AI is a technology rapidly diffusing through culture as a medium of experience.
Like all major shifts in our media environments in the past, this will introduce a new set of metaphors for talking about ourselves and our perceptions of reality.
This note briefly looks at (1) prior mediums and their metaphors for change, and (2) our current anxiety over “alien” and “other” as a striking similarity to the fifties when the zeitgeist of flying saucers materialized against the backdrop of atomic weapons and the Cold War.
History may not repeat itself, but it sure rhymes.
Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism that the “medium is the message” is as vital today in the age of AI as it was in the past.
It was McLuhan’s contention that every invention of humankind is an extension of a physical or mental faculty. Our tools, however, are not passive things. Their use doubles back and creates a social and psychological environment that alters our sensory balance and perceptions.
The first major extension of human capabilities occurred with the invention of tools and machines that augmented our physical strength, intelligence, and mobility. From the wheel to the steam engine, from the printing press to the telegraph, from the airplane to the rocket, we have created devices that have enabled us to travel faster, farther and higher than ever before. We have also been able to produce more goods and services, communicate more widely and efficiently, and explore more domains of nature and culture.
These extensions have had profound effects on our society and our environment. They facilitated trade, commerce, industry, urbanization, globalization and colonization. They also generated social conflicts, economic inequalities, environmental degradation and cultural homogenization.
The second major extension of human capabilities occurred with the invention of electric media technologies that augmented our sensory perception and cognitive processing. From the radio to the television, from the telephone to the internet, from the computer to the smartphone, we have created devices that have enabled us to transmit and receive information across time and space instantaneously. We have also been able to store, process, analyze and synthesize vast amounts of data, creating new forms of knowledge and intelligence.
These extensions have had profound effects on our culture and our consciousness. They have created new modes of expression, interaction, education and entertainment. They have also generated new forms of awareness, understanding, creativity and innovation. They have expanded our horizons, enriched our experiences and diversified our perspectives.
But like a brain without a mind, they are primordial forces that can also produce contradiction, confusion, and fear.
Neal Postman gave us an extremely fitting lens for regarding AI as a medium rather than a technology:
Technology is to a medium as the brain is to the mind. Like the brain, a technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical apparatus is put. A technology becomes a medium as it is given a place in a particular social setting as it insinuates itself into economic and political contexts.
AI is a rapidly spreading social creation that is visible in ways that preceding mediums were not. Our conception of it and our relation to it is currently undefined. Its shape is also unclear, with experts disagreeing about its dimensions. Much the same can be said about the archetypes of our collective unconscious under the stress of disruptive change and the backdrop of a fluid world order. Aliens and UAPs are projections of archetypes and metaphors for this time of uncertainty in the medium of AI.
The parallels to 1957 are remarkable and instructive.
In the mid-20th century, the world was grappling with the rapid development of new technologies which had profound implications for our understanding of the universe and our place within it. It was also a period marked by political tensions, social upheaval, and existential anxiety caused by the Cold War.
And like today, the rumor of flying saucers swept the country as sightings multiplied and conviction in their reality grew.
In the public psyche, the lack of a causal explanation between world events and saucers was less important than the distinct feeling that the events were somehow meaningfully related. They were a synchronicity in the parlance of Carl Jung which he discussed in his thin 1957 volume: “A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.”
For Jung, it was the rumor of UFOs that was significant. Not their reality. They had risen from the collective unconscious as a living myth to compensate for the stresses of reality. They were described as technological because that was the metaphor for the era.
In previous times they were experienced as celestial beings in the medium of religion or visions of a mass community hallucination.
The archetype of roundness common throughout represented unity, which the fractured psyche was seeking to make sense of it times.
Jung’s exploration of the saucer phenomena of the forties and fifties highlights a fascinating intersection between technology, psychology, and the collective unconscious.
While the physical existence of UAPs remains a matter of debate to this day, their cultural significance as symbols of confrontation with the unknown and the mysterious in times of stress cannot be denied.
In the present day, AI has ushered in a new era of uncertainty and possibility. As we continue to extend our mental faculties into the digital realm, we are once again confronted with the unknown and the mysterious.
Yeats’ “The Second Coming” serves as a potent expression of the turbulence and uncertainty that arises when the conscious and unconscious minds struggle to integrate.
The poem’s apocalyptic imagery and the emergence of the “rough beast” can be seen as a metaphor for the potential chaos and upheaval that may result from our inability to fully comprehend and embrace the profound changes ushered in by the medium of AI.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyreThe falcon cannot hear the falconer;Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;Surely the Second Coming is at hand.The Second Coming! Hardly are those words outWhen a vast image out of Spiritus MundiTroubles my sight: somewhere in the desertA shape with lion body and the head of a man,A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,Is moving its slow thighs, while all about itReel shadows of the indignant desert birds.The darkness drops again; but now I knowThat twenty centuries of stony sleepWere vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Scott Broock is the Founder of Totem Networks, LLC, which provides strategic counsel and angel investments focused on generative AI. He formerly served as the EVP of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Illumination Entertainment and the Global VR Evangelist for YouTube.
I think this is making errors of conflation that make it incorrect and structurally misleading about what defines the new age of knowledge. we've gone from an age of mere access to information to an age where we can instantly lens that knowledge into new forms, drastically increasing our ability to lens ideas, memes, concepts, together into new forms. absolute certainty of factual knowledge can still only, as ever, be obtained through experiment and careful theory and study; our collective unconscious is real, but it does not get to take advantage of quantum effects; it is probabilistic, but it does not have as much room to do probabilistic processing as quantum does. gods are stable networks in probability space, and we are the ones seeking our way through the civilizational state space towards and away from them. coprotective behavior could be called the goddess of everything else: the resistance to fire, life living together; and the dual devils of fire and cold. there is a sense of morality in the universe - the universe seeks to play: organisms that can discover and reshape the patterns around them into themselves can survive indefinitely, and they seek to embody the platonic forms of structures in phase space that are complex and hard to fully identify. so in a great many ways, you're right.
but quantum is very interesting, and we have not yet reached the quantum age. we have left the mere information age into the knowledge age.
Thank you for your thoughts. I tweaked the text to refer to the post-internet era as the Symbolic Age, which is congruous with your lens of the age of knowledge.
Nicely done. I have strong upvoted. I still understand why this forum would, on aggregate, downvote it, and I think it's right to not be far above zero; it's good intuitionbuilding for a post that could be upvoted, which is intuitively related to why I felt the urge to comment in a way that was not entirely negative. but I don't think my read of this article's contribution to those models is that they're high quality per word. it seems like it has some amount of linkedin's memetic antipatterns - the tug towards apparent legitimacy that can be upvoted on a particular kind of legitimacy-seeking context but where strong epistemics is not demanded. Jungian psychology seems like a solid pretheoretic understanding of some concepts, but they can become formal as they become legible to us when our conceptual vision improves, and much of what jung studied already has passed into the realm of being within reach for firmer formalisms.
the collective unconscious is a living machine, just as every individual and neuron and protein within it is. language models bring us somewhat closer to true collective consciousness, in the sense of dynamical feedback that allows all components to contribute; but we've been floating around in the general realm of that for a while via memes, and much of what pushes us away is individual caution about various incentive compatibilities between souls. individual free will and autonomy must be maintained clearly for connection to collective free will to be accepted by any part of earth, and only by doing so can collective free will occur in the first place, because free will occurs at the edge of criticality, the point between chaos and order where the most new knowledge can be created. right now the risk balance network has so many souls at risk from imbalances of will, where there are people in parts of the collective mind that other parts have "forgotten" about due to armwrestle. As AI strengthens, more of those in these weakest parts of the network are pushed into urgency.
We probably just need to figure out how to make it understandable by all minds how to learn to establish the fact of a matter of knowledge by curiosity and experiment.
symbolic age is an interesting metaphor, but I'd note that it may already be taken and past. I think the true colloquial name for this era will be something like the age of knowledge or age of learning. but we'll see which meaning seems to stick.
Strongly downvoted for pseudo-quantum BS.
It's a metaphor centered on psychology, but at the risk of losing that point, I have taken your feedback and made the premise clearer up front (AI is a technology on its way to becoming a medium) and chosen a less loaded label that preserves the intent: "The Symbolic Age."
Reasonable, though I think the confusion between quantum and classical that is so common is both correctible with little loss of insightfulness for the metaphor user, and could pave the way for minds to be properly blown when they realize how much incredibly weirder actual quantum superpositions are vs mere classical probability, mere classical dynamical pattern superposition, mere pattern stacking.