Plight of the Krell

I went to a business seminar the other day about the future of work. The speaker, a woman with a Tony Robbins headset who was billed as a “futurist,” explained how artificial intelligence and automation will make our lives easier, freer, and more creative. And with the free time that technology will afford us, we will spend less time on menial tasks and more on things befitting human beings like strategy, leadership, and critical thinking.

Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius

But, as they say in the infomercials, that’s not all. She claimed that AI in the workplace will enrich our personal lives as well, calling it a “positive externality.” She even had a chart to accompany the claim. I thought about my own relationships. I never thought of them as externalities, positive or negative, but maybe that’s just me. I know some people look at relationships from a profit-loss standpoint. I also thought of the estimated 40% of workers who will be displaced by automation in the next decade. I guess they will have plenty of time to sit at Starbuck’s and reflect on their externalities, but that hardly counts as enrichment.

Enter Forbidden Planet, the 1956 sci-fi film about an advanced race of beings known as the Krell whose psychological maturation lagged behind its technological prowess. In the end, technology could not save the Krell from their inner demons. One such demon, offspring of the all-too-human Dr. Morbius, appears in the form of a red bull (no relation to the caffeinated energy drink). And if you happen to recognize a young Leslie Nielsen as the space captain (not police captain), you’d be right. I bring this up because I saw the movie again recently. There are plenty of other movies dealing with technology in the modern world. Think of 1984, Soylent Green, The Matrix, and Total Recall. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is the most iconic treatment of a dystopian workplace in the future. And then there is Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein (1823), which shows what happens when technology suppresses inner drives and desires. I suppose you could call the monster a negative externality.

As I sat in the seminar, it occurred to me that the speaker paid little attention to historical perspective, which seemed ironic since it was a talk about the future. After all, how can you talk about the future without considering the past? As I used to remind students, we all walk into the middle of the movie and have to figure out how we got there before making any decisions about where to go.

The inner demon

To be clear, we have been here before. Business leaders have assured us for years that technology would save us from ourselves. Remember DuPont’s “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry”? But if you consider the fallout from telephones and typewriters to mobile phones and self-driving cars, the result has not been more time to reflect on the human condition. If there has been any reflection, it has gone into making current technology faster, smaller, integrated, and more pervasive (e.g., quantum computing, 5G). We find ourselves more dependent on machines now than at any other time in history. Well, excluding the wheel.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not an anarchist or troglodyte. I welcome technology and its many benefits. And I certainly don’t rail against vaccines. But to believe that AI will give workers more time to do things like write symphonies or square the circle is naive. It is more likely that we will work more, stress more, and medicate more. Why do I say that? Because it is happening already.

I’m not looking forward to a future of video games, legalized drugs, and other forms of entertainment to relieve the stress of overwork (or no work), especially when this leads to socio-economic classes drifting farther apart. But we’re headed in that direction slowly, inexorably. And as technology turns and starts to consume us just as we have consumed it, will we have the fortitude and historical insight to escape the plight of the Krell?

Images from Forbidden Planet (1956) by James Vaughan via ShareAlike license 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) and Loew’s International. Artist(s) unknown. Public Domain. For more, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”


  1. To Distance Oneself from The Repetitive, Mundane and unabsract…like I was told many moons ago.. the best wey to rid from Butterflies… a Cold glass of water, the clearing of throat, and imagery of particulares in various sizes shapes and complexionsin their underwares.. some clean..some…

  2. Yes. Absolutely: to the inevitable slaps from within many institutions that depend on groups for resources and existence. This is why I admire what you have and are doing. Bringing consideration of our humanity, including the ethical and character aspects into business and government. I wish you had known my father, and he, you,Robert. No college studies, one of those mailroom to CEO stories of the past. From salesman to CEO, he was loved for his care and respect for others. Anyway, Schubert’s Impromptu 3, Opus 90-Impromptu was like our improvisations, 3rd of 4 published, Opus-a work or group of works published at same time.

  3. Robert, it seems like you are going to a lot of interesting seminars these days…very cool:). I really enjoy hearing what people are thinking and talking about, in practically any area; just as my mom always said, “Susan, you are a professional student:)”. Probably my last moments will be spent, reading, listening, or thinking about something! Good on all of you at Santa Clara! I’ve been reading about the work you are doing with and for executives. Bringing me, finally, to your post. Yes, Robert, I see this . The work you were doing in New York, and the books you recommended to me regarding Leadership, Character, and Ethics were outstanding. In the “way past,” scientists, physicians, inventors, and those who governed were also musicians, poets, authors, artists…lots of chamber music and singing going on in the homes, of everyone. How I long for those days… It might help?

    1. Susan, yes, I think it would help. People you work with would no doubt benefit from your music and other artistic pursuits. We can’t sit idly by as Apple, Google, Facebook et al. set the discourse. After all, we are after the good, the true, and the beautiful…So, let’s make the world more beautiful. You already do in so many ways.

      1. Robert, I was not clear enough in my response to your post, and I care very much about your topic. It seems that in past times, persons were expected and encouraged to develop more channels of their humanity and their “being” with persons. In other times, persons played music with others, wrote poetry, created art, etc. as a regular and important part of their humanity and being with people, whether lawyer, mayor, senator, inventor, business owner… Today, the professional life seems all consuming, and our other channels and being with others seems less developed, leaving almost a poverty, and some pretty icy places in our human sensibility and expression.

        1. Finishing my response, I am wondering how more attention and broadening of the channels of our shared humanity as well as a broadening of the spaces in which we are with others might go along with our rapid development in other areas. How would listening or playing Schubert’s Impromptu 3, opus 90, affect the professional spheres, connections with persons… It is a work, a prayer that has brought me to tears of reverence and connection on many occasions…

          1. Yes, I understood what you meant. What I meant to suggest is that acts of beauty, which you aptly describe as prayer, ought to be done by all of us in whatever small way we can. It could be stepping back and trying to take the broader, historical look, or it could be quoting Virgil. Of course, you can only do that for so long before getting slapped.

            Or you could play Schubert.

            I’m so ignorant I have to ask why anything impromptu would need to be numbered, and how could there be 90 opera…? Notice that I couldn’t say “opuses.” I couldn’t. It rhymes with dopuses…

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