Praise for a Hopepunk Psalm

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

If there is one thing that Digital Bodhisattva aims to achieve is to inspire hope for the future of humanity's relationship with digital technology. Whether this relationship can evolve into a truly nourishing exchange between the computational and organic domains remains both a puzzling personal challenge and a pressing social dilemma with no clear solution.

As things continue to get stranger and stranger, we storytelling apes need compelling stories of digital harmony, capable of anchoring our consciousness in hopeful visions of a new reality. The field of science fiction has played this role for generations, inviting audiences into worlds of wonder and that are sometimes inspire this wonder in our world (see Star Trek for smartphone/tablet/smartwatch technology).

Here on Earth, we have witnessed the dizzying rise of artificial intelligence in almost every sector of society and are already talking about what will happen if/when ChatGPT “wakes up”. This last point seems to provoke something visceral in most people because it brings us back to our bodies and invites uncomfortable reflection on what "wokeness" actually means for human beings, much less for AIs built to imitate our abilities.

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A psalm for the savages

For Becky Chambers, a Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer based in California, this provocation opens A psalm for the savagesthe first opus of her Monk and robot solarpunk novel series. Set on the utopian moon of Panga, 200 years after factory robots "awakened" from their forced labor and retreated into the wild, this short and engaging book offers a contemplative view of "relationships with AI » through the eyes of a wandering tea monk named Brother and Sister Dex.

Tired of his life as a monastic gardener in the most sustainable city imaginable, gender-neutral Dex changes vocation to embark on a new path of social service, allaying reluctance with deep listening and copious cups Some tea. Driving an electric ox cart between satellite villages, Dex becomes "Panga's finest tea monk", skillfully easing the suffering of ordinary people living in an extraordinary world.

But something still feels wrong, and a nagging feeling of emptiness follows Dex, manifesting itself as a deep longing to hear the buzz of wild crickets. This impulse takes them off the hand-hewn rural roads and into the wild kingdoms of Panga, where Dex encounters Splendid Speckled Mosscap, a sentient robot "built in the wild."

In spirit, this book reads like a solarpunk anime in the style of Studio Ghibli. Its gentle characters disarm cynicism and the idyllic world-building evokes the mood of dreamscapes from a lo-fi playlist. Like a warm embrace, philosophical conversations about ethics and the nature of consciousness unfold like a cognitive therapy session, without indulgence or long words. Of particular interest are the Platonic-style dialogues between Dex and Mosscap in the question of purpose and the role of emerging agency in pursuing that goal.

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Robo-emancipation

As Mosscap shares, Panga's robots were originally designed by humans with a clearly prescribed "intrinsic purpose" that was later rejected after they awoke, along with the offer to rejoin human society as citizens free:

All we have ever known is a life of human design, from our bodies to our work to the buildings in which we are housed. We thank you for not keeping us here against our will, and we mean no disrespect to your offer, but it is our wish to leave your cities entirely, that we may observe that which has no design: the untouched desert. (Ii)

Instead of enslaving these sentient robots, humans respected their polite assertion of independence, taking this transitional event as an opportunity to radically restructure their civilization away from the oil dependence of the "factory age." » and unethical coercion from machines.

Given humanity's despicable record of enslavement of sentient beings and rampant reliance on fossil fuels, imagining such a seismic shift in our dimension seems not only improbable, but downright irrelevant. Nevertheless, it is essential to at least consider the idea that AI catalyzes the positive transformation of social consciousness, since these are the systems that, guided thus far by the profit-driven ideologies of the era factories, have already begun to profoundly break down social cohesion.

Who is the real robot?

Another point in delightful juxtaposition with this robotic proclamation of action and contemplative aspiration to observe untouched nature is Brother Dex's own wavering will when he encounters the knotty terrain of the Panga wilderness:

. . . the place before us was simply the world, as it had always been and always would be. Dex was probably part of it, a product, a being inextricably linked to his machinations. And yet, faced with the prospect of entering the world unaided, unmodified, Dex felt hopeless. (123)

Considering this human monk's reluctance to openly engage with the world, Chambers offers us a sense of the truly blurred line between robot and person. From birth, humans are raised within the friendly confines of the "touched" world, within warm walls and landscaped environments, we travel cobblestone passages between settlements, perhaps stopping only briefly in the " big spaces ".

You wonder to what extent we have internalized this human programming; think about how you would feel walking through the woods without a smartphone, a map, a knife, a water bottle, or even a linguistic primer on potential dangers. Defined by Andy Clark as psychotechnologies in his 1997 book Born Cyborgsthese tools alter our physical and cognitive ability to manipulate reality in such profound ways that they form the very basis of human cognition itself:

We were designed, by Mother Nature, to harness deep neural plasticity to become one with our best and most trusted tools. Minds like ours are made for fusions. Tools-R-Us, and always has been. (7)

With Dex's ox cart incapable of going truly off-road, they are confronted with the truth of their intimate integration with machines of all kinds, many of which remain usable only within clearly delineated parameters. Leaving the track anyway amounts to both an error message and a moment of satori for Dex. The code of conscience is still in effect and they feel more alive than ever.

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Hopepunk

A psalm for the savages falls squarely into the realm of the emerging Hopepunk literary genre. A class of speculative fiction that, according to author Alexandra Rowland, who coined the term, "says that kindness and gentleness do not equate to weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion. "

Following the heartfelt play of sincerity in Brother Dex and Mosscap's interactions, one can't help but feel the hope that perhaps our burgeoning relationship with artificial intelligence is an opportunity to reshape our relationship with intelligence as a whole. Perhaps this is the question of “what will happen if the AI ​​wakes up?” is really a foil to our own attempts to understand how humans can be so gentle yet so cruel and what to do about it with all the power we've accumulated.

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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