The Electric Monk

With every little technical advantage, the human mind loses a bit of its resourcefulness. With every task automatically taken care of, a brain is a little less proficient. Every time a computer makes a decision for you, you become a little more useless.

Say what you will about spiders, they are terrific artists. I’ve got this one outside of my house that can build a web faster than the average person can skip an ad during a youtube video. He is out dangling over my shrubs every autumn. We respect each others’ work environment. As long as he doesn’t infringe on my space I leave him to his art. His web is a nice little addition to the house around Halloween, even better that it’s a decoration that I don’t have to put up or take down.

The other day I walked out of my front door and into a mouthful of spiderweb. The little arachnid had violated our agreement. Angered, I caught sight of him at the top of his maze of filament, batted him to the ground and stomped on him. Judge, jury, executioner. None too surprised then, was I, when I looked under my foot and realized it wasn’t a real spider. I had pulverized a little pile of silicon dust, microchips and plastic pincers. Moments later the real spider debouched from a tree limb, visibly annoyed, with a look on his face like, “You idiot! Do you know how much that thing costs? It’s the newest model. I swapped it for like five pounds of moths. Now I might as well have flushed them all down the toilet.”

I got up close and scrutinized the little fella. That was the spider I remembered. I hadn’t seen him in a while. I could tell he was out of shape. He had gotten heavy. He had tiny little wrinkles on his teeny spider forehead. The waxy thread that used to glisten at his fingertips was now dull and coarse with no tensile strength. He seemed to indicate that he couldn’t build a web if his life depended on it. He motioned to the eaves of my house, where I noticed five or six webs currently under construction, all by A.I., or artificial insect.

He further indicated, (I’m sensitive to these types of communications), that life had gotten a little too plush for him. He had been married and divorced like four times, had lost on some big investments, and now most of his bug harvest went to alimony and child support. He had to keep up this enormous collection of prey just to break even every month. What’s worse is that he had forgotten how to build a web. It was as alien to him as particle physics. He weeped a tiny teardrop and shuffled back to wherever he had come from. 

A drunk girl at a bar once tried to explain to me, with a robust and somewhat reckless barrage of the word ‘literally’ to drive the point home, the finer features of her new phone app that, “Literally shows all the stars in the sky. Literally! All the planets, stars, constellations. It’s literally amazing.” She held up her phone for me to see.

“It seems strange,” I said, “to be absorbed in a computer replica of arguably the most accessible landscape on the planet. Unless you are trapped in a cave, the actual sky overhead is readily available for entertainment, uses no battery power whatsoever, and simply requires that the observer look up.”

“But this has everything labeled,” she said. 

“With a tiny bit of research you can do that very same thing with your brain.”

“Who needs a brain when you’ve got cloud storage?”

It reminded me of a character from the Douglas Adams book, “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,” copyright 1987. In it there is a machine called the Electric Monk. It is an invention that absorbs and practices the tougher points of any belief system so the actual person doesn’t have to. The satirical machine becomes more and more prophetic as the technology develops. You can set your Electric Monk to atonement and it will go on a hunger strike while you stuff yourself with donuts, it will flagellate itself while you go to the spa, it will make the pilgrimage while you take a nap, and it will wear the hair shirt while you attend the all-night rave.

And so there is much in the news about driverless cars. On one hand it would be nice to have a mechanical chauffeur to boss around. On the other, it will reduce the art of driving to a civil, precise exercise in efficient transportation. Egads, what a nightmare. Who will I give the middle finger to? Who will I accuse of having their head up their ass? How do I instruct an algorithm to catch up to the pretty girl in the convertible and will the car comply with my request when it is otherwise inadvisable to do so? How do I race another computerized car, and how do I deal with the shame of being outrun by that computer? What’s worse, how do I try to drive in an emergency after years of being carried here and there? I’ll be too old for horseback and my feet will have long since shriveled up. I’ll be as helpless as a baby. I’ll scream and whine and cry until the robot that changes my diaper gives me my pacifier, complete with a microchip that will register when I’ve been properly pacified.

More Alembics to come.

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