that's seeped into the world and now blankets it from head to toe. In other words, a Megamaya. We are now living in megamaya. I can see the question coming: "can you define megamaya for me?" I will not be offering you a definition of megamaya. Having said that, the lack of definition isn't a sign of complete chaos. Cognitive scientists talk about radial categories, i.e., categories organized around a central feature with other less important features revolving around that central sun. The category bachelor has "unmarried man" as the central feature, but recognizes other features such as temporary bachelorhood and exceptions for people whose unmarried status is tied to ritual or religious practice. While bachelors are unmarried men, we don't consider the pope or the Dalai Lama to be a bachelor; meanwhile, we are happy to bachelorize the married man whose wife has gone away for a few weeks. Megamaya is a radial category. It's central feature is human sovereignty enhanced by machinic systems. Of course, a future gigamaya could reverse the relative position of humans and machines. We haven't reached that yet; we are somewhere between ten and a hundred megamaya units. In that plenitude, humans are on top, machines below them and the rest of the earth below those machines. It goes without saying that megamaya isn't an illusion; it's not a dream which disappears when we wake up. Megamaya is out there in the world. What tools do we have to understand megamaya, let alone change it? That's where Indian philosophy comes into the picture. In my opinion, Indian Philosophy - not only its official brahminical wing, but also its informal, street wing - has the richest storehouse of ideas, metaphors and arguments about the nature of reality qua reality. It's that understanding of reality qua reality that I find strongest in Indian philosophy; the insight that makes the Buddha leave his home and Gandhi fight for swaraj. Am I being romantic? Probably. Am I blind to other cultures' insights into reality as reality? Even more likely. Whether it's merely an accident of birth or genuine wisdom, it's Indian philosophical insights I have absorbed under my skin and therefore, it's this culture that gives me the tools to understand megamaya. Why else would I give megamaya that name?
Afternote: What does that "qua" mean? Consider an object in front of you. Let's say it's a book. If you're reading this book on paper, then this book is such an object. If you're reading the book on screen, then the e-reading device is such an object. Now suppose you're a chemist and you spend the next day analyzing the chemical composition of the paper in this book, then you're not analyzing the book qua book. Nothing about your analysis is unique to this book. On the other hand, if you're a literary critic and you spend an hour fuming at the style of this book, or if you're a computer scientist who writes a program that measures the word frequencies in the book, you're analyzing this book qua book. That's because the style of the book and its word count are both essential to making this book what it is.

It gets complicated quickly: the same computer program can analyze word frequencies in every book in the library. It can also analyze word frequencies in journal articles. So it's not only about books qua books but arguably about texts qua texts. It is very hard to identify practices that work only on books and nothing else.