In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf saves his friends from the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. The Balrog is an old and very powerful demon, an offspring of the Dark Lord, and has been awakened by the dwarves’ greed – for they dug too deep. Gandalf makes a stand on the narrow bridge of Khaza-dum and defiantly declares at the Balrog, “You shall not pass!” With the birth of A.I., it seems we have awakened our own Balrog. And we feel we are on a narrow bridge with no choice but to go back, and with no certainty in going forward. Our fate is in the balance.
Our Balrog too is awakened by greed, and our desire for control, and like the Fellowship of 9 persons, who risked being lost forever in Moria, what is best in all of us also risks being lost forever. Let’s not mistake it; A.I. is the awakening of the Balrog and our greed for control has put our fate in the balance. But we are unaware of our need for the moment when we say, “You shall not pass!”
In The Human Person and History in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, I extended Walter Benjamin’s argument of the loss of history and authenticity in the mechanical reproduction of art to the creation of the avatar, whether it be our personas on social media sites or the data-based construction that companies use to exploit us, poses a grave risk to the human individual. Her authenticity is hidden, and we risk living in a world where the authentic individual can never make an appearance. Nearly one year ago I wrote, “We are already in the later stages of the push to inauthenticity.” With the advent of Artificial Intelligence, and on this April Fool’s Day, it is our deepest fear. It is our Balrog.
(A recent A.I. photo [discovered on April 1, 2023]…image credit: https://www.facebook.com/ManShedOfficial/photos/pcb.6425243657538300/6425243427538323/)
(image credit: https://www.pxfuel.com/en/query?q=balrog)
The Sum of all Fears
Recently, the story around the ban of Tik Tok, the social media app that is famous for spreading short-form videos, has focused on the protection of users’ privacy. One story has it that Tik Tok will sell its user’s personal data. The worry is that users will be manipulated.
More directly on A.I., we are already familiar with educators’ worries that Chat GPT and other open A.I. software will, in fact, do the work for learners. As a university professor, I have already seen it myself. In reality, plagiarism has always been common, but the worry now isn’t patterns of plagiarism in particular users; it is that learners in the university won’t know how to do the work at all. As I have argued before, the University’s program has come to advocate mastery, instead of authenticity. And Chat GPT will push mastery to its logical conclusion: One will do well at university if the shortest and simplest route to completing a degree is employed. A.I. has mostly achieved this.
But further, there is the threat to the public realm that A.I. poses. Fake images and the complete falsification of history, where the truth is completely eradicated, is indeed one of the realistic possibilities of A.I., and sources as reputable as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, and al Jazeera have all wondered the same thing. In all honesty, this worry has been around and legitimately worried about since WW2. Hannah Arendt outlined it clearly in her work The Origins of Totalitarianism.
One of the main themes of Arendt’s work is totalitarianism. Her fear, which occupies a central and essential place in all our fears, is that the human experience will be eradicated. Her analysis of the Nazi efficiency in the extermination of the Jews was indeed twofold: that a portion of human plurality would be eliminated and that truth would be lied out of existence. Such are the components of our authentic identities. Along with Benjamin who worried about the loss of authentic art and human history in the age of mechanical reproduction, they both point to the real threat: we are generating a world in which inauthenticity appears like the Balrog, out of the deep, activated by a spirit of greed that has historically evolved. This spirit, which animated the terrible actions of colonialism, slavery, corporatism, and indeed now of Mass Society run amok threatens to destroy us.
What really gets to the sum of all our fears is that we are indeed entering a time of immeasurable inauthenticity. We fear that any and everything that we encounter publicly will deceive and scam us, will exploit and enslave us, and will be used to surveil us in very realistic ways that were only imagined by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Any mediated relationship is threatened by inauthenticity, and its opposite rarely makes an appearance. It isn’t merely, as Walter Benjamin intimated, the work of art that is lost in the age of mechanical reproduction. It might indeed be the entire human experience…
And that is why authenticity matters this April Fool’s Day. We are on the bridge of Khaza-dum, and we don’t even realize it.
(This work was not assisted in any way with the help of Artificial Intelligence [other than the spell-checker]).