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What do you think of the poem “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”?

This 1967 Richard Brautigan poem has haunted me since I first read it years ago in college:

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

It seems that as I have recently become more deeply interested in Buddhism, it has percolated back into my mind. I thought I would just share it here and ask what your thoughts are from a Buddhist perspective.

  • What does our relationship with computers and technology mean?
  • Could technology play a part in liberation?
  • Does this poem describe dystopic or utopia to you?
  • Does it bring any suttas to your mind?

It reminds me, not of a sutta, but of this interview with Venerable Robina Courtin on teaching karma to Westerners: there’s no God on high handing out rewards and punishments in Buddhism. Karma is natural law. If you want liberation, you have to put in the work yourself. No use blaming anyone else.

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I think our relationship will be what we make it—wholesome or unwholesome. Will we just use it as an instrument for fueling greed, aversion, and delusion? Or will we make smart, beneficial choices? I find often the reality is mixed.

Technology is already playing a role on liberation, though (SuttaCentral.Net :dizzy: for example). Could more developed tools (VR, cybernetic mods, etc.) play a role? Perhaps, but I think it’s just like what I mentioned aboved.

For some reason I get a dystopic feel from the poem itself. There’s this recognition that the modernist industrial project has chewed us up and spat us out, and all we can manage now is to be cared for by the machines we created. Like, we can’t exactly go back to the way nature was, but we can settle for the imitation.

It reminds me of the suttas set in the jungle, but I recognize that that kind of wilderness is on the brink of annihilation.

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Right, I can see why it’s haunting: there’s an odd mix of celebration with … uncanny valley I guess? Like, it sounds great but also is it?

if the machines are watching over us, who is watching over the machines?

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Machines all the way down :turtle:

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I like this idea a lot! I think the Buddha would be down for a world where we have freed ourselves of excessive physical and mental work and more beings have the option to spend their days on spiritual work.

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Watch out that your Utopia doesn’t turn into its obverse.
Will the machines watch over us benignly, or control us maliciously, or just with unthinking disregard?

Actually, my first response to the poem is to feel very uneasy.
When I go into the meadow or the forest, it’s to breath fresh oxygen and sense the chlorophyl. I don’t know what gases computers give off, but I don’t think they’re fresh.

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The poem through ignorance, suggests machines as a substitute for higher beings:

" And in the great community of this cosmos there are brahmans & contemplatives endowed with psychic power, clairvoyant, skilled [in reading] the minds of others. They can see even from afar. Even up close, they are invisible. With their awareness they know the minds of others. They would know this of me: “Look, my friends, at this clansman who — though he has in good faith gone forth from the home life into homelessness — remains overcome with evil, unskillful mental qualities.” There are also devas endowed with psychic power, clairvoyant, skilled [in reading] the minds of others. They can see even from afar. Even up close, they are invisible. With their awareness they know the minds of others. They would know this of me: “Look, my friends, at this clansman who — though he has in good faith gone forth from the home life into homelessness — remains overcome with evil, unskillful mental qualities.”’ So he reflects on this: ‘My persistence will be aroused & not lax; my mindfulness established & not confused; my body calm & not aroused; my mind centered & unified.’ Having made the cosmos his governing principle, he abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is unblameworthy, and looks after himself in a pure way. This is called the cosmos as a governing principle."—AN 3.40

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There is a BBC documentary by the same name you might be interested in. It discusses the failure of neoliberalism and the misplaced belief that technology will solve our underlying problems.

I personally feel the poem skips over the fact that nature is never actually in perfect harmony and is not programed or designed by any one. Also if we are “returned to our mammal brothers and sisters” “free of labors” and Machines of Loving Kindness are watching over us, doesn’t that make us pretty much like children? The Machines make the decisions and we are free of responsibilities. It would be a true technocracy, and not one I would particular want to live in.

I think there is a good chance that the poem is ironic. Reading it that way makes it much more interesting.

Thank’s for posting the poem! I’m glad I’m finally able to add to the conversation. :grinning:

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Hey @Ian! Welcome to the forum… and please do keep posting! :+1: :+1: :+1: :smiley:

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Thank you all for such interesting comments and observations.

After reflecting further on this poem in light of your observations, I find myself fixated on two things: a (possibly ironic?) theistic undercurrent, and a deep simultaneous admiration for and fear of whatever is meant by the word machine.

It seems to me that there is something profoundly un-Buddhist about the idea that we should long for some diffuse but infinite authority, even if that authority is mystically bound up in such seductive imagery as “spinning blossoms” and “cybernetic forests”. I do find myself longing for that, however, there’s no pointing in denying it. I think this kind of feeling is very much at the root of technoutopianism, singularitarianism, and so forth. I myself remain somewhat seduced by those ideals.

As for “machines”… what is a machine? Is it a thing that computes? Noted pain-in-the-neck Stephen Wolfram would have us believe that everything is essentially a computer — in that mindset, there is nothing more natural than computation. But even the most basic kind of empiricism must admit that there are many things that have evolved naturally that look an awful lot like computers: the most obvious example being DNA.

But can “loving grace” (or loving-kindness!) be programmed? Is there a mechanical “hack” to fix our faulty human natures? I’m voting Dhamma, but I better not let myself turn that into a deus ex machina, either.

:thinking:

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Welcome my son
Welcome to the machine
Where have you been?
It’s alright we know where you’ve been

  • Pink Floyd

Non-duality robot at SAND 2017.

:sparkles:

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(I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: in 1980 Roger Waters made the world’s biggest album about how festering resentment and trauma from WWII was turning us into the thing we hate, that nazism was alive and well and rotting the western soul from within. The adults in the room thought it was all a bit much. But I’ll bet that not even he thought the wall would turn out so damn literal.)

Did you ever wonder why we had to run for shelter when the promise of a brave new world unfurled benath a clear blue sky?

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No thank you.

Yet the mechanical invasion of nature has been here for a long time now.

What comes to mind is the disturbing sight of those big yellow machines busily clear-felling old-growth forest.

The noise, the destruction and the heartbreak.

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“I am the slime that comes out of your TV-set …”

  • Frank Zappa

As we are nature, then the invasion out there is actually in here …

People are staring I awe at new images of black holes out there, and think that’s a big achievement for mankind to make such an advanced camera …
But the black hole we all create by using that which look through these two holes in the head and onto this screen, we do not see at all. It’s said that consciousness is light and that we are beings of light, and I like to see myself as light. But how about that I use my attention and send my light into a black screen that eats my light and leaves me drained and disillusioned, and so stuck on this churning black hole-screen that I always come back for more.

We all have a much more advanced camera if we just turn the attentions 180 degrees :slight_smile:

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Blockquote

So I just went on a bit of a tangent with one of the point you brought up :sweat_smile:

I’ll have to look into Wolfram more thoroughly when I have time. He seems interesting, thanks for turning me on to him! From the small amount I’ve read on Wolfram (curtesy of wiki), I’ll put forward two possible weaknesses to consider, in light of his materialist theory of the mind, both stemming from a potentially mistaken perspective.

First: professional deformation, the idea that people who are accomplished specialists in a specific field, skew their world view so that it fits their range of personal expertise. For example, Douglas MacArthur, the revered U.S. General of World War II, argued that the best way to solve international problems was to simply go to war with problematic countries (e.g. China and USSR). Hence the saying, “To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” In the same way, computer scientists tend to reduce all natural processes to that of the functioning of a computer. The tools a person works with, becomes the same tools they use to understand the world, whether or not they are appropriate.

Second: taking a metaphor literally. It’s interesting to note that the idea that the human mind is a byproduct of the mechanical functioning of the brain has been around since at least the 1700’s. But, in those days, the human mind was likened to a mechanical watch. The French physician L. Mettri in L’Homme Machine (1748) described the brain as, “a machine that winds its own springs - the living image of perpetual motion … man is an assemblage of springs that are activated reciprocally by one another.”

Today it is common to compare the human brain to a computer, its neurons and dendrites to that of a motherboard’s microchips and circuitry. Taken as a metaphor, comparing the human brain to a computer works well to a point, but falls short in some areas. For example. human memory can be compared to the memory on a home desk top computer, but if you hold that memory on your desk top is literally the same as the mind’s memory, you run in to problems. The major one being, that memory on your desk top is finite, while the limits of human memory have yet to be determined. People who suffer from Hyperthymia partly lose the ability to forget and remember the countless varied details that make up every moment of their day. People who possess savant syndrome often have an encyclopedic memory. And of course, in Buddhism, there is Ananda, who could recollect thousands of the Buddha’s discourses. In all these cases, no matter how much information is added to their memory, there always appears to be room for more, with no loss of previous information.

Where and how this information is stored is not well understood and does not seem to directly comparable to the finite capacity of computer hardware. So, I think it is fine to use the metaphor of a computer for the mind, but when you take the metaphor literally, you start to run into problems. I would not take either of the above arguments as refuting Wolfram’s materialist views, but rather as interesting points to keep in mind when looking at his perspective.

Here is a cool slide show I found on various metaphors for the mind used in different periods:
http://mechanism.ucsd.edu/teaching/w14/phil151/metaphorsandconceptionsofbrain.pdf

One thing I do wonder about is, when the day comes that computing power is able to simulate an entire human brain, with all its neurons and synapses, when they flip the switch, will consciousness pop out? And, if it isn’t … why not?

We should find out within the next 50 years or so :wink:.

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Being a huge sci fi geek and a Buddhist, I’ve always been a bit disappointed that I’ve never seen any explorations of what the emergence of sentient AIs would mean to our (i.e. Buddhist) understanding of consciousness and rebirth. If we equate sentience with possessing a consciousness, then we’d have to accept a sentient robot as a living being, just like a human or cat. We’d also have to accept that such a robot had past lives, will have future lives, and is capable of attaining enlightenment. What would a consciousness that has a computer as its physical base be like? If their robotic body was incapable of physical feelings, would sensual desire not be a hinderance for them? Maybe a consciousness tied to a robotic brain is less distracted than one tied to a flesh brain? Would they be able to program themselves to jhana?

I wrote a story (well, a comic book script) a while ago about a sentient AI that travels back in time to save humanity from itself by teaching love and compassion. There’s really no reason to assume that sentient robots will always turn out evil and want to kill humanity. Since then, I’ve thought about expanding on that story. Who’s to say that Metteyya won’t descend from Tushita into a robot?

Anyway, I choose to remain optimistic about the impact of technology. I like to think that we’ll one day end up living in a world like that portrayed in Star Trek.

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