The Promethean Shame and the Obsolescence of Human Beings

Original article was published by Luisa S. on Artificial Intelligence on Medium


The Promethean Shame and the Obsolescence of Human Beings

The “Promethean gap” of Günther Anders

The Myth of Prometheus

In the beginning, as Protagoras told, there were only the gods. When Zeus decided to create living beings, he entrusted two brothers: Prometheus, “the one who sees before”, and Epimetheus, “the one who sees after”. Prometheus was to shape creatures from mud and enliven them with divine fire; then, Epimetheus was to give them the skills and abilities gifted by Zeus. However, since he only had the wisdom of the after, when he came to the turn of the humans Epimetheus realized that he had distributed teeth, claws, sharp eyes, and running speed all to the other animals and he had left men lacking qualities essential to survive. So, to fix the brother’s mistake and try to save humans, Prometheus stole for them the fire of knowledge, gifting humanity with the τέχνη, the ability to manipulate and subjugate nature.

Heinrich Fuger, Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, 1817

The Promethean Shame

In the XIX century, the self-made man’s attitude was prevalent. The “self-made man” is an individual who is born in a poor and disadvantaged condition but, thanks to his perseverance and hard work, he achieves amazing results. He owes everything, including himself, entirely to himself, not to family privileges or any sort of luck. He recalls to us the main character of The Great Gatsby, who rose from a poor childhood to become a wealthy member of Long-Island society, and he is full, according to the philosopher Günther Anders, of “Promethean pride”.

Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby”, 2013, directed by Baz Luhrmann

Instead, the Prometheus of modern days is the son of a victory so triumphal he replaced the pride with the sense of his inferiority. He is a victim of the “Promethean shame”, or the “shame you feel when you are in front of the humiliating quality of the objects you did create”. While we slowly forget how to do things, machines do them for us, and the more we lull in the comfort of being served, the more we lose our pragmatism, our ability, our capacity to predict their impact on our lives. If something I created can do everything I can do, who I am anyhow?

The arguments

Anders predicted most of the arguments he would get when he theorized the “Promethean Shame”. The crucial one is the scepticism about the absurdity of the theory: if we made the machines, we have to be proud of what we made. Anders, instead, found out that the “we”, in this case, is just pure solidarity: we didn’t make the machines, they aren’t the fruits of our labour. They aren’t even the fruits of the labour of scientists and workmen, because their production is a pattern of a lot of individual acts, hence there is no space for pride. In front of the machine, the viewer isn’t proud of what he made, but he’s awed, humbled by the power of the machine itself.

The aurora

In a vision fictionalized and maybe scarcely authentic of the Korean War, Anders saw the right moment when the humiliation started. At the beginning of the conflict, General MacArthur proposed — quivering while holding the atomic bomb in his hands — measures that in all likelihood would instigate the Third World War. Since the General didn’t seem to be able to make such a decision, the best option was to rely on someone else; but anyone, no matter how qualified in a political, economic, or moral field, could take this responsibility. Because of this, it was foisted upon an oracle, an electric brain. The mechanical mastermind was gobbled with all the data about the American and the enemy’s economies, essential for taking the decision, and, after a few seconds of electrical meditation, the machine spat its response: loss-making deal. The bomb wasn’t dropped, the catastrophe was avoided and humanity subordinated itself, by placing the man’s solution under the wish of a machine. In the fictionalized epilogue told by Anders, MacArthur stripped himself of the uniform and set up a production of office machines, the only position in which he could show how he was still in control of them.

General Douglas MacArthur. National Archives via pingnews

The philosophical debate

The world is split in two. On one side, the shame: technology devalues the man, because it substitutes him. Like in a war against the wind, the ones who criticize technology can’t live without it, but also they can’t stop attacking it, because it would mean to concede defeat. On the other side, the pride: machines are proof of the amazingness of the human mind, so we can’t avoid dedicating all our lives, our souls, and our work to them. So, here’s the philosophical debate: the value we give to the machines steals the value from men?

Bibliography

Günther Anders, Die antiquiertheit des menschen, band I: Über die seele im zeitalter der Zweiten Industriellen Revolution, CH Beck, München, 1956