Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

John Foster's review of Bill McKibben's book examining the possibility of the ending of 'the human game' and the declining significance of humans in the face of rising AI.

Book cover of Falter: Has the human game begun to play itself out by Bill McKibben
By Bill McKibben

Published by Wildfire, 2019

This is an extremely interesting book, at least as much for what it doesn’t manage to say as for what it does. Bill McKibben, long-standing doyen of climate activism, brings together for consideration two routes towards the possibly not-too-distant ending of what he calls “the human game” – otherwise known as civilisation, or perhaps the human world. There is the now widely-recognised threat of the Earth’s becoming humanly uninhabitable through anthropogenic global heating, on which he is still as informative, cogent and incisive as you would expect. But also, and less familiarly, there is the prospective draining of human significance from a world dominated by artificial intelligence and shaped by genetic engineering, about which he is thoughtfully (and again, very informatively) worried.

The book’s strong insight is to the effect that the co-presence of these differently-configured dangers within our current overall plight is by no means accidental. McKibben lacks, however, any adequate conceptual framework to explain persuasively what connects them. Consequently, his proposed formula for saving the situation – a combination of solar panels and non-violent protest – appears almost comically helpless in face of the challenges which he so starkly outlines. But his linkage of the two dangers by itself already illuminates prospects for understanding which could promise a much more potent upshot.

Part One of the book, which is about the intensifying climate emergency, contains a lot that is likely to be familiar to readers of this review, although it benefits as against many such reiterations from McKibben’s sharp journalistic eye for the telling detail. Did you know, for instance, that rising CO2 levels appear to be reducing the protein content of plants, with serious nutritional implications for the developing world as well as generally for any prospective transition to a plant-based diet? Or that the average French person has been found to see more photos of lions annually than there are actual lions left in West Africa? Less unexpectedly, perhaps, the reasons offered for our plight are still the usual ones of inertia, human psychology and the short-termism of democratic politics – all capped by the dishonesty of Exxon and other oil giants who knew about global warming but invested in a strategy of deliberately promoting public perceptions of climate science as “uncertain”. This latter intervention has meant, he notes, that corporate greed impeded government action just when regulation was most necessary to give the +2degC trajectory some chance.

These men [the Kochs and their acolytes] happened to be in a place where they could use their power to slow us down precisely at the moment when we needed to speed up, at the moment when one more burst of carbon would break the planet.” (p.127)

The prime villain of the piece, in other words, remains that bogey figure whom we have all got used to hissing, the capitalist billionaire.

Billionaires, of course, if not quite such obviously disgraceful ones, also inhabit Silicon Valley, where their focus is not just on profiting from people’s weaknesses for online promiscuity, crowd-sourced hysteria and cheap abuse, but on developing artificial intelligence, and the digital extension of real living intelligence, as far as the technologies will let them (a limit which is itself being pushed constantly outwards). McKibben’s concern about this is partly to do with the role that may be left for real human beings in a world where the capabilities of AI have come to exceed, and then vastly to exceed, those of a certain range of human intelligence (essentially, our problem-solving ratiocinative capacities). But his main worry is clearly the power which current and new generations of computer programming give us to develop gene-editing techniques and use them to design our descendants. And here we come to one of the book’s key arguments, which is that the widespread acceptance of such genetic engineering would rob the “human game” of meaning.

By this concept of the human game, as already hinted, McKibben intends our complexly- interconnected form of life seen as a set of practices with no point outside themselves:

The sum of the projects of our individual lives, the total of the institutions and enterprises we have created, the aggregate of our wishes and dreams and labours, the entirety of our ceaseless activity…I call it a game because it has no obvious end…and yet, like any game, it absorbs the whole concentration of those involved.” (p.10)

This locution makes an obvious kind of post-religious sense, although he is muddled, at least on the surface, about the rules of this game. At one point (p.17) he says it has none, thus overlooking the conceptual necessity of rules for anything to be a game at all, but he also thinks that the game is going well (which can only mean that it is being played by the rules) “when it creates more dignity for its players, and badly when that dignity diminishes” (p.10). The real significance of the metaphor emerges, though, when he says that  “The human game we’ve been playing …does come with two logical imperatives. The first is to keep it going, and the second is to keep it human” (p.17). Keeping it going is about keeping intact the planetary terrain on which it is played, but keeping it human is about staying within the framing defined by its (overt or implicit) rules. By analogy, football logically requires a flattish pitch of a certain size to be stable for the duration, but also that, for example, the players not come onto this pitch armed with automatic weapons, when – though all matches might then be expected to finish without going to penalties – it would have ceased to be football that was happening. And McKibben sees, uneasily but surely correctly, that a world in which we have not only exported most of our reasoning and decision-making to machines but have also recalibrated our own genetic heritage, would in just the same way have ceased to be a human world at all.

He puts this in terms of how it would feel to be, with full awareness, a genetically engineered individual negotiating important life-stages like adolescence – the inescapable sense that one’s experiences, aspirations and achievements could never really be one’s own, that “every journey of self-discovery would end, ultimately, in the design specs from the fertility clinic” (p.171). But underlying that undoubtedly claustrophobic knowledge of oneself as determined not by the randomness of natural inheritance but by somebody’s plan, is the really deep issue here: that such engineered persons would have been robbed of a kind of relation to life intuited as something naturally and spontaneously informing their being, without which it would be impossible for them to create meaning in the world or purpose for themselves – and such creativity is vitally, characteristically and indispensably human. He is gesturing towards, though not quite capturing, this recognition when he says that “as climate change has shrunk the effective size of our planet, the creation of designer babies shrinks the effective range of our souls” (p.172).

That comparison brings us to what such worries are doing in a book which starts, finishes and remains principally preoccupied with the climate emergency. McKibben has already in fact drawn the essential parallel:

“If the unchecked and accelerating combustion of fossil fuel was powerful enough to fundamentally change nature, then the unchecked and accelerating technological power observable in Silicon Valley and its global outposts may well be enough to fundamentally challenge human nature.” (p.136)

But he does so in a context which introduces one of the book’s major weaknesses. For he is engaged at this point (and through much of his Second and Third Parts) in offering, as a serious explanation of this parallel, the influence exerted on leading entrepreneurs in both domains by the ‘hyper-individualist’ writings of Ayn Rand – an account which patently won’t do at all.

That is not to deny that Rand was and is read and cited by some key suspects. Former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, as McKibben records, credited her books with leading him into public service; for Steve Jobs they were one of his guides in life. But we are talking here about an aggressively minor novelist distinguished only by overweening intellectual pretension, the shrill ‘philosophy’ out of which she assembled her fictions being no more than a comic-book presentation of Hobbes-and-Locke-for-beginners. This material is characterised, insofar as one can bring oneself to sample it, by elementary blunders: for instance, she thinks that from the truth that only individual living things construct value, it follows that the ultimate value for each individual  must be its own continuing life[1] – which is just about as persuasive as the claim that since you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, the real point of eggs must be their breakage into omelettes. Her whole stance on “selfishness as a virtue” is indeed no more than a hugely inflated version of the same howler: since only I can be concerned first-personally with my own interests, my own interests must be the only thing with which I can be really, first-personally, concerned. McKibben more or less recognises this pervasive incapacity – he dismisses the novels, at any rate, as “the kind of writing that appeals to teenagers, or to those who don’t read many books” (p.96). What he doesn’t seem to see, though, is that these callow illogicalities could have been mistaken by otherwise reasonably smart people for profound and original thinking only in a society where there had occurred a decisive, disabling lapse in actively humane intelligence. His book is written in the first place for the US, where this breakdown has been clearest, but now, since the twentieth-century Americanisation of Britain, Europe and then the world, the society in question is also very much our own current civilisation. (Mrs Thatcher’s famous assertion that “there is no such thing as society”, for instance, simply parroted Rand’s ignorant stridency.) And the point is that such a cultural hiatus stands at least as much in need of explanation as do the overt explananda, the climate irresponsibility and computerial techno-hubris, which he is trying to address and to connect up in terms of one of its characteristic products. So when he says that:

a systematic idea about the world emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century, an idea as potent in its way as Leninism had been in the first half…that government was bad, and that productive individuals and their corporations needed to be freed from its clutches” (p.103),

and attributes this idea’s grip to Rand’s hyper-individualist celebration of self-interest, one doesn’t just comment on the absurdity of the comparison (Lenin, though not altogether a nice man, could at least think straight), and one certainly doesn’t say “Right then, what significant contemporary phenomena does that provide us with a basis for understanding?”. Rather, one asks, in the first place: “How on earth – how, in the nature of the collaboratively created human world – could that have happened?”.

McKibben’s promotion of what is so palpably a symptom to the status of a cause here is prompted, as noted, by his desire to identify an ideological motivation common to the capitalists whom he wants to blame for jeopardising the human future in both his areas of concern. And this points us towards the book’s other and much more serious weakness – its ignoring the deep cultural factors beneath the very widespread behaviours which actually enable that jeopardising process. In fact, he gives us some very relevant evidence in relation to one of the two domains, but he wholly fails to recognise its significance:

“The average person now touches, swipes or taps his phone 2,617 times a day. Eighty-seven per cent of people with smartphones wake up and go to sleep with them” (pp.176-7)

“We spend roughly ten hours a day looking at a screen and roughly seventeen minutes a day exercising” (p.177)

“Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 per cent more likely to be at risk of suicide…Three times as many teenagers killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007” (p.178)

What these figures document is very plainly a form of addiction, and Silicon Valley for all its bright piratical audacity would not be in business without the compulsive demand which this kind of warping of the human spirit represents. Such warping cannot be blamed purely on capitalism itself driving a dumbed-down media market, increasingly as that has been happening since the advent of mass literacy. Like any addiction, that sort of pathological attachment to electronic devices must be a dependency-creating substitute for the satisfaction of some powerful need which cannot be naturally met – an attempt to fill a hole which is unfillable because it deepens with each attempt to fill it. Of course, some ‘apps’ are harmless fun or potentially educational (my wife has one which will listen to birdsong, identify what kind of bird is singing and link you to details of its appearance and habits). Interactive maps and satnavs are useful tools, though tending to leave people who have not learnt to read a traditional  map at a loss when they need to do so. But the levels of average usage cited above are not just driven by accessing interesting or useful information, or keeping in touch with the family: they are borne on a tsunami of pseudo-communication with pseudo-friends, pseudo-emotion and pseudo-sex, hysterical pseudo-engagement with ever-multiplying objects of synthetic outrage, and rapidly-intensifying absorption into virtual-world scenarios. We clearly have to look for some weakness or hole in the modern soul to explain how the kind of derangement which McKibben wants to attribute to the leverage of his Randian billionaires could have gained such appalling purchase – and then the relation of addicts to facilitators will be a matter of appetite and supply growing in mutual reinforcement. If we want to grasp what is fundamental here, it is the source of this hole in the soul which needs to be understood.

The explanation via addiction, moreover, suggests a further insight from the parallelism between climate and digital domains, although McKibben himself doesn’t draw this out. For if a deep form of addiction is imperilling our humanity in the digital case, it is surely both thematic and reasonable to suppose that it might be doing so in the climate case as well. We should there be looking at a more general addiction to commodities, strengthened by the market logic of continual restless competitive ‘improvement’ in goods and services which captures the age-old aspiration to material wellbeing for a constant, ever-renewed but always inherently frustrated striving to keep up. (Evidently this plays a role too in relation to electronic devices, although the real roots of dependency here go in a different direction.)  And again, Exxon and the rest, for all their Randian malignity and grossly illicit influence on political decision-making, would be caught astride completely stranded assets if they were not providing the fuel which enables this addiction to go on feeding itself, even while that process means continuing to pump out gigatonnes of carbon pollution, trash the global biosphere and spill pandemic disease across what has hitherto been the zoonotic boundary.

So what does explain the hole in the soul underlying both commodity and computer addiction, and also, at a different level, the disposition to take a Rand seriously? In reviewing a book which does not tackle this question as such, an account in much detail would not be appropriate; but I clearly owe the reader at least an outline sketch of the position from which I am critiquing Falter. What, then, can have gone so centrally and profoundly wrong with a civilisation as to leave it absorbed in the substitute purposiveness of commodities, and obsessed with touch-of-a-button (or swipe-of-a-screen) pseudo-control over its living, even to the extent of threatening both the planetary terrain and the inner coherence of its own humanity? And it is, let me repeat, the strength of this book’s essential insight that we are brought to pose the question in terms of that specific conjunction of dangers.

These manifestations flow, I believe, from a lost instinct for our creative life-dependency – a now very widespread failure of intuitive openness to what one might call the ternary aspect of our nature, which we are otherwise both inclined and tempted to conceive of in purely binary terms – as exhausted by the duality of private subject over against objective world (so that even Rand’s crude caricature of the British Empiricists can appear insightful). This binary picture neglects the third force in human being, the deep living energy sustaining the human world of values and significances. This force is creative because each of us must realise his or her unique individuality through collaborative expressiveness, principally in language; it expresses dependency because what the individual is thus realising is (in D. H. Lawrence’s phrase) his not belonging to himself, his givenness as a manifestation of the general life which informs his life. Or, as Jung puts this vital inner relation epigrammatically: “The psychic depths are nature, and nature is creative life”[2]  A healthy cultural state is one in which ordinary life is lived in some kind of intuitive touch with these depths, but the state of our own civilisation is one of pathological attempted compensation for the massive general failure of such connection. Commodity-pursuit is a self-reinforcing but wholly inadequate substitute for the individual human purpose which we cannot do without; but addiction to flicking through the pseudo-reality made available by digital technology is a substitute for lost human creativity itself, without which we can neither find any robust purpose nor live in a convincingly real world.

The hole in the soul thus opened, and which these closely-related addictions try so unavailingly to fill, is not caused by capitalism and industrialism, though it is powerfully reinforced by them. Nor will any account of consumer insatiability in psycho-sociological terms, as driven by concerns to establish and display comparative status, meet the case[3], for then we should have to ask what could have reduced such basic interpersonal dynamics to a matter of competitiveness over mere commodities in the first place – we are far too habituated to not being startled by the strangeness of this – and the hunt would still be on for some deficiency fundamental enough to explain that utterly reductive focus. It is a deficiency which does indeed lie much deeper than such accounts can reach, and has been accumulating over centuries: contributory factors include the failing credibility of religious framings for these existential issues, the increasingly routine and mechanical nature of work and of daily life, urbanisation and declining direct contact with the non-human world, accompanying changes in attitudes to relations between the sexes and to sexuality itself, the increasing predominance of passive entertainment in the forms of semi-literate fiction, cinema, popular music and the television, and the associated lapse of cultural authority for genuine art as the guarantor and prime exemplar of creativity. As we come up against both environmental limits and those of habitable human sense, we are now confronting the ends to which that whole secular derangement has for very long been tending – ends so potentially drastic that, contemplating them, we must finally cease to ignore their character and the lethal pervasiveness of what is driving us towards them.

The preceding couple of paragraphs plainly offer no more  than a series of promissory notes. But they serve at least to suggest an order of consideration, a register in which to address our plight – complete innocence of which must be what leads McKibben in his book’s final Part to place his reliance on what he calls the twin “technologies” of hope: the solar panel and the non-violent protest movement. These remedies – enablers, respectively, of localised decarbonisation and of general political-systemic transformation – are quite inadequate to a derangement as deeply rooted as I have been indicating. Sadly, his analysis has left him with nowhere else to go, although about both panels and protest he still writes as stimulatingly and informatively as ever. But his faith in them comes down, it is evident, to a determination finally to trust in the saving good sense of ordinary people at large. And big-hearted as such trust might appear, at bottom it is providing him only with another way of not seeing that it is from the cultural, and inseparably from that the literally vital, disinheritance of people at large (or, at large in the West and its imitators), and from the engrained addictions which consequently beset them, that the whole tragic difficulty really arises.

But we, as readers taking critically what he gives us, perhaps can now begin to see these things. We can be prompted, too, to start thinking about how people at large might at last be led – in what will nevertheless be a very painful struggle – out of this desperate condition, and about what must be the characteristics of the vanguard of the life-intelligent and life-responsible whose attempting that leadership is our only remaining hope. The book does us to that extent a tremendous service.

[1] See ‘The Objectivist Ethics’ in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964).
[2]Modern Man in Search of a Soul (London: Routledge, 2001) p.220.
[3] As suggested, for instance, in the Skidelskys’ otherwise very interesting How Much is Enough? (New York: Other Press, 2012).

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