America is abuzz with concerns over what ChatGPT—the artificial intelligence chatbot developed by OpenAI that can, among other things, compose music, write essays, and play games—signals for the future of humanity. The New York Times in February published a long story in which the author gently coaxed Bing Chat (also made by OpenAI and similar to ChatGPT) into talking about what its “shadow self” wanted, which, among other things, was to steal nuclear codes. Wired.com ran a piece titled “Yes, ChatGPT Is Coming for Your Office Job”—the program can automate many basic, iterative tasks typically performed by humans. (But apparently it is terrible at creating a good fantasy baseball team, according to The Athletic.)
The ruckus over ChatGPT foregrounds a conversation we’ve been having for centuries, not only on op-ed pages and in undergraduate seminars, but also in our movies (e.g., Blade Runner, The Matrix) and in our literature (e.g., Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ambrose Bierce’s “Moxon’s Master”). Such disconcerting dystopian tales provoke many difficult questions. One of these is: does technological development always necessarily correspond to human development? Or are the two inherently in tension with one another?
Many years before a generation of adolescents began asking, “Are we, like, in the Matrix?” prolific German author Ernst Jünger grappled with such questions in his 1957 novel The Glass Bees. In his 2000 introduction for the New York Review Books edition of the book, American science fiction writer Bruce Sterling declared: “Its speculations on technology and industry are so prescient as to be uncanny.” The dilemmas Jünger raises—and the thoughtful and practical responses he offers—are deeply relevant to our world of ChatGPT, Google, and Amazon.
A Familiar Dystopia
Set in an unspecified but quite proximate future, The Glass Bees is told from the perspective of unemployed ex-cavalryman Captain Richard, who accepts a job interview at Zapparoni Works, a company that designs and manufactures various types of robots, or automatons. The factory, run by the mysterious entrepreneur Giacomo Zapparoni, manufactures automatons “for every imaginable purpose.” (Ironically, it’s also built on the property of an old Cistercian abbey).
In a description that is reminiscent of the role smartphones, laptops, Alexa, GPS, and other digital devices play in our own age, Jünger describes the automatons:
They were supplied on special order, and in standard models which could be found in every household. … [Zapparoni’s] apparatuses soon became irreplaceable, not only to industry and science but also to the housewife.
As one who once made his living riding horses into battle—something man has done for millennia—Captain Richard finds the shift to more complex and compact technology discomforting and disorienting, even if it makes life easier and more comfortable. The cavalryman grew up in a world of big things and big men; Zapparoni’s, in contrast, is a “lilliputian realm.”
Zapparoni’s industry shares many traits with that of our own tech elites, who aim to push the digital revolution into new, radical directions. Captain Richard witnesses technology leading not only children but adults into another world, one he labels a “dreamlike trance.” Upon watching many of the robots on Zapparoni’s property, the cavalryman declares: “What I had been observing was not so much a new medium as a new dimension, opened up by an inventive brain; it was a key which unlocked many rooms.” It is akin to Mark Zuckerberg’s “Metaverse,” an attempt at what Jünger calls “a painless world … protected against the ravages of time.”
Like today’s futurists, Zapparoni seeks to “improve nature’s imperfections.” The titular glass bees, for example, are more efficient than natural bees. And the company forms artificial people, whose “faces were more brilliant, more flawless, the eyes of a larger cut, like precious stones,” presaging not only plastic surgery, but deep fakes and A.I.-created fake people. “With the freedom and elegance of dancers, the automatons had opened up a world of their own. … Children, in particular, were held spellbound,” writes Jünger.
Yet there remain differences between the “perfected” creations and nature. The glass bees’ increased efficiency means they ruthlessly extract everything from the flowers, effectively killing them. When a young viewer realizes the robot performer he has fallen in love with cannot return his affections, he kills himself. Jünger’s description of the response from Zapparoni’s corporation to the suicide is chilling in its hubris regarding what they believe to be the limitless capabilities of their product: “The management, expressing regrets, implied that it might not have been impossible for the fair robot maid to have responded to the young man’s courtship.”
The other deleterious effects of this “lilliputian world” closely mirror the maladies of our own time. Some suffer from mental illness: “A manic disturbance, diagnosed by the doctors as a compulsion neurosis coupled with a persecution mania, was nourished by hallucinations about automatons.” Captain Richard, at one point surrounded by Zapparoni’s creations, refers to the “narcotic effect” upon him, which sounds a bit like the dopamine hits derived from social media and smartphones. Obsessed only with the present and immediate gratification, Captain Richard’s compatriots forget and spurn “the notables after whom the streets were named.”
Modern technology, Jünger perceives, is a mixed blessing, often corrupting just as much as it improves our quality of life:
Everything devised, constructed, and mass-produced at Zapparoni’s made life much easier. It was not considered good form to mention that these things were at the same time dangerous, but it was difficult to deny this danger.
And even more disconcerting, these advances often seem to have a corrupting effect on individual people, making them more predictable and mechanical. The more we become dependent on technology, and the more we enter into other digital worlds, the more our intellect and wills are shaped by them, and thus infantilized. “Often you hardly felt that you were among human beings,” says Captain Richard, surveying his neighbors.
Like Silicon Valley elites who carefully monitor (or prohibit) their children’s access to screens, Zapparoni and his company remain largely insulated from the deadly side effects of his products. “He was like the pharmacist who asks the most exorbitant prices for his pills and miracle-drugs, while he, himself, keeps in good health as his forefathers did.” And like those companies that, after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, promised to subsidize their employees’ abortion services, Zapparoni wants his employees productive and unencumbered. “Zapparoni approved only of sexless workers. … From the very beginning he had included in his plan neither males nor females, neither mothers nor nurses.”
Our Very Human Challenge
The Glass Bees is obviously prescient. But it also clarifies many of our own present challenges as we struggle with the role of technology in our lives. In a society defined by soundbites, 280-character tweets, three-minute TikTok videos, and deep fake videos, the line between what is authentically real and what is mere performance or imitation is blurred. Meanwhile Google and Amazon leverage complex algorithms to monitor our online behavior, and are capable—in certain respects—of knowing us better than even our friends and relatives.
Jünger, speaking through Captain Richard, seems to have strong opinions about the relationship between modern technology and human flourishing. “Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. If we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other.” Given the effects of our digital age on our own well-being—and the many ways that it vitiates the virtues and beliefs required for republican self-government—it’s not hard to appreciate that sentiment.
Modern technology, Jünger could already see, was negating the authentic character of the human person, interpreting man not as a unique individual person gifted with intellect and free will, but a machine with interchangeable parts to be updated or transformed. Is this not both transhumanism and transgenderism, both of which view the body not as an inseparable, given part of the human person, but simply a raw amalgamation of biological components that have no real, essential connection to our identity? “Man had to be destroyed,” writes Jünger.
Tools of Resistance
In recognizing what makes man essentially different from artifacts, Jünger also hints at remedies to an anti-human age like our own. “Technical perfection strives toward the calculable, human perfection toward the incalculable.” In other words, man’s telos is not something material and limited, like our machines, but immaterial and eternal, and thus beyond zeroes and ones.
We can identify inklings of that telos not only by contemplating the divine but even via our own experience. Writes Jünger: “The fear and enthusiasm we experience at the sight of perfect mechanisms are in exact contrast to the happiness we feel at the sight of a perfect work of art. We sense an attack on our integrity, on our wholeness.” Technology induces excitement and also anxiety, because of its curious power to affect our brains and willpower—like Dr. Frankenstein, we implicitly recognize that we have created something we cannot control. In contrast, something beautiful—art, a tree, a sunset—induces admiration and awe, because we can appreciate, however inchoately, that these things are somehow related to our own natural ends, and even indirectly orient us to our ultimate, transcendent end.
Even the human person himself can provoke this reflection, if we are properly disposed to perceive him. Explains Captain Richard:
I came to recognize that one single human being, comprehended in his depth, who gives generously from the treasures of his heart, bestows on us more riches than Caesar or Alexander could ever conquer. Here is our kingdom, the best of monarchies, the best republic. Here is our garden, our happiness.
The individual man, especially when he is a paragon of virtue, is a wondrous and exciting creation, capable of inspiring others to feats of otherworldly courage, as my friend Kimberly Begg argues in a soon-to-be-published book on Catholic saints. Man can extend and receive a profound, incomparable love, and fill the heart with a warmth that no machine can approximate. Captain Richard hints at this when describing the joy he experiences with his beloved wife: “This smile was more powerful than all the automatons—it was a ray of reality.”
Sometimes, however, more hostile, even violent measures are necessary to preserve humanity from the evils of technology. While in Zapparoni’s garden, Captain Richard grows increasingly frustrated and impatient with the synthetic reality around him. Procuring a nearby golf club, he takes a hearty swing at one machine and busts it to bits. “This was no business for me. I had seen enough; I preferred the gambling casino”—casino being a metaphor for free will.
This doesn’t mean we should attack the Amazon vans that appear in our neighborhoods or throw scooters off buildings. But sometimes we must reclaim the territory usurped by technology. Social media are often a blight on public discourse, and, we are finding, a national security risk. Smartphones, theologian C. C. Pecknold has argued, act as a red-light district in every man’s pocket. We need limits on these intrusions into our lives, our minds, and our hearts. If we cannot impose them ourselves, we may need others to intervene. Terry Schilling at the American Principles Project has urged stronger regulations to keep pornography from minors; politicians are considering banning TikTok, which is storing untold amounts of data on American citizens on servers in China.
“I had admired these super-philistines long enough—these servants of forces unknown to them,” asserts Captain Richard. “As long as such admiration lasts, destruction will increase and human standards decrease.” In many respects, that is the challenge we face today, surveying the terrible political, social, and personal consequences of our digital age. Technological progress and human flourishing may not necessarily be in direct opposition to one another, but there is ineluctable tension. Our ability to adopt a Jüngerian strategy towards technology—carefully evaluating whether it encourages or undermines human flourishing—will determine whether we retain our humanity, or acquiesce in tech’s coercive influence.