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Slaves or masters?

A story seemingly remote today, but so important for everyone’s daily life, told in a book by Remo Bodei

Slaves to machines and new technologies, or their masters? Women and men able to exercise their freedom of choice and thought, to create harmonious development for all. These are not questions restricted to those who speculate about the major issues of modern life, but rather, issues that – for good or ill – everyone should bear in mind. Even those who have more to do with machines and new technologies, among other things. That’s why it is good for all of us to read “Dominance and Submission. Slaves, Animals, Machines, Artificial Intelligence”, a book recently published by Remo Bodei (now professor emeritus at the University of Pisa, formerly a long-time teacher at the Scuola Normale Superiore and at the University of California in Los Angeles).

Deceptively, the title of the book seems distant from modern daily life. Dominance and submission are the two terms of a highly asymmetrical power relationship that runs through the history of humanity and that has known many metamorphoses in Western civilisation. These two words tell us about a story that has lasted thousands of years. The book offers a masterly reconstruction, focussing on some exemplary moments and always addressing philosophical theories that have shaped our ways of thinking, feeling and acting, and also on the anthropological, political and cultural implications connected to these changes. History, then. History that – as happens when it is told carefully and effectively – has a lot to say about understanding modern daily life. Above all from the point of view of production and economics.
Bodei starts by describing the ancient tradition of slavery that finds its most powerful legitimisation in Aristotle. He ends centuries later with the evolution of machines, first designed to remove strenuous physical labour and later more demanding mental effort from humans. Something that continues today with robots and devices equipped with Artificial Intelligence or, in other words, with the extracorporeal transfer of human faculties such as intelligence and will, and their installation in autonomous devices.

You can understand right away how important the issue is. The author asks a question in the first pages: “If, paraphrasing the Gospel of John, the logos (the Verbum or the Word) wasn’t flesh but a machine, and if the spirit blows even on the non-living, what decisive transformations will we encounter?” Bodei’s book deals with a subject that is full of implications and fascination, but also of pitfalls and misunderstandings, and it does so with careful and effective writing. Although thick, the close to four hundred pages flow past. The beautiful Seneca quote at the end of the book sums everything up: “How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass!”

Dominio e sottomissione. Schiavi, animali, macchine, Intelligenza Artificiale (Dominance and Submission. Slaves, Animals, Machines, Artificial Intelligence)

Remo Bodei

il Mulino, 2019