Ingrid Burrington, Living With Our Daemons
Saint Anthony Tormented By Demons, Martin Schongauer, ca. 1470-1475
When Elon Musk described artificial intelligence as "summoning the demon" in the fall of 2014, the tech press responded with derision, scolding, and anxiety. Musk, according to the takes, didn't fully understand the technology and foolishly chose to invoke a metaphor - a metaphor that was not merely inaccurate but also dangerous, encouraging continued misunderstanding, fear, and hatred of technology by the common folk.
But our lives with computers are and have always been rife with so-called dangerous supernatural influence - software wizards walking us through installations, devices that are expected to "automagically" know our needs before we articulate them, and, yes, with demons. Or more specifically, with daemons. A term used to describe what amount to background processes performed by operating systems (later backronymed to Disk And Execution MONitor) emerged from MIT's Project MAC in 1963, as an explicit reference to Maxwell's demon of the 1870s. Daemons are fairly mundane pieces of operating systems, rarely seen by most users but crucial to making sure lots of things work and keep working.
Fixating on this word choice will, no doubt, draw the ire of Unix sysadmins for whom daemons are not metaphors but entirely real, but let's just run with it. While the choice of daemon over demon is to some extent a poetic accident of history, but it's one that offers a reminder of the constant struggle for the meaning of our metaphors, which are perhaps neither dangerous nor foolish but simply powerful, and never without context.
The concept of daemons in ancient Greek culture began as, essentially, mostly benign spirits - creatures beyond this world who could be called upon for various supernatural purposes but that weren't in and of themselves particularly good or evil. The Western conception of demons that Musk cited emerged in part from early Christianity's efforts to distinguish itself from its pagan critics. Even if a daemon was essentially benign or even helpful, it existed outside of the domain of a one true God, and therefore the domain of sin and damnation.
Demonology requires a theology that can fear, condemn, and ultimately defeat it.The past year has seen some remarkable invoking and inventing of demons, and while this is supposed to be a short text about magic and machines it is hard to speak today about contemporary demonologies without facing Darren Wilson's demon summoning. His grand jury testimony was a narrative not of a 6'4" armed police officer facing an unarmed teenager but of a child facing an unspeakable monster: "He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that's how angry he looked." (State of Missouri v. Darren Wilson, Grand Jury Volume V, September 16, 2014, p. 225) Wilson's invocation and the support he received from cops throughout the country demonstrated the lengths that law enforcement in America will go to convince itself that it is a victim in a society it dominates.
A funny thing humans do when they have some form of power (be it the power of a police badge and a gun, a multi-billion dollar fortune, or, say, a massive military-industrial defense apparatus) is they'll convince themselves that they have none, especially in the face of that which is beyond their containment or comprehension. We're really good at this, at summoning demons where there are mostly humans, at insisting we have no control over our circumstances, over our killing machines, over contemporary hells often of our own making.
So many of the tools we love, use every day, and hope to gear towards emancipatory ends began as instruments for making killing more efficient and control more effective. These devices will continue to exist, and we will have to continue to live with them, and we will have to decide how to work with them. Living honestly among daemons means never being sure if they're on the side of angels or demons--because they are neither, really. To live with the uncertainties and ambiguities of machines and systems demands a different kind of magical theology, one that lets us live with our daemons.