Bill Gates doesn’t need permission for this, of course, any more than Silicon Valley needs permission to first colonise and control our means of communication and then dictate what we are allowed to say on it. We are no longer living in a time in which either politicians or oligarchs – two words which increasingly point in the same direction – need much permission for anything. The 21st century has brought us staggering, masked and muted, into a new time. We are no longer living in an age of nation states, semi-liberal democracies, identifiable factions of left and right, identifiable factions of much at all. We are in an age in which the powers and principalities of the world are merging: corporate power, state power, institutional power, the power of the oligarchs who built and control the internet, and who sold us as a utopian communications network something which now looks more like a universal surveillance apparatus that the Stasi could only have dreamed of.
In this age, we are increasingly openly reduced to controlled, monitored, units of production in a violently unbalanced economy built on debt, injustice and the death of the seas. If you wonder why there is so much rage in the air, so much anger, so much confusion, so many proliferating conspiracy theories and conspiracy facts, so much impotence: look around you. We are, to purloin a striking image from the prophetic poem by Robinson Jeffers, like a shoal of sardine caught in a purse-seine fishing net, which is slowly being drawn tightly around us:
We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in.
The powers have merged, and we are are left thrashing in the ever-shallower waters. Welcome to the age of the Machine.
But this Machine, this Babel of power and aggregation, destroys the Earth itself in its quest for endless growth. What is to be done about that? A Machine society can only offer Machine answers, which means more of the same: more techno-solutions, more ‘progress’, more mealworms and fake meat and sunblockers and electric cars, more Bill Gates and Sergey Brin and Elon Musk for ever and ever. The Machine will dig us out of the hole that the Machine pushed us into. There is no alternative.
There is, of course, an alternative. The alternative is to stop doing any of this. The alternative to the Machine’s will to power is to embrace radical humility: stillness, modesty and voluntary poverty. The alternative to gigantism is smallness, as the alternative to exploitation is co-operation and fair distribution. The alternative is to step off the hamster wheel and – here is the really radical part – to avoid the temptation to come up with a new, gigantist, top-down, intellectually satisfying global ‘solution’ to build a ‘fairer world‘. We all know where they lead. We have seen the guillotines and the gulags before.
The problem with smallness, with humility, with simplicity is that they are terrifically unthrilling, and they are very hard work. There is no glory in them – that’s the point. They will not make you famous. You will not go viral or get rich, and you won’t, either, get the intellectual ego-satisfaction that can be gained by coming up with that Grand Plan To Solve Everything. This is why none of us likes smallness and humility, and why we are all secretly hoping that Bill Gates’ lab-grown meat will be indistinguishable from the real thing. We might all end up living in The Matrix, but what you don’t know can’t harm you. Right?
What if the future we are building poses this simple, binary question to our descendants: embrace the Machine as it marches ever-faster along the road that leads to transhumanism – the abolition of humanity as we know it, and of nature as we know it, in a quest for silicon transcendence – or embrace that rooted humility instead? And what if trying either option is not as simple, not as clearcut, as anything I have written here might suggest? What is the line between body and soul, between Machine and humanity, and what happens when we cross it, and did we cross it a long time ago?
I have a feeling that this is what we are coming to, and what we have been coming to for a long, long time: a choice between pride and humility, between the triumph of the will and the washing of the feet. Perhaps this is in fact the human story entire, but we enter now a new phase of it, in which the world is at our feet, in which we can choose which tree to eat from every day and we always make the same choice.
My choice, in trying to work out what this means and where it might go, has been to write stories, the latest of which is published as Alexandria, a novel, this month. Alexandria is set in what was once England, a thousand years in the future, at a time when this choice has sheared away everything else; in which little remains but to choose between the gnostic spirit and the rooted body; between the Machine and the animal.
The question that vexed and taunted me throughout – maybe it is the question that has played itself out in different ways in all of my fiction – is: what would a theology against the Machine look like? For all of this, you see, is that most awkward, that most spiky, that most unavoidable of things: a spiritual question. Resistance to the Machine – if we want it – will be, in the end, a spiritual battle. In some ways I do not like this conclusion at all. Part of me would love to think that the right kind of machinery, political or technological, can set us right. But the machinery was never the problem. The Machine, like the problem of evil, has its seed in the depths of each of our hearts.
Here’s a short extract from the novel, for those who might want to see how I ended up tackling it. The book is set, like my first novel The Wake, in the Anglian fens, the waters higher now, the inhabitants members of a matriarchal religious order whose centuries-old catechism is a hymn of power against what still threatens to consume them: Wayland, the strange, unearthly emissary of the Machine and its offering. Here is the mother of the order, speaking to her people of their foundation story, and the recent fulfillment of an ancient prophecy that may lead to triumph over the Machine after all. Perhaps she knew even as she spoke – we all know it really – that the triumph to come would never look quite like the one imagined or hoped for.
Extract from Alexandria
/ the sermon of the mother
there was time when no Birds sang. we have told you of this time.
nine hunnerds years bak. nine hunnerd summers past. in deeps of blak ditch, in high times of Atlantis, there was time when no Birds sang. when no Fish swam, when Waters were dark. in great holts, no beasts. flowers untouched by Be and Fli. fruit rots on Trees. great heat come over Erth. great dyin begins.
in deeps of blak ditch, in high times of Atlantis, there was time when all was broke. no woman saw Sun rise, no man seein Moon set. all folk walkin from Way in to self.
no mothers no fathers no families then. no lord no Lady no love then. no bounds no strength no law then. no holt no field no Water then. no wights no Birds no beauty then. no spirit no soul no Truth then.
nothin then but Wayland, holy in light of his terrible dawn. and Wayland sayin: i am Truth.
and people sayin: i also.
but in deeps of blak ditch, when all is lost, small light begins to shine. always in darkest night light comin to True folk.
far over great Sea, some Birds still flyin. in desert Land of high Sun, where all is hot sand, some Birds flyin still. and these Birds come to men, settled with them and speakin will of great Lady in their hearin. and they spoke to these men, sayin:
much is lost, but not all. we are small light in darkest of times. take this light and hidin it from those who would come. carry it. step bak from people, step bak in to circle of ancestors. for all life is in shape of circle, great Way is in shape of circle, and we will speak to you from Sky in great circle when Lady calls you through us.
now we say: go from this place, step bak from streets and torrs and folk, go to desert and there make circles.
circle your homes with great livin Trees, to shield you from Wayland and his servants. and around these Trees raise images of we who fly above, and we shall bring down Truth to you and through eons you shall carry it until time is come.
for eons you shall suffer for what Man has done, and he you have made shall make you call out and punish you for makin him. but always we shall pass above you, turnin in great circle. and when times are darkest and all is lost we shall speak and you shall bring to pass what will be.
Man, you have played with reason but you know nothin of reasons.
now leave this place and build your Order in desert and always we shall speak to you and those who come after, and if you are true to Way there will come return.
now listen well, children, to these words of old:
when times are darkest and all is lost we shall speak and you shall bring to pass what will be.
this is what Birds spoke to our founders so many eons bak, in desert lands where our Order began. circle they made in sand widened and spreadin over whole Erth. brothers and sisters makin circles in their own lands, circled by Trees, guarded by Birds. now here we stand in this great holy isle that has had so many names. here we stand as wights, as humans, as animals.
here we stand in our bodies as our ancestors did. here we stand with Birds and beasts, full in our flesh and true to Way.
here we stand
here we stand
here we stand
in blood, in hart, in body is life.
in mind, in word, in Machine is deth.
this we know, children, and you speak it well.
but this we know also: we are so few now. when i was girl here i could not count numbers. now we are seven. and you must know we have heard nothin from any others, from any other circles of our Order, for more now than year. we do not know who remains.
and you must know, all of you, what has been seen in holt. you must know of red one, of stalker who walks now outside our circle and closer. we have seen his like before. this last year, we lost so many. now this servant of Wayland thinks to finish us.
but when time is dark and all is lost, Birds speak. and Birds have spoken in Dreamin to our elder yrvidian this night.
yrvidian: rise and tell of Dream.
i am old and tired and ordered to rise and speak of Dream. it is not proper to speak Dreamin in this way but these are not proper times. she asks me to rise and speak. none may defy mother.
i stand. it is hard.
nine hunnerd years ago, it is said, eighteen Swans, great Birds of wonder and beauty, were chained by nek under Tree, by silver mere. Swans were all that remained of ancient race of Birds. in high times of Atlantis they were chained by nek with golden chains, for when those people saw beauty they would chain it and keep it for them selves, though never did they see it.
you here, you children, you have never seen Swan. none has ever seen Swan since high times of Atlantis, since birth of Wayland. but you know story, all of you knowin this.
story tells us: there will be time when change will come, and this time comin in deepest ditch of all things. at time of deepest blak, when all seems gone, when Lady is ready, Birds will speak Swan Dream in to our circles, to all circles of our Order all over Erth.
and when Dreamers see Swans, all will change. You know story, all of you knowin this: say it to me now, speak words.
and they say, neelin on floor of Lady Chappel, together they say:
when Swans return
Alexandria will fall
and i say:
children, this night, i have Dreamed Swans.