About fifteen years ago I read The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis, a short work based on a series of lectures given during the tumult of the Second World War. Lewis’ main concern is with the loss of the idea of objective values, whether moral or aesthetic. In his view, this would lead in turn to the loss of our real humanity, for without such things we become unfeeling beings, the sort of creatures that we now term ‘robots’.
At the time of reading him I thought Lewis’ view was exaggerated, but over the last few years I have felt more and more that he was right and had a prophetic vision. As it has turned out, from the date of Lewis’ lectures onwards there have been two major developments. The first is this: the idea that the human being is only material has become part of popular philosophy. I say ‘popular’ because a wide range of views is found among serious philosophers. It’s as if we cannot understand consciousness so we decide that it’s unimportant, just a side-effect, if you like, of the brain. This view is propagated particularly by the ‘new atheists’.
The second development has been rapid growth in enthusiasm for cybernetics and robotics, particularly the idea of breaking down the human-machine boundary. This sort of thinking is often sold to us on the basis of the tremendous medical advances that might be enabled, and one can hardly argue with that. One can argue, however, with the obvious presupposition that is often displayed, that there is actually not much difference between the brain and a super-computer. Many of the loudest voices in this field claim that before very long we will have produced a computer as powerful as the human brain, so finally we will understand consciousness and how it works.
Unfortunately, the result of all this progressive thinking is not to make machines more like people, but to make people more like machines. Bryan Appleyard brings this out brilliantly in The Brain is Wider than the Sky. It seems that this change, foreseen by Lewis, is regarded as a positive development by many of the intellectual leaders of our day, and by many of their followers within the business and political community. One manifestation of this is that we are compelled to hand over more and more of our life to technology, particularly in relation to the really big hitters of our time. Google has enormous influence on what information we access, Amazon has similar influence on what we buy, Facebook is affecting our concepts of friends and communities and You Tube is the new reality TV.
All this has been created by digital technology, and of course we don’t really know what are the commercial interests behind all these developments, nor do we know how they will shift and change in the future. We are faced with a digital dilemma – but it’s not the question of whether we should have an iPhone or an Android equivalent. The real dilemma is whether we should hand over our lives to the power brokers of the digital universe, or try to keep old-fashioned ideas of private space, face-to-face community and creativity.