An Artificial Life

The Comforts of Technology and the Risk of Love

Joey Goodall / 7.3.23

In a failed, six-episode long experiment to save money in the fall of 1960, CBS tried to cut production costs on the second season of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone by recording to videotape rather than using film. Watching the series straight through, the precipitous drop in image quality is jarring. Rather than looking at least as good as any contemporaneously made movie, it shifts to looking like a soap opera.

The first of these videotaped episodes, “The Lateness of the Hour,” has subject matter that eerily resonates with the almost uncanny valleylike look of the video. In it, a young woman, Jana Loren, lives in a mansion with her parents, and a staff of humanoid robots her father created so that his family could live a “perfect” life. One where everything is “efficient,” “desirable,” and designed for “maximum comfort.” Jana and her parents never leave the mansion, and have all their “needs” met by the robot staff. Jana grows tired of this, and longs for more, longs for reality, longs for a “normal life.”

This idea has parallels to present-day controversies around advancing artificial intelligence. Dr. Loren believes the robots make their life better, aiding his every desire toward a frictionless existence, a life without struggle or care. The easier the life, the better, and why not use the robots to ease one’s burdens? Why go through the effort of choosing what to eat, buying groceries, cooking and cleaning up, when an advanced algorithm will do it for you? Who needs friends when you can find companionship in a robot? By contrast, Jana finds her frictionless life alienates her from the business of living. The robots have made her family less alive, less human. For her, it is precisely in the mundane tasks, the friction and struggle, that life is to be found.

Jana asks her father to disassemble the robots, freeing the family from what she feels is a life of atrophy and decay. Dr. Loren is hesitant. He pleads with Jana to remember that these robots are not just machines. He’s given them memory tracks that allow them to recount “in detail everything that’s happened to them since their early childhood,” despite the fact that “they had no childhood.” IF Jana thinks humanity is found through the everyday risk of living, Dr. Loren seems to believe that memory (even when completely fabricated) is what makes something more than a machine. Despite this, he finally acquiesces, and Jana is relieved … at first. This is The Twilight Zone after all.

What is it, precisely, that constitutes the good life? Dr. Loren and his wife believe that a good life is a frictionless one, an insulated one, one where you have no need for curiosity or community, a life of “asylum, security, and survival.” Their daughter angrily asks, what good is “asylum in a hothouse,” “security in a mausoleum,” and survival as only “a vegetable survives?” Can living your life entirely out of fear and precaution in the name of comfort and efficiency actually be good? And, more to the point, how does that compare with the life Jesus calls us to live?

In Jesus’ parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30) a nobleman goes into a far country to receive kingly power and later returns. Before he leaves, he entrusts his servants with money to “do business with” while he’s away. When he comes back, he asks after the results of their business doings. The first two used the money as instructed, and made gains. The third servant, however, hides the money away, neither losing nor gaining. The final servant’s approach is, as Robert Farrar Capon wrote in his book(s) on the parables, “the crucial point.” That the judgment is “issued against the servant who acts not out of faith but out of prudence (just as we do when we fearfully try to deal with God on the basis of what we think he is like rather than on the basis of what we trust him to be in Jesus.)” Acting out of anxiety and imagined fear rather than out of trust, faith, and curiosity. Capon continues, noting that this parable is:

about the “one thing necessary” [Luke 10:42]: the response of trust, of faith in Jesus’ free acceptance of us by the grace of his death and resurrection. It is, in other words, about a faithful, Mary-like waiting upon Jesus himself as the embodiment of the mystery — and about the danger of substituting some prudent, fretful, Martha-like business of our own for that waiting.

What do we do with these free gifts of life and grace? Do we shut ourselves up in houses of our own making, surrounded by creature(ly) comforts that we use to drown out the “noises and neuroses” of our age, but which often only end up controlling us through our dependence on them? The robots in the episode were probably mostly meant as metaphor in 1960, but in a world with increasingly sophisticated technology and AI all around us (an Alexa for every living room! a Tesla for every garage!), it now works as a warning on two levels. Or, do we let ourselves have messy and sometimes inconvenient ties to the actual people around us, knowing that it will occasionally cause hardship, trusting that God has put us in these specific situations with these specific individuals for a reason?

God intends us to love and be loved, and we can’t do that in isolation, we can’t do that without the friction generated by the inconvenience of another person wholly unlike ourselves. We cannot love things, but people. Growing too attached to the “comforts” of technology over and against the blood, sweat, and tears required to love another person only isolates us further. As Robert Jenson wrote in his 1973 book, Story and Promise, “love cannot be an inward state … For love means that I emerge from the security of what I am in myself, and risk myself out there in the world that is neither my inner world nor your inner world, but precisely the world between us in which we can be together.” Dr. Loren certainly didn’t understand this. He refused to believe that the good life is only found by the risk of loving others.

Valuing comfort and perfection above the reality of the situations God puts us in and the people he’s set in front of us is only giving in to disordered desire. For Jenson, “The gospel says to anyone: ‘Whatever you hope for, you are really hoping for love to happen.” We might hope for safety and security, but at the root of that is the desire for love. And it is in the presence of love that we feel safe and secure. Love is always a risk, the kind that can’t be anesthetized or mitigated without subverting love altogether. As Jonathan Richman sang, “When we refuse to suffer, when we refuse to feel, that’s when we can’t win.” It is only in loving and being loved that we can achieve “That Summer Feeling,” “when there’s things to do not because you gotta, when you run for love not because you oughta, when you trust your friends with reason not ta,” a feeling that we’ll “throw away everything for.” Even a virtue like prudence, when sawed off from the comprehensive human experience, can only be exercised for so long before all our past hurts and present pains and other strong feelings come to the fore and explode. A life lived in this way (“protected” from all inconveniences) is not a real life at all. It’s a robot’s life, a life that feels the way 1960s videotape looks, a life in The Twilight Zone.

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2 responses to “An Artificial Life”

  1. Bryan Halferty says:

    Fantastic and compelling writing, Joey.

  2. Joey Goodall says:

    Thanks, Bryan!

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