A friend and I leapt aboard a combi that accelerated and slowed around Trujillo, a coastal city in northern Peru, moving farther out into the fringing districts until we had left the bustle behind. It turned down a narrow track; when it ended we clambered out and hiked to a distant ticket booth, beyond which, in the still desert, rose two hills. Between them were the weathered, slumped pyramids of the Moche, one a sun temple, the other a moon temple, but both, from where I was standing, seemingly nothing more than formless mounds of sand. The air tasted of clay.
On a whim my friend asked the volunteer guide, an archaeology student, if we could see a mural he had heard whisperings about, one that depicted machines killing people. I turned to him in surprise. Maybe I hadn’t heard right; maybe ‘máquina’ didn’t mean machine. But the guide proceeded to respond.
What struck me wasn’t her regretful tone but the fact that she was unperturbed by what, to my mind, had to be a crack-pot conspiracy. She explained that the mural was high up in the Temple of the Moon and badly deteriorated, and not even she had been allowed to see it. Instead, she showed us around the temple’s lower reaches, past other murals, their red and white paint still visible, and past walls built with bricks marked by personal signatures, perhaps because the bricks had been exhorted as a kind of tax.
Two years later I was in my university library reading an English translation of the Huarochirí Manuscript, a testimony of ancient memories of the Andeans compiled in Kechwa circa 1608 in Peru’s central highlands. The tome spoke of a great deluge, of a mountain deity who expelled the fire deities of old, of ceremonies devoted to landscape. And, in one brief paragraph, it described a time when the sun died. The darkness lasted for five days, during which time ‘mortars and grinding stones began to eat people’.
I had a tingling sensation of I-think-I’ve-read-this-before. But I hadn’t, had I? Slowly I realised, after a laborious dredging of foggy, incidental memories, what the declaration reminded me of: the mural in the Moche’s Temple of the Moonthat we hadn’t been able to see.
I found a representation of the Moche mural in a scholarly journal, the camphorous rosin that lifted from the pages a world away from the clean mineral tang of desert where the real-life mural crumbled out of anyone’s sight. I saw that my friend’s ‘machines’ were in fact weapons and military regalia, and that they attacked warriors, their owners. Weapons weren’t exactly cooking utensils, but still, both were important tools, and in both imaginings they had come to life to rise against humans. How could the imaginations of the Andean and Moche civilisations, distant across time and space, be so connected?
My heart sped with the thrill of discovery and the delicious undergrad naiveté that whispers Maybe, just maybe I’ve made a…but I quickly came down to earth as, scurrying through the books, I realised that others had noticed the same correlation.
Connections have also been drawn even further afield, with the Mayas and their Popol Vuh. There it is written that early humans were spoken to by their maize grinders, cooking griddles, plates, pots and grinding stones, which, in revenge for the way humans had treated them, crushed their owners’ faces, ground up their flesh, landed on their heads and flattened their bodies. The correspondences across time and space suggest that this Revolt of the Objects, as it is usually called, is an ancient American myth.
I contemplated the reproduction of the Moche mural: headdresses, clubs and weapons sprouted arms and legs and chased after people, attacked them and dragged them by their hair. Chaos reigned on the walls as humans were domesticated by the tools they had created: one man grimaced in pain, another stumbled as a shield attacked him. The militaristic Moche were thrust to the bottom of the food chain by the technologies responsible for their regional dominance – their most important tools – just as the Huarochirí informants and the Maya had imagined their ancestors were.
I closed the book and leaned back in my chair. The neon lights were casting a clinical sheen across the desk and there were murmurs drifting from the stacks. Sometimes a piece of the past flies through time at just the right angle to cast new light on the present. Images from a steady diet of pop-culture rose in my mind: cool, terrifying robots, humans in farms and the planet a wasteland. It seemed that the modern, Western imagination to which I was subject wasn’t so different from this ancient American one.
Tools: they have long been recognised as our evolutionary ally, yet we humans are not actually alone in our fashioning and making use of them. To name just a few other animals that do the same, chimpanzees have a toolkit for termite hunting that includes a short stick to penetrate aboveground mounds, a large stick to drill holes into subterranean nests and a probe that they first pull through their teeth to craft a frayed end, all the better for collecting the insects. Bottle-nosed dolphins, to protect from abrasions as they search for food on the seafloor, tear off pieces of sponge and manoeuvre these around their snouts. And elephants, once they have dug a water hole, rip bark from a tree, chew it into a circular shape and then place it over the hole to limit evaporation. The difference between tool use among humans and these other animals is, of course, in the tools’ comparative level of complexity.
Around 2.6 million years ago, hominids of the Homo genus first reached the level of tool use of modern-day chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins; in their case, they used hunks of rock for pounding and sharp flakes for cutting through hide. It wasn’t until 1.8 million years ago and the appearance of Homo erectus that our ancestors, through their fashioning of axes and cleavers, became more technologically advanced than other species in any time period. More tools followed. Four hundred thousand years ago came spears; two hundred thousand years ago came glue; twenty-eight thousand years ago came rope. In the fourth millennium BCE appeared the wheel; in the second century BCE, paper; in the ninth century CE, gunpowder.
If I were to keep on in this way, listing chronologically our most significant tools and the dates on which they were invented, the diversity of these would increase and the distance between dates would diminish until we arrived at the explosion of tools that is the present. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that we Homo sapiens sapiens have not only evolved as a result of tools – we have been shaped by them. We have lost our sharp fingernails and our heavy jaw musculature. Our eyesight is worse nowadays than it was ten thousand years ago. Over the past thirty thousand years our brains have decreased in size. All of these apparent signs of devolution point to one indisputable fact: we have become a species conditioned to use tools. In other words, children told to get off the computer and go play outside are, contrary to what well-meaning parents believe, actually doing the opposite of what has become natural.
This brings me back to those ancient American imaginings that depict a confused ancestral past in which the debt owed to tools for human success was acknowledged and mulled over. Surely we can view such myths as expressing an acknowledgement of the power of tools, of how, while we may have created them, we have come to rely on them – our bodies have even devolved because of them. If we rely so much on tools, the American myth encourages us to ask, then who, exactly, rules whom?
In more recent centuries in the West, we can see a traversal of the same imaginative territory, which shows that this preoccupation has persisted in time as a powerful allegory. In 1651 English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his book Leviathan, wrote that humans, by virtue of their machines, would create a new intelligence. In 1921, the play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, imagined a future populated with artificial people called robots that rebel and cause the extinction of the human race. And in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey posited a world in which humankind, having reached the pinnacle of evolution on earth, sets out into space. There, the ultimate tool, the HAL 9000 computer, controls the spacecraft. When it erroneously reports a problem and the astronauts decide to switch off its higher-mind functions, it kills four of them and won’t open the hatch for another floating outside. But the remaining astronaut manages to reinter the spacecraft and subsequently shut down HAL, forever ending humanity’s alliance with tools.
While these scenarios take place in the imagined future, rather than in the ancestral past, the effect is the same. Both settings point to unease: in ancient America, the tools’ revolt had already happened at the time of the telling, which, given the belief in the cyclical nature of space-time, suggested that it might happen again. In the Western case, the future setting evokes a similar sense of possibility in that it suggests not just that this scenario could, but that one day it might, occur. By framing these imaginings as possibilities, the cultures that produced them reveal that the imaginings spring from, and perhaps are designed to evoke in the audience, a sense of anxiety. This is especially visible in the Western case when the science fiction depicting Artificial Intelligence is in cautionary-tale mode: in addition to the Čapek and Kubrick examples, think the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix, in which humans are no longer born but grown for AI consumption, or James Cameron’s The Terminator, in which an AI defence network becomes self-aware and initiates a nuclear holocaust of the human race.
But it is another difference between the American myth and the AI cautionary tales, this time a difference not in setting but in plot, that is most telling. In both cases, tools come to life, and in both they enact revenge on humans. Yet the modern-day depictions of animated tools emphasise a layer of implication that is not as explicit in the ancient American instance: the tools’ animation – their ability to come to life, and thus their ability to enact revenge on their makers – is of humankind’s own terrible doing in the overly ambitious (and erroneous) certainty that such creations can be controlled. The tools don’t, as is the case in the American myth, just magically awaken. By recurrently incorporating this trope into their narratives, AI cautionary tales draw on another narrative tradition, that of tales of hubris, in which an excess of ambition and arrogance eventually brings about ruin.
As such, AI cautionary tales form a site where the American myth, with its focus on animated tools who seek revenge, unites with the hubristheme of ‘pride that goeth before a fall’ to create an even greater sense of dreadful irony. In our god-like quest to animate that which we have created – in giving life not through breathing into a rib or clay or corn, but through manufacturing intelligence in steel or in a petri dish – we create a haunted shadow of ourselves, a doubling that will rise to become the predator that, lurking just beyond the reach of the light thrown by the campfire, looms in our nightmares. Yet while we sit in cinemas watching in horror as our nightmare plays out in the flickering of light and colour on screen, it seems that we are perfectly able to ignore the calamity that awaits us in the car park, in the shopping centres, in our households.
Recently, our use of tools has created concern about our hubris on a much larger scale than ever before because they have given us the power to destroy not just ourselves, but the entire planet. When, after the Industrial Revolution moved from England to the rest of the world, fossil fuels became the raw material for our tools of choice, few realised that this technological advancement, responsible for bettering the lives of many, would also, as its use increased, do untold damage to the earth. We have long suspected that our capacity for innovation in the realm of technology has made us special among earthly organisms – a tool-toting chimpanzee is at a far remove from the sophisticated tool use of a human. Yet will we continue this so-called progress, this development and veracious use of tools, until we have reworked the nature from which we sprang to such a degree that we incite its very undoing?
Geological history can no longer be separated from human history; our technological advancement has subjected the earth to human-induced forces, global warming among them, at least as significant as previous, epoch-defining ones such as ice ages. We have only in the past decades begun to grow aware of the hubris of this act, and yet, our hubris continues. Clive Hamilton, in his book, Earth Masters: Playing God with the Climate, describes some of the geo-engineering projects that are now being considered in order not just that the global system continue without drastic interruption, but also to curtail the future damage that is set to occur as a result of the carbon already emitted into the atmosphere. These tools are supposed to counter our use of planet-damaging ones, so that we might continue to use the latter unimpeded.
They include finding some way to capture our carbon waste and then injecting it, via pipes, into the depths of the ocean, or enhancing the natural process of sending carbon to the deep through fertilising the ocean with iron. There are also chemical solutions such as sprinkling the ocean with lime to reduce its acidity, which would increase the ocean’s capacity for absorbing carbon. Another option might be to capture carbon from the air using a machine ten metres high and one kilometre long; to offset its emissions, one standard coal-fired plant would need thirty of these, as well as six chemical plants, not to mention infrastructure to transport and bury the waste underground.
Geo-engineering is nothing if not an ambitious use of tools. Yet, through our art, we seem to be trying to tell ourselves that ambitious tool use is inextricably linked with the dangers of hubris. The tool, our art throughout the ages tells us – that evolutionary ally, those technologies that prolong our lives and make them easier, raising us to a privileged position among animals – led to our forebears’, and will lead to our descendants’, downfall. If we were to apply this lesson to the present, we might wonder if the tools we envisage as key to the survival of our current global system, given the scale of what they might try to achieve, could prove to lead to our own.
It remains to be seen whether our historical unease about our evolutionary ally will inspire us to such action as, for example, taking measures to halt this ally’s continued, harmful advance. Back in 1972, Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III, in their book Limits to Growth, predicted an overshoot and collapse of the global industrial system in the mid-to-late twenty-first century. They argued that this system had so much inertia that it would be unable to correct its course in response to planetary stress.
Will we really prove so stupid? Or will be able to, as in Kubrick’s film, sever our alliance with tools?
Humanity has never before been required, as a whole, to curb our tool use. But maybe we can start to believe that our anxiety around tools exists for a reason. Maybe we can even go so far as to harness this long-held unease about tools to override our love affair with the convenience they grant us. And maybe, in so doing, we can pare back our use of them enough to mitigate future damage to our planet.
As for the Moche’s preoccupation with tools, it was, in the end, unfounded, at least as regards their own society. Their civilisation collapsed because of something that was at that time utterly unrelated, something they could not control: climate change. It was recorded all over the world, in the Gaelic Irish Annals, for example, and in the Byzantine historian Procopius’ report on the wars with the Vandals, and was probably caused by a major volcanic eruption. For the Moche, it meant thirty years of flooding followed by thirty years of drought. If we were living at other times, this cause of their collapse might have made the Moche’s anxiety about their tools seem quaint and, ultimately, misguided. But given that today’s climate change is inextricably linked with and affected by our tool use, their anxiety and their fate tell a different story.