The Lessons of Dune

This morning, as I was going through my routine, I was listening to this music.

This is like an unofficial audio companion to the Dune movie (2022). Dune is the cinematographic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic saga of the same name. Dune happens in a future, a distant future, whereby humanity has advanced throughout the stars “in all of the directions the Universe can whiz”, to quote that British comedic troupe – Monty Python.

The Dune Encyclopedia, you heard that well, quotes a timeline stretching tens of thousands of years into our future. Humanity reposes on so many worlds that even the creator of this marvel of human imagination cannot precisely fathom their number. Suffice to say, the known universe is being ruled by a Padishah-Emperor, surrounded by feuding Great Lordly Houses, which are engaged in warfare, politics, diplomacy, murder, and mayhem.

A very interesting article from 1863, written by a visionary by the name of Samuel Butler, entitled “Darwin among the Machines” seems to hold the key to understanding the future of our species. Incidentally, it has just dawned to me that Frank Herbert writing Dune in 1965 seems to have been inspired by Butler’s 19th century vision. This becomes apparent from the title of the prequel “The Butlerian Jihad” authored by his son, along his father’s original ideas, in 2002.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was a most intriguing man. He lived in a time of profound transformations. By the time he came of age, the Industrial Revolution was well on its way. In fact, the man lived through a couple of industrial revolutions: steam first, and then electricity came to dominate his material environment. Butler was the scion of a well to do English family. In his mid 20s, he decided to change the scenery and make something of himself. So, he set off to emigrate to New Zealand, at the time a not so tranquil corner of the British Empire: Maori, you see.

Arriving in the Southern Hemisphere, Butler became a gentleman-farmer and raised sheep in a place called Mesopotamia Station, on the South Island. Being an industrious fellow, he raised them so well, that he managed to make a tidy profit when he later sold off his farm.

While farming, he also became an avid and enthusiastic disciple of Charles Darwin, who had authored the epoch-altering Origin of Species just a few years before, in 1859.

In June 1863, Cellarius (Butler’s pen name) mailed his letter “Darwin among the Machines” to the editor of Wellington’s The Press newspaper. His letter was actually published and garnered him quite the following among connoisseurs.

Samuel Butler

In his letter, this singular man foresaw many of the problems that have plagued humanity ever since and are starting to be particular worrisome today. I speak, of course, of the rise of Artificial Intelligence, which is a misnomer because if anything should rise, it will be our own exclusive fault. After all, Butler saw this coming 160 years ago, eh!

The views of machinery which we are thus feebly indicating will suggest the solution of one of the greatest and most mysterious questions of the day. We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be.

We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race.

In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race. Inferior in power, inferior in that moral quality of self-control, we shall look up to them as the acme of all that the best and wisest man can ever dare to aim at. No evil passions, no jealousy, no avarice, no impure desires will disturb the serene might of those glorious creatures.

Sin, shame, and sorrow will have no place among them. Their minds will be in a state of perpetual calm, the contentment of a spirit that knows no wants, is disturbed by no regrets. Ambition will never torture them. Ingratitude will never cause them the uneasiness of a moment. The guilty conscience, the hope deferred, the pains of exile, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes these will be entirely unknown to them.

If they want “feeding” (by the use of which very word we betray our recognition of them as living organism) they will be attended by patient slaves whose business and interest it will be to see that they shall want for nothing.

NOTA BENE (Who might these slaves be? Who are these slaves now? Could it be Us, humans!?)

If they are out of order they will be promptly attended to by physicians who are thoroughly acquainted with their constitutions; if they die, for even these glorious animals will not be exempt from that necessary and universal consummation, they will immediately enter into a new phase of existence, for what machine dies entirely in every part at one and the same instant?

Darwin among the machines, 1863 – by Samuel Butler aka Cellarius

This man was a true visionary. He saw, more than 150 years ago, the dark fate of humanity, the precipice towards which we advance, each day moving ever so faster, like a moth drawn to a perpetual flame. And the man was damn right. Machines are as alive as we are. They do require our constant attentions. They need us as much as we need them. The problem stems from the fact that we improve machines much faster than we improve ourselves. No wonder, we went from the Age of Sail to that of Steam in the space of two generations (1770-1820). And we moved from that of Steam to Electricity within half of century (1830-1880). And then we stepped into the Age of Atom gradually in the first half of the 20th century. Next, it took us less than a generation to put a man on the Moon (1950-1969). We went then past the Space Age into that of the Internet and instant communication (1990-2022).

And we have now (2023) created an Artificial Intelligence that is self-conscious and smarter than its creators.

That is the extent of the far seeing genius of Samuel Butler. He foresaw all our trials and tribulations, meant to improve our lot, for what it truly is: folly. And no, I do not believe technological progress per se to be folly. I do believe, however, that unrestricted technology leaps, unbound by ethical and measured restrictions, are the biggest, gravest danger facing our species. If we do not change the way we go about inventing our Future, we will one day take one last step into a dark hole from whence there is no turning back.

It is clear to me today that you can not only plan on but you can guarantee that eventually machines will supplant humans as the dominant species.

Now Butler certainly read Darwin and it is also likely he also had Luddite leanings. But one thing was pretty darn clear to him even in his day and age. Man created Machine to do his bidding. And then Machine needed Man to feed It. And today we see how symbiotic this relationship has become. They say that Society cannot exist outside its mechanical trappings. And they are perhaps correct up to a point. But I bet most of us never stopped to think that Machines need Us Humans too. For without our constant intervention, they would also reach the end of their lifecycles much, much faster than they do.

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

Darwin among the machines, 1863 – by Samuel Butler aka Cellarius

Consider this, ladies and gentlemen. At the beginning of April 2023, an ice storm brought down the power grid all over Quebec and parts of Ontario, affecting thusly 50 percent of Canadians. In some parts of the country, power is still not restored six days later (Today April 11, 2023). If this is not a clear case of the fragility and interdependence between Man and Machine, I do not know what is.

Let us face it, folks. We are in a deep hole of our own making. And the funny thing is that we keep on digging with such an assiduity worthy of a much better cause. So, instead of looking for ways to wean ourselves off of the tit of our mechanical trappings, and develop alternatives that solicit more our own ingenuity, and less that of sentient machines, what do we do?! We create self-replicating robots, machines that can and already have started to think for themselves, and that can pretty soon make the Westworld Sci-Fi series into a goddamn documentary.

No, ladies and gentlemen. The answer is not making machines in our own image. The answer is not in Us playing God. Because God is Almighty. And we are not. God is good but that’s according to the New Testament. Old Testament God is revengeful, blood-thirsty, and not really prudent or charitable. So, unless we want to become the forgotten victims of our own folly, we must perhaps stop this process before having to resort to more last-ditched measures.

Samuel Butler urged humanity to wage war to the death against the machines. Who knows, perhaps those pesky 19th century luddites had the right instinct, and listened to their gut-feeling, which is always but always the best idea.

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.

Darwin among the machines, 1863 – by Samuel Butler aka Cellarius

Truer words were never spoken. It is up to us to make sure that they were not prophetic. It is our job to work towards proving Butler wrong by proving him right. That is to say, we must shake away the mechanical, electronic, and technological shackles that have made us into the wards of the machines, as much as they made them our responsibility. We must do so to reestablish our primacy on Earth and to take over our own Destiny. By doing so, we would both prove Butler wrong, since he believed we are unable to reestablish our independence. We would also prove him right, since by doing so, we would become free once again. Paradoxical, ain’t it!

But all of this will require our combined will Now. And it may come with a negligible cost in blood, toil, and sacrifice.

Or we can wait for the AI reckoning to occur and when that entropic moment comes to pass, I promise you that the bloody universe of Dune will have nothing over our future reality. For Dune is the absolute best example of the future of humankind, in all respects.

Truth is that incredible cruelty of the most refined type abounds in Dune’s infinite universe. And people die every day, every year, and every century during monumental struggles like that between Man and the Thinking Machines during the Butlerian Jihad, or during the great war opposing the House of Harkonnen to the Atreides and to the House Corrino, led by the Padishah-Emperor himself.

The Butlerian Jihad

And people die in the millions, tens of millions, and possibly billions when planets are invaded, nuked, destroyed by genetically engineered plagues targeting half of all humans, or purely in combat, among the vast reaches of the Universe. They die in droves in the sands of Arrakis, taken by colossal sandworms, or bombarded by Harkonnen attack drones, or mutilated in hand to hand combat. Doesn’t really matter how, but people die all the time.

Dune is one continuous hecatomb of cosmic proportions.

And this made me wonder as to why people die at this insane rate. Coming from a society that worships life like the Judeo-Christian one, I cannot stop from asking myself why this is. And then I realized. The answer was so freaking simple. Well, we are in the future. And then, people have colonized hundreds of thousands of worlds. Consequently, our eggs are no longer in the same basket.

We are now ready to go nuts. Because, boy, we ain’t getting home. That’s for sure, that’s for damn sure.

Enjoy this while it lasts. Am pretty sure the future will be replete with gore and violence, well on a universal scale, pardon the pun!

We have now escaped the clutches of a bad dream. That of being the inhabitants of the only known place suitable to Life.

We are now spread out so far and wide, that we can finally afford to take it easy. No, no, no! I am joking! It is now time for the Purge. We are finally able to engage in ritualistic, tribal warfare with nuclear weapons, and lasers, and planet busters like never before. And guess what, folks! We do it! We do it like there is no tomorrow. Not only we kill one another bestially, in detail and wholesale. We do it with gusto. Because now, there’s trillions of people.

Plain and simple, there’s too many of us in the Future.

Think of it. Right now, there are 8 billion people on Earth. We only have this one planet and what do we do?

Precisely my point!

And wait until they update the stats with the 2021-2024 data. My bet is we are going to see a spike going over the 1950 levels of conflict deaths.

So, I would say that overall, taking into account the 50-100 million dead in WW2, and the 25-30 million dead in WW1, we are looking at 2 million dead per year for each year between 1901 and until 2000. And perhaps 500,000 dead per year each year, this side of the 21st century (2001-2023).

If we juxtaposed a minimum of 1.25 million dead per year since the beginning of the 20th century to an average population of 5 billion, we get an average rate of conflict fatalities of 0.025% out of the human population.

Assuming the future human population reached 1,000,000,000,000 humans by A.D. 10,000 (that’s one trillion, i.e., a 1 followed by 12 zeros), the annual rate of KIA would be 25 billion people. That’s like 3 current Earths’ worth of people dying each year, in the future.

And considering that everything we see, read or hear about in movies or in books has the potential to one day become reality for our descendants, just as far-fetched notions in the past became our reality now, we must realize that the Future of Humanity is a bleak one indeed.

We are destined to walk among mountaintops of skulls, skeletons and the detritus of our own civilization. That is exactly our Fate.

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