Machine-Created Culture: Abdication

human
Image: becominghuman.ai

We did this to ourselves. Humanity’s core set of needs include: food, water, protection from the environment (i.e., clothing and/or shelter), survival of the species. A fifth core need must be included: creativity, which includes both exploration (inside and outside the self) and making things. We fill all of these needs with technology: a stick becomes a club becomes a projectile. While technology can assist in resolving the needs of the species (or a community or an individual of the species), they also create their own set of problems, which were not part of the initial need being addressed. The technology’s materials must be sourced. Sometimes the technology fails. Sometimes technology used by some people is better than technology used by others, and that desire for the better technology creates conflict. That conflict can be interior to the self (“I wish I had that technology”) as well as exterior in the form of aggression (espionage or theft). Need precipitates the desire to fill that need, and the morality of the individual or group dictates how that need is met. If a community needs water, it can wait for rain, use the water it has conserved, borrow water, steal water, or create technology that either manufactures or transports water. This is only have of the solution, bringing the water to people. The need is only met once a person drinks the water, which requires its own creativity and technology: use a hand, a straw, a found vessel, a made vessel.

Sometimes creators of technology are its principal users: I’m cold, so I build a fire. Sometimes creators of technology are both users as well as providers for others: this region gets cold; people need warmth; some people know how to distribute heat through technology; other people are willing to pay for access to that technology in order to keep warm through the ingenuity of others. Because most people live as part of a community, there is a division of labor between makers and users of technology, and the things that technology provides in order to meet the five core needs. Over time, the population of users of any technology far outnumbers that of the makers, which creates a co-dependency: users require heat, and makers require resources in order to keep the proverbial fires lit. When technology scales upwards, makers require more resources to keep an increasing population of users warm. By this time, most users abdicate responsibility for warming themselves, becoming reliant on the technology to do it for them, which in turn leads to the technology dictating human behavior.

Fast-forward to 2018. Because this is a games archaeaology blog, let’s use a games example. I like to play games. Games satisfy several of my core needs: they provide a creative outlet, but they also provide a way for me to make a living, something that satisfies many of the other needs. But the games themselves also dictate my behavior. I would like to be talented enough to create a new AAA game like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. I can’t so I have to rely on Ubisoft to make it for me. I pay $60 for the game, much of which Ubisoft converts into other game-making resources (staffing, technical infrastructure, manufacturing, distribution, etc.). I need to work to save money to buy the game. I need to update my own computer hardware in order to play the game. When I get stuck on a puzzle in the game, I need to turn to a community of strangers online for assistance, or to a network of friends who I have solely for gameplay. Because of the game, I have something to write about. I occasionally buy game-centered merchandise. I adjust my sleep and vacation schedules for when new games come out. Instead of being in charge of these parts of my life, I have abdicated them to a video game and the technology on which it runs, and on what created it. Those personal interactions I have because of the game create a culture centered on the game, something played on technology with communication facilitated by technology. When an update drops, I adjust my behavior to allow for its download and installation. When servers go down, I am left with unanticipated free time usually filled with disappointment in not being able to play. I abdicate my emotional health because of the promise of entertainment withheld by my computer, my console, or a remote server somewhere in a farm of other servers maintained by people I will never know. Franchises such as Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider and World of Warcraft create their own markets with films that also command my time and resources, as well as other merchandise and events also derived from content inherited from machines. This is machine-created culture.

While it is true that humans are on the other side of this, they are also unable to escape the machine-created culture they helped create. In order to provide this digital content to meet their own core needs, they rely on acquiring and deploying resources for their technology, are dependent on the market needing that technology, and their own actions are dictated by this technology required for creation, distribution, and maintenance of that content. The machine-created culture supersedes both makers and users, trapping them all under a dome of electricity. And even if I choose not to play a particular game, its culture still pushes itself on me and affects my behavior. This could be as simple as hitting the Mute button on my television remote when an ad for a game I’m not interested in (or am sick of seeing) comes on. My reaction is prompted by technology, and that brief moment of digital displeasure makes me do something else, or I just sit there on the couch scowling for thirty seconds until the ad ends, my mood shifted by a machine.

Some games are notoriously buggy, or are so large and complex that they push a user’s hardware to the limits. This bugs and system requirements often require fixes or often byzantine workarounds again prompted by the machine in order to get things to work so that a user’s needs are fulfilled. We do things we never thought we would, things that when viewed out of context would appear to be just silly, pulling our hair out in frustration fighting with a box of wires in order to access something that doesn’t care about us at all yet satisfies the need for endorphins all the same. The machines make us do it. And we do it to ourselves.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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