“Remember when Luke’s running the trench in the Death Star, and he’s about to fire his fateful shot, and at the last minute he decides to turn off the targeting computer and use the Force instead?” So begins an article that references a scene from the movie Star Wars: A New Hope to argue that “machines can now see into the future, and we ignore them at our peril.” The article continues, “We romanticize that moment—not just because it represents Luke’s coming into his own as a Jedi, but because to us, the decision to trust an intuition born deep in nature and honed over billions of lifetimes instead of some newfangled tech seems somehow right and good. The irony, of course, is that in our galaxy, technology is the Force. Increasingly, it’s computers that train our intuition. It’s computers that help us perceive beyond our senses.”

The article provides several examples of technology enhancing human intuition and performance, such as chess players using software to expand their abilities, and doctors using CT scans, ultrasounds, and MRIs instead of knives to explore the innards of patients. The article concludes with this prediction: “we’ll use computers to explore possible futures, and over time we’ll learn how to see those futures for ourselves, almost to feel them, to the point where it’ll seem to those not in the know that we have command of an arcane force.” That may be a bit far-fetched…I hope.

Dr. Lawrence Quill is an SJSU Professor of Political Science who often provides commentary on technology news (such as in a recent Financial Times op-ed: “Tech companies are doing what oil and steel companies have been doing for decades, but they have a halo around them.”). I asked him for his take on the article. He notes:

That article, it seems to me, is talking about augmented reality. Pokemon Go was an app that applied that in a trivial fashion. But Google Glass was a more sophisticated version.

Economists suggest that this way of thinking about the relationships between computer and human labor is the best version of a future that will be dominated by machines and information. Work with machines, they say, rather than against them.

I guess we’ll see.

But if we return to ‘the Force’ in Star Wars and Luke, I think the author of the Atlantic piece has omitted something important. For Luke, and the audience, the force was something without and within. A person looked inside in order to harness the power of the Force all around them. Technology is not the Force. Technology is always external and never ‘within’ – unless we take Elon Musk’s advice and become cyborgs, of course!

The ‘inside’ to which I’m referring is that ‘spiritual’ inside, the West’s inheritance from Christianity. Augustine’s interior space provided the foundation for Western concepts like free will and, more broadly, free agency; concepts that are fundamental to how we have come to understand politics and what it means to be human.

It is that space that is collapsing (and freedom with it). There are a few reasons for this:

1) The assault on religious thinking especially since Darwin but more broadly as a result of Modernity
2) The twentieth century equivalence (post-Turing) of mind and machine (and information)
3) Paradoxically, the quasi-religious desire to free ourselves from the body in order to download consciousness so that we may become immortal – you never really escape from Christianity’s influence. It just becomes a mash up!

Elon Musk’s comment should be taken against the background of the ideas (1-3) above. His cyborg future, which may become reality, is a kind of protest against an uncontrolled future of AI where human agency disappears. The message is simple: become a cyborg or be a human slave. Augmented reality or bust.

The Atlantic article channels the same message. Those who use The Force (technology) will leave the rest behind in their wake. How curious that the author would use a modern myth of techno-spirituality (Star Wars) to make the point.

This sounds like technological determinism and it is. But while the myth of human freedom remains, I will probably keep on saying that the present, and the future, could be different. It could be more humane (?). We could imagine a future where AI and robotics serves human (?) ends, rather than the other way around.

I am not especially hopeful, however, as neither policy-makers, nor the public, nor any other group are providing us with the key ideas of a human future that embraces technology for human ends. Instead, we must turn to William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame) style corporations and Hollywood which, for now at least, seems obsessed with a dystopian eventuality.

I am a little bit more hopeful that we can escape dystopian ends. Keeping Professor Quill’s commentary in mind can help us to try to journey in a more positive direction.