Some things we consider to be alive and others we don’t.
For example, I recently saw a video of some young men kicking a robot dog.
The comment on the video was “WOW DUDE THIS #ROBOT ABUSE NEEDS TO #STOP BEFORE IT TOO LATE TBH!!! YAL THINK THIS IS OKAY OR NAH!? ”
I imagine that, in the technocratic and transhumanist future that is rushing towards us all (and towards which many are, themselves, rushing), this sort of thing will be a growing concern: ‘robot rights’ and ‘robot abuse’.
Conversations will be had as to whether artificial intelligence is really alive (or intelligent) and about, “what exactly constitutes ‘alive’ anyway?” and “Why can’t a machine be alive?” or “Is the life of a machine worth as much as the life of a human?” or “If a robot is alive, can it be abused, hurt or, even, killed?”
Conversations about inclusion may soon have to contend with whether or not robots are included or not.
Children will ask their mothers who the mother of the robot dog is and what kind of foods they eat and the mother will have to find her way towards answering that child.
Political scientists, activists and sociologists will, no doubt, ask us to wonder after, “Who profits from such a dog being in the world? Was the whole truth told about their reasons for being made? If these dogs are guard dogs, then what, or whom, are they guarding?”
And many will sit and stare at those robot dogs (you know that more are coming) as they walk down the street wondering, “What does such a dog ask of us? What does such a dog reveal about us and the society we live in? What befell a people that such a dog would appear and seem worthy of our pity and protection when being kicked at?”
That’s me. I’m sitting and staring. I’m trying to take it in.
Here’s what strikes me most: I think that the concern about abusing robots misses a deeper truth that robots are, already, a form of abuse of the natural world as all machines are.
Robots are a manifestation of abuse. They are also evidence of a much deeper and more pervasive abuse that has already happened and that their existence is predicated upon.
The abuse of the natural world.
I am remembering what Toby Hemenway, a permaculturist, said, “It takes a large tree to produce enough heat to melt the ore to get enough metal to make something the size of a belt buckle.”
I can testify to that. I saw it once.
It was in Wales in 2019.
One of us, a young man from Ontario, had been entrusted with finding us some copper ore. He ended up having to search the world for it. He never imagined it would be so hard but centuries of mining have brought us to that. There’s not much left. What’s left isn’t easy to find or to get.
The only piece he could find was a rock the size of two fists on someone’s shelf in Africa. He never told us what he paid to get it but I don’t think it was cheap.
We had spent the day making charcoal, burning a large pile of wood until there was only coal left. That coal burns much hotter than wood. And then we buried it and sang to it for a while – feeling awkward and unsure of ourselves the whole time – before digging it up and carrying it to a hole that had been dug in the ground and lined with flat stones. The copper containing rock was pulverized and ground into smaller bits and powder. This was then poured into the hole over the coals.
I can’t remember how long we sat but it was for hours and we were singing to it the whole time as the heat coaxed the copper out of the stone.
And then came the request for water to cool it off. I ran to get some, somehow imagining that my one thermos filled with water would do it. Over the next half hour, there was a seemingly endless train of thermoses and water bottles being brought and poured over the coals and the now congealing copper as steam erupted from that little hole.
I was staggered.
The next morning, in the local community hall where we were meeting, the young man brought us the smelted copper. No more than the tip of a pinky finger, if that. The rest was what they called ‘slag’ or ‘waste’. We were each entrusted with a bit of it to take home and place on our altars to remind us of the cost of things.
I remember thinking of the time, the effort, the water and how much wood had gone into producing this small amount of copper.
I thought of how much deforestation, centuries ago, must have been done to feed the forges.
Days later, on the train to London, filled with day-drinkers heading to the Spice Girls reunion concert, the young man who had tended that fire and obtained the stone reflected on how, if remember his words correctly, that the first known generation or so of carbon steel scythes were left in the ground unused. They were forged, crafted beautifully and then buried. There wasn’t event a scratch on them.
It’s not uncommon in traditional cultures that, the first time you ever make something, that thing is to be offered as a gift. You don’t keep it for yourself. If you make your first drum, no matter how much you love that drum, it must be given to someone else.
He pointed out that, in some traditions, when offering beads made from seashells to the local spirits or your ancestors that the beads themselves were for the gods. The powder left over? That was for your altar. I thought of the slag leftover from the smelting for our altars wrapped in paper towel in my bags as we spoke.
Perhaps those scythe makers understood it in the same way – the beauty of those first steel scythes was for the gods. The slag was for their altars to remind them of the staggering cost of what they had just done.
When traditional people extracted ore from the Earth for early metallurgy – there was a deep reverence – some understanding perhaps of what was being asked of these old ones being lifted from the Earth and the duty into which they were being pressed.
The early metallurgists were seen as shamans. What they did was a kind of magic.
I recall seeing an article pointing out that one of the oldest folk tales known in Europe featured a blacksmith.
I recall being shown one book about places in Africa where this was still practiced in this way and how the forge was seen, and shaped, as a womb. The same herbs gathered and used in child birth were gathered as used for this process too. Like birth, there were no guarantees. Like birth, things could go wrong. Like birth, immense attention needed to be paid to the mother and to the little one, still growing inside her. The process of metallurgy was, and in places this is still practiced, still is a deep ceremony.
This art of metallurgy may be what was being spoken about in the old tales of ‘pulling the sword from the stone’ in Arthurian legend: the one who could extract metal from rock would become king. Certainly, the bronze age proved that to be true. The argument could be made that, without metallurgy there would be no kings at all.
While we are speaking of swords, here’s a thought to think: A sword has a kinship with the human hand. It extends and sharpens its capacity to devastating and deadly effect. One life, the sword, connecting with another life, the human hand. Maybe the metal becomes glad of being above ground in the form of a blade some days. Maybe it dreams of going back down under some days. I don’t know. But I do know that, in traditional craft, there is a relationship there.
Life to life.
In traditional cultures, swords were often named. Some times they were passed on to children. Sometimes they were buried with the carrier. Some mercy being offered to them both, a chance to finally rest again in the Earth from which they both came. “Thank you for joining us for a while,” they might have said as they laid them down. “Now you have some stories to bring to them down there. I hope you will speak well of us. Tell them we still miss them and speak of them. Tell them we are glad you came.”
From an animist perspective (one who understands that everything is alive – and, even deeper, that there are no ‘things’ only living beings, and peoples and nations in different forms), the metal was seen as alive already. From an animist perspective, humans are not here to grant life but to recognize it and give thanks for it. Humans are witnesses to the holy, not the crafters of it.
As Mary Oliver wrote:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
By the time we get to the conversation about ‘robot rights’ the understanding has already long been entrenched that the metals that make the robot are ‘dead’. Ah, but humans, by bringing them together in a certain way, can grant them ‘life’. The metal is dead. The robot is alive.
The inanimist understanding (one who sees the world as, fundamentally not alive) is that we, humans, confer animacy, sacredness and life to the metal by making it move and operate in the ways we want it to – in ways that resemble biological life. If it looks and moves like we do – then it might just be alive. If it doesn’t, it likely isn’t. Consider the ways in which robots are coming to look and move more and more like us or our pets.
The inanimist could imagine that the puppet is brought alive by the puppeteer but not that the puppet already is alive. The animist knows that the wood, and the thread and the cloth and the paints…. Those were all alive already before that puppeteer showed up and put them together in the form they did.
Unlike a sword, by the time we come to ‘robot’, there is no human hand anymore. There are no ‘strings’ being pulled by a human puppeteer. There is no relationship or kinship to humans. There is AI and algorithm. There is control. There is enslavement of the metal and machinery to programs and protocols.
There is a question that inanimists don’t consider worthy of asking: does metal want to be a robot?
You might consider this: in his book Returning to the Teachings, Rupert Ross writes, “Basil Johnston speaks of the Ojibway hierarchy of Creation in Ojibway Heritage. It is not based on intelligence or beauty or strength or numbers. Instead, it is based on dependencies. It places the Mother Earth (and her lifeblood, the waters) in first place, for without them there would be no plant animal or human life. The plant world stands second, for without it there would be no animal or human life. The animal world is third. Last, and clearly least important within this unique hierarchy, come humans. Nothing whatever depends of our survival. So much seems to flow from that focus on dependencies. Because human beings are the most dependent of all, it is we who owe the greatest duty of respect and care for the other three orders. Without them, we perish. Our role is therefore not to subdue individual parts of them to meet our own short-term goals, for that may disturb the balances between them. Instead, our role is to learn how they all interact with each other so we can try our best to accommodate ourselves to their existing relationships. Any other approach, in the long run, can only disrupt the healthy equilibria that have existed for millions of years and which, obviously enough, created the conditions for our own evolution.”
And so, humans are new to this world. Though we deeply belong here, we are the closest thing there is to a guest in this world. We have been welcomed into something. Even in Genesis, the world was here before us. We were born into it. It was not born from us. It is not here for us.
First there was the soil.
Then animals discovered how to carry the soil within them so they could move.
Then humans came – the forgetful and foolish little brother – and seemed to need to craft another type of culture that could remind them how to be human.
But, before all of it, there was the Earth’s mantle. There was metal.
Metal is older than us. It is that one who is ‘older than dirt’. It is our ancestor. It’s not here for us.
Nothing is here ‘for us’ as humans.
So what does metal want?
That’s a question worthy of pondering over the generations but since, I’m wondering out loud, this is what comes to me.
It seems to me that metal generally likes to sit very still and, if it moves at all, it is through eruption and earthquake. It has its own nature to it – utterly unrecognized or respected by the mechanists, industrialists and robot manufacturers. Do the metals want to be harnessed to the regulated and repetitious rhythms of relentless industry? Do they want to be turned into machines that manufacture cheap plastic toys? Do they want to be turned into machines used in sweatshops to manufacture ‘fast fashion’? Do they want to be shackled to industries that destroy our health, well being and sanity? Do they want to be turned into machines that shred our natural world? Do they want to be pressed into this kind of service? Is this a kind of torture for them or is this a kind of abuse of those old ones? What are we asking of them? Do they get lonely for the ground? What do we ask of them when we pull them out of the ground? I don’t know. But I wonder about it.
What does metal want? And do we care?
Will robots be abused? There is no doubt.
Consider this etymology of robot:
“1923, from English translation of 1920 play “R.U.R.” (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Capek (1890-1938), from Czech robotnik “forced worker,” from robota “forced labor, compulsory service, drudgery,” from robotiti “to work, drudge,” from an Old Czech source akin to Old Church Slavonic rabota “servitude,” from rabu “slave,” from Old Slavic *orbu-, from PIE *orbh- “pass from one status to another” (see orphan). The Slavic word thus is a cousin to German Arbeit “work” (Old High German arabeit). According to Rawson the word was popularized by Karel Capek’s play, “but was coined by his brother Josef (the two often collaborated), who used it initially in a short story.””
Robots were conceived of as slaves to work for us and do the work that we can’t, or won’t, do ourselves.
But I think we are being asked to think a bigger thought.
What if robots are not only abused but an expression of abuse itself? What if they are the end result of centuries of abuse?
What if the ‘robot abuse’ didn’t begin when those men began to kick the robot dog but when we took the metals from the Earth without permission and gratitude for their life?
I think of JRR Tolkien’s explanation of who the orcs were: elves who had been tortured for centuries and twisted into something dark and unrecognizable.
To cry abuse for a robot dog being kicked but not to cry abuse for the untimely ripping of those metals that made it from their womb in the Earth, from the body of the land of which they were a part is to cry too late and about too little.
Is the world alive or isn’t it?
How selective are we being in our animism?
If you would bring reverence to the robot, then bring that same reverence and relationship to the every step of the process by which every piece of the robot came to the process of robot making.
Ask permission of the land you are about to tear up and lavish it with gifts. Grieve in such a way that the land understands that you understand what you are asking of it. See if your bonehouse will bear it.
If it does, ask permission of the metal and plead with it for a while that it might join you and your people above ground. See if you can make the persuasive case that it is needed. Heap words of praise upon the metal that it would have no doubt that you understand its nature and value. Make an offering again.
If you succeed there, ask permission of every tree you cut down to heat the forges to melt down the ore. Weep for each grove you clear. Kneel down and kiss each stump with your mouth. Give immense thanks and apologies that it came to this. Give thanks for their bodies. Say a prayer. Promise you will use every bit. Promise the groves you will take care of them too. Don’t take more than you need.
Hand tan the leather from the hide of a cow that your people have raised to make the bellows that heat your forge. Weep as you take its life. Sing and pray as you tan it giving thanks for the cow’s life all the way.
Lavish your blacksmiths with praise for their work and treat them with reverence for their offering.
Do the same for everyone (not every ‘thing’) else required for the circuit boards and circuitry, the pistons and plastics. Ask for the permission of everyone involved. Make offerings to everyone. Heap portions of grief and gratitude for it all.
If all of this will result in polluting the land, ask the permission of everyone on the land and in the water and air (and the land, air and water itself) that will be polluted by your efforts and see if you can make the case to them that this robot dog you intend to make is worth their noble sacrifice.
And then ask the forgiveness of all your descendants and ancestors who will be affected by your actions. Weep for your presumption to even ask such a thing.
When you have done all of those things, come and speak to me about your concerns about robot abuse and your reverence for machine life.
You may find that the cost of creating this robot dog is too expensive for your people to bear.
Along the way of doing this, you might realize that you no longer have a people anymore. See if you can bear that too.
The principle trouble with industry is not that it uses metal. It is that it views metal as a resource and not as a relative, as an object, not as a subject and as ‘inert’ until we activate it.
It’s not that a robot dog is not alive.
It’s that everything is alive. It’s that there are no ‘things.’
It’s worth pointing out that this game of ‘selective animism’ is not new. The Catholic Church seemed adamant that only humans had souls – not plants, animals or rocks. But, not all humans of course. Entire people’s have been considered ‘non-human’ throughout history and therefore unworthy of any regard. Black people, the roma, the tinkers, and indigenous people everywhere. Immigrants are frequently dehumanized and called ‘locusts’, ‘snakes’ and ‘parasites’. This dehumanizing is a form of inanimism. It renders people as objects of hate. But the hatred is not the most damaging part of that equation, it’s the ‘object’ part.
But it’s darker still.
While we are trying to turn Pinnochio into a real boy with one hand, we are also turning real boys into puppets for the system with the other.
While we try to bring ‘things’ to life we are making living ones into things. This may be the great undercurrent of the entire, global economy – the conversion of living things into dead things: mountain tops become pop cans, trees become paper and humans become numbers of the great dashboards in the sky.
Life is becoming, as Martin Luther King Jr. described, ‘thingified’ and ‘things’ are, we tell ourselves, becoming ‘reified’ (made real).
In case you doubt this, ask yourself why so many people are creating ‘digital avatars’ and ‘digital twins’ of themselves and using those to interact with others online.
Ask yourself what the social media-based status ranking system in China is all about.
Ask yourself about grades in school and why they exist at all (come to think of it why schools exist at all) if not train us to fit into the machine as another ‘thingified’ cog.
Ask yourself who that benefits.
Ask yourself about the coming blockchain system in which all of the information there is about you – yes all of it – gets put in one place, one dashboard, where it can be used by those in power to ‘nudge’ and ‘program’ you towards the right behaviour (as determined by them).
You might consider the amount of time people spend playing video games and living in virtual worlds but, even more importantly, you could come to understand how we have become the characters and playthings in a global, online game played by bankers, hedge funds and tech companies.
We have become resources for them to manage to achieve the outcomes they want.
Consider how more and more of the interactions of young people are going online to a world that is not real. Consider how much time they spend on screens.
Consider how, instead of elders guiding young ones into their gifts Artificial Intelligence will likely be guiding your children into whatever proficiencies they have which might be of use to the State or the corporations (to the extent that those two are even separated anymore).
You might also consider how synthetic our world is becoming – the lights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the textures and the food.
You might consider how this world seems to be slipping from analogue to digital, from biological to digital.
Oh, we are being ‘thingified’ alright.
But, as Thomas Berry put it, “The universe is not a collection of objects. It is a communion of subjects.”
There are no ‘things’ in this universe.
We seem to find ourselves in that strange place where the relationship flips – instead of technology serving humans, we begin to serve it. The needs of the technocracy come to matter more than human needs and the needs of the world.
Under capitalism, the industrialists own the machine. Under communism the state does. In neither system is the existence of the machine questioned.
If we must choose between the health of communities of colour dealing with toxic waste incinerators and the health of that incinerator, we know which one those in power will protect. The needs of the machine seem to trump the needs of humans and, more broadly, life itself.
Am I suggesting that we make sure that machines serve humans and not the other way around?
No. But I am suggesting that this whole dynamic of looking at the world as full of resources to be used by us and employed to our ends needs deep reconsideration.
I am suggesting that we must resist the gaze of the system that would have us see ourselves as resources for the machine.
We increasingly look at the world as full of things.
We increasingly look at ourselves as one of those things.
We must resist both of those trends. Or side step them. Or walk away and proceed otherwise.
As the good Utah Phillips said to a group of high school students in California, “You are about to be told one more time that you are America’s most valuable natural resource. Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources? Have you seen a strip mine? Have you seen a clear cut in the forest? Have you seen a polluted river? Don’t ever let them call you a valuable natural resource! They’re going to strip mine your soul. They’re going to clear cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit unless you learn to resist. Make a break for it, kids!”
I go back to the comment: “WOW DUDE THIS #ROBOT ABUSE NEEDS TO #STOP BEFORE IT TOO LATE TBH!!! Y’ALL THINK THIS IS OKAY OR NAH!? ”
On the surface this comment seems to be saying that the robot dog is alive and deserving of care.
But, if you take a few steps back and cock your head a bit to the side, you might come to consider the following questions: What does your care of this robot dog mean if you did not care about all the pieces that made it? Can you really consider yourself to be an animist with the final product if you haven’t been an animist with all of the parts and the process? And, if you only care about this final product what does this say about your understanding of what is and isn’t alive and what is and isn’t deserving of your care and your protection?
Which brings us back to selective animism.
Is the world alive, or isn’t it?
Future generations are awaiting our response, even now.