St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

Summa Technologiae by Stanisław Lem

The cover of 'Summa Technologiae' (Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1974)

Stanisław Lem was an intimidatingly intelligent man capable of wild comedy (The Cyberiad), thoughtful science fiction (Solaris), or literary satire (A Perfect Vacuum). I’ve loved his fiction for a long time and have always known it had deep philosophical roots, but I didn’t quite realise how deep until I read Summa Technologiae, his book of techno-philosophy where he outlines and asks questions about the course of technology, life, and civilisation. It asks more questions than it answers, and what answers it gives Lem often leaves open to future possibilities, but the scope of his vision is still breathtaking. As with his works of fiction it has substantially changed the way I look at science. The threat of being conquered by intelligent robots, for example, has been given such a lot of airtime over the years; Lem dismisses it immediately, not as impossible, but as pointless. No-one will ever build robots like that because the goals of AI lie elsewhere.

I’m in no way qualified to offer a summary of everything Lem covers, but I want to give you an idea of what you might be in for. Lem writes about the similarities and differences between the evolution of biological life and the evolution of technology; he examines the possibility of the existence of life in the universe and what those findings mean to us; he predicts certain closing windows, such as the exponential growth of scientific progress and the consumption of energy resources, which will impose a hard limit on our civilisation if we don’t come up with solutions in time; he outlines ways that constructs could farm information and perform scientific research for us; he predicts artificial realities and worlds; and finally he critiques natural evolution so that we can learn from its limitations.

He doesn’t talk about science fiction much in this book, but I’ll mention it here anyway. What I find hard to countenance about Lem was his snobbery about sci-fi as a genre, particularly as I’m a “frock” who prefers a good camp romp over gruelling “hard” sci-fi. He completely dismissed storytelling for its own sake as puerile. He once said, “If all an author has to offer is a ‘fantastic story’, I am able to come up with a dozen of my own.”1 — an attitude that seems impossibly arrogant. He thought the only legitimate use of sci-fi was to analyse the future and work through the challenges and moral problems we’ll encounter, whereas I think it’s also valid to say sci-fi can be used to hold a mirror to the present by extrapolating it (Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, or The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin). It’s also allowed just to be fun. Something can be enjoyed for its own sake without having to mean anything. Since learning he liked Star Wars2 I have to wonder just how dedicated he was to dissing “fantastic stories” in the face of something even he couldn’t have done himself.

When you look at just how penetrating Lem’s insight into the future was, though, I suppose you can see how he’d be bored by people retreading the same old junk without bringing anything new to the table. I’m guilty of this too. I laughed so hard during Inception that my then-boyfriend switched it off and stormed out of the room. I also fell asleep in Avatar. These are trite and boring movies consumed with their own cleverness for ideas that are decades old and have been done a dozen times. The only reason people like them is because they’re wowed by special effects, which I’m not criticising if that’s your jam, but you’ll have to do more than that to keep me in the room. What you bring to the table doesn’t have to be a new idea necessarily — it could be the nature of the characters, the drama, or the humour. Red Dwarf, for example, has done the “dream machine” concept more than once, and it rocks not because it’s a new idea but because it’s funny and because it makes the shock of waking up in another life very personal to the characters.

But back to Summa Technologiae. I really think philosophy should be personal. How can we lead fulfilling lives? How should we behave towards each other in our relationships, friendships, and acquaintanceships? What should be our goals in building a society and a civilisation? Philosophy is meaningless unless it has a human impact. (Questions about the nature of reality, by the way, were long in the domain of philosophy but are now in the domain of science. “What is real, anyway?” and “What is the nature of consciousness?” are scientific questions, not philosophical ones.) One philosophical question that Lem takes as read is that civilisation is worth prolonging for as long as possible. He describes Buddhism as a beautiful religion, but ultimately a problematic one because it addresses individual happiness at the expense of broader social problems. Lem assumes that civilisation must come first, but then what’s the point of building a future where everyone is miserable? Of course that’s not a requirement of the future Lem describes, but he makes no attempt to address the philosophy of the individual. Likewise he takes technological advancement as an unambiguously good thing. I’m not one of those cultural relativists who think that cultures without science are just as valid as ours (Would you like some infant mortality with your relativism? It’s colonialist “noble savage” septic runoff.) but technology is not desirable for its own sake — it is only desirable if it works for us. Lem foresees information farms that can produce and test scientific hypotheses, he foresees us undertaking to modify our biology in radical ways. Maybe, as he points out, these things are inevitable so we have to examine the possibility, but I feel like it leaves out any vision of personal fulfillment. In short, it’s half the story. Lem has never struck me as the most empathetic person in the world, and maybe he doesn’t need to be, but his philosophy definitely has to be paired with its missing half to complete the picture. As far as I’m aware he has never tackled anything like this in his fiction either, whereas someone like Ursula Le Guin definitely has.

Lem does make some important points about the future and how we must approach it. If only people approached the future with any kind of foresight or planning. Unfortunately civilisation is run by people who’ll do anything to stay in power and line their own pockets. Even scientists and inventors just go where the money is and don’t have much regard for the evils their work causes. (I’m not even thinking of the von Brauns here, but the Zuckerbergs and that ilk.) The fact is we don’t approach the future with any kind of plan in mind — we just stumble into whatever comes along as a by-product of our own goals. Lem explicitly mentions this problem but avoids addressing it. This book, then, is for a civilisation populated by spherical cows in a vacuum. Whenever I read something like Summa Technologiae, I wind up in a funk because I feel like it vaults over the problems we have now that will prevent us even getting to the problems in the future. Both sets of problems are worth our attention, but it’s hard to take the long view when our society is built to favour the short-sighted.

Lem was not unaware of all the problems with the present. He died in 2006 so he lived long enough to see the advent of the Internet and mobile phones, if not social media and smartphones. He thought that it was already too late for us to automate the process of scientific discovery and thereby circumvent the limits of our capacity to understand and apply information:

So what — if my books were translated into forty languages and the total print-run reached 27 million copies? They will all vanish, since streams of new books are flooding everything, washing down was [sic] had been written earlier. Today a book in a bookstore does not even have the time to gather some dust. It is true that we live longer now — but the life of everything around us became much shorter. This is sad, but no one can stop this process. The world around us is dying so quickly that one cannot really get used to anything.3

He also became aware of the fact that people simply weren’t behaving with the kind of rationality and thoughtfulness he’d anticipated:

I am irritated by evil and stupidity. Evil results from stupidity, while stupidity feeds on Evil. Television is full of violence and desensitizes us. Internet makes it easier to hurt our neighbors. […] We live in a period of an incredible acceleration. We are like a man who jumped off the roof of a fifty-story building and reached the thirtieth floor. Someone looking out of the windows asks: “How are you doing?” and the falling man replies: “Everything is fine, so far”. We are unaware of the speed that captured us. The technology moves forward, however the control of its direction is very weak.4

I hope none of that puts you off Summa Technologiae. It’s true that its philosophy and science don’t affect us right away and that we have more immediate problems, but it is an extraordinary work in its own right. You could take any subheading in this book and write a whole novel or make a movie about it. If I didn’t know better I’d say people have been using Lem’s work as a playbook for making science fiction for the last sixty years. It’s also given me a fantastic bullshit detector when it comes to the claims people make about the future. Everyone likes to paint ominous pictures of where we’re going, but it seems like a lot of junk in the vein of The Matrix or Inception can be thrown out immediately unless you’re just in it for the wow and sparkle. A lot of blowhards like to make predictions about things like AI or aliens, but Lem’s next-level insight exposes the shallowness of their thinking. Science is something more wonderful than our petty dreams and primal fears. The universe has more to offer than golems and boogeymen. There is something inspiring about learning where we could wind up, even if humanity doesn’t quite have what it takes to get there.