- October 11, 2023
- Bryan Appleyard
- Themes: Books, Philosophy, Politics
Can Thomas Hobbes save the modern world?
The Handover: How We Gave Control of Our Lives to Corporations, States and AIs, David Runciman, Profile Books, £20
Thomas Hobbes is having a good 2023. Once popularly considered as a miserable old cynic and bore, now, 350 years after his death, he is back where he belongs as one of the greatest of all political philosophers. This has happened this autumn thanks to two books – John Gray’s masterly, visionary The New Leviathans and, now, David Runciman’s careful analysis in The Handover.
Hobbes’s resurrection is timely. A combination of apocalyptic threats and crumbling political certainties has undermined all our post-war comforts – most recently the seemingly endless war between Israel and Palestine has reignited in the Middle East. Meanwhile, climate change, heightened superpower tensions with nuclear overtones, and artificial intelligence threaten the continued existence of our species. In the midst of this there is growing unease in the West about whether our liberal democracies really are the last word in stable government – perhaps the despots have a point.
Hobbes’s Leviathan – his greatest book – had one answer. To keep us from the violent ways of our nature, we require a single over-arching authority. It need not tell us what to believe or think, or even, within reason, behave; it only requires our loyalty. This would be enough to save us from the ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ lives to which untamed nature condemned us.
Hobbes was, as has been pointed out, the first post-liberal thinker without ever having experienced liberalism himself. Gray, too, is post-liberal in that he sees liberalism collapsing beneath the weight of assorted woke-ish commandments and the rising confidence and power of anti-liberal states. Runciman is not sure.
His novel take on all this is his belief that we have already, in the name of freedom, surrendered much of our freedom to the twin leviathans of corporations and states. This began in the seventeenth century and accelerated rapidly during the industrial revolution. States and corporations are, in effect, robots. Hobbes was on to this – he didn’t have the word ‘robot’ to define our new machines, but he did call them automatons.
‘The term he uses is automaton’, Runciman writes, ‘meaning an object that moves mechanically rather than naturally: “made not born” was the standard way of describing what was distinctive about automata.’
Runciman is careful to be clear about this use of language. We are not here talking about ‘Frankenstein or the Iron Giant or Robocop’; rather we have created a mechanical fiction – ‘something in which we believe because it is organised to work as efficiently as any machine’.
Automata/robots are personalities without consciousness, designed to provide machine-like predictability. Politicians and businessmen may think they are brilliant and free in their actions and decision-making, but their freedom is always circumscribed by the machinery we have built. For nearly four hundred years this has been a highly effective solution to chaos and human fallibility, generating wealth and sustaining identities: ‘We built states and corporations and states and corporations built the world we now inhabit.’
This often goes wrong. The robots known as banks, for example, have succeeded in bringing the world to its knees with appalling regularity. Nevertheless, each time we survived and were able to tinker with the misbehaving machinery. But now there is a problem, inevitably of our own making in relying on robots – ‘We designed them. They may turn out to be our nemesis.’
‘In each case (nuclear, climate, bio, AI)’, Runciman writes, ‘what we are facing is the coming together of relatively unchanging human nature – we remain a curious, creative, easily distracted, ultimately vulnerable species – with the rapidly accelerating possibilities of technological havoc.’
The problem is that we are now building machines that are deliberately designed to further limit the scope of human action. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the upgrade that is now being rapidly downloaded. There has been much discussion for some years about the effects of autonomous intelligent machines. For some they bring hope. In his last book (co-written by me), Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, James Lovelock suggested AI beings could save us from our suicidal obsession with changing the climate. They would think 10,000 times faster than us and, therefore, see us as we see plants. But they might be nice and love us as we do plants and, meanwhile, they could preserve consciousness in the universe, an ultimate good for Lovelock.
Or – and this is the supreme fear of AI sceptics – they might simply dispose of us and our dumb, dirty ways. The problem is that big, rich and highly competitive automata – states and companies – are behind AI and they are not likely to give up. Some Silicon Valley companies put out a statement saying AI should be regulated, but it was a political move. They certainly weren’t being serious.
Runciman suggests a fair compromise – ‘It’s not a question of us versus them. It’s a question of which of them gives us the best chance of still being us.’ But he also notes that Hobbes saw that it was the corporate automata – think Google, Meta, etc – who were threats to the stability of the Leviathan states. They were ‘lesser commonwealths in the bowels of a greater, like worms in the entrails of a natural man’.
From the eighteenth century another philosopher, Condorcet, offers a hopeful thought – that ‘a well-run democracy might still access something that the Leviathan never can: genuine collective artificial intelligence’.
This returned in our time as the wisdom of crowds, which, as Runciman notes, ‘provides the basis for the modern faith that has come to be placed in markets’. So-called efficient markets would be, in this faith, ‘the closest thing we have to an oracle in our secular world’. And, of course, it’s nonsense. Hardline free-market thinking, as we have learned to our cost, explains nothing and justifies anything, notably the bad behaviour of companies. In the eighteenth century Edward Thurlow noted that ‘corporations have neither bodies to be kicked, nor souls to be damned; they therefore do as they like’.
But, admirably, Runciman is not in the business of providing easy answers to any of this. The new, intelligent machines will arrive and may well and abolish our 400-year-old dependence on our machine fictions, the Hobbesian automata. They may also abolish us. This may be unlikely but what is certain is that they will change us. Into what?
Brilliantly, Runciman suggests our destiny may be the same as that of the horse. The internal combustion engine wiped out the usefulness of horses in a few decades. Alarming enough, but compare that to the computers of DeepMind – a subsidiary of Google – managed to created AlphaZero, a system that, in 24 hours, made itself unbeatable at chess – ‘3,000 years of chess knowledge picked up… in less than twenty-four hours’. We might continue to exist with our horses but perhaps only as players of that supremely daft, ugly and cruel game of fox hunting.
The Handover does not engage in neat conclusions or easy answers. What it does do is explain the question with great honesty and clarity. But Runciman does make it clear that he believes the answer is in our hands.
‘When we view the long-term future of humanity through the prism of existential risk it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the fate of the species is in our hands. Anything else feels like an abdication of responsibility.’
Throwing up our hands in despair and letting Silicon Valley or Chinese software continue to play havoc with our minds is clearly not an option, though at the moment it looks like our destiny. But we are approaching a moment of radical change, the end of the Hobbesian world of leviathans and automata, of four hundred years of economic growth and mass murder.
In Runciman’s conclusion he suggests we do not slip into any kind of complacency. We are in the modern world, the age that succeeded ‘the age of superstition and magic’, but, he insists, we should not believe modernity is any kind of final state, nor that it is necessarily desirable.
‘We should not forget how strange modernity is, compared with what went before. It has its own monsters. They have their own otherworldly, preternatural qualities.’
The Handover rambles slightly – perhaps there is no other way to cover, well, everything – but it is hugely informative and refreshingly free of ideology and cheap audience-grabbing. We are, as always, standing on the brink of the future, but this time, Runciman shows, it matters because of one thing we can be sure, it will be nothing like the 400-year-old present.