In my weaker moments, I dream of a science fiction-style, dystopian assimilation. I’m saddled with debt, I don’t have my own insurance, I work as a writer in a field that’s — let’s face it — not the most stable. It’s in these moments of profound existential dread that I find myself wishing for some mechanical or A.I. overlord to arrive. This being or bot, I imagine, would look at humanity and go, “Okay, this isn’t working out. Let me take control.” And I would surrender to its sweet, mechanized embrace. That’s not the decision most contemporary sci-fi characters would have me make.
Obviously, there are benefits to agency and a chance at self-actualization. Free will is a good thing. But every now and then, the material world turns on a dime – suddenly sharp and unwelcoming – and my escapist sci-fi dream reappears, and the cycle repeats itself anew. In Buddhist terms, the cycle I refer to could be viewed as Samsāra, the endless cycle of rebirth which traps humans in this plane of existence through a combination of our wants and ignorance. The only escape from the cycle is through the achievement of Nirvana, or release from Samsāra.
If this cycle of capitalistic egocentrism is reminiscent of Samsāra, then is it so wrong to view a potential A.I. overlord as a form of Nirvana?
Isn’t some sort of Hivemind, a combined human singularity, the definition of Nirvana? Are we not released from this mad cycle of competition and vanity and allowed to join a collective freedom from our wants and sufferings? Isn’t it better to be a cog in a wheel that runs smoothly, than to be the one jamming up the whole operation? Am I some sort of fascist for thinking this? George Orwell would say so.
In looking into the different hiveminds, I found that you can essentially split science fiction stories that deal with these types of assimilations into two camps: East and West. In stories like The Matrix, 1984, and We by Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin, the plight of the protagonists is that they are trapped in some enslaved, industrial complex. Their suffering as individualistic white males is that they are not “free”, despite living in a world that offers very little resistance so long as one complies. The hero awakes into consciousness to realize that the society they live in isn’t right. That being told when to eat, when to fuck, and when to work is not right. Their only true path to happiness, then, is to be free from the hivemind and create a free society.
Compare those stories to the ones seen in Japanese anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion. There, assimilation is engineered by a governing body so as to eliminate the world’s social ills. Humans have grown so far apart they argue, and all the misery caused by modern society can be cured through the joining of the whole world into some primordial soup. Living in a city like Tokyo, where the work-life balance skews heavily in work’s favor, and birth rates are declining, it’s easy to see the appeal of a human singularity. It’s why the assimilation plots of Evangelion and Akira often see singularity as a solution rather than the enemy.
It’s also interesting to note what happens to the body in stories like these. In western media, the body is conformed and controlled, while the eastern stories treat the body as something that needs to be eliminated in order for assimilation to occur. The irony of, course, is that the biggest fear in Western dystopias is the physical enslavement of white people.
As with most things, there’s a huge trove of cultural baggage to unpack. In the West, where both history and religion tend to focus disproportionately on messianic figures, the idea of a lone individual awakening to lead a revolution against a controlling overlord has untold appeal. Likewise, Asian societies and have their own entrenched beliefs in harmonious societies, Communism, and multiple histories that favor national mobilization.
It helps explain why dystopian sci-fi has a paranoid tone in western media, but a somewhat religious bent in eastern media. In Evangelion, the plot to evolve humans into a unified pool of consciousness is very similar to the Hindu interpretation of Nirvana where human “souls” join a larger body of collected consciousness. Where one dystopia envisions something like Ridley Scott’s 1984-inspired Apple commercial, the other sees an opportunity for enlightenment.
Even modern interpretations of dystopia haven’t changed much along cultural lines. In the 1990s the government forces of Big Brother was transformed into big faceless corporations. Presumably a changing of the guards from the Cold War era writers to the Gen-X crowd. Still, even then I can’t help but envy the life of Neo, or Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club. Destroy the system, blow up the banks they cried, but I know plenty of friends who would trade in their “gigs” for the very things Edward Norton rages against: 401K, Ikea furniture, good credit.
But in highly urbanized centers of society like Tokyo, the physical consignment of bodies to corporate industries is already a reality, and as such, they’ve envisioned a world where the soul is forced out of the bonds of industry. The soul, like in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain traditions, is released from physical form altogether.
As people who identify along political and ideological lines, the thought of a dystopian assimilation plot is unnerving at best, and fascist at worst. I suppose it depends on what sort of assimilation occurs. If you were to say ask me to assimilate into a world where everyone must follow the guidelines laid out by the Eurocentric powers that be, then obviously I wouldn’t. But if left to the devices of some machine that doesn’t differentiate between race, class, and any other human signifier, relying on us as people shaped meat bags, I might actually oblige.
Does it make it better though? By wishing for the elimination of all ego, does that make it any better than conforming to a single one? Aren’t all assimilations based in the hatred of individual differences? I’d argue, yeah, probably. Would the combination and neutralization of human errors make life easier though? Well, I suppose that depends on your temperament.
Buddha said that life is suffering. I don’t agree, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to imagining an easier life for myself. While some look to the socialist promises of Bernie Sanders or xenophobic ideals of Donald Trump, I’m content daydreaming about some rogue AI that will plug everyone into the matrix. When the time comes, the dream will end and I’ll probably want to escape. The cycle of never-ending want continues, Samsāra.