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Technology and Science

The Butlerian Jihad: Gatekeepers of Digital Consumption

Boris Bezdar28/04/23 13:341.5K🔥

In 1863, Samuel Butler published his article “Darwin among the Machines.” It raised the fearmongering idea that machines are constantly evolving and will eventually enslave humanity roughly like we had domesticated cattle. It ends with a powerful statement that if we can’t destroy everything mechanical right now in an instant, then it’s already too late, and we’re pretty much doomed as a species:

Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.

Butler further developed this idea in his novel Erewhon, and a century later, Frank Herbert, in his Dune, made a little hommage to the man by calling a human uprising against the machines the Butlerian Jihad.

Herbert mentioned the Butlerian Jihad pretty vaguely—just as a distant lore event that happened thousands of years into the past and led to the formation of a current socio-political order of the Dune’s universe. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson gave it more focus by expanding the Dune bibliography in the most unoriginal way possible—writing a bunch of prequels.

In The Legends of Dune, they explain that the Butlerian Jihad happened not inherently due to the machines but, as it always happens, due to human mismanagement. A small privileged group of people decided to use humanity’s dependence upon and reliance on computers for more power and wealth, eventually screwing up by giving up all of the control into the hands of the powerful AI.

My goal isn’t to speculate whether or not this is the path that we as a species have chosen to take with everything that’s happening in the tech world right now. It’s a subject with too wide of a scope for my pretty limited expertise and intelligence. I want to focus on the consumption of art—or any cultural text, to be precise. For the changes that happened here are at least alarming, and in the worst case, we can all start preparing pitchforks and sledgehammers.

Two constant satellites of art consumption since the dawn of time—gatekeeping and guiding—never constructed a straight dichotomy. They are a spectrum of sorts. While gatekeeping deprives audiences of consumption (like organized religion that tries to keep its holy texts esoteric), guiding tells them what to consume (for example, basic education that decides what works of literature every pupil has to read). Museums, then, are somewhere in the middle there, denying art from its original cultures and guiding other cultures to consume it—that is, being gatekeepers for some and guides for others.

Mechanical reproduction contributed to severe changes—the spectrum shifted away from gatekeeping. As per Walter Benjamin’s widely known essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” devaluation of the art object changes the way art is perceived, leading to its politicization—basically increasing the value in exhibiting art, shifting it from private collections to the public sphere. Digital reproduction accelerated the changes in consumption up to a rather peculiar state—the oversaturation of every possible niche devalued a piece of art almost entirely, but the consumption itself remained (and even became more than ever) ritualistic.

A brief period of radical democratization ended with the return of reliance on guides. So massive and saturated had become a stream of new creations that while the public had access to most of them, they needed the assistance of the chosen few to find diamonds in the rubble. Popular critics—the tastemakers—became influential as never before. But as time passed and markets grew, the ever-flowing stream became tough even for the tastemakers to cover fully. New, more democratized platforms led to the de-elitization of the tastemaker position—influencers became more pluralistic and less professional, giving attention to obscurities and even kitsch.

Eventually, even the guiding niche became oversaturated to the point that it lost any meaning, especially when digital reproduction itself achieved almost god-like power with the help of the cloud. Streaming and strictly digital marketplaces began to grow and eventually developed their own systems of tastemaking and attention-gathering. Some of those were based on vox populi (Steam reviews, for example), while others embraced the almighty algorithm (Spotify, Netflix). Both systems have resurrected the ghost of gatekeeping.

Review-based systems are, unfortunately, inherently flawed when mismanaged, and most of the big platforms are horrible at managing them. Extremely vulnerable to machinations, like review bombing, such systems may be used by bad actors as a pretty effective means of gatekeeping. Seeing a game with mostly negative reviews, how many potential players would click away from the page instead of diving into the intricacies of possible discourse around said game? The most, I suppose.

Recommendation algorithms are even more vile. They pose as strictly personal recommendations specifically for each user. Moreover, because they are completely automated—devoid of human subjectivity—they present themselves as the undoubtful vector of the user’s taste. In this case, the thing that wasn’t recommended should be avoided. Therefore, algorithms are shapeshifters—gatekeepers dressed as guides, like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their ideal user—a target audience they are self-improving to eventually capture—is a passive passenger who will trust the algorithm wholeheartedly and never even use the “search” option.

There is also another tastemaking system that is based neither on reviews nor on algorithms. It’s not even made to recommend or guide—these were never its intentions. Xbox Game Pass is one of these systems—a strictly access-based one, the modern zenith of consumer passivity. Over 100 games for just $15 per month is a really good deal! But out of all, this system is probably the most gatekeeping one, actively limiting the user’s options and fully controlling the scope of their choice. Consumer taste and actual preferences lose their meaning under such circumstances, but it makes navigating through the oversaturated oceans of gaming content much easier.

Gatekeeping side of the spectrum is a dangerous one. Unlike guiding, which is inherently optional, gatekeeping is a form of violence. It manipulates you, it limits you, it devoids you of agency even if it presents itself as a quality-of-life improvement and feels comfortable in practice. Worse than that, it transfers your agency toward a small privileged group of people—those with resources to arbitrate reviews, tweak algorithms, and decide what remains out of the bounds of your subscription-based content bundle. It’s just a matter of time before they completely screw everything up.

Machines themselves aren’t the problem—hierarchies are. When there are hierarchies, there are also small privileged groups of people that tend to screw up horribly with disastrous consequences for everybody else. Therefore, our pitchforks and sledgehammers should be used to dismantle hierarchies and not destroy machines. Furthermore, machines may assist us in our Butlerian deeds.

This is an additional argument in favor of piracy. Of course, it’s a purely theoretical one, and I discourage everybody from the slightest thought of pirating something, especially if it’s an old game with a perfectly working emulator. Piracy is—again, theoretically—a return to a primeval condition of the art consumer: full agency on intention, choice, and effort—whether this art piece is worth the risks and all the work needed to pirate it safely? Minimum gatekeeping and not so much guiding—this lack of superstructure is extremely liberating.

With enough userbase, it is—theoretically—possible to shake the status quo once again, democratizing the digital landscape and crumbling some vertical towers on the way. Perhaps we can make this small privileged group more cautious and reluctant to give too much control to destructive systems. Perhaps we can avoid Butlerian Jihad and, most importantly—all the suffering that led to it and all the suffering it spawned.

But as Butler said, if it’s impossible under the current state of affairs, and we’ve got too used to the comforts of Steam, Spotify, Netflix, and Game Pass, then the mischief is already done, we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.

Originally published at bezdarbor.com

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