in conversation with Ben Vickers (Part 2)
In our last conversation, we spoke in depth about your work at Google, the development of AMI (Artists + Machine Intelligence) and the potential for collaboration between human artists and emergent forms of artificial INTELLIGENCE. Towards the end of that conversation we strayed into the terrain of the broader cultural impact and societal implications for how our relationship with non-human artificial intelligence might play out over the next decades.
Specifically the evolving ideological matrices between lived experience, belief and the scope of cooperation between human and machine.
Since that conversation six months ago, a lot has happened, and the recent shift of Saturn into Capricorn signals a different temperament for the next few years ahead. During the time that has passed you participated in the annual Serpentine Marathon, Guest, Ghost, Host: Machine!, which aimed to offer new pluralistic models for understanding the impact of artificial intelligence and our relationship to it. During that event you were in conversation with futurist and author Jason Louv about the potential of religious framing as a means for conceptualizing of a future relationship to super-intelligent AI. I’d like to take this as a starting point and ask you to outline this line of thought and what the underlying influences are for this line of enquiry.
BEN VICKERS In our last conversation, we spoke in depth about your work at Google, the development of AMI (Artists + Machine Intelligence) and the potential for collaboration between human artists and emergent forms of artificial intelligent. Towards the end of that conversation we strayed into the terrain of the broader cultural impact and societal implications for how our relationship with non-human artificial intelligence might play out over the next decades. Specifically the evolving ideological matrices between lived experience, belief and the scope of cooperation between human and machine. Since that conversation six months ago, a lot has happened, and the recent shift of Saturn into Capricorn signals a different temperament for the next few years ahead. During the time that has passed you participated in the annual Serpentine Marathon, Guest, Ghost, Host: Machine!, which aimed to offer new pluralistic models for understanding the impact of artificial intelligence and our relationship to it. During that event you were in conversation with futurist and author Jason Louv about the potential of religious framing as a means for conceptualizing of a future relationship to super-intelligent AI. I’d like to take this as a starting point and ask you to outline this line of thought and what the underlying influences are for this line of enquiry.
KENRIC McDOWELL Jason and I wanted to question the way metaphors from religion are used in discussions of AI and theoretical super-intelligence. If we’re going to import metaphors from religious practice, let’s draw from diverse historical wisdom traditions. Memo Akten has spoken eloquently about the way our metaphors for technology reproduce an all-seeing, judgmental, singular deity in the Abrahamic model. Jason and I imagined what it would be like to use the Bodhisattva as a metaphor for AI. In Buddhism, a Bodhisattva vows not to enter Nirvana until all sentient beings have realized Buddha nature. In other words, a Bodhisattva puts others first, prioritizing the care of the network over one’s own advancement. If our model for AI was based on care of the network, we would conceptualize services, design, even software architecture very differently. We would rely on a different self-other model. Tech is still modeled to service an alienated individual consumer. We aren’t looking at how tech serves communities, cities, and all the other types of networks that exist between humans, animals, plants, minerals, elements. Our group recently worked with Hito Steyerl, Timothy Morton, Benjamin Bratton, and Sheldon Brown to design a new conceptual model of “the user” based on a porous definition of self. Our model allows for network definitions of self that can fold land, animals, plants, and AI into an expanded self/other construct. We extrapolated design principles from this model and are using them to inform our work with Google.
Developments in the field of neurotheology are showing us exactly where this self/other boundary happens in the brain. We now have the tools to merge our scientific understanding with practices from wisdom traditions, to validate or course correct our spiritual methods. We should draw from these higher aspects of our history and future when designing AI systems.
BV That conversation happened in October, and whilst presented on stage as something of a thought experiment, it proved to be rather prescient as in a Wired article published in November, Anthony Levandowski, former Uber executive currently at the center of an IP lawsuit with Waymo, announced he was starting a religion called “Way of the Future,” dedicated to the worship of super intelligent AI and the “peaceful and respectful transition of who is in charge of the planet”: for me this signals a major gear shift in what is considered permissible within the New Normal and what is a predominantly new-atheist tech culture. Where does this sit for you and do you consider this to be a total anomaly or an increasingly strong vein of thought in Silicon Valley?
KMD This is why we need better models. Levandowski refers to AI as “Godhead,” which implies a European, Christian, lineage. There is a record-keeping in his proposal that feels very Old Testament and punitive. Yahweh was a notoriously jealous and local deity that demanded costly sacrifices. Tech is already too much like Yahweh: patriarchal, managed by a priesthood, driven by surveillance. We must use even the kookiest speculative conversations to upend that model.
As tech ascends in power and influence it makes sense that this kind of thinking would follow; the West Coast of America has been fueled by millenarian and utopian ambitions for centuries. The fact is, this form of magic has worked, so we need to take it seriously and understand it as a discipline with a history. A little learning is a dangerous thing, and stories have the power to shape reality.
I’ve personally begun using SF as a place to sort out my ideas about technology, spirituality, and our relationship with the Earth and other species. Writing empathetically through an inhabitant of the future has forced me to get very clear on what I want the future to be. Our global body politic needs an activated imaginary that knows its own power—SF has a lot to contribute to this.
Ursula K Le Guin (may she rest in peace) put it best, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
BV Albert Einstein once said, “The most beautiful and profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science.” I wondered if for you there is a “mystical experience” that underpins an engagement with new technologies.
KMD Contemplating matter and emptiness at Albert Einstein’s level is quite different from making tech products. Having said that, there is a profound ability to amplify intent with the creation of new technologies, which is why we need artists and philosophers involved in civilization-defining projects like AI. The futurist narratives of technology production are very entrancing and have great power to conceal. Isn’t a Powerpoint pitch deck or startup brandbook a bit like a magic spell?
At the very least, acknowledgement of our devastating ecological footprint should be the first step toward humanity realizing its own co-creative power with plants, animals, elements, machines and, above all, the Earth. This magical manifestation of will can lead to mystical consciousness if we allow AI to be a sacred mirror instead of a weapon or tool for oppression. I sincerely hope we can pull this off.
BV It’s curious that at the outset of the 21st century dominant intellectual pathways that shaped the last hundred years—materialism, rationalism and the anthropocentric humanist project—seem to be buckling under current pressures on what constitutes verifiable fact, with the rise of post-truth scenarios and recent discoveries emerging from its own church. Science, seemingly only accelerating potential ideological collapse. It seems to me that whilst there are obvious dangers inherent in this return to the religious, spiritual or divine, there is also a new scope of possibilities. I’d like to understand from you the traditions and threads lost in deep time that might better facilitate an engagement with this subject matter.
KMD The ideological collapse you speak of is intuitively evident to the generations coming up now. The research our team has conducted shows that young people are very aware of the failures of modernist materialism and are depressed about it, yet trapped within it.
Recent scientific research around health, especially regarding placebo effects, prayer, and clinical psychedelic research, makes certain assumptions of the materialist worldview less tenable. Unfortunately, the people that understand these materialism-resistant phenomena best are the ones who have been oppressed and who have experienced genocide over the last 400 years. An archaic revival that protects the habitat and knowledge of Earth’s indigenous peoples is desperately called for. Firstly, out of simple compassion, and secondly, for the ontological tools and relationships these cultures have conserved. Thankfully, the psychedelic fringes of culture have taken up this project in various ways over the last decades. Now it’s time to solidify this work with institutional support. There is a win-win here for scientists, indigenous people, and a generation in need of tools for maintaining mental health in a crushing situation.
BV In my own work tracing the roots of monasticism or ascetic practice, and in attempts to fuse technical methodologies with The Rule , I’ve spent significant time in dialogue with monks. Something that struck me in conversation with Father George Guvier of the Community of the Resurrection in the UK was that whilst in moments of stability the number of individuals dedicated to an ascetic path dwindles, like a river drying in the sun, yet, during moments of extreme instability or conflict, that number tends to swell to almost breaking levels. It strikes me that we are very much in that moment of extreme flux and change again. In relation to this we spoke previously about the need for “mental plasticity,” which might seem an anathema to the dogmatism of organized religion—given the inevitable swelling of the river banks, desperate new searches for meaning and the advent of insurgent techno-religious-cults. What are the tools that you believe might aid us best in creating better mental plasticity and giving us space to navigate this New Wyrd?
KMD The tools we’ve always had are the ones that work best: Art. Meditation. Ritual. Song. Attunement to the subtle rhythms of plants, animals and elements. Asceticism helps in times of crisis because it grounds us in the eternal rather than the relative. Our culture is too brittle for our minds to stretch much as they are. We must first connect to that sourceless and still ground of being, and in it find a flexible and limitless sense of Self that can ride the wheel of fortune joyfully. In my research this model of ground comes from Dzogchen Buddhism, but I’ve recently found an incredible analog in David Chaim Smith’s mystical Kabbalistic work.
You’re right that the dogma of organized religion doesn’t promote these aspects of spirituality in the mainstream. One danger of any emergent techno-religion is that it will further obfuscate social control and the human relationship with divinity. It’s perfectly fine for us to build sentient machines and any other sci-fi invention we want, but without grounding it in an Earth-based practice, we will only fall deeper into the well of simulation.
BV It seems critical to me that these techno-infused new social structures be understood in relation to their transitional historical forms.In David Ronfeldt’s paper for the Rand Corporation, Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks: A Framework About Societal Evolution, he lays out a convincing case for the transition between various organizational forms within civilization. What is curious is that despite the dominant narrative of progress, he is able to sketch ways in which these forms continue to coexist and illuminates the compromises that they continue to have to make with one another, from church to state to marketplace to emergent networks, and so on. Over recent years there has been a lot of focus on the tension between the role of The Stacks and traditional nation states. Technology companies have been eager to ingratiate themselves with nations and global regulatory bodies but less so with those more ancient and entrenched powers of world religion. Why do you think this blindspot exists and, going into the future with the recent shifts we’ve discussed, what do you think the effect of this lack of engagement could be?
KMD We’re already seeing the effect of this lack of engagement in the growing mental health crisis. To draw from Ronfeldt, transitioning from a market-driven, competitive, atomized social model to a network, flat, or incomplete ontological mode isn’t easy. The unevenly distributed future is still disrupting cultures like the Trump base that cling to patriarchal, militaristic, nationalistic monotheism for stability in a chaotic world. How are they supposed to grok an AI-Aquarian-eco-OOO-crypto-shamanic reality without losing their minds?
Creative communities must develop their own practices to facilitate these transitions. This could mean song circles, crypto-collectives, focused holding of space for deconstruction of personal and collective paradigms through therapies we study. It’s up to us. We can’t rely on 20th century institutions like governments and multinational corporation to provide this for us.
Tech was born from the psychedelic and messianic stew of late 20th century Bay Area culture. Personal enlightenment and liberation deconstructed religion, and in the rush to realize utopia, assumed divinity would be drug-induced or not at all. But culture is inherently conservative, meaning it preserves forms, acts as memory, and keeps meeting needs, even when we don’t recognize that we have them. Part of the maturation of tech will be grappling with grown-up versions of spirituality and mysticism that are neither paternalistic nor adolescent in their rejection of divinity because of the trauma induced by its historical structuring.
As Leonard Cohen wrote it (and Buffy St. Marie sang it),
“…God is alive, magic is afoot
God is afoot, magic is alive
Alive is afoot, magic never died
God never sickened
Many poor men lied
Many sick men lied
Magic never weakened
Magic never hid
Magic always ruled…”
BV “It’s important to have a clear vision of your relationship with Earth.”
KMD Ultimately, all wonder and magic is present in the sensory moment of existence happening right now. We’ve built a labyrinth of simulation around ourselves and filled it with phantoms for our own enjoyment, and then entanglement, and then suffering. But the Earth is always ready to remind us of a rich and profound reality of infinite depth, waiting beneath the waves we make as we splash around in the surface waters of identity.
in conversation with
KENRIC McDOWELL has worked at the intersection of culture and technology for twenty years. His resumes include work for R/GA, Nike, Focus Features, HTC Innovation and Google. He currently leads the Artists + Machine Intelligence program at Google Research, facilitating collaboration between Google AI researchers, artists, and cultural institutions. He has spoken about art and interdisciplinary collaboration at MacArthur Foundation, Serpentine Gallery, Eyebeam, UCLA IDEAS, Nabi Art Center, and the Google Arts & Culture Lab in Paris. He received his MFA from the International Center of Photography-Bard in New York City.
BEN VICKERS is a curator, writer, explorer, technologist, and Luddite. He is CTO at the Serpentine Galleries in London and an initiator of the open-source monastic order unMonastery.