The rebellion of the tools

Techno-Darwinism, cyber addiction and natural play

by Geoff Olson

I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electric outlets are.

– A fourth grader in San Diego, 
quoted in Last Child in the Woods: 
Saving our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder


IN A Punch cartoon from 1959, two scientists in lab coats stand next to a huge computer, programmed to answer the question, “Is there a God?” One of them holds the computer’s printout response: “There is now.”

Things didn’t quite work out that way. Instead of cartoon monoliths demanding our worship, we found ourselves saddled with millions of little, attention-seeking consumer gadgets. Yet electronic networks also expanded to planetary scales with microwave relays and fibre optics. I guess you could say God moves in mysterious ways.

In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv recalls his son asking why it was so much more fun when his father was a kid. “You are always talking about your woods and tree houses, and how you used to ride that horse down to the swamp,” his son explained. Louv is wary of overly romanticizing his childhood, but he knew his son was on to something. “Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the age of kid pagers, instant messaging and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.”

The author rhymes off the dreary health data that condemns the sedentary ways of electronically swaddled kids. This has accompanied the “criminalization of natural play,” through the overenthusiastic efforts to protect our children from any conceivable risks and dangers. Over the past two decades, tree houses, monkey bars and slides have been ripped from playgrounds across North America, for fear these municipal oases would become litigious scourges if little Johnny scraped a knee. And as kids’ playgrounds were childproofed into absurdity, parents coached their kids to distrust strangers and to stay close at hand. The process was compounded by the marketing of video games, filling a void left by the outlaw of natural play.

The lives of middle-class children of western societies are increasingly structured and gadget mediated. “Helicopter parents” monitor their every move, scheduling them like little technocrats with playdates, excessive homework and electronic nannying. I recall an anecdote from a teacher in eastern Canada who assigned her primary school students to write about interacting with nature. A student sidled up to her desk and told her the assignment was too difficult, as she had “never climbed a tree before.”

It’s not that difficult to imagine a possible future where any tree climbing will be done by keyboards or consoles. With every gain in computer processing power, the virtual worlds of videogame shoot-em-ups and social networks like Second Life expand in bandwidth and eye-catching realism. Yet at the same time, pristine wilderness recedes that much further from personal and collective memory, along with kids’ access to its remaining patches.

Swiss architect Max Frisch defined technology as “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” By that measure, our culture has a real knack for digital dissociation. But as BC author and education and addictions specialist Ross Laird notes, our species has existed in its present form for at least 40,000 years. Only in a blink of an eye have we been exposed to sedentary ways of life, mediated by technology. “We are animals. Our well-being depends upon bodily movement, expression, and integration,” he writes in a recent paper, Adolescent Addictions: Creative Challenges and Opportunities.

“This is what both current and ancestral research consistently demonstrates: our relationship with our own bodies is central to every aspect of our development. Modern challenges such as obesity, ADHD, cancer, diabetes, addictions of all kinds, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, and so on are consistently correlated with diet and exercise. In fact, healthy diet and exercise are the only two factors that are almost always linked to improvement across the domains of health and wellness… Insight alone cannot heal the fractured nervous system. Only movement and physical challenge can do that. With the average Canadian youth already seated in a chair and watching a screen for more than 40 hours per week, more chair-sitting seems like a poor idea.”

Personally, I can attest to the perils of techno-addiction. I’m a gadget freak who sets himself boundaries, like a boozer who knows how one little drink can lead to another. I don’t have a cell phone or a Blackberry. I don’t “tweet” or chat online and I rarely post on Internet forums. But I do have a website and an iPod, and wherever I go, Steve Jobs’ most impressive spawn goes. It’s great that I select my own personal soundtrack for a walk in the woods or a hike up a local mountain, from Monteverdi to Mott the Hoople. (So there’s at least one form of technology around that doesn’t work against fitness.)

I’m not against technological advance, per se. We shape our tools, and in turn our tools shape us. That’s been true ever since the first anthropoid used a rock as a projectile. There is much to praise in the digital age, including one of the greatest inventions for free speech ever conceived: the Internet. Any discussion of the downside of the Internet has to entertain the idea of where we might be without it. The creative explosion of commentary on blogs and videos has challenged the mainstream manufacture of consent and put the so-called alternative press on notice. I don’t applaud the failure of newspapers, but I have even greater concern over the Internet being throttled by marketers and fear-mongering politicians.

With that big qualification aside, I’ve long noticed an interesting phenomenon among my adult friends and acquaintances. The happiest seem to be those who spend the least amount of time at their desktop computers and laptops. I can’t say if it’s a cause or an effect, and no doubt there’s all kinds of confounding variables, but I’ve noticed the connection.

So where is all this going with the next generation? As Ross Laird points out, the body is the vehicle of consciousness. Considering what kids are up against now, with the colonization of imagination by digital media, what does the acceleration of infotech bode for the future? If the technology is increasingly “wearable,” working into our clothing and our bodies, is that a solution to sedentary habits or a further concession to our own mechanization?

According to Wikipedia, the statistician I.J. Good was first to seriously suggest “that if machines could even slightly surpass human intellect, they could improve their own designs in ways unforeseen by their designers, and thus recursively augment themselves into far greater intelligences.” The highly regarded inventor and writer Ray Kurzweil believes we are only a few decades away from computers matching humans for natural intelligence. We are close to a “technological singularity,” he claims, where the human/machine interface will morph and blend in presently unimaginable ways. So far, Kurzweil’s record for predictions has been good. Through similar reasoning, citing the exponential growth of new technologies, he anticipated the PC explosion and the fall of the Soviet Union.

The idea that events are speeding up isn’t just some abstract idea kicked around by the geek community. Nearly all of us feel the tectonic shift in the times. Late night radio broadcaster Art Bell pegged it “The Quickening,” imagining it as some massive, paranormal trend. I prefer Kurzweil’s more rigorous take, in which the acceleration of events is connected to the explosion of information technology. The inventor constructed a logarithmic graph out of 15 separate lifts of key paradigm shifts in human history. The information, from the American Museum of Natural History, Encyclopedia Britannica and other sources, demonstrates a 45-degree angle upwards. In a world of downward trends, this one is unequivocally upward and that worries some observers, though not the Libertarian minded Kurzweil, who thinks this trend offers an evolutionary upgrade to the human species.

The problem is that we are fundamentally different than our inventions. Human beings are part of a DNA-based biotech that is billions of years old. In spite of all our grey matter, our neural firing rates are no faster than those of field mice or tadpoles. Our brainwaves cycle at a leisurely 8 to 12 Hz range, in synchrony with the “Schuman resonance,” the Earth’s electromagnetic signature. This is far from the 1000000-plus Hz range of personal computers. As biological beings, our natural pace is closer to the phases of the Moon than the frequency of the motherboard. Yet as our devices get smarter, we struggle to keep up with them, like Fantasia’sMickey Mouse and his magical, misbehaving brooms.

The perception that things are speeding up is about speedier information processing – not of our nervous systems, but our cell phones, pagers, PDAs, computers and electronic networks. Employers expect their employees to keep pace, even as more decision making is given over to the machines. Even the explosive growth of the recently trashed financial market, out of all proportion to the production-based economy, is largely owed to the dawn of electronic capital and its microsecond movement on exchanges.

There’s never been a civilization on Earth as wired as our own, but the inhabitants of previous empires thought, as we do, that they were on history’s cutting edge. By the 1920s, Germany could claim some of humanity’s greatest achievements in art, science and literature. The home to Beethoven, Goethe and Einstein soon became the playground for Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels. Yet the Nazis’ “Thousand Year Reich” lasted less than a decade.

Historians have found no demonstrable correlation between a culture’s technical sophistication and its lifespan. Yet across the ages, there were always artists and poets to warn against hubris. In the Maya creation epic Popol Vuh, there is a story called The Rebellion of the Tools, in which human beings are conquered by their own instruments:

“And all (those things) began to speak… ‘You … shall feel our strength. We shall grind and tear your flesh to pieces,’ said their grinding stones… At the same time, their griddles and pots spoke: ‘Pain and suffering you have caused us… You burned us as if we felt no pain. Now you shall feel it, we shall burn you.’”

The Mayans, a violent society with a late-era habit of human sacrifice, never had a chance to learn any lessons from history. They disappeared entirely into the mists of time. Occasionally, they are resurrected as a cautionary tale or for the edification of those who believe the Mayan’s prophesied End Time (December 12, 2012) is the harbinger of vast, global transformation.

We may think our civilization has outgrown the habit of ritual sacrifice, but in the past few decades, we have sacrificed our leisure time on the altar of “faster, cheaper and more competitive.” Under this cyber-onslaught, pulling the plug occasionally isn’t just necessary for mental and physical health; it’s almost a subversive act.

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict spent years of field research trying to determine why some cultures are integrated and welcoming, while others are closed off and repressive. Convinced that cultures are “personality writ large,” she determined that it came down to a simple division between generosity and greed. It is that essential spark of selflessness, as a culturally nurtured value, that will likely determine if Darwin’s clever monkey learns to use his tools properly, or his tools learn to use him. Perhaps we will get the singularity we deserve.

If the future is shaping up to be global, command-and-control militarism, one part Orwell and two parts Huxley, our machines’ relationship with us will likely be parasitic. The environment will continue to degrade and children will be shadows of their true potential, their status to machines comparable to the unconscious human batteries in the film The Matrix.

But there is always the possibility of positive social transformation, ironically aided by a free and unregulated Internet (the copyleft and open-source movement may be the first signs of this transformation). If the future is driven by creativity and compassion, the machine/smart monkey relationship is more likely to be symbiotic. Decentralization of energy systems and political power will accompany the empowerment of the human spirit, in part through technical advancement of physical and mental capabilities. Children will have plenty of opportunities to clamber up trees, whether they are virtual beanstalks or real-world oaks.

I’m still optimistic enough to think this second option is not some Pollyannaish pipe dream, but the Cassandra in me suspects it will be by the skin of our teeth.

There’s also a third possibility for our species. We will continue to stumble along through serial social and ecological catastrophes, narrowly sidestepping extinction, accompanied by a bright and gleaming technology that is as morally ambiguous as its carbon-based creators. It will be a mixed bag of gains and losses, and long-winded essays like this one, debating the effects of technology, will continue into the indefinite future. The only difference is that the authors will include the occasional robot or neural network.

And on that note, I’m off for a walk in the woods. With the iPod, of course.

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