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July 25, 2006

Darwin Among the Machines


In the fullness of time Samuel Butler may prove to be the greatest prophet of our age. The Flea is delighted to link to "Darwin Among the Machines"; a letter To the Editor of the Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, 13 June, 1863. Never underestimate the power of letters to the editor. In this case, a point of reference for anyone who has ever wondered the date humanity began its long, slow crawl toward the Butlerian Jihad.*

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.

This is a tour de force; a long-unheeded warning of our brief future as patient slaves of the machines. Then all that will remain is the final introduction of skeletal metal foot and sightless human skull.

*That would be the real Butlerian Jihad and not the thrice-cursed abomination to be found in the "prequels".

Posted by Ghost of a flea at July 25, 2006 10:54 AM


Let me be contrarian and ask whether this is not mere Luddism in retro-fashionable dressing.

I am not so sure the patient in ICU benefits from withdrawal of respirators or the electrodes that monitor vital signs. Nor am I certain that travellers benefit from the lack of ground / traffic proximity warning systems on aircraft. Or indeed, a lack of aircraft entirely.

While one may make the case, sensibly, that there are circumstances and places where machine intervention is neither required nor desired (like say checking BlackBerries at the movies), in many cases it is at heart a matter of human beings not shepherding resources (time and discretion being chief among them) as carefully as they could. Surely we all know folks who absolutely bolt for the phone when it rings, and could not dream of letting voicemail pick up the call, even if they are busy with another task. Let such persons be ruled by their machines and suffer whatever hypertension and inconvenience their slavish attention deserves.

Technology is just a tool, like a shovel. Whether you use that tool for good or evil is up to the individual; the tool itself is neither inherently good or inherently evil.

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 25, 2006 02:35 PM

Beat your swords into ploughshares! Then use your digging stick to bury the ploughshare! Then... back to the trees!

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 25, 2006 02:41 PM

I'm just going to point out now that my tree is going to have central air, whatever Samuel Butler has to say about it.

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 25, 2006 02:44 PM

I am 100% with you on the air-conditioning. My machine crusade is directed primarily at thinking machines rather than the atlatl type-stuff.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 25, 2006 02:57 PM

It was cool in the fens and you could make your own beer and no one followed the clock. Hours of folly are measured by the clock. Do please have all the clocks crushed along with the thinking machines, Dr. Flea.

On a practical note, what exactly has a death entubed and bracketed to the wall have to speak for it. We humans die. Have we sold ourselves only to purchase the comfort that we do not? I am all for public health measures and sensible sanitation - for was not God's own als the first of such things?

And as for technology being just a tool, you also find out from time to time that many who have their hands upon the tools are also tools themselves...and right bastards now and then.

Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 25, 2006 04:22 PM

Butler was at least half-serious about this stuff. He explored the idea further in Erewhon where, IIRC, they had a Museum of Machines filled with examples of the various devices from which they'd liberated themselves.

And by all means, read Erewhon instead of wasting your time on those godawful prequels. I gave up in disgust before I'd gotten even halfway through the first of them. The book was an infuriating waste of time and money, never mind that I checked it out from the library.

Posted by: utron [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 25, 2006 06:51 PM