In Superintelligence, a state-of-the-art book on the dangers of machine intelligence, Nick Bostrom reminds us that horses “became obsolete” roughly one hundred years ago. Horses are, of course, not obsolete in natural or metaphysical terms. But what Bostrom means – and he is right in this – is that (literal) horsepower has no structural value in fossil-fuel economies.
Between 1920 and 1950, horses lost a status they had held in human societies since prehistoric times. Virtually overnight, they went from being a system-powering necessity to a class-signaling luxury. Cars displaced horses, which is to say, machines displaced living beings.
From Leningrad to Los Angeles, the shift was signaled by a catastrophic fall in horse populations. “In the United States,” Bostrom reports, “there were about 26 million horses in 1915. By the early 1950s, 2 million remained.”
The fate of horses in the twentieth century, warns Bostrom, might well prefigure the fate of humans in the twenty-first. It is entirely conceivable, he argues in Superintelligence, that “biological humans” (as he calls us) might soon be “outclassed” by machine intelligences, as horses were outpaced by cars.
Bostrom seems not to know it, but this is the exact intuition that inspired The Glass Bees, a 1957 novel by one of Germany’s most formidable right-wing intellectuals, Ernst Jünger. Throughout this futurist tour de force, Jünger’s narrator – a disgraced cavalry officer, and, by the novel’s end, a tech consultant – broods over the disappearance of horses.
For Jünger, the disappearance of horses in late-industrial society is emblematic of a new era (we could call it the “Machinocene”) when machine systems outmaneuver and displace natural beings. Jünger reasons that this machine-driven march of obsolescence will not halt at the horses. It will inevitably reach us.
If we can trust Jünger’s intuition, then the much-hyped Anthropocene is a misnomer. It cannot be right to use the Greek word for humankind (anthropos) to name an age in which machines seem poised to threaten humans “in the way of whales and horses” (as Jünger puts it).
The Glass Bees is a vivid conjuration of a near-future , a vaguely steam-punk Machinocene, in which Jünger anticipates several of Bostrom’s worries with uncanny precision. Take the insectoids that give Jünger’s novel its title, a swarm of “glass bees” that move (but do not live) in a garden behind the manor house (once a monastery) owned by a tech-industrialist named Giacomo Zapparoni.
Jünger’s narrator realizes that a single glass bee could extract more nectar in one day than a swarm of real bees could in one year. This is the “tangible utility” of glass bees. But their menace lies in their utility. For he then notices that Zapparoni’s bees, unlike those of natural hives, “ruthlessly sucked out the flowers and ravished them.”
For Jünger, the glass bees represent what Bostrom calls the optimization power of machines. Glass bees disrupt life in a garden precisely because they optimize bees’ nectar-sucking function. Wherever Zapparoni’s robots hive, “a failure of crops, and ultimately a desert,” Jünger predicts, are sure to follow.
Jünger seems to think that the optimization of any natural function will derange the milieu. A natural function is, by definition, not optimized in an abstract sense. It is measured, harmonized with what Jünger calls a “cosmic plan.” In the milieu of a natural hive, bees are life-bearers, or “messengers of love.” In other words, they pollinize.
But where real bees are messengers of love (eros), Zapparoni’s bees are agents of death (thanatos). The optimization of bees’ function will trigger a desertification of the milieu where they have lived for millions of years, which should not surprise us, since the glass bees are dead. (At the moment, though, it is insect populations which are in a state of collapse.)
Jünger’s reasoning may reflect the quasi-mystical thought of Jakob von Uexküll, a twentieth-century theoretical biologist whose concept of milieu (Umwelt) influenced a number of high-profile philosophers (Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze). And climate change is a glowering argument in favor of the idea that machine-driven optimization is hostile to the human, and non-human, milieus (Umwelten).
Yet, Jünger is not only worried, like Bostrom, that the optimization power of machines poses a threat to nature. In one of The Glass Bees’ most intriguing subplots, Jünger suggests that it is inimical to culture, too. After all, Zapparoni not only builds micro-drones (insectoids), but celebrity machines (humanoids). Jünger senses that machine drama, the roll-out of a literally inhuman culture industry, will outshine and outsell human drama.
Zapparoni’s celebrity machines are not exactly humanoid. They differ “slightly from the human actors we are used to seeing,” says Jünger. But then, they differ pleasantly. Their faces are “more brilliant, more flawless.” Their eyes are “of a larger cut, like precious stones.” Their movements are “slower, more elegant.” In short, humanoids are harder not to look at. For an idea of what this means, glance at the virtual supermodel Shudu (noting, too, the concerns of her critics).
Celebrity machines not only optimize the human art of drama; they redefine it. Not only actors imitate dramatis personae, but spectators, too, imitate the personae that they watch. Because of this, the birth of machine drama is not just a cultural or tech-industrial shift which means that human creatives will begin to vie with machine creatives. The birth of machine drama is a world-historical threshold.
What machine drama inaugurates is an age in which the metaphysics of imitation is inverted. The tendency will be for machines to cease imitating humans (by design), and for humans, as well as human institutions, to begin imitating machines (by choice, in the beginning …). What the imitation of Christ (imitatio Christi) was in sixteenth-century Europe, the imitation of machines (imitatio machinae) may be in twenty-first-century America.
According to Jünger, this is how our obsolescence begins. “Technics have become destiny,” he says. Jünger conjectures (as Bostrom also claims) that machines can be built whose mimetic gifts are not inferior to humans’ in perceptual terms, or, crucially, in financial terms. And Ian Bogost is right to warn in The Atlantic that machine intelligence is already bending the arc of the future of art.
This is the time for us to ask: What exactly will be lost in a culture in which only robotic Hamlets ruin virtual Ophelias? Or Roy Orbison’s ballad “Crying” is only sung by heart-breaking machines who themselves never cry (a question David Lynch seems to dramatize in the Silencio scene of Mulholland Drive)?[i] Or the next brace of Hadid sisters will be not have been born and will not die?
To the senses, arguably, nothing will be lost. The images that flicker on our screens may seem more real, not less, with the human factor reduced. Yet machine drama will lack “inner weight,” in Jünger’s words, and “inner life,” in Bostrom’s. This is because machines, unlike humans (or whales or horses), dwell in the world painlessly.
Regardless of what human drama is – a sublimation of drives or a purification of memories –, machine drama is intrinsically obsolete, since a machine has nothing to purify and nothing to sublimate. But perhaps it is this vacuum at the core of machines, lacking inner life and inner weight, that we half-consciously envy or even love.
[i] Philip K. Dick may have been the first to get here. In chapter 9 of his novel, Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), a virtuosic Nexus-6 android, Luba Luft, is neutralized after she sings in Mozart’s 1791 opera, The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte).