Recently my daughter-in-law1 posted on Facebook a link to “5 Reasons to Date a Girl With an Eating Disorder” with horror and disbelief. She hoped it was meant as humor but feared it was not. I clicked on the site and read the author’s reasons: bulimia improves a woman’s overall looks, makes her less costly to date, makes her fragile and vulnerable, implies she comes from a wealthy family with access to ready money, and makes her better in bed because of that same fragility and vulnerability.
My reaction, posted in a Facebook comment, was: “Seriously, each of these reasons treats a woman as if she were some sort of accessory to the male lifestyle. You might hear such reasoning applied to a new car: looks good, holds its value, low maintenance, good gas mileage, great performance. …” The author of the web posting wasn’t just treating a woman as if she were an object. You can do that simply by looking at a pretty woman in high-styled makeup and a gorgeous dress in the same way that you would look at a beautiful vase. This author was going beyond the casual look of appreciation to categorizing a certain type of human being and his relationship with her in a utilitarian, mechanistic way.
Something in all this struck a sore spot with me, a natural aversion that I have carried since childhood. It comes out whenever I encounter modes of thinking that treat human beings—those wonderfully unique, growing, aspiring, yearning, achieving focuses of potential, who are born out of complexity, half animal, half angel—as simple, utilitarian modules, as undifferentiated nodes in a system, as meat machines.
As stated elsewhere, I’m a great fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune books as an act of imagination and vision.2 However, his far-future, galaxy-spanning society was shaped by a single event in its distant past. After the rise of thinking machines and automation nearly wiped out humanity by coddling the human spirit almost to death, a war took place—the Butlerian Jihad—with the clarion call “Thou shalt not create a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” In the Dune worlds, the surviving human beings have learned to take on the functions of higher-order reasoning and projection that computers had once performed. Human beings were forced to become machines in service to others—Mentats—but with the particularly human characteristics of free will and choice.
Interesting as that backstory was, I personally have no problem with our current technology and its drive toward robotics and cybernetics. I believe advanced machines will facilitate, rather than hobble, the intellectual and emotional power that is innate in human beings. Advanced machines and the science in which they are embedded will enable humans to see the universe in all its complexity, study our bodies and our minds more deeply, achieve greater social goals, solve persistent problems, and free individuals from the daily grind of mechanical work and poverty. I really can’t imagine human beings becoming so swaddled and smothered by over-helpful machines that we give up our human intelligence and the will to go on living.3 But then, we aren’t quite there yet.
Instead, I see us as still living with the legacy of social structures under which human beings have coexisted for millennia with only the simplest of machines: the wheel, the lever, the wedge. In such societies, if there was a wheel, then someone had to be told to turn it; a lever, and someone had to pull on it; a wedge, and someone’s muscles had to push it to split wood or plow a field. For 4,800 years of recorded human history, up until about the 18th century and the invention of the steam engine, human beings—along with draft animals and natural forces like falling water—provided the only motive power in any society. And in many industries still today, from picking peaches to assembling iPhones and iPads, human beings are treated as meat robots whose backs, brains, and hands are chained to the simple machines they operate.
We still have the tendency, even in developed societies, of treating other people as convenient machines. The habit is strongest in the author of the “5 Reasons” website, who sees women as accessories and—to quote from a recent James Bond movie—“disposable pleasures.” But that habit also lurks behind the assumptions of every personnel professional and union organizer who sees factory workers as interchangeable parts. It echoes in the language of every sociologist who studies society as if it were a vast machine and people functioning as the cogs within it.
And so, with the blindness of the fanatic, the rigidity of the fundamentalist, and the carelessness for consequences of the social reformer, I want to launch my own jihad, the Thomassian Jihad. And my clarion call will be “Thou shalt not reduce a human being to the likeness of a machine.”
Human beings are not machines any more than beautiful women are fragile vases, or flowers and butterflies exist as the basis for pretty pictures. The reality is more complex, mysterious, engaging, and personal. The reality must be granted its power and purpose, its unseen web of relationships, its ability to grown and change. A human being is not a thing but a spark of unknown potential in play with all three phases of time—past, present, and future. A human being belongs only to him- or herself.
The Thomassian Jihad attacks all forms of human ownership, from race and wage slavery to sexual trafficking. It attacks all social and economic theorists, from Plato to Marx, who would reduce human beings to simple, malleable productive or consumptive units and treat the mass of human beings as social clay from which to mold “more perfect” societies. It rejects the modern idea of marketing, which reduces the universe of human desires to simple, predictable “needs” and “demands.” It rejects all methods of productive coercion, from the assembly line to productivity enhancements and time-and-motion studies, which reduce human will and creativity to simple, predictable actions. It rejects all scientific reductionism—even for the purposes of study—from Skinnerian behaviorism to neurological assessments, which treat the complexity of human interactions as simple, stimulus-response mechanisms. It attacks all principles of hierarchical dominance, from traditional views of marriage to modern states and corporations, where one person may take the humanity of another for granted.
Humans are unique and remarkable beings, arising out of complex and irreproducible neural networks, exercising autonomy and free will, able to recall and learn from the past, anticipate and build for the future. We are the first animals—with the possible exceptions of elephants, whales, dolphins, and some of the higher primates—who are able to escape the ever-present now of time.
The Thomassian Jihad transcends all politics of either the right or the left. It declares that human beings are not to be treated as parts of a whole, cogs in a machine, counters in a political game, or units in a larger functioning entity such as a society, a nation, a factory, a church, or a brothel. Humans must be treated individually and their unique qualities, abilities, intentions, and desires taken into consideration in any relationship or exchange.
The Thomassian Jihad envisions a time when any repetitive, unthinking, operationally directed task can be done better, faster, and cheaper by a machine. By using actual machines to do this work, we will free human beings to do what we do best: create, imagine, dream, strive, seek.
The Thomassian Jihad envisions a time when human labor of muscles and minds will be directed toward and invested only in objects of love. It promotes the creativity and imagination of a painter or sculptor to make a never-before-seen image, a composer to make a never-before-heard melody, a writer to make a story within his or her own unique vision of the world, a chef to make a meal to delight the human senses, a cabinetmaker to build a unique piece of furniture that satisfies the human touch and serves a human purpose, or an engineer to investigate a human need or problem and create an actual machine to serve it. Human effort must be prized as a special type or work, above what can be made by rote or by a machine.
The Thomassian Jihad is the struggle for the individual human spirit. Come and heed my call.
1. Truth in advertising: she is actually the wife of my wife’s second cousin. But we helped raise him when he was orphaned as a boy and think of him as our son. What’s thicker than blood? Family!
2. See The Dune Ethos from October 30, 2011.
3. We may all be deeply involved with our iPhones, iPads, and computers and entranced by the connections they enable. But we are simply connecting with people located in another place and time, rather than standing before us. None of us has lost the ability to eat, talk, or move. Human beings used to go into a similar trance when engrossed in a book. Civilization survived.