by Geoff Olson
• Years ago I read a fantasy short story – I’ve long since forgotten the author’s name – that begins with the death of a worker on an assembly line. The man’s fatal heart attack leaves his wife to grieve alone in an empty bed. Then late one night at the factory, after all the workers have left for home, there is movement at the work station where the man had laboured for years. Pulleys stretch and bolts break. After detaching from its moorings, a robotic apparatus lumbers across the darkened factory floor and ventures outside into the cobbled streets. The thing makes its way into town, searching for the man’s home in the moonlight. Finding a side door, it enters and stealthily crawls into bed next to the dead man’s sleeping wife, in an attempt to comfort her in its cold, metal embrace. As I recall, the story ended there.
I thought back to this uncanny tale after reading a news report about a recent study on the addictive qualities of digital tech. The study noted the increasing number of people who cannot bear to be apart from their gadgets, with many of us going to bed with our iPhones, Androids or Blackberries. Our gadgets are the first thing we interact with at day’s start and the last thing at day’s end.
In the pages of The Guardian Weekly, writer Kevin Barry describes waking in the morning with the intention to write fiction, focused and undisturbed, “… and I know the last thing I should do now, because it will shatter my concentration before I even begin, is go online. But, of course, I reach to the bedside table and grasp the iPhone.”
I can relate. My new Blackberry Playbook recently made it to my bedside table. I’ve never been much for threesomes, but now it’s me, my tablet and my partner. Actually, a foursome, if you count my partner’s iPad2, which is often at her side.
For many, if not most people, this 4G/wifi intimacy with our gadgets is the new normal and hardly cause for alarm. Personally, I’m a bit unnerved. Although no Luddite, I have strained to keep my electronic habits to a minimum. I don’t play videogames or instant message, although I do check my email a bit too frequently for my own good. I intend that my digital media and devices serve me, not the other way around.
I’ve been an early adopter, but mostly I’m a reluctant accepter. And now here I am chased under the duvet by one of my own gadgets; I love the easy access to my favourite websites and blogs, but I know there’s a price for such a cornucopia of content. One loser for sure is my attention span, which is being whittled down to 140 character duration. It seems harder than ever to focus on a book for a sustained period of time.
My Playbook has plenty of pals on the homefront. In a household with just two people, there are multiple iPods and laptops, plus several cell phones, both smart and dumb. There’s a rat’s nest of chargers and electrical cords above the dishwasher, sustaining our devices the way a refrigerator box of cheap wine powers guests at a kitchen party. Think that’s an over-amped metaphor? Not when electronic devices can ‘talk’ to each other.
In a world of food shortages, child soldiers, predator drones, broken-down nuclear reactors and sovereign debt, an excessive number of gadgets on the domestic front hardly seems like much of a problem. On a per capita basis, the North American lifestyle puts us in the top 10 percent, globally. By the standards of previous generations, our lives are quite magical.
But as Bob Dylan once remarked of an earlier period of transformation, “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”
In his 2010 book What Technology Wants, former Wired editor Kevin Kelly wistfully describes his pre-college days of travelling through Southeast Asia with little more than a knapsack and his wits. To this day, Kelly has no Facebook account and “doesn’t twitter.” (I believe him; the correct verb is ‘tweet.’) Yet he is one of our foremost commentators on technology and our relationship to it and has a studio full of gadgets sent to him for review by tech companies from around the world.
Kelly has come up with a new word to describe the sum of the objects and processes midwived by our technologies, from combustion engines to 3-D printers to nanotechnology and beyond. His word ecompasses all the old-school bits of information that he says are rather “wispy,” including “the calendar, the alphabet, the compass, penicillin, double-entry accounting, the U.S. Constitution, the contraceptive pill, domestication of animals, zero, germ theory, lasers, electricity, the silicon chip, and so on.” It’s the Internet plus everything else. He calls this sum of embodied and disembodied knowledge the “technium.”
Kelly is fascinated with how the appendages of the technium reach out to seduce us. “The technology of TV had a remarkable ability to beckon people at specific times and then hold them enthralled for hours,” he writes. “Its creative commercials told them to acquire more technologies. They obeyed. I noticed that other bossy technologies, such as the car, also seemed to be able to get people to serve them, and to prod them to acquire and use still more technologies (freeways, drive-in theatres, fast food).”
The technium has become more insistent over time. When travelling across Europe in the late eighties, I met up with a family member at the home of her friend, a Protestant minister living near Barcelona. After introductions were made, the minister’s kids were literally crawling all over me, inspecting my Swatch and gaping at me. The minister gently shooed them away and sheepishly explained the family had no television to keep them entertained. In their rural neighbourhood, foreign visitors were a high-bandwidth entertainment. I had little doubt it had been that way for many generations.
Today, when I visit some friends in their middle-class neighbourhood in the Lower Mainland, their children rarely say hello or even look up from their videogame consoles. They aren’t bad kids, but welcomes are trumped by Wii and Xbox. A visitor’s presence is hardly enough to pull them away from a violent dreamworld spun by electrons.
In 2010, author Sherry Turkle drew attention to the now-commonplace coffeeshop scene, with adults in silent communion with their fetish objects, like post-industrial monks. “At a coffee shop a block from my home, almost everyone is on a computer or a smart phone as they drink their coffee. These people are not my friends yet somehow I miss their presence,” she writes in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.
“These days, being connected depends not on distance from each other but from available communications technology,” the author observes. “Most of the time, we carry that technology with us. In fact, being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption, on your screen.” As an iPod-wearing solipsist, I reluctantly count myself among these people. And there’s a good chance you do too.Turkle’s daughter confessed to her how she prefers texting to answering the phone because person-to-person talk offers no control over the communication. I’m reminded of a friend whose daughter lost her notebook in an apartment break-in. It wasn’t the loss of the computer itself that troubled her most, but her compromised networking. “I’ve lost all my friends,” she confessed to her father. She was referring to Facebook.
It seems the machine has broken free from its moorings to embrace us in our places of work, restaurants, the gym, our homes and even in our beds, comforting us with our own attention-fracturing tweets, instant messages and Facebook updates. And its embrace is getting tighter. A data-mining engine that never sleeps, the technium is learning more and more of our most intimate details, through every keystroke and swipe.
“The technium contains 170 quadrillion computer chips wired up into one mega-scale computing platform,” observes Kevin Kelly. “The total number of transistors in this global network is now approximately the same as the number of neurons in your brain. And the number of links among files in this network – think of all the links among all the web pages of the world – is about equal to the number of synapse links in your brain. Thus, this growing planetary electronic membrane is already comparable to the complexity of a human brain.”
This “membrane” has three billion artificial eyes in the form of phones and webcams and its server farms consume five percent of the world’s electricity. It appears to be evolving.
Kelly points to evidence of strange “mutations” cropping up in the Internet’s massive river of traffic and they aren’t all due to hacking, machine error or line damage. The computer scientists “are left with a few percent that somehow changed themselves. In other words, a small fraction of what the technium communicates originates not from any of its known human-made nodes but from the system at large. The technium is whispering to itself.”
The author argues there is reason to believe the technium is becoming “autonomous,” that is, moving beyond human control and starting to behave like any other self-directed organism. He notes that, over time, on a global scale the Internet has been shifting its methods of organization spontaneously, with the flow of bits demonstrating a fractal pattern of self-organization. “This observation doesn’t prove autonomy. But autonomy is often self-evident long before it can be proved.”
For some tech observers, notably the community of Silicon Valley “extropians” and “transhumanists,” it’s all good news. They insist computing technology, along with advances in genetic engineering and nanotechnology, will reach a stage where humanity and machines will merge. Their foremost exponent, the inventor and thinker Ray Kurzweil, calls this prophesied union the “singularity.”
Extrapolating from Moore’s law (computer processing power doubles approximately every two years), the 64 year-old thinker believes the singularity will arrive in his lifetime. A great fan of life extension practices, Kurzweil eats well, exercises regularly and pops vitamins like Tic Tacs in the fervent hope he will live long enough to upload his consciousness into the “cloud” and still retain his personal identity. The guy’s a big thinker with big ambitions: he plans to survive death.
In the 2009 biographical film Transcendent Man, Kurzweil muses on the existential black hole that all of us must confront in our final moments, which may be preceded by pain and misery. “It’s such a profoundly sad, lonely feeling that I really can’t bear it,” he confesses. “So I go back to thinking about how I’m not going to die,” he adds brightly.
Kurzweil seems single-minded and somewhat self-absorbed in his goal of personal eternity. Yet his story is given deeper dimension when the film traces his relationship with his father, a composer who died at 58 from heart disease. His “genius was thwarted by life,” Kurzeweil nsists. Old family film strips of the young boy and his doting dad underscore the deep love between them and a loss from which the son never recovered.
The son has archived the father’s personal papers, including his musical scores. He has compiled recollections from those who knew him. Most notably, Kurzweil has recovered DNA from his father’s grave. With all these elements, he believes the technology of the post-singularity world will allow the reconstruction of his beloved father. He’s serious. Dead serious.
The technium has been growing for a long time, ever since a rock went off-label as a hominid’s tool. But only now has its exponential increase made it a serious challenge to human skill on a daily basis. So far, we have seen the entertaining, surface-level challenges ranging from champion chess-playing (the defeat of Gary Kasparov by “Deep Blue” in 1997) to trivia game shows (the defeat of contestants on the game show Jeopardy by “Watson” in 2011). Whatever classified Golems are being constructed in the covert world of “black projects” have yet to reach public attention. Yet from the declassified world alone, we’ve seen drones the size of dragonflies and dog-like robots that navigate difficult landscapes like border collies; what happens when these appendages of the technium attain a semblance of ‘mind’?
When it comes to predictions, the track record of futurists ain’t that great and neither Kurzweil nor Kelly has any enthusiasm for examining the dark labour/capital underbelly of our present technologies. The ‘dark satanic mills’ of William Blake’s Industrial Revolution are gone; yet today’s smart phones are knocked off in Southeast Asian sweatshops by companies that stack their underpaid, overworked employees in barracks like cordwood. With every production cycle, we toss away our technobaubles like Bic lighters, oblivious to the metallic effluent streaming under children’s feet in electronic scavenging towns thousands of miles away.
The evangelists for high technology insist such things are a passing phase and that the technium will deal efficiently with waste and inefficiency as it strains toward its Omega Point. I hope so. There’s no denying the sticky, wet world of carbon-based life is in a strange dance with the inorganic world of silicon-based intelligence. Our networked gadgets, brilliantly designed and cheaply made, are insinuating themselves into our hands, our pockets and our beds. And soon, I suspect, under our skin as implants.
Only one thing is for certain: humans and machines will transform utterly in this exchange. Heading for the hills or some tech-free reservation – like neoprimitive John the Savage in Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World – is not a realistic option for the meat-based crowd. It seems the only way past the cyber-situation is through it.
Considering its contradictory components, it would be premature to interpret the technium as either a monolithic force arraigned against human interests or the mass liberator of the species. For example, the laterally organized internet of the 21st century is a very different beast from the top-down nuclear energy/weapons industry birthed in the 20th century.
“The technium is now as great a force in our world as nature, and our response to the technium should be similar to our response to nature,” writes Kevin Kelly in What Techology Wants. “We can’t demand that technology obey us any more than we can demand that life obey us. Sometimes we should surrender to its lead and bask in its abundance and sometimes we should try to bend its natural course to meet our own. We don’t have to do everything that the technium demands, but we can learn to work with this force rather than against it.”
This means knowing when to pull the plug-in drug – to use it as a mild stimulant rather than a deadening narcotic – and when to reconnect with the real-time world of human beings with their funky smells, unpredictable behaviour and insistent bandwidth.
As for Ray Kurzweil, I strongly suspect there’s more to his cheerleading for the singularity than a self-absorbed desire to whip the Grim Reaper’s ass. What he really wants is to touch the hand of his real father, not that of a holographic double. As eccentric as his quest sounds, his heart’s desire is not so different from the rest of us: to see the face of love behind the masks of illusion.
iimage © Denisart