Field of Science

Man as a "machine-tickling aphid"

May be a close-up of nature

On the playground in the park today, my daughter and I played with some carpenter ants and the aphids they were farming. The phenomenon never ceases to fascinate me - the aphids being sheltered from natural predators under leaves and sap-rich areas of trees by the ants; the ants milking the aphids for their tasty, sugary honeydew in turn by gently stroking them.
It's doubly fascinating because as recounted in George Dyson's "Darwin Among the Machines", in his groundbreaking 1872 book "Erewhon", Victorian writer and polymath Samuel Butler wondered whether human relationships with machines will one day become very similar to those between ants and aphids, with humans essentially becoming dependent on machines to provide them with constant, nurturing stimulation and feeding: "May not man himself become a sort of parasite upon the machines? An affectionate machine-tickling aphid?", wrote Butler.
In this scenario, there's no need to imagine a Terminator-style takeover of human society by computers; instead, humans will willingly give themselves over to the illusions of tender, loving care provided by machines, becoming permanently dependent and parasitic on them and becoming, in effect, code's way to replicate itself. Clearly, Butler's vision was incredibly prescient and ahead of its time, and resoundingly true as indicated by the medium in which I am typing these words.


  1. Shouldn't it be Man as "Machine Tickled Aphids"?

  2. At the moment, I feel like we are more the ants than the aphids. But maybe that's going to reverse at some point ...


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS