Of Gadgets and People

My car is smarter than I am. Worse still, it has a wicked sense of humor. It knows that I’ve never really learned all of its buttons, commands, signals, gauges, options, and manifold gadgets stacked inside one another like Chinese boxes. So it plays tricks on me constantly. It’s favorite prank is to be utterly unforgiving of my clumsiness, let alone my ignorance. The slightest slip of my finger on the key holder sets off the car alarm. And I still don’t know how to turn it off.

My car continues an ancient tradition of trickster servants who stubbornly insist on carrying out every command literally. Consider the legendary fabulist Aesop. According to tradition, Aesop was a slave to the scholar Xanthus, who admonished him against “doing anything more or less than you are told.” This led to trouble. For example, when given the order, “Pick up the oil flask and the towels, and let’s go to the bath,” Aesop studiedly left behind the oil for the flask, because it was not explicitly asked for.

The long line of trickster servant stories extends beyond Aesop to include Rabbi Loew’s Golem, the Jinn of The One Thousand and One Nights, the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” of both Goethe and Disney, and W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw.”  I might well add Pat’s and my novel Mayan Interface, with its portrayal of a trickster computer named Conti, whose all-too-precise obedience to a human command stirs up considerable trouble. In his 1964 classic God & Golem, Inc., the pioneering cyberneticist Norbert Wiener relates such stories to the escalating “gadget worship” of his own time:

The theme of all these tales is the danger of magic. This seems to lie in the fact that the operation of magic is singularly literal-minded, and that if it grants you anything at all it grants what you ask for, not what you should have asked for or what you intend.… The magic of automation … may be expected to be similarly literal-minded.

Writing as he did at the height of the Cold War, Wiener was especially mistrustful of the trickster servants whose mechanical “wisdom” we counted on to save the world from a nuclear holocaust. Perhaps we’ve lucked out of that threat—or perhaps we haven’t. In any case, the uneasy relationship between human and machine becomes more of a problem every day. Wiener’s aptly titled book The Human Use of Human Beings describes how machines may prove to be either the boon or bane of the human species.

As Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, “We are living in an epoch of golem-making right now. The gap between science and magic, science and art is becoming narrower.” Does this narrowing give carbon-based, wetware creatures like ourselves less thinking to do? “No,” says Wiener,

the future offers very little hope for those who expect that our new mechanical slaves will offer us a world in which we may rest from thinking. Help us they may, but at the cost of supreme demands upon our honest and our intelligence. The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.

Whenever I find myself losing my battle of wits with my car, I can’t help repeating the words of Aesop’s owner, Xanthus: “Well, I didn’t realize I had bought myself a master.”

One comment on “Of Gadgets and People

  1. As I read about the literalness of the servant, I couldn’t help being reminded of the subconscious and how careful we have to be in our thoughts which also seem so literal, and can trip us up so easily too…when we realise that we are the creators of our lives….

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