The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Big Tech’s Faustian Bargain

graphic art of an origami robot and demon shaking hands

“While still man strives, still he must err.”

Johann Wolfgang von Geoth

It is safe to say that Nikola Tesla, despite the meddlings of that sneaky Thomas Edison, is the father of modern technology. He was a world-class innovator and hypothesized advanced technology that would not be synthesized until long after his death. He was a man of science, yes, but he also had a passion for art and writing. In particular, he admired the work of the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Geoth. Tesla enjoyed Goeth’s work so much that he actually had Goeth’s opus, Faust, memorized by heart (not an easy feat, even before TikTok decimated man’s intellectual capacity, but we’ll get to that later) and would often run around New York City salons reciting the prose. 

Goeth philosophized a principle in Faust that you are likely familiar with: The Faustian Bargain. The Faustian Bargain is a pact where an individual trades something of utmost moral and spiritual importance—personal values, the metaphorical soul of a man, social harmony—for some worldly material benefit, such as money or prestige. This principle is defined by the protagonist of Faust, an alchemist who makes a deal with a German folklore figure akin to the devil in order to access “otherwise unattainable knowledge and magical powers that give him access to all the world’s pleasures.”

Tesla picked up on this analogy himself. It is safe to say that many of his inventions, and by extension, his entire career, was one big Faustian Bargain. The AC motor, one of his most significant innovations, was patented in 1888, at the pinnacle of the late-stage industrial revolution. The invention, along with a plethora of other industrial patents, ushered in a new era of robotic, spiritually-empty working conditions. For all of the wealth and prestige that Tesla reaped, what did he trade for it? Factory labor and rapid urbanization viciously corroded meaningful connections, both to our work and to one another. A synthetic social fabric is more prone to rips and tears than one that is hand-woven.

The Age of Information, beginning with the advent of the personal computer in 1974, is following a similar cycle to its epochal predecessor. At face value, the developments of the Age of Information were idiomatically electric. Global telecommunication networks have transformed the international economy, establishing trade networks between almost every country. Extreme poverty and famine are at historic lows. The musings of the great thinkers are accessible to anyone at all times. For god’s sake, the machines are developing consciousness! Man is no longer an innovator: he is creator. 

These strides in human progress have, again, come at a cost. The bombardment of new and accessible information has created a new standard of incomprehensible intellectual turnover—what was relevant yesterday will be irrelevant tomorrow. 

Our own brains can’t keep up with the tools we have created for ourselves.  A 2021 Pew Research survey reports that a quarter of Americans haven’t read a book in a year. Nearly 70% of fourth graders in the United States read below grade level. Teachers across the United States report that with every passing year, their students are missing critical milestones, academically and behaviorally. The Flynn Effect, a social phenomenon which dictates that more access to education produces a net increase in IQ, is now in reverse effect. The materials required to produce all these devices have effectively re-instituted slavery in the Global South. In the developed world, deaths of despair (suicide, overdoses, obesity, chronic liver disease, and cirrhosis) are rapidly reaching catastrophic levels. People are lonely. People don’t trust each other anymore. 

On a micro-level, the Age of Information is re-orienting life paths toward the most efficient routes to obtain personal wealth and prestige. The illustrious first-year salaries and inflated social currency of a job in data or software are pulling ambitious, intelligent young people away from a traditional liberal arts education. Our neglect for critically evaluating social developments stems from our prioritization for skills that lead to material, personal benefits, rather than fulfillment. 

The erosion of human connection generated by industrial labor practices also has its own Age of Information counterpart. The era of remote work has created a class of workers who have the potential to go days, even weeks, without seeing another person. As banal as office relationships may be, and as nice as it is to complete valuation reports in your pajamas, the self-construction of solitary labor confinement has already proved to cause a net detriment to man’s brain and body. 

Up until very recently, our technological progress has stayed within our hands—we’ve always had the power to stop innovating. Artificial intelligence will change this. When asked about the future of the technology, Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, issued an eerie warning to those who blindly support technological progress:

We are on an exponential curve, and a relatively steep one, and human intuition for exponential curves is really bad. GPT-4 is not a risk… but how sure are we that GPT-9 won’t be? And if it might be, even if there’s a small percentage chance of it being really bad, that deserves attention.

Later, when asked if the general public should trust Mr. Altman and his creations, he responded, “You shouldn’t. No one person should be trusted here.” 

It’s not too late to heed Goethe’s warning. Jacques Ellul, a 20th-century French Philosopher and somewhat of an oracle in his predictions regarding the development of the relationship between technology and society, published an extensive list of questions (76 of them, to be exact), that holistically evaluate the social, moral, ethical, practical, vocational, metaphysical, political, aesthetic, and ecological parameters of the adaption of any given technology. 

A deal, even if the other party is the devil himself, is a two-sided interaction. Terms can be negotiated. Digital natives can consider the consequences of technological innovation, and strike a balance between progress and gluttony. Someone has to step in and integrate ethics with big tech before it is too late, and that responsibility falls on us.

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