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Of Men and Machines

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Of Men and Machines

Do you like computers?

If you are at heart a humanist, then you would probably answer no. Or you would give a qualified yes. Because you’re uneasy around computers. They do a lot of good, you admit, but they also represent a dehumanizing force.

Not that everyone who gets edgy around an IBM PC subscribes to some specific brand of humanism (that plethora of doctrines, all of which essentially hold man to be the measure of all things and human nature to be sovereign). There are lots of people who don’t like computers for all kinds of nonhumanistic reasons: economic, aesthetic, theistic. But humanistic thinkers today are definitely wary of computers, even while the electronic age grows in accomplishments and even as computer advocates praise the computer and make great claims for artificial intelligence.

The basic restraint that humanists show in this regard is expressed well by Lewis Mumford in his book The Myth of the Machine: “No automatic system can be intelligently run by automatons—or by people who dare not assert human intuition, human autonomy, human purpose.”

Pretty humanistic. Nevertheless, the number of people using computers is still growing, and many devout “users” find such antitechnology statements to be excessive. A recent poll revealed that no fewer than sixty-seven percent of working Americans feel that the computer revolution will raise production levels, improve children’s education, and increase the standard of living.

Many computer enthusiasts argue that the computer revolution is actually ushering society into a new heyday for humanism. All you need, they say, is a little imaginative vision to see that one day soon the proliferation of home computers will make commuting to the office a thing of the past. Instead, professionals will more and more do their business at home. And the more time people spend at home, the more inclined they become to increase their friendships with their neighbors and generally behave more sociably. Thus some computer advocates say the computer will make for better neighbors and a stronger sense of community. States author and editor Jean Jacques Servan Schreiber, “It is a source of new life that has been given to us.”

But is the “life” and intelligence of a computer really like our own? The humanists say no. “Any intelligence that may be attributed to [the computer] can have only the faintest relation to human understanding and human intelligence,” states Joseph Weinbaum, author of Computer Power and Human Reason. “However much intelligence computers attain, now or in the future, theirs must always be an intelligence alien to genuine human problems and concerns.”

Indeed, the more human beings rely on artificial intelligence to solve their problems, the more the humanists sense danger. “What is important to realize,” states Mumford, “is that automation, in this form [of computers], is an attempt to exercise control, not only of the mechanical process itself, but of the human being who directed it, turning him from an active to a passive agent, and finally eliminating him altogether.”

The arguments both for and against computers hinge on a question of values. Computer advocates say the computer contributes to the quality of life in the modern world and is to be valued for that reason. Humanists counter by saying that computers distract us from the thoughts and feelings that human beings should value the most.

Krsna conscious devotees, like the humanists, are cautious to avoid overestimating computer technology’s attainments and accomplishments. But our reason for feeling this way differs from what most humanists would say.

The human form of life is indeed a glorious thing, and that glory should not be diminished by computer technology—or anything else. But what is the actual value and purpose of this human form of life? Does it reside in “intuition, autonomy, and purpose,” as Lewis Mumford has indicated? Or in our concerns and social sympathies, as many other humanists feel?

Even animals exhibit behavior that shows elementary levels of reason, purpose, and emotion. From schools of fish in the ocean to wolf packs in the woods, from colonies of ants to migrating flocks of birds, many species cooperate closely to achieve community goals. And members of the same species often show signs of affection for each other. (Mothers within the animal kingdom often show a courage in defending their offspring that is unmatched in contemporary Western culture.)

To know the ultimate value and purpose of human life, we must hear from bona fide Vedic literature such as the Bhagavad-gita As It Is and Srimad-Bhagavatam. This literature reveals how all material bodies are but temporary coverings of the eternal soul, a spark of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna. Whereas the material body is temporary and subject to ignorance and suffering, the spirit soul is eternal and full of bliss and knowledge. The human body, however, affords that particular soul living within it the proper intelligence and developed consciousness for comprehending his true identity.

As the Srimad-Bhagavatam explains, “The human form of life is of such importance that even demigods desire to have such life, for in the human form one can attain perfect religious truth and knowledge. If one in this human form of life does not understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead and His abode, it is to be understood that he is very much affected by the influence of external nature” (Bhag. 3.15.24). Therefore, regardless of how advanced our technology may become, if we have no knowledge of our eternal identity, then our education is incomplete.

Sometimes people question the devotees of Krsna, asking, “If you condemn material life, why do you use modern conveniences such as automobiles and printing presses and computers?” But it is not the machines and technology of the material world per se that we reject. Rather, we reject the use of material things for any purpose other than the service and glorification of Krsna. And whatever is used in this way becomes glorious. Thus the devotees of Krsna neither condemn nor glorify computers and other such modern technological amenities. We do understand that the purpose of human life is to know and love and serve Krsna, the Supreme Person. To devote one’s life to this purpose is the ultimate goal and purpose of human life.—SDG

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