In the final scene of the film “The Great Dictator” Charlie Chaplin makes a passionate argument for humanity, and against “machine men, with machine minds.”
The idea that humanity could ultimately be dominated by inhumanity, that citizens would give power to the sort of people who had no regard for actual humans was, at the time, thought of as an argument against totalitarianism. Dictators see citizens as numbers, and will decimate their own nation and others to get those numbers to balance in favor of the dictator’s power. The only suffering that matters is their own, and everything else is a statistic. They don’t see people, they see assets or obstacles.
In the capitalist countries the assumption has always been this sort of inhumanity could never come to power, as the workers are also the customers, and the shareholders will be a broad enough spectrum of individuals and organizations to hold at bay anyone who would get in the way of any politician so inhuman. It would not be good for business.
However this idea did not foresee the rise of Silicon Valley.
With our newest class of billionaires humans are the commodity at best, and an afterthought more often than not. Facebook’s users are not its customers. Our data is its product sold to its actual customers—other corporations, advertisers, and political organizations. And it is the same with most of the search engines, platforms—basically all the internet stuff we think is free. But we all know this.
What I’m saying is that the sort of people who we now have in charge of such a large part of our economy and influence such a large part of our lives are exactly the sort of “machine men” Chaplin warned us about: people who think in terms of numbers to the exclusion of all else. When the CEO of Uber said in an interview that the assassination of a journalist was a mistake, akin to Uber’s self driving car killing someone, the interviewer had to point out that one was an accident and one was premeditated, which the CEO still could not distinguish. All he could understand was that two units had ceased to exist, and all he could comment on was how those two events might impact Uber’s profits and investments. (Members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling class are major stock holders in Uber.)
And remember—this is the good CEO who replaced the bad, mean CEO.
And don’t get me started with Google.
There is something inherent in working so closely with machines that can make any person ultimately become a gear if they are not careful. And there is something about the inhuman precision of software coding that can make a person inhumanly precise if they are not careful. And just as the last person you want running a large non-profit organization like a government is someone who only understands financial profit motives perhaps the last people we want in charge of connecting humans to each other are people who themselves don’t quite get people.
We have let into our lives “machine men with machine minds,” people who see us as statistics. We have given these people power, and we treat them as oracular because they have successfully taken advantage of our desire to connect with each other.
But they are not like us. They do not think like us. And it is a mistake to see them as any more than wacky professors with good haircuts. Wacky, dangerous professors…
I am not saying they are all bad people, but they are a particular type. Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress or Parliament gives examples of someone who simply does not see the problem. He blinks uncomprehending when confronted with questions of humanity. Yes he’s also, apparently, a White Supremacist, but he also doesn’t seem to have any ethics or morals at all. He is a machine man, and the sooner any power is out of his or any of his fellow machines hands the better.
Michael Gene Sullivan
Michael Gene Sullivan is an actor, director, playwright, Guggenheim Fellow, and a member of the never silent, always revolutionary San Francisco Mime Troupe. He describes himself as "Just a guy with a dream ... a dream that involves a whole lotta Capitalists being put in prison."