The Age of the Android: More Machine Than Man

I am not a techy-type and I never thought I would do it, but I did—I took the infernal trouble of customizing my cellular telephone’s ringtone. With tongue in cheek, but not without symbolic intent, I programmed my phone to emit the sound of Darth Vader’s ominous breathing for every incoming call. Though people start and smirk when it goes off in my pocket publicly, a blushing circumstance I did not entirely anticipate, it is not entirely a joke. It is the sound of a technological terror, to use Vader’s words for the Death Star, in the age of the android.

Though I am unwilling to take things like Star Wars—or cell phones, for that matter—any more seriously than they deserve, I am not unwilling to categorize with some seriousness the relationship between things like cell-phone culture and the cosmic war for the stars. Insofar as they both promise human fulfillment, they are diametrically related. But man will only win the war of existence and ascend to the love that moves the stars as a man, and not as a machine. The mechanical respiration of Vader is a warning (albeit a light one) to remain vigilant, to remain unfettered by the machine, a circumstance rare to find nowadays, for ours is the age of the android, where people are more machine now than man, as Obi Wan Kenobi said of Vader.

Though the present times—unlike those a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—do not boast light-speed cruisers or laser blasters, never has the android come so strangely and pervasively into actuality. An “android” is a mobile automaton or synthetic organism with humanoid appearance and behavior. So, though “android” is applied technically to machines with human characteristics, it is of cultural interest to apply the term to humans with robot characteristics. (In the application should also arise cultural concern as well.) Is it inaccurate to call an “android” any being who is entirely reliant on mechanics? Is it incorrect to consider an “android” anyone so integrated with technology that the latter is a means of functionality? There is a tethering to machine technology in present day humans that is absolutely akin to an android reliance on systems. The android is come, and come with a vengeance.

Wallet, keys, phone. We have all heard it, even experienced it ourselves. To be without your cell phone is, for some, to be lost, to be naked, to be powerless. Prevalent dependence upon wireless devices is almost akin to a type of life-support—and certainly a lifestyle-support. Many people, if not most people, have developed such a reliance on their smart phones, both physical and psychological, that they have become an indispensable appendage for daily operations. I referenced Darth Vader before in jest, but is not a far-fetched thought that it is only a matter of time before machines are actually integrated into the human body, like Vader’s, bringing about an even newer age of androids: beings whose existence and behavior is absolutely inseparable from technology. Even today, the way people rely on and resort to Google, satellite signals, and other interface devices, it is only too clear that the process of becoming more machine than man is well underway.

Granted, all of these gadgets are tools—they have their proper uses and are not intrinsically perverse. But it is in the abuse, including overuse, that perversion arises. Though overuse is abundantly manifest on any street corner, what is curious is that there is a type of complacency or satisfaction in handing more and more of the reins of everyday life and living over to the machines. As it stands, human life is intensely automated and programmed. Convenience and connectivity have been upheld to the point where basic human functions—such as original thought, witnessing a striking moment, memory itself, and silent contemplation—have been compromised and all but delegated to the tools that pose as comparable if not higher substitutes to God-given faculties. Man has willingly become an android, and his behavior under submission is in itself something mechanical.

A large cause of the android age is that there has really not been much argument or assessment about the shift to automation and robot-like support. Technology always seems to get a free pass. Has anyone posed the question, “Are we sure that we as a society want to effectively abolish things like books, handwriting, memory skills, directional sense, sound planning, interpersonal communication, and everything else that will be lost with the proliferation of artificial-intelligence devices?” In the circles that count, there are no such questions and no such debates. Instead, society takes it for granted that if some new-fangled technology is new-fangled it must be better, and should be inserted into the lives of consumers immediately.

As Luke Skywalker said in the latest Star Wars installment, “This is not going to go the way you think.” Very true; but the problem is, no one seems to have had much of a thought about how this is going to go to begin with. Even though androidism has actually become something to be wary of (as my phone warns), its rise does not change the principles that can confront it and combat it. American psychologist B. F. Skinner wrote, “Physics does not change the nature of the world it studies, and no science of behavior can change the essential nature of man, even though both sciences yield technologies with a vast power to manipulate their subject matters.” Very true, again; but the truth of nature, both the terrestrial and human, can still claim their place in the work of salvation. But they must be chosen and given the chance to resist the age of the android.

Many Catholics recognize and readily admit that the electronic tools and toys that crowd for a place in their lives interfere with their relationship with God with that pernicious ever-readiness to fill up a quiet moment. We are, after all, children of God and not cyborgs. As distractions and interlopers, lifestyle technology renders prayer and spirituality more difficult or less frequented. What is even worse, these devices are usurpers of the identity and capacity of prayer and spirituality—they are literally making us into machines rather than men. We are a plugged-in people; obsessed with technology in some form or another—while God is in the silence. Distraction is the device of the devil—distracting us from our God and ourselves with our devices, and making our very lives depend upon it.

People have been manipulated by machinery only to become slaves, even sons, to their own creation, making it harder to establish a link with their own Creator. Man has allowed his life to be formed and defined by his tools instead of using his tools to form and define the world in accordance with the good life. The result is that we are more machine now than man. But the war is one for the stars and must be fought with a new hope, as American mathematician Norbert Wiener reminds us:

The future offers very little hope for those who expect that our new mechanical slaves will offer us a world in which we may rest from thinking. Help us they may, but at the cost of supreme demands upon our honesty and our intelligence. The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.

 Oscar Wilde once wrote, “On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.” Witnessing the people of the future enslaved as they are to their machines, I cannot help but wonder where the world will fall next. We are the age of the android. Like Vader’s ventilator, the machines are all but breathing for man. But it is not too late to look on the world, for once, with our own eyes.

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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