Episode Summary: Over 100,00 years ago, it may have been advantageous for human beings to be hyper aware of other living things for the purposes of survival. In the future, between the IoT and advances in AI, we once again find ourselves ever more aware. Erik Davis, the author of TechGnosis and a praised journalist and speaker, explores the intersection of the technical, spiritual, and often mystical. In this episode, we discuss how our gut reactions to AI often spring from evolutionary or cultural reasons, and how this shapes our reactions to technology and guides our development of it in the 21st century.
Guest: Erik Davis
Expertise: Technoculture and Contemporary Spiritualism
Recognition in Brief: A native of California, Davis graduated from Yale and spent six years freelancing in Brooklyn and Manhattan before moving to San Francisco. Davis is an award-winning journalist, and has been interviewed by CNN, NPR, the New York Times, and other reputable media publications. He is the author of TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, and has written and published articles and essays in publications such as Rolling Stone, Wired, LA Weekly, among others. Davis is also a renowned speaker and has given talks around the globe. He hosts the podcast Expanding Mind on the Progressive Radio Network, and is also pursuing his PhD in Religious Studies at Rice University.
Current Affiliations: Progressive Radio Network, Rice University
Humans: The Makers and the Dreamers
An interesting problem in religious anthropology is that you find all kinds of similar things in different cultures – spirits, god forms, traditions; why is there this consistency? The evolution of spiritual symbolism and practices is of particular interest to Writer Erik Davis, who often finds his stories at the intersection of spiritualism, mysticism and technology. One of the answers that cognitive science-oriented anthropologists offer, suggests Davis, is that “we have a character in our minds – “agency detection”; in terms of natural selection, it’s always better to be hypersensitive to natural agents”.
This certainly made sense for our ancestors, when tigers and other unknown predators lurked beyond the safety of camp. Better to have an over-active imagination about what might lie in the earth or in the trees, for example, than to be dull witted or unimaginative. This ability to perceive and imagine is in part responsible behind many common threads in diverse human cultures, says Davis. The spirits of nature, particular sacred locations, dreams, altered states of consciousness – many cultures have elements of these spiritual facets.
“We now find ourselves in a peculiar situation…in a lively environment, even for specialists who know a lot about the technological backbone of these technologies…there is a lot of quick change, a lot of enigma and unknown, and even a bit of chaos in our fundamental sense of where intelligence lies, where consciousness sits”, suggests Erik. Is our idea of consciousness becoming increasingly distributed through networks of technology?
The Blurred Lines Between Fact and Fiction
“My sense – as we move into that environment more fully, we almost inevitably lean back on some of these fictions, older templates, seeing the world as ensouled or unchanged”, says Davis. He suggests that science fiction is one entrenched avenue in which we explore and try to explain – and imagine – our relationships with other beings and alternate worlds. Erik boldly suggests that whatever is happening with evolving technology and our perception of the point of consciousness, it’s occurring alongside human engagement, with new stories up for grabs.
Davis calls himself a conservative when it comes to believing that that we’ve overcome our unchanged mystical-driven tendencies, which he believes are more difficult to get rid of than we often posit (Jason Silva conducted an insightful interview with Davis on this and related topics). In addition to popular culture and fiction, we most obviously see these narrative tendencies in the way toys and other objects enter into a child’s world, invoking untamed imagination. Our realization and eventual acceptance of machine intelligence is intertwined with older stories that we’ve heard and tell ourselves about how sentience can be distributed through non-human objects, says Davis.
Erik comments on the striking resonance of a recent Charles Schwab commercial, that hits home on this point. Schwab recently introduced intelligent profiles powered by a pseudo-AI agent. If you go to Schwab to get data, they’re not advertising a friendly face but rather a bright blue ground with an androgynous computer voice, which introduces itself as an intelligent profile machine.
“In some sense, we’re ready to hear this, ready to hear that an AI device is intelligent and can make some decisions better than we can,” says Davis. Whether or not this is true, there certainly seems to be evidence in similar cultural representations and stories that are fed to us, narratives that we tell ourselves to help buffer and organize stories about other types of intelligence with which we can communicate.
Society’s tendency for juxtapositions are sometimes best recognized in retrospect. When we look back through time, says Davis, we see lots of characters interested in mathematics and science, but also what we might recognize as religion or even magic (though at the time these beliefs and practices might have been seen as natural science).
John Dee was a mathematician in the 14th and 15th centuries and an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. He was also an occult philosopher, who used elaborate formal codes of sigils, numerical and linguistic relationships, in order to ritually encounter forms of intelligence from which he could get information. Dee “channelled angelic conversations” using imagination as well as ritual tools inscribed with symbols, a language that had its own forms of letters and grammar.
What’s funny, remarks Davis, is that he often didn’t trust these angelic voices and frequently cross-examined them. Dee is just one example of many representative scientists and other respected figures who integrated both science and some form of cultural mysticism to create and better understand the present day reality.
The ongoing human narrative, whether mixed with magic, mysticism, spiritualism, or some other -ism, is a powerful cultural template that gets reproduced century after century and into the modern era. Granted, we do evolve and recreate our narratives based on science.
Yet, if we examine our technological perceptions today, we see traces of these narratives and even mystical tendencies. We have the idea that through computer code, a logical operation or linguistic intervention, we can invoke possibility in the “space between”. There exists the notion that something is there, that there is some possible relationship to information that can be tapped into. When you think about it, “there is something sort of magic in that glowing, spooky investment advisor,” Davis remarks.
While Erik emphasizes that it’s important not to proliferate the same outdated ideas of yesterday, he sees humans as still relying on the older way of dealing with non-corporeal intelligences, through narrative and imagination in all of its its vast cultural representations. “The resonances between those and the conditions of now are non-trivial,” says Davis.