When trying to understand what makes humans different from the other species we have a long history of seeing ourselves us a bunch of individuals. That is why we sometimes miss the most important aspect of why humanity rose to the point we are today: we connect and collaborate using culture.
The problem with an individualistic approach is that it is reductionistic and plays down the crucial aspect of culture. In the same way as ants will be completely misunderstood by examining thousands of ants individually, humanity will be completely impossible to understand without acknowledging the systemic and emergent property we call culture.
Since culture works and emerges through our ability to communicate, reflect, imagine and remember it has been leveraged dramatically by technologies like written language, the printing press and recently electric communication. These technologies, which enhanced our cognitive and collaborative abilities, also opened up new cultural capabilities. They became the ladder on which humanity could climb higher and higher, create an increasingly advanced culture which could bootstrap us out from the caves and into a very different world.
Culture is the operating system of humanity
Explained in a different way, culture is the operating system of human civilization and it is coded in the programming language of our brains: language, images and stories.
Human culture is still based on language, images and stories. But instead of listening to someone speaking directly, words, images and stories are distributed in printed books, presented on screens and spread through the air. In recent times more globally and individually than ever. But still mostly conceived by human beings.
One big difference in which role words, images and stories play today relates to the fact the world have because of communication technologies become so much bigger than what our eyes and ears could perceive directly. Almost everything we see and hear is now mediated by words, images and stories produced by others – we are living in a almost totally mediated culture.
It might even be possible to claim that our world is not made up of atoms but of words, images and stories.
The aliens now have the master keys to our culture
Given the role of language, images and stories, meeting tools like e g ChatGPT, Dall-E and Midjourney is bound to fascinate us. Since they produce results earlier only possible by humans it is really like magic.
The problem is that we seem to ask ourselves the wrong questions when we ask if they are “really intelligent” or not.
Machines of this kind are obviously not human – and do they do not possess human intelligence. Why should they? Or how could they??
These machines have clearly no conception of how humans think or how the world works. And we do not understand how these machines “think” either. What we see and interact with are therefore machines showing alien intelligence but with superhuman processing capabilities including extremely fast learning capacities.
And by training them with all written material humans have produced we have succeeded in making them really useful for us.
But what we also succeeded in was giving them the master keys to our civilization; with the capabilities to interpret and modify our language, images and stories we provided them with the programming language of our culture.
The aliens are already injected in human culture
The aliens didn’t come from outer space after all. Instead they emerged from our own machines.
And when we encountered these aliens, we happily provided them with the master keys to our civilization, injected them in our culture through social media and invited them to hack us.
Imagining that intelligent machines like Skynet will be killing us off by using guns and bombs is judging by the current development very naïve. What is happening now makes it clear that it is much easier for an alien intelligence to defeat us by hacking our culture in order to elevate our primitive and destructive behavior against ourselves.
I wonder if the popular HBO Max series The Last of Us isn’t a metaphor for this. Instead of a fungus taking over our bodies we have voluntarily injected an alien in the shape of an intelligent virus that takes over our minds and reprogram us to attack each other.