I recently watched a video that compared human composed music with computer composed music. I was sure that the computer music would be robotic and easily recognizable. I was wrong. The computers made symphonies just as the humans made symphonies and most people (including me) couldn’t tell the difference between the two.
And this terrified me— like, existential-crisis-terrified me. Sure, I thought, predict the weather and stocks and maybe learn to drive my car for me every now and then, but please, oh please, computers, don’t learn to make music. Don’t take away my music.
And this is one of the many angsts of our modern age. We welcome technology because it makes us more productive. We love when computers learn to do things we don’t want to do. But when they learn to do things we want to do, and maybe even do them better than us, it scares us. The thing which made us feel so very powerful can make us feel incredibly useless. After all, if they can make music, if they can make art, if they can replicate the depths of human emotion with equations and logarithms, what are we worth?
Here is my answer: everything.
You see, a human being is not just an emotion. He is not just a job. He is not just a farmer or a manager. He is not just a mathematician. He is not even just a composer or a writer. This can be difficult to keep in mind when the things we “do” dominate our lives and effect them so tremendously. It is easy to focus on the parts of ourselves when those parts are what bring us fulfillment or put food on the table or make us feel like life is worth living. And when those parts are stolen from us it can leave us physically and emotionally empty. It can make us feel worthless.
But we have to remember that we are greater than the sum of our parts. Greater than our many parts is our very core, our human spirit— the director of the will.
Viktor Frankl writes in his incredible memoir of his time in Auchwitz, Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms— to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
All of us, to greater and lesser degrees, are experiencing the takeover of technology. And in this experience we have a choice. We can choose to obsess over it— fight, desperately— insist on remaining in the past, insist on inefficiency— simply because we don’t want the computers doing it. But I think this extreme approach usually backfires. Personally, I have found that when I feel most frustrated about technology and my reliance on it, when I get the most caught up in it and irritated by it, is when I obsessively rely on it the most. It is the paradox of scrolling when you know you should stop scrolling but you’re already scrolling so you keep scrolling. You keep letting it suck your soul because you’re worried you don’t really have a soul. You give up on living real and you live vicariously because you don’t think you can really live.
But you can always live. Technology doesn’t have to suck your soul. The only way our phones and our computers and the one-day-chip-in-our-brain will ever suck our souls is if we let them. We have the choice to continually evaluate the life presented to us— to embrace the good, and reject the bad. If using my phone too much stunts my emotional growth or messes up my attention span then I should cut the phone use. But if my phone can one day compose beautiful music than so be it. It’s okay to accept the beautiful music. If my computer learns to rewrite this article (while it would take a whole lot of pain and humility for me to get there) I would have to accept that reality, and keep on writing anyway if it brings me joy. Fighting technology simply because it can do what we do ironically gives the technology too much power and, moreover, misunderstands the nature of our human worth.
In the end, we don’t know where exactly this takeover is going to lead us— and while I do believe that many people will be tempted to abandon their humanity, and some will do so, I am confident that we will always retain the choice not to. I am confident that I will still be able to direct my will— direct my will to live and to live well. I am confident that I will always have a choice through any takeover, be it like some sci-fi artificial intelligence horror movie or be it the simple fact that I feel the need to pull my phone out at any moment of silence or inactivity. I have a choice. Then, and now. And I can choose right.