ask and ye shall receive: the internet provides

The other day, I posted a snippet from danah boyd with a reference I had never heard before – the notion of monkeys v. robots.

I had no idea what she was talking about, and said so. She, graciously, provided an explanation in comments, and just to close the loop for anyone else who was curious, here is the beginning of a pretty fun bunch of links tracing the mythology of monkey v. robot:

The feud between the monkey and robot stretches back so far that neither of them can recall how it started. Somewhat clearer are the reasons why the battle continues: The monkey and robot see themselves as counterposed enemies, destined to be in an eternal struggle over the soul of humanity. The permanence of the fight figures prominently in their philosophy, and they believe it will only end when the world does. People, they believe, have a unique power of freedom of choice, and they each seek to win humanity’s favor.

The monkey looks at the robot and sees a soulless automaton, disconnected from nature, emotion, and hedonistic pleasures. It deals in inscrutable formulas that keep it repressed and divorced from the honest world of existence.

The robot looks at the monkey and sees a base, simple beast, unable to transcend its roots and progress. It is obsessed with biological function and the past, barred from abstract thought and the deeper life that comes with it.

Who isn’t at least a little interested in mythologies – modern or ancient – that deal in dualities? Of course, inherent in all these yins and yangs is the central truth, which is that we are, inevitably, a bit of both. We are disconnected from nature, we are repressed; and we are fascinated by the future, obsessed with abstraction. I think, in particular, people who live their lives through or on or in the internet understand these dueling impulses.

It reminds me of a book I read a few years ago called Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel*. The book is essentially about an AI gone rogue, and the Fool (equal parts entertainer and ship’s shrink) who helps to solve the problem. To say anything more would give away the plot, and I had so much fun reading that book I won’t deprive you of equal pleasure, if you are nerd enough to read it. But it yet again deals with the notion of a computer, a piece of code, gaining sentience and, most importantly, will and deciding to run away and join the circus.

I am forever fascinated by the way the essential struggles and disagreements of our time(s) are often about the tensions of being pulled by modernity and by … let’s say, “tradition.” I’ve been known to, in a political debate, say something like, “(we) have always had to drag (them) kicking and screaming from one century to the next, and we’re going to keep doing it, so they better get comfortable and enjoy the ride.” But while I don’t think it’s untrue, it’s just not very inspiring, is it? It keeps us in the debate, not in the resolution or the progress. It gets tiresome.

Does progress come from us or them, from monkeys or robots, or does it come from hybrids, or does it come from some other entity altogether? I don’t know. But I think it’s worth considering that when we embrace the concept of ideological poles, we have to reckon with the rhetorical and practical consequences. And those are often not pretty.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, this myth does play out at Burning Man.

* [In reading the author’s comments about her book, I think it’s notable in this context that she created a character for this story to address discrimination and intolerance against Muslims in America – a classic occurrence of two ideas of ‘tradition’ clashing under the auspices of modernity v. orthodoxy.]

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