Tainted love: humans and machines


The Atlantic is featuring an excerpt from The Glass Cage. Taken from the second chapter, “The Robot at the Gate,” the piece looks at how our fraught relationship with labor-saving technology — a mix of utopian hope and existential fear — dates back to the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Here’s how the excerpt begins:

“We are brothers and sisters of our machines,” the technology his­torian George Dyson once remarked. Sibling relations are notori­ously fraught, and so it is with our technological kin. We love our machines—not just because they’re useful to us, but because we find them companionable and even beautiful. In a well-built machine, we see some of our deepest aspirations take form: the desire to under­stand the world and its workings, the desire to turn nature’s power to our own purposes, the desire to add something new and of our own fashioning to the cosmos, the desire to be awed and amazed. An ingenious machine is a source of wonder and of pride.

But machines are ugly too, and we sense in them a threat to things we hold dear. Machines may be a conduit of human power, but that power has usually been wielded by the industrialists and financiers who own the contraptions, not the people paid to operate them. Machines are cold and mindless, and in their obedience to scripted routines we see an image of society’s darker possibilities. If machines bring something human to the alien cosmos, they also bring some­thing alien to the human world. The mathematician and philoso­pher Bertrand Russell put it succinctly in a 1924 essay: “Machines are worshipped because they are beautiful and valued because they confer power; they are hated because they are hideous and loathed because they impose slavery.”

The tension reflected in Russell’s description of automated machines—they’d either destroy us or redeem us, liber­ate us or enslave us—has a long history. …

Read on.