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Two Tales of One Future

Posted in Artificial Inteligence, Ethical Technology, and History

Last updated on March 9, 2024

Digital technology is omnipresent in our lives, pushing in ever closer to our very being. Some say it will destroy us. Others say it will save us. Science fiction dares to predict what will happen. But before we look to tales of the future, let’s look at two tales from the past that may shed some light on questions about the future.

The First Tale

An old man is teaching his grandson about life: “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil. It is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”

“The one that you feed,” his grandfather answered. 1

The Second Tale

Daedalus was a genius inventor. He had assisted the Greek hero Theseus in escaping from King Minos’ deadly labyrinth. As punishment, the king threw Daedalus and his young son Icarus into the labyrinth. Daedalus, ever the wise craftsman, formulated a plan to escape. He collected up feathers and waxed them together to create wings for himself and his son. Once the wings were ready, Daedalus instructed his son, “Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them.”

Excited at the prospect of flying and escaping imprisonment, Icarus hastily agreed to his father’s warnings. And so, Icarus and Daedalus began their flight. At first, Icarus followed his father, staying clear of the waves, and not flying too close to the sun. However, as the exhilaration of freedom and flight coursed through young Icarus, he became reckless with pride — he began to swoop higher and higher and the sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings together. The wax melted releasing the feathers. He flailed his bare arms, but could not ride the air. Icarus fell and was lost to the sea. 2

These two tales, both tales from the past, could be considered parables to guide our choices as we encounter each great fork in the path going forward with technology.

The first tale, referred to as The Story of the Two Wolves, is steeped in controversy. Most references claim that it’s a Cherokee story. Others say it as was manufactured by the Reverend Billy Graham who attributed it to the Cherokee people without evidence. Nonetheless, its controversial origin did not stop the Walt Disney company from using it as the founding principle behind its 2015 movie, Tommorowland. The Disney movie perfectly encapsulates the point of the first tale, as presented above. And be aware that there are spoilers coming.

It’s 1964 at the New York World’s Fair, where young boy inventor, Frank Walker, hopes to sell his jet pack invention. His invention is rejected. Intrigued by Frank, a young girl named Athena gives Frank a pin with a “T” on it. Dejected but undaunted, he follows Athena on a ride at the fair. His pin is scanned in a tunnel on the ride and he is transported to Tommorowland, an emerging futuristic city in a supposed parallel dimension.

Fast forward to 2015 where Casey, the teenage daughter of an out of work Nasa engineer, is covertly trying to sabotage the demolition of a NASA Launchpad to preserve NASA itself. After being caught and bailed out, she encounters the same “T” pin. When she touches it, she is transported to Tommorowland – or at least that’s what she thinks. What we see as we follow Casey through Tommorowland is nothing less than a utopian vision of a future society that exists in perfect harmony with nature and world peace. The city is pristine showing no sign of wear. The technology is at once astounding, miraculous, artistic, safe, and seemingly unlimited. The population is diverse, highly educated, happy, and free from the prejudices and crime that plague our modern world. But the pin turns out to be an “ad” and Casey is rudely plopped back into her normal unfulfilling life.

Having seen it, she wants to go back. With the help of Athena (still a girl and really an android), Casey finds a now grown up, but reclusive, Frank Walker to get him to take her back to Tommorowland, even though he’s been banished. He makes it clear to Casey that Tommorowland is no longer what she saw. Even worse, Frank had invented a technology that could predict with mathematical certainty when all of the existential threats of humanity will end life as we know it – and it registered that probability at 100%.

The story is presenting us with an age-old hypothetical question. What would you do if you were told exactly when you were going to die and that it turns out to be soon? Would you logically accept the certainty of the prediction or illogically refuse to accept it? When Casey refuses, the probability drops by a fraction of a percentage, opening up a glimmer of hope that optimism may be able to change mathematical certainty. It motivates Casey, Frank, and Athena to find a way back to Tommorowland. They do and find it vacant and worse for wear. Tommorowland’s governor captures them and demonstrates how Frank’s invention, the Monitor, can show them the demise of their world. It is soon revealed that the Governor was using the Monitor to scare people into avoiding destruction by planting visions of apocalypse into people’s heads – “scared straight,” so to speak. But instead of changing their ways, people ate up the visions and became addicted to the inevitability of their own demise.

It’s at this point that Tommorowland makes the connection to the Story of the Two Wolves. Tommorowland is presenting us with an amplified example of “feeding the wrong wolf.” Casey perceives this and, with Frank and Athena, destroys the Monitor, the very technological wonder that is feeding humanity’s addiction to pessimism. They avert humanity’s self-destruction and restore Tommorowland to what it was. The goal then becomes recruiting dreamers, or as Casey puts it, “the people who want to feed the right wolf.”

Near the end, Frank tells the new recruiters, “It’s easy to tear down an evil tower that is predicting the end of the world. What’s hard to do is figuring out what to put in its place.” I resonate with this statement after working 20 years in technology watching “disrupt” become its mantra. What to put in place of what has been disrupted is rarely thought through. There’s never enough time.

Illustration of Athena, Frank, and Casey gazing on Tomorrowland
Athena, Frank Walker, and Casey gaze upon Tommorowland. 3

I have to admit that I’m enticed by the idea of Tommorowland – by its beauty and its promise. And while I appreciate the story’s call to be mindful of “what to build in its place,” I find the notion of “feeding the right wolf” to be too pat and too simplistic to account for millennia of genetically inherent human nature. Believing that unbridled optimism will, in itself, save us from the forces of our common “id” lacks credulity. Tommorowland is an addictive optimistic vision. My question is will feeding the right wolf while starving the wrong wolf achieve that promise?

Anthony van Dyke's painting, Daedalus and Icarus, showing Daedalus warning his son to take the middle way, circa 1625.
Anthony van Dyke’s painting, Daedalus and Icarus, showing Daedalus warning his son to take the middle way, circa 1625. 4

The second tale, known as The Fall of Icarus, dates back to Greek mythology. It is connected with the word, hubris, meaning “wanton violence, insolence, outrage,” in the ancient definition, “presumption toward the gods.” Icarus, in his recklessness and pride, flew too high. In Greek mythological terms, that means he acted too godlike.

I thought of The Fall of Icarus when I encountered illustrator Simon Stålenhag’s graphic novel, Tales From the Loop, which has been made into an Amazon series. Tales from the Loop presents an alternative history of what happened after scientists in 1954 created the world’s largest particle accelerator, an invention that uncovered new capabilities of leveraging physics. The Loop, built with the stated intent of “unlocking and exploring the mysteries of the universe,” released with its implementation a myriad of unintended consequences. As scientists charged into innovations birthed from the power of the Loop, projects were abandoned – projects that littered the landscape above as otherworldly objects, some of which reaped life altering consequences to the residents.

But the unforeseen consequences don’t stop there. In Stålenhag’s sequel book, Things From The Flood, scientists and engineers use their newfound power of the Loop to create further “advances” in artificial intelligence and physics-altering technologies. Eventually, the government decommissions the Loop and it is abandoned, left to become an underground derelict. Then disaster ensues when its very existence creates a major flood that displaces the populace. The technological “chickens” come home to roost. Androids, forgotten and marginalized, wander the land as “vagabonds.” Massive robots, neglected by humans, become plagued with seemingly organic mutations that leave them demented. Even time itself is fractured, allowing long extinct creatures from the past to wander into the modern world.

Stålenhag follows up Things From The Flood with The Electric State, which is soon to be released as a series on Netflix. The Electric State, set in the United States, explores similar examples of fallout from technological hubris, including unforeseen consequences of human addiction to virtual reality headsets which lead people into complete loss of will and slow death from self-imposed starvation.

A scene from The Electric State – A large demented droid reaches for a woman in a car with its tentacles while a hoard of pliant virtual reality addicts follow at its feet.
A scene from The Electric State – A large demented droid reaches for a woman in a car with its tentacles while a hoard of pliant virtual reality addicts follow at its feet. 5

Like The Fall of Icarus, these three books illustrate what happens when hubris reigns supreme over caution in innovation. Our present world does not have a physics-altering particle accelerator in it. But, we do have Silicon Valley, which is pushing untested innovation forward at a breathless pace, most recently in the new, hot craze of AI.

In a recent article in The Free Press, Julia Steinberg writes about the emerging split in the industry’s approach to future development. On one side are those who believe that unbridled technological development, especially in AI, represents an existential threat to humanity. Opposing them are the “effective accelerationists,” who believe that AI will not achieve its full potential unless it is allowed to proceed with market forces as its guide to development. They are so convinced in the validity of this approach, they have created a logo, or “flag,” that shows nothing more than an exponential growth curve to represent an ever-increasing pace of AI development. I can think of no better indicator of hubris in today’s world than a flag that represents unbridled, untested exponential growth of a dangerous technology in the belief that it will “change the world,” which translated in the modern “religion of change,” means “change is always good.”

The rusting towers of Bethlehem Steel, namesake of the Pennsylvania town once synonymous with American progress.
The rusting towers of Bethlehem Steel, namesake of the Pennsylvania town once synonymous with American progress. Photo credit: “Sonic” on Pexels.com (copyright free).

Stålenhag presents an underlying thread of abandoned technology throughout all three books. The world is littered with derelict machines. This vision does not come out of a vacuum of dystopian imaginings. Over the last several years, people who call themselves urban explorers have created an entire genre of videos that document hundreds of forgotten hotels, abandoned malls, derelict factories, decaying theme parks, unpopulated cities, and toxic towns. These languishing places stand as evidence of a modern culture that precipitously creates and, with equal speed, abandons its creations.

Disney’s Tommorowland and Stålenhag’s books all present the popular science fiction concept of the “alternative universe.” The real value of this concept lies not in seeing them as parallel states, but as states that represent the outcome of choices. Disney and Stålenhag are presenting two different paths that represent one future. One is shiny, pristine, and utopian. The other is bleak, decaying, and dystopian. But, is it really a choice of all one or all the other?

In the last decade, our country – and indeed the world – has become more and more polarized. Politics have become tribal forces. Tribal adherents demand that everyone must choose between being a “warrior” for the tribe or be deemed an “enemy” against the tribe. The same thing has happened in technology. Technology’s acolytes see its existence as the prescription for “saving the world.” Anyone who dares to question the ethics of any technological innovation is labeled a Luddite, even though the Luddites did not oppose technology. In this all-or-nothing cultural climate, there are no choices other than Utopia or Dystopia.

But, let’s return to The Tale of the Two Wolves. Because, there’s another version with a very different moral.

In this other version of the “two wolves” tale, the old man presents his grandson with the same premise of the internal struggle of the two wolves.

“Which wolf will win,” the grandson asks.

“If you feed them right, they both win,” he answers. “You see, if I only feed the good wolf, the bad wolf will hide in the dark waiting for me to falter so that it can pounce and get the attention it craves. It will always be angry and will always be fighting the good wolf. But if I acknowledge the bad wolf, both can be satisfied and we all win. For the bad wolf has qualities that I need and that the good wolf lacks: tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strength of will, and resourcefulness. The good wolf instead provides compassion, caring, heart, and the ability to value the needs of others over my own. You see, the two wolves need each other. Feeding only one and starving the other will eventually make both uncontrollable. Caring for both allows them both to serve you, so that you can do something greater, something good with your time on earth. Feed them both and you will quiet their internal struggle for your attention, and, when there is no battle inside, you can then hear the voices of deeper knowledge that will guide you in choosing the right path in every circumstance.” 6

For me, it is in this version of the tale where the answer lies. It’s not “the wolves” that represent the source of our internal conflict. It’s ascribing to absolute thinking. The critical choices we are making in technology are happening right now. It’s becoming more and more godlike every day. Our institutions, Medieval in comparison, cannot keep up. And it will not save us from our temptation to abuse its power through our own inherent Paleolithic emotions. As Nicholas Carr once wrote:

“Technology is an amplifier. It magnifies our best traits, and it magnifies our worst. What it doesn’t do is make us better people. That’s a job we can’t offload on machines.” 7

We must not let the specter of existential threats become the self-fulfilling prophesy of Tommorowland’s “Monitor.” Neither must we give human hubris free reign over the choices we make, which will surely lead us to a Stålenhag dystopia. We must feed both wolves, carefully, thoughtfully, and fly forward on the middle way. ❖

 

Author’s Note

As Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains:

“Links don’t just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them. They encourage us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them. Hyperlinks are designed to grab our attention. Their value as navigation tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause.” 8

In recognition of this important point, I have decided to provide citations and links to related resources here at the bottom. Even if it’s online, let’s return reading to being a sustained experience without the constant distractions of links that scream, “go here!”

References

  1. Yeo, Alyssa LPC, CYT. “The Story of Two Wolves.” Urban Balance. Urban Balance, February 24, 2016. https://www.urbanbalance.com/the-story-of-two-wolves/
  2. Williams, Bethany BA, MA. “How the Mighty Fall: The Hubris of 6 Greek Heroes.” TheCollector. The Collector, https://www.thecollector.com/greek-heroes-hubris/
  3. Tomorrowland Movie Futuristic Architecture Wallpaper. 200. Illustration. https://wallpapers.com/tomorrowland-movie-pictures
  4. Van Dyck, Anthony. Daedalus and Icarus. Painting. Google Art Project, Wikimedia Commons, November 1, 2012.
  5. Stålenhag, Simon. 2017. The Electric State. Skybound Books. https://www.simonstalenhag.se/es.html
  6. Poell, Nicole Psy.D. “The Original Cherokee Story of Two Wolves.” Nicole Poell Psy.D. August 20, 2019. https://www.drnicolepoell.com/blog/2018/7/10/blog-headline-376gb-tm28t.
  7. Carr, Nicholas. “How Tech Created a Global Village — And Put Us at Each Other’s Throats.” Boston Globe (Boston), April 21, 2017. https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2017/04/21/how-technology-created-global-village-and-put-each-other-throats/pu7MyoAkdyVComb9aKyu6K/story.html.
  8. Carr, Nicholas. 2011. The Shallows, What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Cover photo: A photo that I took of my copies of Simon Stålenhag’s books along side of a Tommorowland pin, which the Disney Company sells.

Further Reading and Resources

Disney’s Tomorrowland:
https://movies.disney.com/tomorrowland

Simon Stålenhag’s books:
Tales From The Loop, Things From The Flood, The Electric State

Simon Stålenhag’s website:
https://www.simonstalenhag.se/index.html

Regarding the forthcoming Netflix series, The Electric State:

There appears to be a trailer on YouTube labelled as “official.” But I see no reference to Netflix on it. To get a better sense of what the movie may be like, check out Berkay Tunali’s YouTube video: Electric State (Retro Future Sci-fi Short Film) by Simon Stalenhag. I love how he’s using Carbon Based Lifeforms’ track “Derelicts,” which includes with the music the spoken words. “obsolete technology, derelict machines” — very appropriate!

Also, Curious Archive presents an excellent review of the Stalenhag book in their YouTube video, The Breathtaking Horror of ‘The Electric State.’

Examples of Urban Explorers:

The best source for viewing abandoned factories, hotels, institutions, theaters, theme parks, subways, high-rise developments, etc. comes from The Proper People on YouTube.

As for abandoned malls, no one documents this phenomenon better than Sal Guido with his Expedition Logs on YouTube. Sal has done extensive research into all of the malls he documents. If you’ve ever wondered about why malls are being abandoned at an astounding rate, look at Sal’s videos. Chances are good you will find a mall from your memory that is now abandoned!

Julia Steinberg’s article in the Free Press:

It’s called Move Fast and Make Things. It’s an excellent summary of the ideological split in AI development.

Regarding the epithet, “Luddite!”

In this piece, I make a reference to the Luddites not being opposed to technology. Here is the Smithsonian’s article on the Luddites, which clear shows what they were opposed to was unethical technology. By that real and historical definition, I proudly call myself a Luddite!

—JRG

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