Our relationship with machines was once fraught with incomprehension and fear. Machines epitomized the large mechanized state and its dominance over the natural world. There was a spate of movies somewhere in the '70s when refrigerators and microwaves 'rose up' to attack us. Over the past decade or so, our relationship has transformed to such a degree that we not only rely on fairly sophisticated machines to do our daily chores, we look at machines as a way to achieve utopian ideals. Dr. Fred Turner, professor of Communication at Stanford, in From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism traces this rise of digital utopianism to American counterculture. How do you think the relationship evolved?
The way you phrase the question leads me to think that perhaps it was the exaggerated claims of the artificial intelligence community that led people to worry that computers would reach the point at which they would take over. And the complete failure of AI to deliver on any of its promises has led us to a more phlegmatic and accepting attitude, which is that these are just machines — we don't know how to make them clever enough to threaten us and therefore we can just get on with using them.
The fact is known that Skynet is not going to launch nuclear weapons at us in a Terminator world and so we can then focus on the fact that the essential humanity of the Terminator itself, certainly in the second and third movies, is a source of redemption. We can actually feel positive about the machines instead of negative about them.
When you have a computer that is around, that crashes constantly, that is infected by viruses and malware, that doesn't do what is supposed to do and stuff like that, you are not afraid of it – you are irritated by it and you treat it as you would a recalcitrant child that you might love and care for and that has some value but is certainly not something that is going to threaten you. And then we can use the machines. That then actually allows us to focus on what you call the Utopian or altruistic aspects. It allows us to focus on machines in a much broader context, which is to recognize that human agency is behind it.
The dystopian stories rely on machines getting out of control but in fact we live in a world in which the machines are being used negatively by people, by governments, by corporations, and by individuals. The failure to have AI allows us to accept that — to reject the systems they have built without rejecting the machines themselves.