Guests in the machine

It may have been a clumsy, obvious plot device, but the deus ex machina, god lowered upon the scene of a Greek tragedy to dispense justice, was at least a reminder that there were other forces at work in a brutally hostile world. After several more centuries of genocide, disease, starvation, and warfare, we were left with the ghost in the machine, not quite soul and certainly not divine, whose only contribution to an otherwise mechanical universe was its awareness of its own pitiful ruminations on its troubling but ultimately trivial predicament. In more recent times, we shed even that vestige of our spirituality, preferring to fashion ourselves in the image of cogs, servomechanisms – human resources, nondescript except for employee ID, columnized and tallied as expenses, not even assets.

The technology boom, despite being hailed as the dawn of a more humanitarian epoch, simply continued the trend. In floor upon floor of cubicles, short walled mazes resembling the remaining ruins of many an ancient city, remarkably creative people with (then) remarkable skills reincarnated deus in DOS. The software applications they built, ghosts in a new breed of machines, let us circumvent time, space, cultural differences, geography, and yes, even people to accomplish our tasks faster and with less expense. In one of the painful ironies of the late 20th century, academics and engineers debated whether we could create computers artificially intelligent enough to replace humans, oblivious to the fact that “the code” had already done that.

As many a current job seeker has discovered, we are the apps we know rather than our skills and abilities. HR job descriptions are often written so that only the incumbent could meet the requirements, not because HR is oblivious to the fact that companies do things differently with different tools, but because they are hiring software. Workers are merely instances of classes in some Great Object Library: hire us, call us, give us input, accept our output, deactivate us. Standardized curricula in colleges and professional certification programs ensure that we all use the same methods and interfaces. The increase in the number of full time moderately reimbursed “temp” workers in fields that used to be long-tenure and high pay is just another symptom of our modularization.

Neither gods nor ghosts, neither physical nor ephemeral, we are momentary presences that transact and then exit the stage, actors and agents in a cosmopolitan use case yet pitifully ignorant of the overall design. Guests in the machine, in machines within machines, we eke out our virtual existences, staring at windows without any view, and dispensing our words and thoughts and visions and Like votes into ever faster and smarter technotoys. With all due respect to McLuhan, it is not the physical medium but the machina, the logos in the techne, that is the message. It is also the idol, the model, the opiate, and, quite possibly, the final arbiter of the value of its creators.

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