Robotics And The End Of Human Meaning?

As you might have heard, recently, the robot Sophia — created by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics — sold a self-portrait she, or it, had made for US$700,000. Sophia has appeared at various conferences and has been seen in the media over the last few years. And, in 2017, Sophia “became the first robot to be granted citizenship rights when Saudi Arabia declared the robot an official citizen,” notes InceptiveMind.

Sophia’s self-portrait doesn’t break new ground. It isn’t really different to anything created by humans. And — pushed to its limits — perhaps it is unlikely that static, two dimensional will develop in radically new ways.

But robot-created art throws up new questions about creativity and self-expression. Although a lot of traditionally-minded people don’t like Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, or any other art movement of the twentieth century, with the invention of photography — and with photography becoming at once highly accessible and considered an art form — painting could no longer produce variations of likenesses of the real world.

The Impressionists were inspired by Japanese woodblock prints. Surrealism turned to psychology, hypnotic techniques such as automatic drawing, alchemy, and magic. Picasso drew from African tribal art.

Perhaps, most famously, Picasso took a bicycle seat and handlebars and put them together to create his sculpture “Bull’s Head” (1942), in effect, returning art to something archaic and more in line with prehistoric cave art than the era of the camera and the silver screen.

Our own time is one of creative decline (at least among the general populace — younger people, especially). We can consume whatever we want, any time we want it. If we want to express ourselves we can join the herd and go onto social media and denounce whoever is being denounced today in the Two Minutes Hate. There is no need — and little desire — to create.

By “need,” here, I mean that there is no material need. However, there is a greater need, which we often overlook. And that need is spiritual. Sophia can create art for us. But she cannot express, from experience, how it feels to be human, with our desires, fears, love, bravery, and overcoming of personal limitations. And nor can robotics express our sense of being a part of history or our sense of mortality.

You are probably aware of occult artists Austin Osman Spare and Rosaleen Norton. I have mentioned esoteric artist Hagen von Tulien before. And you might also be familiar with the mystical art of Alex Grey. Outside of the world of the esoteric, Jonathan Pageau is a contemporary Christian artist, creating wood-carved icons. There are also a number of contemporary Muslim artists, working especially with calligraphy. And crossing the borders of architecture and art and the ancient and the modern is Jordanian architect and designer Abeer Seikaly.

When things are done for us, we fall into the trap of believing that we don’t need to do it for ourselves. In New York, where I live, I’ve met plenty of people (men and women) who order food every night. Some of them — men and women — don’t actually know how to prepare a meal.

Over the last century, we, in the West, came to see mass production as a sign of quality. Hand-inlaid wood doesn’t mean anything to most people, who would prefer plastic. But, beyond the materials of mass production, which we’ve come to fetishize (sometimes, literally — think PVC boots and latex), it is, of course, the logo that has come to be meaningful. We identify with the brand name and seek to express ourselves by purchasing the products of those brands that we think represent us (think of the radical, Hippie stance of Ben and Jerry’s, which is owned by Unileaver). Even the robot Sophia is a brand.

Yet, when things are done for us, we end up losing something. And, if everything is done for us, we entirely lose touch with who we are. Or we can never progress, in our personal evolution, in the first place.

Instead, when things are done for us, we have to look deeply to see what’s missing.

Picasso realized that, in the age of the camera, there was no longer any place for highly realistic art. He, instead, worked to represent the primal. In the age of robot-created art, there may be no place for highly technical art. What we will still need, however, is art that speaks of the human soul. This is something that we can all create in some small way.

In my researches into various esoteric organizations and movements, I have seen a great deal of art. The most boring is always the manufactured art. What has always caught my attention is the art of the amateur or outsider artist. They have some particular idea that they want to express. And they often create art because they love something — something that they feel themselves to be a part of. That can’t be replicated. And such art — amateur, though it is — remains inspiring centuries after it has been created. Many of these amateur and outsider artists would never have believed that their art would be in books and museums a century or so after they created them. Undoubtedly, most were ridiculed in their time by professionals. Yet, their art has grown in importance, and is admired a century or so after their death.

Today, we are very shy about creating. We always think we won’t be good enough. We compare our work to the mass-produced. Our music won’t be as good as music produced by a multi-billion dollar music label. Our art won’t be as good as that of an artist with a dozen assistants that create it for them — before it’s shipped to a major art gallery and purchased as an investment. Don’t give in to that kind of thinking.

Instead of comparing yourself to the mass-produced and the heavily marketed, embrace your own humanity, your flaws, struggles, aspirations, and dreams; draw, paint, write a poem, write a novel, or create music. Cultures are born from creative acts, especially literary. And if you create something, you might be surprised who — and how many people — you inspire, now or in a century’s time.

Angel Millar is the author of The Three Stages of Initiatic Spirituality: Craftsman, Warrior, Magician.

Death Of The Daydreamer

“Man, the magical being that he is destined to be, is no longer magical. He’s an average piece of meat,” writes Carlos Castaneda in The Active Side Of Infinity. “There are no more dreams for man but the dreams of an animal who is being raised to become a piece of meat: trite, conventional, imbecilic.”

There’s no disputing that today — the age of the internet and social media — is entirely different to even two decades ago. Almost everything is instantly accessible — from music to sex. And an endless choice of products are available at the click of a button. But, something more insipid has occurred, slowly, and almost undetectable. We no longer dream as did those who came even half a century ago.

Let’s look briefly at a few fundamental differences between the twenty-first century Westerner and those of previous, and other, cultures:

People are less creative

Objective measures of creativity in the West show that it has been in decline for the last few decades. But do we really need tests to prove that to us? Probably not. Since the explosion of the all-encompassing expansion of the internet, we have seen no new youth fashions or youth cultures comparable to Rockabilly, Psychobilly, Mod, Hippie, Punk, Goth, Grunge, or Hip Hop. (Indeed, the most popular forms of contemporary music — pop, Hip Hop, and country — are decades old. The parents of young people were probably listening to them during their youth)

For all our talk of expressing ourselves, there is no Club Kids-like phenomenon and no contemporary Leigh Bowery. Few young people join bands in the hope of escaping a life of dull predictability. No one paints on their clothes, sews patches on them, or tie-dyes them. Even if someone wants jeans with rips in them, they are purchased (at a higher price than regular jeans) with the rips already made. (We don’t even trust ourselves to rip our own jeans.) Instead of creating their own fashion, music, or art, the vogue is for taking selfies (which look exactly like everyone else’s selfies) or for tweeting the same opinion about the latest political agenda.

We live in a world of unlimited choice but extremely limited thinking. Sticking with clothing, everything from flared jeans to Punk mohair sweaters are available at the click of a button Yet, walk through Manhattan or London, and everyone looks the same. (You could be anywhere.)

This wasn’t the case a few decades ago. And this is especially ironic considering that we live in a time in which we are love-bombed by the message that the most important thing is for us to be ourselves and to express ourselves. But when people actually did express themselves they did so in an environment that frowned upon — even condemned — anyone who did so.

There is less investment

Since everything is almost immediately accessible, and no real need to think, create, or live in a different way, there is little or no investment.

In relationships, especially in the bigger cities, people often have one eye open, in the hope that they’ll be able to “trade up” (while hoping that that person doesn’t do the same to them).

In regards to esoteric spirituality, I heard a self-appointed master in interview some years ago. At one point, he talked about his Facebook group, quoting one of its members as saying “why would anyone join an organization like Freemasonry when you can join a group on Facebook?”

Many people mistake the simulacra of social media for the real thing, of course, but despite what this social media magician might have thought, even offline, it’s relatively easy to join a group that claims to have ancient, arcane secrets or that is practicing some type of magic or techniques of enlightenment. But what is the quality of the membership? And what are they really doing? Such spirituality works best in an atmosphere of living on the edge, not of scrolling through memes.

The accessibility of esotericism has meant that it has largely become a prop. In the most literal manifestation, the attractive Instagram star is able to use “witchy” symbols and clothing to spice up his or her selfies. On a deeper level, as Slavoj Zizek has said about the Wall Street practicing “Western Buddhism” in the evening as a support for his materialist lifestyle, so esotericism is used to spice life up a bit and help overcome boredom. It fails to challenge the assumptions of the average individual because it has absorbed the opinions of the average individual and reflects them back to him or her. Whatever opinions are espoused on daytime television, we can be sure that high priests and priestesses will claim that that is what their religion has always taught (or should have).

And, of course, what applies to spirituality, applies also to artistic and intellectual groups — once the engines of creativity and culture in any society.

There is no mystery

Mystery is essential to religion and spirituality — and, perhaps, to art and to love. It gives us a sense that the ordinary world is anything but ordinary; that it is a place in which cosmic forces of good and evil do battle for our soul, and in which we must join in the fray. Now, connected to everyone, it is difficult for us to have any sense of Mystery, wonder, or romance. Everything is in danger of becoming dogmatic. Social media is populated by people arguing over questionable statistics and skewed media reports. And, estranged from culture, spirituality, and the physical world, that alone gives their lives meaning.

The pagan found Mystery in going out into nature — into the woods, the fields, and the mist. And the Christian found it thinking of Jesus, Mary, or the saints. Where do we find Mystery? To experience it does not make one naive; it makes us visionary, romantic, someone whose consciousness is expanded.

People no longer discuss art or ideas

Plato, Hegel, Camus, Wilde, Picasso, Dali — these, and others who have shaped our culture, are of little interest to us now. The ideas that obsess even self-professed “radicals” — who believe them as passionately as everyone else — are those espoused by daytime television.

Perhaps we are even afraid of ideas since to think something that daytime television has not is to run the risk of being denounced for some ideological infraction. And, perhaps, consequently, there are no pockets of great thinkers and doers — nothing equivalent to the Surrealists at the time of their manifesto, nothing equivalent to the Beatnik poets or the early Hippies, or — to use a more obscure example — to the 19th century Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn, a highly-secretive esoteric Order originally populated with poets, actors, theater promoters, and adventurers. The Golden Dawn still exists in various guises, including — of course — an “Open Source Order Of The Golden Dawn.” But, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that these probably aren’t populated by contemporary equivalents of poet laureate W. B. Yeats or actress Florence Farr.

And for all of our pride in our tolerance, our understanding of other cultures is exceedingly trivial. In truth, our intention is not to understand them but to mold them in our image — so that we feel secure and believe that they are the same as us (but different to the people in our own society that we don’t like). Islam might one of yesterday’s fashions in the West but when Western societies thought about it, it was always thought about in terms of the latest Western beliefs, e.g., women’s rights (is it against them? Did it invent them? Is the burka equivalent to the bikini or is the bikini more oppressive? And so on). No one bothered to read the Islamic neoplatonists, or the Persian Sufi mystics, or to understand the complicated relationship of Western spiritual adventurers and Islamic radical thought during the late 19th century. Who even knew that Ayatollah Khomeini was influenced by Plato’s Republic? Because, really, who cares about ideas? (And I mean ideas as world-shaping, not world-conforming, powers.)

There are too Many Soldiers; not enough scouts

To use Julia Galef’s metaphor, our society has turned into one of soldiers. We need more scouts — more intellectual, spiritual, and creative psychonauts: people who are prepared to leave the prison of the hive mind of social media and daytime television, and go out in search of new alien landscapes and new possibilities.

Is there hope?

In Myanmar recently, nine poets were arrested. At the beginning of authoritarian crackdowns (often posing as revolutions), poets, authors, and artists are the first to be arrested or shot. They are the people who think the ideas that society thinks later on, and it is they who can express ideas that threaten authoritarianism. In the West, however, rather than dreaming and thinking up new worlds, our poets, artists, and intellectuals (if we have any) merely reflect the views of the 24-hour news media cycle and daytime television.

Many of those that shaped our culture were rejected by it or, at the very least, were outsiders. In a sense, the creators, thinkers, inventors, and innovators of today have to find a way to exist and think outside of the hive mind of contemporary society with its 24-hour media and social media group-think.

Real — and influential — artists, designers, thinkers, authors, poets, musicians, and creators of culture have always thought new ideas and created new aesthetics. This possibility remains — and will probably always remain — open to us.

Even if the fine art world no longer produces anything akin to Surrealism, Cubism, Dada, or Abstract Impressionism, there are plenty of interesting — often obscure — painters and sculptors around. Notably, the esoteric, neopagan, occult, and alternative spirituality world is full of artists (such as Hagen von Tulien), musicians, dancers, and talismanic publishers (such as Theion Publishing).

It takes a certain amount of courage and self-awareness to dream. Yet, it is possible for all of us — to dream, to daydream, to imagine, to read widely, to think deeply, and to reject the hive mind. It is possible for many of us to create art or music or to write books or poetry. And it is possible for most people to form discussion groups, book clubs, groups that get out into the wilderness, or that just get together to improve their health and fitness.

Ultimately, the hope for the future lies where it has always been: in the hands of society’s creative minority — those few dreamers, outsiders, free-thinkers, and trail-blazers who set an example and sew the seeds of new worlds. You could be one of them.

Angel Millar is the author of The Three Stages of Initiatic Spirituality: Craftsman, Warrior, Magician.