Journalist-writer Carlo Pizzati on his memoir Mappillai — An Italian son-in-law in India , his work around the globe and how he came to love and live in a fishing village south of Chennai
When we meet at the house with the green gate, Carlo Pizzati, 52, has just arrived from a refreshing walk at Kalakshetra, showered both by rain and tree jasmine. He sportingly decides to don a blazer for the photographer despite the sweat maps it leaves on him. Ten years ago, on his first visit to Chennai, Carlo almost decided he couldn’t allow himself to fall in love with the woman he had just set eyes on because he found the humidity sapping. Four years after he married poet-journalist-dancer Tishani Doshi he seems to have found his pace with the city’s weather and its people. Home is Arlanymôr (Welsh for ‘beside the sea)’, a salmon-pink villa with teal windows and a blue gate, at the fishing village of Paramankeni, over 90 kilometres south of the city.
Their life here — distributed among toads croaking behind the ancient family porcelain that has survived the voyage from Italy to India (“a piece of the Old Continent brought to the even Older Continent”); snakes that charm their way to the kitchen coffee station; a dog named after a character from Jungle Book ; a mouse that has survived several spins in the washing machine; navigating the red tapeism of Indian bureaucracy; locals who call him mapillai (son-in-law) when they see him walk the beach in his lungi ; and slaving away at writing desks despite the siren call of the sea — forms much of the lyrical, stream-of-consciousness narrative of Carlo’s memoir Mappillai – An Italian son-in-law in India (Simon & Schuster India).
“The book was a decade in the making, and took a year-and-a-half to write,” says Carlo. “There is a lot of race identity in it, about the India I first encountered and the India I see now. It is the journey of 10 years of a white European in this country who becomes a local without having to go native.”
Although Mapillai has some threads in common with Carlo’s previous bookEdge of An Era that explores geopolitics from the perspective of an European who grew up in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, it is more a sequel to “my other book, Technoshamans , a journal of a journey around the world that ended in India”, and introduced him to Indian spiritualism and Ashtanga yoga.
Let’s go exploring
At the age of 16, Carlo left his hometown north of Venice and went to Pensacola, Florida, as an exchange student. “I lived in the US for 11 years supporting myself through American University and Columbia. Those years babysitting boys with snakes, being a pool lifeguard, sports editor of the college newspaper, and doing carpentry were unusual growing-up experiences for someone from a middle-class European family, although it was a rite of passage for most Americans,” says Carlo, his eyes crinkling with laughter.
Adventure is a word that suffers from overuse, but that can be forgiven in relation to Carlo who struck luck when he started working for the Italian national daily la Repubblica corresponding from New York, Central and South America and Europe. It opened doors for him to cover the Northern Ireland strife, drugs in the Andes, civil rights battle in Chile, immigrant smuggling in Mexico, environment in Mururoa atoll and the GMO war in Europe and the US. “Those were the roaring years of enjoying New York but working hard as well. It made my writing eclectic, led me to make a feature film, be a political talk show host and teach at Asian College of Journalism. It’s probably easier to obtain success in one field by focussing, but I’ve been keen on having an interesting life,” he says, adding that some experiences like meeting a 16-year-old guerrilla in the jungles of Colombia taught him empathy. “She was more interesting than presidents who exude more power, although I got arrested on my way back.”
Does Paramankeni allow for this urgent, rock n’ roll journalism? “Stepping away has been a kind of evolution. The adrenaline-seeking personality I had is still there. I recently reported on love commandos in Delhi, following them to their secret hideout. Paramankeni is not retirement but more a writer’s colony that gives me the space for intimate storytelling. We are the sum of the experiences we have had. I don’t want to be stuck with an idea of myself.”
Is the real Carlo then the man who wrote a memoir that is a love song to his lucky wife? “Oh no, I’m the lucky one,” laughs the mapillai .
by Deepa Alexander
portrait photo by R. Ravindran
The book will be launched on October 11, 7 pm at Goethe Institut Auditorium. The author will be in conversation with Tishani Doshi. The event, hosted by Goethe Institut and Prakriti Foundation is open to all. For details, call 28331645.
For centuries, travellers from the West have written tomes about India—but no one’s had the last word
Oh, no,’ my wife says, ‘you are NOT going to write an India book, are you?’
‘No, I’m not, I promise.’
This book will not attempt to explain something that cannot be dissected, as it is ever changing.
There are so many Indias. There’s a tangible, smellable, real India. There’s an imaginary, literary, dreamed India.
Writing about India is like writing about the mafia. It’s like owning a pharmacy. Everyone is bound to always get sick, there’ll always be a need for medicines. A never-ending, lucrative business.
Whether you want to find out about India’s Maximum City, its White Tigers, its Slum-dog Millionaires, its Cities of Joy, or whether India is calling or coming or becoming, whether you want to know about its makers, its prisons or its 50 incarnations or its nine lives, India is there to be told. To be explained and often mansplained.
Not here, not in these pages. Nope. Here you’ll have to read about simple, real, one-sided, totally biased and culturally slanted personal anecdotes and opinions from a recovering Orientalist.
But, think about it, hasn’t this really been the fate of all the people who’ve come for religion or to conquer or for love and have been captivated?…
I guess it all started with the historian Megasthenes, the first foreigner from the West who wrote about India. He left Greece around 300 BC and, after crossing Anatolia and Mesopotamia, finally reached Lahore and then Allahabad. The first whitey or gora, as they’re called in Hindi, to tell his side of the story about India and Indians.
Diodorus, Strabo, Pliny and Adrian all plagiarized from his Indica (not just a type of cannabis, but also the title of Megasthenes’ book). He mixed local legends with personal tales. (…)
Today’s so-called crisis of globalisation is nothing more than a new variable of the old battle between protectionism and free trade. On the one hand it is the tribalists while on the other it is the globalists. On one side there are the anti-Amazon, pro-retailers, losers of a global challenge, while on the other, there are the pro-Amazon, e-commerce winners.
Nothing more, really. The opening of trade walls has accelerated industrial evolution in such a way that workers have had to learn to adapt to almost every generation. The difference, today, is that the evolution didn’t happen within a lifetime, but a few times within that lifetime. This is why the Indian farmer, who initially moved to the city to work in a call centre, had to reinvent himself as an Uber driver and is now worried about driverless cars — all within one lifetime.
Cause of discontent
Technological innovations are what accelerate the rhythm of change. The medium is the message all over again. It is the transformation of technology that affects society, not whatever that technology delivers (news, electricity, TV series). And this is why in the United States and the United Kingdom and in some parts of Europe, so many 50-somethings, unemployed, disgruntled voters who found it hard to reinvent themselves ended up voting for someone who promised to bring back an impossible past — a greater America, a more British Britain, whatever that may mean.
Up until 20 to 30 years ago, you could reach your pension age before a new radical evolution in the job market, which created its winners and losers. Today, the challenge is that evolutionary shifts happen not just once before reaching pensionable age, but often.
This is what causes globalisation’s discontent. Blue collar workers from the mid-West cannot move to Silicon Valley; it’s a totally different skill set, and only few can manage it.
A sort of revenge
U.S. President Donald Trump’s and Brexit’s victories can be seen as a sort of “revenge of the losers”. The victims of the system described above decided to vote for someone who promised to protect them. Ludicrous. And, in fact, little has been done by Mr. Trump or British Prime Minister Theresa May to help those workers. And little is being done. Their standards of living have not improved. Or have certainly not returned to previous levels. Nor is there any policy in motion indicating that the previous levels will return.
There won’t be any promised return to the past. Which doesn’t mean the economy will not thrive. It just won’t bring back the same old jobs to the unskilled.
For example, the latest U.S. tax reform promises to lower corporate taxes, rehashing the ancient myth job, the “trickle down” theory, will not impact the lower middle classes who voted for Mr. Trump. At the dangerous cost of increasing the deficit and widening the hole, Mr. Trump is lowering too high corporate taxes to bring them down to European levels.
It would seem to make sense even though the impact on total taxation will be marginal. Lowering tax on capital may increase wages for those skilled workers whose productivity will be positively affected by increased demand for capital intensive work, but while engineers might see an increase in their wages, the unskilled won’t benefit directly from it.
In other words, instead of fighting the ills of globalisation, Mr. Trump has found a way to economically hit the coastal electorate who mocked and railed against him — the Hillary Clinton voters. By lowering the maximal for family deductions and real estate taxes, he has hit those middle to upper middle classes in the east and west coasts who hate him. They are the ones who will not benefit from this reform. This is what he’ll obtain with this tax reform. Brilliant from his point of view because the reform dips into the pockets of people who never have and never will vote for him.
How will this impact free trade globally? U.S. manufacturing is down to 11.7% of U.S. GDP (2016), while farming agriculture is only 1% (2015). America produces services such as Amazon, Google and Facebook; these are the richest corporations. Their expansion is thriving globally. And so is the expansion of other multinational corporations.
Even though the discontent of globalisation is a leftover of the crisis of 2008, today we don’t see that it will really impact globalisation seriously. At least, so far, we don’t see the results of this desire to raise barriers. Globalisation is here to stay.
Carlo Pizzati is an author and professor of communication theory
this editorial appeared in the daily national newspaper The Hindu on Dec. 18th 2017 also readable at this link.
As the archetypes of myth make a comeback to books, they seem to capture a world that has changed little since the days of Zeus
The gods of Mount Olympus are still with us. Their tales, myths and tragedies are intertwined with our days. When we gaze in the mirror for too long and see Narcissus, when a son is too close to his mother like Oedipus, when a daughter is obsessed with her father like Elektra, the Greek tragedies are there. When there’s a murder in the family like a Clytemnestra stabbing her Agamemnon, the tragedies from the epics are still with us.
The Greek gods may have long been buried, chased from the realm of theology and temples of worship to be corralled into museums and libraries, frozen in mawkish statues and in theatre plays, but they are still with us along with their tragedies. And more so this literary season.
It may just be remarkable coincidence, but there have been three intense recent novels all reinterpreting Greek tragedies — Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman obsessing with patricide; Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire reimagining an Antigone among Islamic State fighters; and Colm Toíbín’s House of Names, adapting contemporary language and family relationships to the matricide of Clytemnestra.
How and why did we get to the 21st century still reworking the same old plots, still gazing at the same old gods we thought had vanished to the distant planets we named after them?
The Iliad and the Odyssey are considered the origins of Western literature. Greek tragedians took Homer’s characters and created plots of their own, just like today’s novels integrate myths with contemporary language. Once reworked by Euripides, Aeschylus’s Oresteia strayed so much from the original that some consider it the real birth of fiction. ‘Based on a true myth,’ I presume the book would warn readers were it printed today.
This literary trend didn’t fade when Greece was crushed by Rome. Latin poet Horace put it plainly in his epistles: “Greece, in fact, conquered us by bringing her arts into rustic Latium.” The victims’ culture seeped into Roman values through the Hellenisation of literature and art.
Latin poet Virgil was the pioneer; his Aeneid is a sequel to the Iliad, and tells of Aeneas escaping from the charred ruins of Troy and reaching Italian shores, the mythological representation of the cultural thread joining Greece to Rome. Then, the Empire brought Greek myths to an invaded Europe. Later, Western colonisation spread these myths to the Americas and beyond.
Throughout the following millennia, Greek polytheistic myth experienced moments of fortune but also of oblivion. Greek gods continued their metamorphosis, not only from Zeus to Jupiter, but from divine to oh-so-human. But the gods have always been keen on metamorphosis — once, shape-shifting Zeus even trickled down through a roof as golden rain to impregnate a lady. Yet, in Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno, Torquato Tasso or Cervantes, the gods began to take on very humanly fragile dimensions, while mortals were increasingly invigorated by divine qualities. These authors created a new mythology by fusing Greco-Roman with Christian themes.
Mount Olympus experienced a prolific revival of its allegories during the Renaissance and the Baroque. Ovid became a major influence for poets and artists. Enlightenment, led by Voltaire, only made parodies of what it perceived as obscurantist legends. And Romanticism seemed mostly interested in individual countries’ national pasts rather than in the archetypes of southern Europe. But the gods of Mount Olympus just wouldn’t die.
Why, then, did the 20th century rediscover Ancient Greece?
The birth of psychoanalysis has its part. The Oedipus complex, Narcissism, the Elektra complex: a now somewhat discredited Sigmund Freud borrowed from myth to explain mental conditions. In literature, Tolkien and Rowling, but before them James Joyce, Italo Calvino and Roberto Calasso all dipped their pens into the cornucopia.
March of folly
In the 20s, the Fascists discovered a renewed pride in the remote past of Roman imperialism by poking awake the sleeping deities. In the U.S., in 1931, Eugene O’Neill would set his famous interpretation of the Oresteia in the smoky battlefields of the American Civil War. In the following decades, existentialists obsessed with the Sisyphus myth as representing the frustration of modernity. What an appropriate image to represent the endlessness of the often mechanised efforts and frustrations created by the industrialised enslavement of millions of workers. Or to portray the vain struggle of an individual in pursuit of knowledge.
In his 1942 essay, Camus imagined that Sisyphus must be happy as the “struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” — a rather dharmic interpretation.
It is only when Sisyphus accepts the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate that he is he freed to realise the absurdity of his predicament and reaches a state of contentedness. Or santosha. Sartre rejected what he saw as the classical pessimism and disillusionment of Camus, which caused a most notorious rift between the two. Existentialists also realised that Greek tragedies were often centred on the importance of choice and the role choice has in connecting a person to her social destiny.
Everyone knows what Joyce did with Ulysses, few know how French dramatist Jean Anouilh reworked Antigone into a clearer symbol against totalitarianism, turning it into an anti-Fascist tale, worthy of the merciless pen of exiled poet Bertolt Brecht, who would set the tragedy in the Second World War and paint Creon, the ruler of Thebes, into a Nazi-style dictator.
And as Europe began to realise the advantages of unification, the elites again became obsessed with the greco-latin Greco-Latin heredity. The matrix of its culture is inscribed in its name, Europa, after a Phoenician princess who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a white bull.
More recently, Margaret Atwood retold the Odyssey from its hero’s wife’s point of view in the feminist Penelopiad, and Madeleine Miller repainted the relationship between Patroclus and his star-warrior companion in The Song of Achilles.
As the myths make another comeback in contemporary literature, is it a symptom of our confusion and lack of direction, a need to go back to something familiar? Or is it also because of a need to make sense of the massacres, the slow war between flawed democracies and their nemesis?
The very concept of the perception of truth has been altered, so it is possible that reaching into the myth through fiction will actually bring a sharper sense of veracity, as paradoxical as this may sound.
Superimposing the archetype of a Greek tragedy on the nightmarish summer massacres of Europe in subways and promenades, or over the senseless gau rakshak lynchings, or over the bloody scenes of Syrian cities collapsing under dusty clouds of bombs can allow writer and reader to feel that in this madness, in this “march of folly,” as historian Barbara Tuchman would call it, literature is the only way to gain some comfort in the realisation that history repeats itself. Or at least that it rhymes, as Mark Twain said.
Or it may be the only way to understand that the pointless wars, the beheadings, betrayals and mayhem, the stuff of Greek tragedies, are what best describes and makes us understand the world we are living in now. Because it’s all happened before. The patterns may be in our DNA, they may be in our culture, they may, sadly, be part of what a human being is. Feral, ferocious, ambitious, vengeful, but capable of noble acts, of love and self-sacrifice.
Mythological archetypes may be an oversimplification of the nuances of the present. And yet this is what history does, clearing away the fuzzy noise, outlining a crisper image of how things really went. Creating an acceptable story with a beginning and an end — with meaning.
Pamuk does it by identifying not only the personal tension between fathers and sons, but also between the citizen and the state. Toíbín takes on the Oresteiaand makes us realise how the ancient family’s implosive dynamics are similar, if not the same, as our own. As the author said in The Guardian: “I was writing, after all, in the time of Islamic State, a time when images of violence and hatred seemed to appear natural or at least prevalent…”
Ode to Apollo
The most impactful attempt to bring back Greek tragedy to make us understand contemporary events comes from the youngest and most promising voice, that of British writer Kamila Shamsie. In Home Fire, she grapples with many of the central questions of political migration and integration in today’s West versus East and North versus South dynamics, while adapting them to the matrix of Antigone. Not only is the ancient world brought closer, but there’s also a clearer understanding of our world, seen through the prism of the original tragedy.
Home Fire is sprinkled with brilliant and biting contemporary one-liners like this question from a British young man of Pakistani descent to a woman acquaintance wearing a sort of turban: “Cancer or Islam — which is the greater affliction?”
Shamsie’s book freely adapts the structure of Antigone to tell us about the Lones, a successful family integrated in the British paradigm, so much so that its patriarch becomes Home Secretary, repudiating his own Muslim community. And about the Pashas, a family attempting to integrate, but whose patriarch was a jihadi killed on his way to Guantánamo and whose youngest son, Parvaiz, is recruited to work for the Islamic State. I’ll share no more spoilers.
But why use myth to eviscerate the contradictions of integration, migration and radicalisation? Or juxtapose it on internecine regional conflicts as in Northern Ireland? Or to contemplate the power of emerging strongmen muscling at the walls of Europe and Asia?
The simplicity of the archetypal human tragedy survives the precociously announced death of the novel, post-modern literature, non-fiction, reality fiction. Why? Because it captures a universal humanity which seems to have changed little since the days of Apollo. Whether this can be a reassurance that nothing changes, or a disappointment in humanity’s lack of progress, is better left to readers to decide. May the gods of the Olympus inspire their choice.
Carlo Pizzati is an author and professor of communication theory.
His most recent book is The Edge of an Era.
The article appeared originally in The Hindu Literary Review and can also be read at The Hindu website by clicking here.
As we ask ourselves how employment is threatened by technology, we should look at how labour has changed in recent decades. Before we get so attached to the current job market, and feel we must defend it from an eventual robot takeover, we should examine how unfair the labour system has become and how robotics could contribute to change that.
If properly managed, the robotic revolution could be a chance to free millions of people from a system of exploitation of labour which is unprecedentedly inhumane. Or not.
In ancient Rome, a slave worked a maximum of six hours a day. A third of the year was spent in festivities. European workers in the Middle Ages had a six-hour work day and spent 150 days in religious celebrations — almost half the entire year off!
Nothing close to the 13 to 14 hours put in by the average, always-on entrepreneur of our times. Or the 10 hours a regular employee often clocks in, which explains why overwork is causing so many deaths across Asia.
The Industrial Revolution and the continuous automation of work have morphed us into becoming increasingly less human workers. This is the central premise before looking into what robotisation can offer to the future of work in India.
Is there also a continuing percolation, in India, from the agricultural sector, through urbanisation and its consequences, into the service and manufacturing sectors? Certainly.
Could this happen in a more humane way, as easily automated jobs are slowly stolen by robots? Is farming also destined to be substituted by Artificial Intelligence (AI)? Could we then envision a future of a widely urbanised class with more leisure time thanks to robots? Utopia.
But there may be a way to go in that direction, if we think about the advantages of robotisation being equally distributed among those who will lose their jobs.
A socially sensitive policy should consider this a chance for the government to gather advantages from higher robotisation and distribute them to the work force by creating job alternatives. Or by providing subsidies and employment systems with less working hours — such as part-time and work from home. Finally, robotised work should distribute earnings to those who will permanently lose their jobs. And this could be done in very specific ways.
A kind of exploitation
First, we should consider how to capitalise from the current market. The premise for doing so requires a radical change of perspective.
When we read that in a town in Andhra Pradesh, an AI company hires women and youth and spends some of its profit on education and drinking water for the community, we should not be humbly thankful. We should be worried.
But what is passed for bringing employment to underdeveloped areas is neo-colonial exploitation at its best. Workers are paid peanuts to build the very same AI that will render them obsolete. This is not explained to them. So they are thankful for an extra little water and infrastructure, in exchange.
This trick is fooling Western underprivileged people as well. To refine conversation skills, a digital AI assistant needs to be told over and over when it has failed. There are plenty of American college students spending 10 to 30 hours a week, for $10 an hour, on phones or computers as AI supervisors, evaluating search results and chats through sites such as Clickworker. If they understood the ramifications of their work, they might demand to be paid much more.
This is policy recommendation number one: enforce a high international minimum wage for all data-entry and data-supervision workers. Help people who are “feeding the machine” be better paid for contributing to coding reality into its virtual version.
There is a more serious issue in the Indian job market. In 1810, the agricultural sector was 90% of the U.S. economy. In 1910, it was down to 30%. In 2010, it was 2%.
Is this what’s in store for India, where agriculture is still occupying half of the work force? Will it happen faster here? How do we retrain farmers? And where are they to relocate?
What will happen to “the rejected” as Pope Francis called them, “the forgotten,” as U.S. President Donald Trump labelled them during his campaign?
A new era
More interestingly, will we move into a “humanistic intelligence” era in which we transform our workers, first with wearable computers (smartwatches and Google glasses are a beginning, the new smartphones operating according to moods, gaze and gestures are the next step), and then with deeper integration, like the Swedish company Biohax, implanting chips under the skin of their employees’ wrists?
It is called “shortening the chain of command”— from the smart screen era, to the cyborg era.
At first, technology might not immediately take all our jobs, it will take over our bodies. Of course, it’s already doing that. For example, I wear a hearing aid. Would I wear a bionic eye for sensory and visual augmentation, or for, say, drone operation? Maybe.
Is this how humans will compete with robots in an intermediary phase? What does it mean for society and its sense of identity, our relationship to our bodies?
There might be a lot of jobs for our new cyborg selves out there, in what is called the aug-mediated reality. Humans, some argue, are not to be defended, but expanded. So, will we be become transhumanistic, pimped-up cyborgs, with mechanical elements expanding our physical limitations? Isn’t this already happening? Is this the Nietzschean Übermensch we are supposed to become? Shouldn’t policy regulate that as well?
The focal question here is: as labour is being transformed at its roots, should economic forces be the only thing that matters? Aren’t we in front of an ethical and political, rather than an economic, question? And what if the answer is simply that everyone must benefit from the capital generated by robotisation?
Shouldn’t we begin to think of an alternative form of ownership of the robots? Shouldn’t they be public property, since they are objects that occupy and operate on public grounds, impacting public economy and nation-wide employment?
Shouldn’t they be owned by everyone? Should India consider nationalising robots? As ludicrous and anachronistic as it may sound in the post-neoliberal zeitgeist, it is something at least worth opening up for reflection.
Or could robots owned by private companies be allowed to operate only by purchasing a costly state licence, benefitting society at large or, specifically, displaced workers, thus funding unemployment?
Is it conceivable to create “job permits for robots” so that 30% of the revenue they raise with their work goes directly to finance the pension funds of the workers made redundant by robotisation?
This may not be the specific solution, but discussion should begin on these topics, as one of the ways to avoid famine and death possibly brought on by massive unemployment in a relatively short time.
Carlo Pizzati is an author and professor of communication theory. This text is part of his contribution to the “Technology Foresight Group on the Future of Work in India,” a collaboration between Tandem Research and the International Labour Organisation
This opinion piece originally appeared in “The Hindu” newspaper editorial pages and can be read also clicking here.
The creative evolution
The initial interest in the investigation on the relationship between man and machine was stimulated by a French philosopher, a Nobel Prize winner for literature who inspired Marcel Proust and Deleuze. In his “Creative evolution,” philosopher Henri Bergson outlines the “vital force” in the surprising way in which life acts. Bergson looks at the first spring of life on the planet as an impulse received at the source and still present in every form of life.
This spark is at the root of the tree of Evolution in whose trunk three different branches are hidden – vegetative torpor, instinct and reason. On one side plants, on the other insects, and still on the other, mammals. We know well who sits on the evolutionary step right below us, in the branch pursuing reason – it is those animals like monkeys and elephants, who can in certain contexts use an artificial instrument. In other words, they understand and are able to utilize technology. And right below, there are those who are at least able to recognize a man-made object – like a fox, who knows full well that a trap is a trap. But who is on the step right above us? There’s no step yet, maybe, but if up there, high up, in the darkness, there’s the light of intelligence which Evolution follows and chases, what will the next step be like and who will sit on it?
I mean, whose monkeys will we humans be? What man is building with technology, isn’t it maybe the next step of evolution?
It’s conscience, says Bergson, “the principal engine of evolution.” But if machines will be one day be able to download the “software of conscience,” reaching computational powers similar if not superior to the those of humans, how will the much-feared victory of machines over human kind not take place?
The day in which machines learn intuition from humans, and it’s not inconceivable this could happen soon, the countdown for us humans, if it hasn’t started already, will begin.
About 160 years ago Samuel Butler was already writing that “it appears clear that we are creating our own successors…that we are providing them with powers superior to ours and that we are designing them, with ingenuous machineries of all types, with a power of self-regulation and automation which will be for them what intellect is for the human race.”
We humans, then, are not the owners of machines any more than we own fire or the wheel. Our new virtual setting, which we are creating on the other side of the screen is not controllable any longer from the natural world.
One of the greatest programmers in history, Bill Joy, known as the “Thomas Edison of Internet” confirms it in an opinion piece in Wired magazine: “But now, with the prospect of human-level computing power in about 30 years, a new idea suggests itself: that I may be working to create tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species. How do I feel about this? Very uncomfortable.”
Since Kubrick’s “2001: Odyssey into Space” with the sentient computer Hal until the conflict of humans and the “computer soul” in “Matrix,” from the legend of the Golem, automaton programmed to work on the sacred Sabbath, until the legend of Frankenstein, the very human fear that the instrument substitutes his inventor is becoming more and more pressing, as the instrument begins to look more and more like its inventor.
In my journey to the end of the world, until that finis terrae in Argentina and that India that borders on the Absolute, I’ve always observed the constant confrontation of man with his own animal instincts. Demons, obsessors, challenges to my brahmacharya period, the fights with Salome and having to face the most tedious aspects of life in all its difficulties were nothing but the unchecked expression of the animal nature within me.
Often, religions are just an attempt to calm that beast in order for us to become something higher – the famous transcendence. But instead, there are those who are convinced we are experiencing a return to bestiality. And this is what makes Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” a key-tale of modernity.
Science also provides us with the illusion of being able to transcend the animal instincts that pervade us. As John Gray wrote in “Straw Dogs,” the imminent possibility of choosing a human being’s DNA, aspiring to immortality through hibernation or abandoning our body in order to enter virtual reality are all testament to the constant aspiration to control one’s self and the world – two fatal illusions, rooted in the even greater illusion of being, us humans, different from animals.
We are bestial sorcerer apprentices: “When technology enters in human life, be it fire, the wheel, the car, the radio, TV or Internet, it changes it in a way we will never fully comprehend,” Gray writes. Technology does not belong to humans: it is as old as the earth. The work done by ants is very similar to human agriculture: ant colonies are colonies just like the ones we humans have, and our cities are no less artificial than bee-hives, the shape of the Internet is no “less natural” than a spider-web. What remains to be established is who is the spider and who is the fly?
Are we are ourselves “technological mechanisms” invented by a primordial community of bacteria as a means to survival, as biologists Margulis and Sagan say? Or, as Richard Dawkins writes in “The Selfish Gene,” are we just instruments who pass on genetic software from one generation to the next?
We think we are at the center of the universe but instead we are only organic robots at the service of an end whose meaning escapes us because, maybe, we are only its slaves. Our own capacity for using rationality is exaggerated – Benjamin Libet has shown that the electrical impulse that stimulates action happens a half second before our conscious decision to act. At most, reason has the power of veto, since it can block an action.
So, who operates the software inducing to action? Nobody? God? The Techno-Moloch that Jacques Ellul talks about in “Technological Society”? A society invented by engineers who have lost all control and in which the Machine dictates rules and regulations as if it already had a mysterious identity?
Sex with robots
But if it were so, if we were only dangerous beasts who are using science to create the next generation of “Masters of the Earth,” in what way will this happen?
David Levy’s “Love + Sex with Robots” predicts the imminent development of a generation of robots who’ll become our life companions – after so many fights, finally the ideal husband and wife!
In our collective imagination, the first robots are born in the Czech Republic with the 1920’s theater work “Rossums Universal Robots” of Karel Capek – it’s the story of the automatons robota (“forced labor” in Czech) who rebel against and decide to kill all human beings. A century before, in Japan, the karakuri dolls had already been invented. They were automated tea-carrying dolls. Since then we have cohabitated with robotics, knowing we are destined to cross our destiny with that of android objects that are more and more useful and more and more similar to us.
In “Robotherapy,” for example, psychological software is being developed to use automatons as therapists and “friends” for people with psychological problems aside from being helpful to those who have physical, emotional or cognitive handicaps. It’s about providing these “techno-nurses of the future” with the capacity to observe our daily life, studying what makes us happier and grateful, “feeling” our desires and satisfying them. It is not impossible. Because, as marvelous as it can seem, the human brain is a biological machine that can be analyzed and imitated.
Robot psychology is a highly complex minefield, but it cannot be stopped.
What about love?
The robot-nurse may be acceptable by now, with some big reservations, but the robot-husband or the android-wife. How can one fall in love with an object? But this happens everyday, in the wildest technological consumerist era in human history. And it is true that falling in love with the latest car model or computer is different from falling in love with a bed partner or a companion (not always, truth be told), but for how long still, in human evolution, will it be so?
Romantic attractions activate those “pockets” of our brain where you find a high concentration of dopamine receptors, that chemical substance associated with euphoria, cravings and addiction. A robot – writes Levy – could carry out a subtle fMRI scan on us while, for example, it compliments us on our haircut. According to our reaction, the robot will know if it is up the right alley in the direction of seduction and from there he will proceed until we fall in love with it. Don’t think of the robots you see in movies, with all that sharp and shining metal, we are talking about machines that not only have believable skin, but in whom an essence has been injected with normal pheromones, which our organoleptic receptors can find exciting without understanding why.
Their hands can massage us skillfully with a program designed for our specific preferences.
After all, aren’t we already – in the millions – falling in love with people we meet through a screen? That person on the other side of the chat is already so unreal and robotic since it “is” only words on a screen, or at most a low definition image seen through a webcam.
According to a statistic quoted by Levy, 45 per cent of English adolescents interviewed in a survey said they consider their computer a friend, while 60 percent love their computers, and16 per cent of adults and 13 per cent of children often speak to their computer. Thirty-four per cent of adults and 37 per cent of children say that by 2020 computers will be just as important to them as their family or friends.
A mechanical partner can be programmed to be what we need, with the skills to perform half that healthy little fight once in a while that can stimulate the game of making-up afterwards.
Are we facing a future where men will marry exclusively with a brand-name robot wife, furnished with a special receptacle to freeze the husband’s seed and send it to a sperm bank, where the same sperm can also be used by robot husbands to impregnate their human wives? Confusing, yet plausible.
Swallowed by a the phantomat
The biological man can find himself naturally pushed out of existence since, according to the logics of evolution, a species rarely survives in a hostile space where there is a superior stage of evolution. How long, then, till the first generation of intelligent machines learns to self-reproduce in more and more advanced models?
Paul Virilio in “Ce qui arrive” theorizes that from Utopia we will transition into Ucronia, the end of human time. Maybe we have already exited time and meaning, our attention distracted and lost in that cobweb called “the media” thanks to whom – as Karl Kraus reminds us – a short circuit is generated, “leading the masses into believing that facts are told even before they happen –thus making them possible.”
“The immediacy, ubiquity and omniscience of video monitors and domestic computer terminals,” says Virilio, “take on the job of reinstating the equivocal methods that everyone employs in order to affirm his or her own dependency from what can make him or her escape him or herself – thing that, for a few brief instants, makes bodies inconsistent: dream, trance, hypnosis, orgasm, alcohol, drugs…” It is, he says, “the world marked of disappearance, in which the telepresence is substituted by not only the real presence of the artistic object, but also that of it’s buyer and seller.”
In “The perfect crime: has television killed reality?,” Jean-Baudrillard takes on the theme of the role that technology has in transforming our sense of the real: “…technique becomes a marvelous adventure […] it becomes the art of disappearance. Its finality would consist, more than in the transformation of the world, in an autonomous world, fully realized, from which we will finally be able to retire.”
The cyberspace offers a promise of eternity. Having overcome time and transcended the body, all that is left is our conscience, free to roam from server to server.
After all, Nietzshce also declared that “man is something which should be exceeded.” But not by the über-mensch, but rather by the über-computer.
Already in 1964, in its “Summa Technologiae,” Stanislaw Lem (also author of “Solaris”) imagined the advent of a “Phantomat,” a “fantasmatic generator” that allows humans to penetrate into simulated worlds. Lem imagined in advance the virtual reality now taking shape in avatar, social networks and videogames: “The fantasmatic offers a kind of experience that, because of its intimate character, is comparable only to dreams.”
And while shamans get lost in their trance or in their dances of a “separate reality,” which transcends spirituality, technology pushes our imagination in a generator of perfect illusions, a world made for us, mirror of a solitary hell which becomes more and more boring in the unpredictable reality with which we have to confront our selves today.
The spiritual machine
We are already a bit cyborg. We will mate with robots perfectly like us and, in certain aspects, better than us, and then we will lose our conscience in the Phantomat, in the virtual world where all that matters is conscience not the body.
But it is not necessarily true that androids should be seen as a species who overpower and crush us. There are those who, with a more trans-humanistic vision that borders on biopolitics – in tune with the tradition of Enlightenment – foresee instead that androids will only be our children, the evolutionary step borne from our ribs, literally. Or rather: we are the androids.
In “The Age of Spiritual Machines – When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence,” Ray Kurzweil for the first time maps – data in hand – the timing for what he calls “singularity,” when computers will reach the calculation capacity equal to that of a human. Calculating the exponential speed of technological progress, and the speed of growth of microprocessors, Kurzweil predicts the precise date of when that overtaking will happen. Measuring the growth of the capacity of calculation of a microchip from 1972 until today, Kurzweil says that every three years this capacity doubles and the rate of speed could accelerate – by 2045 computers will have a brain with the calculation capacity of humans. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll have a conscience, which is impossible according to the Catholic religion.
The copyright of conscience
It is difficult to understand what conscience is, first of all because the word “conscience” has many meanings, all of which are unclear. It is not demonstrated that machines will have one. But the contrary isn’t proven either. Actually, after years of studies no one has been able to prove whether there is a barrier which makes the “invention” of a programmable conscience for machines impossible. There are those who believe that conscience cannot be measured, but this is also a theory.
What science is trying to do is to study different phenomena where the word “conscience” is used. And from there we will also obtain something useful for humans. By programming an “embryo of conscience” in robots and observing how it evolves when it comes into contact with external agents, many more things could be learned about the development of our own conscience.
Domenico Parisi, robotics researcher for CNR, theorizes that since robots’ behavior is guided by a neuronal system very similar to ours, to plan an “insert of conscience” can be plausible. Robots can be programmed to surprise themselves to learn and register the difference between the tactile reaction of their “hand” when they touch an external object compared to when they caress a part of the robot itself – technically then, we can already talk of a primordial “sense of self” in the android.
The materialist’s approach believing that “mind is what mind does” brings us to an obvious conclusion – if we are capable of reproducing in minute detail the human brain into a “head” of a robot, this robot will have a conscience. It is a matter of time: who will copyright the first artificial conscience?
But if robots achieve a conscience, this does not necessarily mean they will want to immediately wipe us away from the face of the earth. Things could go differently, in a much more organic manner. Here’s how.
A possible solution to my back ache
Is a person wearing a pace-maker, a robot heart, still the same person? Of course, even more, he or she is actually stronger and will live longer, right?
Let’s imagine a man with hearing problems just like me, the way Kurzweil does in his book. A diagnostic test says I should have a transplant in my cochlea. With this chip inserted in my auditory channel I would be able to hear a whole range of sounds I had lost, from low to high frequencies. Am I still the same person? Of course.
Now let’s suppose that with a simple wire transfer I can ask the activation of an upgrade already inserted in the chip and thanks to which I can use the circuits of phonic recognitions that will allow me to hear two people whisper half a mile away from me, or more.
Meanwhile, I’m also offered something similar for my retina. Thanks to neural transplant technology I get installed in my corneas some retinal visualization screens to see virtual reality via wi-fi and I decide to try new transplants to make perception much sharper than normal. Am I still Carlo to my friends? Well, yeah.
But now I realize I’m loosing my memory a bit, I don’t really remember all the names and details of things I’ve done. I’m offered a transplant of memory systems. Recollections that had become out of focus with time, are now clear again. Unfortunately, the scary and embarrassing moments I was trying to forget are clear too. But am I still Carlo? Obviously.
Well, I’ve gone through a few changes, but nothing shocking to my friends who may actually be impressed. So why stop here? I’m offered the possibility to scan my entire brain and neural system and to substitute it with electronic circuits that are much more capable, rapid and reliable. Furthermore, I can make a back up copy of everything, in case something happens to my body.
Now, Kurzweil says, let’s suppose that instead of gradually substituting every part of the body we do everything in one single operation. Does it change anything? The new Carlo is still the old Carlo, right?
Maybe, but now there are two Carlos, one is a back-up, the other the original body. But if my original organic body were eliminated with its backache and only the copy remained, my back-up, with all human functions substituted by an artificial body, then my conscience, the essence of Carlo, would still be the same, right? It behaves the same way, it thinks the same way, it acts the same way, it smells the same way and has the same consistency (duly recreated with nanotechnologies). And so, what would be wrong with it?
Let’s imagine that the operation would mandatorily eliminate and destroy my body in order to have a durable and we could say eternal copy. How many would dare turn it down? With an android body my damn back would not hurt any more, nor all the nuisances I’ve narrated in these pages.
The spark born millions of years ago, that Bergsonian “vital force,” which has been passed on through cells, plants, fish, amphibious beings, mammals until humans, thrown in chase of rational development, would suddenly transform itself in the last electric shock that turns on the Carlo android for whom, after all human bodies have disappeared, the antropic shape of the body would not have any meaning, him (me?) having become only conscience and thus able to join all the other consciences under a grand advaitic Self, a network of spiritual servers maybe comparable only to a technological Nirvana.
Demonstrating, thus, that Technology and Spirituality integrate all too well and can easily do without our carnal Humanity.