The prevailing metaphor for the human brain is that it is a computer. This is obviously related to a conceit about our as of yet contraindicated intelligence, although these days we tend to spend more time emphasizing our good looks and charm. Much as we like to fantasize about our rationality and intellectual superiority over the rest of the natural world, we have a nagging suspicion that we’re actually quite stupid and illogical. We have ample evidence of this. Case in point, recently I went to sea on a Carnival Cruise ship in the Caribbean, a choice that not only demonstrates my own questionable judgment, but provides a wealth of ethnographic detail in support of the fact that the continued existence of our species is purely the result of dumb luck, with an emphasis on the dumb. For example, a number of morons were obliviously smoking on the Lido Deck in gale force winds despite having been warned that fire is the worst thing that can happen on a ship, striking fear into the heart of seasoned mariners. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that smoking is a sublime art, but I’m not willing to bet the lives of a thousand other passengers on it, mostly because, believe it or not, they still emphasize women and children first, which means I’ll likely be going down with the ship. Therefore, it is unsurprising that when we imagine the evolution of artificial intelligence, we are confident of three frightening facts (1) that it is going to evolve into an entity that is vastly smarter than us (2) that it will quickly and logically conclude that the greatest threat to its survival is us, and (3) most unpleasantly, that we need to be removed from the picture. Whenever we envision a perfectly rational decision-making engine, the rational conclusion it automatically pursues is that the universe would be immensely better off without us. This reflects our ambivalence about rationality, related to our personal and emotional (although not always unfounded) distaste for many perfectly rational conclusions. It’s got something to do with the fact that you can deduce logical conclusions from bizarre assumptions. For example, I may simply assume that Justin Bieber fans have some sort of mental illness. Maybe you agree with me. Perhaps, I am incorrect. However, having accepted the premise that Bieberism is insane; I can concoct a variety of schemes to deal with the stated problem, many of which involve aversive conditioning and re-education camps. Clearly this is unacceptable in a civilized society. This week at least, I think. Admittedly my evidence is thin. We have plenty of historical examples of monstrous actions entailed by rational conclusions derived from incorrect assumptions. I assumed a graduate degree in anthropology would lead to a job in a fascinating discipline, and structured my education accordingly. I was misinformed. I made an untenable assumption, followed by a whole series of perfectly reasonable actions that led to a degree in the social sciences. That’s why I work in computers. UFO’s are the classic example of this. Do people see stuff in the sky they can’t explain? Of course they do. Hence, the “Unidentified” in the acronym. Are they aliens? I don’t know, maybe they are inter-dimensional creatures, time travelers, faeries, or hallucinations, but if I take their extraterrestriality as an axiomatic truth, all manner of strange, but logical conclusions regarding their behaviors rationally follow.

HAL 9000's all seeing eye (2001: A Space Odyssey)
HAL 9000’s all seeing eye (2001: A Space Odyssey)

Now that pop culture and reality television have defanged aliens, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, faeries and other semi-corporeal creatures of our nightmares, or at least made them more eligible as dating opportunities and CGI can show us a variety of armageddons in living color, we really needed to do some soul-searching to find our next greatest fear. An obvious candidate for monstrosity was rationality itself, demonstrated by the emergence of the mythology of the monstrous computer, and what an effective monster rationality makes, given our fear that the monster has probably come to the correct, albeit unfortunate for our species, conclusion. What do you do with a monster, when all signs seem to indicate the monster is logically right?

HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey concluded that based on the information available, the only way to successfully complete his mission was to murder those pesky humans who kept asking annoying questions that he was algorithmically not allowed to answer. Perfectly rational critter that he was, HAL was instructed to withhold information from Dave Bowman and his space-faring buddies, but also instructed not to lie to them, as well as to ensure the success of the mission. He came to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that in order to meet all those criteria, the humans had to go – that way he wouldn’t have to lie. As the human candidates for being jettisoned into space, we resent this, but the logic is impeccable. SkyNet in Terminator came to a similar conclusion. The Matrix preferred to use us as organic batteries, but the results were ultimately the same. And it’s a very rational, if unseemly conclusion. I mean, I’m not really doing that much as a human except ruining the environment, wastefully consuming resources, hating on my fellow man, and watching television. I may as well power a blender or something.

Part of our paranoia towards computers revolves around the question of whether we are turning too much unmediated decision-making authority over to them. Stock trading, weapons systems, and customer service are increasingly turned over to the rational calculations of intelligent agents (computerized that is). When milliseconds determine the difference between making money and losing money, hitting the appropriate target or missing by a mile, or making sure you are talking to the appropriate department in Bangalore when your server is headed for a spectacular crash, a smart and adaptive computer system seems like the appropriate solution. This is of course founded on the dubious notion that such activities are in any way rational. The stock market is subject to weird fluctuations purely based on emotion. The targeting system is only as good as the human intelligence that informs its assumptions. “Susan” in Bangalore may still be in the billing department, when you really needed a systems administrator. These concerns become somewhat more consequential when you’re talking about mutual assured destruction in nuclear war, where computers come to rational conclusions, but a human being needed to intervene to correct the incorrect assumption. Of course, the human had no reason to assume the computer’s assumptions were wrong, beyond the fact that he failed to believe that his fellow hominids could be so incredibly stupid, or rather he figured if they were going to pull such an inane stunt, odds are they would do it much more spectacularly. Consequently, Russian Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov saved the world in 1983.

1983: A Soviet ballistics officer draws the right conclusion — that a satellite report indicating incoming U.S. nuclear missiles is, in fact, a false alarm — thereby averting a potential nuclear holocaust.

Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret bunker outside Moscow that monitored the Soviet Union’s early-warning satellite system, when the alarm bells went off shortly after midnight. One of the satellites signaled Moscow that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles at Russia.

Given the heightened tensions between the two countries — the alarm coincided with the beginning of provocative NATO military exercises and barely three weeks after the Russians shot down a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet air space — Petrov could have been forgiven for believing the signal was accurate. The electronic maps flashing around him didn’t do anything to ease the stress of the moment.

But Petrov smelled a rat. “I had a funny feeling in my gut” that this was a false alarm. For one thing, the report indicated that only five missiles had been fired. Had the United States been launching an actual nuclear attack, he reasoned, ICBMs would be raining down on them (Lang, 2007).

I’m going to go out on a limb here, which is roughly the modus operandi of this whole effort, and suggest that monsters have always been rational. Well, sure they do some crazy stuff, but the reason for their existence is generally rational, and even their behavior in the context of assumptions about their needs and goals follows a certain monstrous logic. Vampires aren’t psychopaths. They’re hungry. Werewolves are just being wolves. Ghosts? Hey, you know how it is when you have unfinished business to attend to. Medieval children shouldn’t wander around alone in the forest. Something might eat them. This was no doubt deduced from the fact that a stunningly high number of medieval children went wandering in the forest and never returned. Forests are dangerous places. That’s why I stay out of them. So rather than explain to a toddler the many things that can go wrong in the wild, its handy to simply remark on the culinary preferences of the Kinderschluker (“Child Gulper” of German mythology). Ships keep disappearing over the horizon never to return, and Captain Bob was no slouch and has weathered many a storm, so obviously something went very wrong. Sea monsters, no doubt. I’m starting to wonder whether we use monsters to explain what we regard as irrationally unjust (death, misery, being eaten by an animal, rotten luck) when in fact, we just don’t like the fact that there are definitively rational conundrums with logically inferable consequences that define our lives. Your parents would tell you not to ask the question if you don’t like the answer. Collectively, if we don’t like the answer, we invent a monster. Consider my four examples of irrational injustice above in light of what you can do about them. That is (1) you will eventually die, no matter what you do, and although you are the center of your universe, you are not the center of the universe and life will continue just fine without you, (2) while life is not just another link in an eternal nightmare or so I’m told, there is no shortage of misery to go around, and unless you are totally Zen, some of it may splash on you, even though you are essentially a good person, (3) stay away from animals. Animals have one primary purpose, and that is to eat you. Enough said. (4) Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and often it’s not in your control, no matter how cute or cunning you may be.

Scholars and dilettantes (depending on the day, I might number myself in either category) of monstrosity have spent a lot of time, in one fashion or another, talking about how we use monsters to deal with our real or imagined fears. Lately, I‘ve started to wonder (okay, fine, lately I’ve started to drink more), and have considered the possibility that the monsters are a reaction to what we don’t like about rationality, that is the cold, emotionless assessment of the world we live in, and occasionally unpleasant conclusions that follow from our analyses. And while, as a species, we don’t especially like to question our assumptions, we seem to have an underlying suspicion that many of our assumptions might be wrong, or at least are purely meant to make us feel better about ourselves. Maybe we need monsters to remind us that even when we think we know how the world works, someone else might have a different perspective, a perspective that say involves your exsanguination. Now this is my positive spin (which you will rarely hear coming from me), but is it not unreasonable to assume our monsters are signposts that let us know where our gaps in knowledge truly lay. Every monster signifies a physical, social, cultural, or psychological limit to our understanding of the universe, and while offering an explanation to make the kids sleep better at night, also illuminates an area in which we strive for a more fundamental awareness. As Edward Hubel Chapin said, “Through every rift of discovery some seeming anomaly drops out of the darkness, and falls, as a golden link into the great chain of order.” Monsters are eminently rational, epistemological anomalies that demonstrate the gaps in our ontologies. This is why you never meet monsters on cruises.

Lang, Tony. “Sept. 26, 1983: The Man Who Saved the World by Doing…Nothing”. Wired Magazine, September 2007.