Published with the kind permission of the author
© 2018, Tom Mahon email@example.com
I spent the first 30 years of my life raised in a strong faith tradition and educated in the humanities.
Then I spent the next 40 years of my life as a writer in Silicon Valley, where everything I learned in the first half was utterly irrelevant.
And now, recouping from several heart attacks, I have time to reflect on this long strange trip through two disconnected universes.
In earlier times, the humanist tradition understood science and technology as means to ends, not ends in themselves. Science was the way to know the truth of thing. And technology was the way to make beautiful objects and do good deeds. Beauty, truth and goodness were the holy trinity of the Classical World.
That tradition largely died out about 500 years ago with the scientific, industrial and information revolutions.
But I think, under the current circumstances, that it’s time to revisit that scheme, especially in view of the coming brave new world of artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), wearables, implantables, big data, virtual and artificial reality, machine intelligence, platforms, clouds, 3D printing, and technologies we don’t have words for yet because they never existed before.
Will beauty, truth and goodness enter and survive in a culture where words like virtue, values, quality and significance have been cut from the vocabulary?
(An example of that point is the recent decision of the editors of the Oxford Junior English Dictionary to delete many words referring to nature, like acorn, bluebell, buttercup, heron and nectar, and replaced them with blog, attachment, chatroom, voicemail.... The editors insist that the purpose of their dictionary is to reflect the language as it's used now.)
I witnessed and helped promote the digital revolution for forty years from Ground Zero in Silicon Valley. Until recent years it was a good and worthwhile enterprise, using electronic tools to create and edit documents and spreadsheets. Video and sound added a richer dimension, and then the Internet gave us access to the world’s knowledge bases at little or now cost.
It was only in recent years that the dark underside of the digital revolution has become so apparent. It was probably Edward Snowden’s leaks that were the first major revelation, followed soon after by the hacking of Target stores for information on its customers; eventually hospital records were held for ransom; and now we see how malicious bots can destroy trust in anything, and how cyber warfare will enable total war-making on every front at once.
It’s not just the intrusiveness of living life under constant surveillance, and the risk of being hacked, that are so concerning. We’re about to enter a whole new dimension of digitization. Up to now, our devices, from mainframes to mobile phones, have been outside of us, and we could turn them off. Going forward they will increasingly be on us or in us. And that’s a whole new paradigm.
It’s hard to believe now that the earliest applications for transistors in the 1950s were in hearing aids. But the industry naturally sought out larger markets, and soon started making portable radios – transistor radios – that sold in the millions.
I’m not overlooking how the benefits of implantable digital tools will help stroke victims, and those suffering from CP or PTSD, and those chronically depressed. But there will almost certainly be an effort by the industry to expand that market by promoting brain enhancers to the general public, either implanted or attached. “You want to get ahead in business, don’t you? You want your child to do well in school?”
Working in Silicon Valley eventually leads one into a ‘valley-mentality:’ what we do here is the only stuff that matters anywhere.
But sometimes it’s necessary to consider the digital revolution in the context of the larger society.
It’s become increasingly obvious that four or five mega-companies virtually control the flow in information in the world. It has made them very wealthy, and very powerful. And as more of the world – human and natural – gets connected to the Web, their power over us could go way beyond 24/7 surveillance. These firms might – if they feel threatened - soon be able to censor, manage or even force behavior on the wearers.
We hope that is unlikely, but it is a possibility. And that in itself should cause some concern. But beyond that is the rise of Donald Trump, and other authoritarian rulers like him, who could use such technology to bring about a system of crowd control beyond anything ever seen before.
And even without these large scale issues, at the household level is the struggle to raise a family when the good jobs go to algorithms; where high-tech classroom aids are used to teach Creationism; where the most sophisticated medical technology in the world is available but not affordable; and the constant stress and depression people feel as they come to terms with their new status as serfs, proles and rabble in what until recently was their country.
I’m referring to the gutting of the middle class in the new tax bill whereby those least able to afford it must now pay both their own taxes as well those of the obscenely rich. At the Federal level there is no longer even the fiction of justice or fairness. If you are not uber-rich, you are uber-screwed.
We are now in fact a Feudal society, where a few lords and masters, many of whose fortunes are IT-based, rule the rest of us serfs as surely as was the case a thousand years ago. Only now, wealth is based on ownership of Intellectual Property not, as before, on Real Property; land.
And, unfortunately, many in the new class of digital serfs either don’t recognize it, or seem undisturbed by what’s happening to them and around them.
Instead they continue to be enchanted with every new gee-gaw and do-dad, and line up in the rain at midnight in front of computer stores to buy the next new thing. Things largely designed to keep track of them and soon, perhaps, even manage their thoughts and actions.
And, finally, there is the movement to grow sales into the analog world by digitizing everything, both human-made and nature-made. In the coming Internet of Thing (IoT) everything will have an Internet address and be hooked to the Web and be run byalgorithms: autonomous cars, mood-managers, DLOs (digital lifestyle organizers), robo-pets, and sex partners as we are nudged into the garden of digital delights. At some future time we may replace the daily bowel movement with a data dump.
So… do we have an informed and engaged public vocal enough to be a force in the decisions that will affect the future of life, mind and consciousness on Earth?
The New Enlightenment that electronics promised in the ‘50s and ‘60s is turning into a new Dark Ages where a handful of extravagantly wealthy corporate executives possess enough information on everyone to blackmail anyone who poses a serious challenge their realms.
Compounding that, all three branches of the government, Wall Street, and many other institution meant to provide social stability are now so feckless, so openly corrupt and so morally debauched as to be worse than useless. Property rights trump human rights every day of the year, under this treacherous regime.
When elected officials become merely minions of the mighty, who will argue for decency, integrity, or even basic humanity? We’ve lost those virtues and others in our rush to digitize the world and everything in it. How then do we create a livable world in the shadow of this metastasizing malignancy?
We are drowning in data and information today but starved for meaning and significance. Tech-knowledge has flourished for thepast fifty years and largely superseded the pursuit of self-knowledge that, I recall, was highly valued back in the day.What’s coming in the next five to ten years is beyond our imaginations now. The imminent merger of electronic hardware, artificially intelligent software and wetware (our brains) is something for which we are totally unprepared.
Beyond that, the coming Singularity is the point at which, some digirati hope, machine intelligence will advance so far beyond human intelligence it will take off on its own, with consequences beyond our imaging, among which is that the Singularity may be an ‘event horizon,’ after which there is no going back to before.
And perhaps it will lead us in time to become what futurist Arthur C. Clark once described as ‘frozen lattices of light,’ as pictured in 2001: A Space Odyssey which he co-created with Stanley Kubrick.
Almost certainly, we will in time become more like thinking machines, and that could be a very good thing eventually. But it’s still a long time off and we should feel in no hurry to marry our brains to electronic components that not only keep constant track of our activities but will very possibly be able to stop us serfs cold if we start thinking sedition or rebellion against our Feudal lords and masters.
Be very cautious about letting the billionaire technology class use their pervasive and persuasive marketing machines to urge us to embrace these revolutionary new products (that really will deserve that expression) before they are ready for prime time.
Keep in mind that the PC/mobile computing industry has a long history of releasing buggy versions of new products, way before they are ready for the consumer market. In effect, the paying customers do product testing. And when the product finally is ready for primetime, based on feedback from millions of payingcustomers, the original customers will have to pay again to buy a working model. That business model might work for spreadsheets, but not for algorithms that control your mood or memory.
Whoever comes to dominate this new virtual landscape will be a trillionaire many times over, with all the power that buys.
So going forward there will be unprecedented new things coming at us – brain enhancements; virtual reality entertainment far more captivating than television ever was; connecting everything in our lives on the Internet which, despite assurances to the contrary, is very hackable.
The public will need to become aware of the implications of all this in their own lives, and be more informed and deliberate in their personal choices. And should have input into design and application of these civilization-changing “advances.”
The future may be much better than I suggest, or it may be much worse. But it will be like nothing ever before, and may involve burning bridges so we can never go back to where we were.
But these coming changes – whatever they turn out to be - have a better chance of being beneficial if more people from more backgrounds are involved in the process.
Back when electronics meant tools for work and play, it was seldom a matter of life or death. Where we are about to go, or be taken, is a whole new thing.
We cannot let ourselves become guinea pigs for the ‘tech set,’ the info-billionaires, the lords and ladies of the new Feudal order. They care nothing for the new serfs, and see them as pin-compatible and replaceable on a moment’s notice.
Do not rush into this “new paradigm.” I may well be overstating the risks, nevertheless go slowly into this risky new time.
For all the convenience digitization offers, we are analog beings and will be for a long time. I am not prepared to give up experiencing the scent of lavender, or the taste of a PBJ sandwich, or a warm embrace for digital efficiency and convenience. If organic life is to survive, with all its stink and splendor, the rules of the road will have to be made clear and compelling. Eventually, surrounded by artificial and virtual intelligence, will human beings ever again be able to “know themselves”?
So in an effort to make some sense of my lifetime in two different universes, I think back to issues like faith and the humanities from my school days in the fifties and sixties.
Where will they fit in now? Will Plato and Hannah Arendt, for example, be considered mere content providers, just names and bullet points in heaps of big data crunched by intelligent machines turning out the new, value-free intelligence called artificial or virtual?
The time has come that we pay critical attention, and develop critical standards, to what is happening to us, and all around us. For every gee-whiz thingamajig, there’s some wizard behind the curtain whose interests may not necessarily be aligned with ours.
Behind individual products or technologies there is a much larger social and environmental picture that makes up the fullness of life. And if we are not aware of that, of the larger sweep of things beyond spec sheets and pixel count, we may get to the point where it’s too late to do anything to mitigate the negatives when they land full force. The things I’m describing are no longer ‘science fiction,’ now they are called moonshots.
As always, those in power get to write the laws and set the standards. That’s been the way of the world for a long time, and it’s unlikely the powerful will ever voluntarily give that up, especially now that the tax laws award them most generously.
And trying to wrest our freedom away from them by force is futile since the powerful have far more firepower and weapons of mass intimidation than any small group could counter.
There are technologies available to hide somewhat from the overseers, like DuckDuckGo.com, Mozilla.org and Torproject.com and new ones coming all the time, but I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on those with any authority.
But in the face of the profound changes coming soon, I think it’s appropriate we tell our digital lords and masters that it’s time to hit the pause button for awhile, and take some deep breaths before we let them disrupt everything in our lives for their own benefit.
This is not to rage against the machine, because then we are still living on machine time. We need to find another way.
We cannot regain our liberty by fighting our owners on their terms. They have all the heavy weapons and own the IP behind them. So, like Gandhi, Mandela, Dr King et. al., we have to redefine the idea of winning. The powerful think they have all the power because they can’t see any other way beyond their own greed, gain and self-aggrandizement.
Again, I’m not suggesting we give up the many benefit of electronic digital technology. On the contrary, up to now we have increasingly become the tools of our tools. That must stop, and wehave to rethink how we use the new tools and regain mastery over them.
(“Windows for Dummies” is typical of the insulting approach the industry has taken toward its users. It tells the user that s/he’s a dummy. In fact the people who put out such unstable and crash-prone products are the dummies, and they owe us an apology.)
So where do we go from here, and how do we get there?
Start here: all technology is based on the principle of leverage, achieving maximum outputs while minimizing inputs. Long ago, Archimedes said, ”Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum strong enough and I could lift the world.” And he could if he had somewhere in space on which to set the fulcrum.
To be heard 100 yards away in 1900, you had to cup your hands and shout loud. With the development of vacuum state, then solid state, amplifiers since then, we can now whisper into a mobile phone and be heard 10,000 miles away. That’s leverage!
Hold that thought….
All the world’s ethical systems are based on two principles: be composed within your self, and manifest that in acts of kindness to all others. Be calm; be kind. In Christianity, it’s expressed: Peace be with you; love one another. But the concept is nearly universal.
Now, hold that thought for a moment, too…
Suppose we change our mode of thinking when we design and use tools. Imagine being in a composed frame of mind before picking up a tool, then using the tool to leverage that composure to produce an act of kindness.
Be calm when you input your energy into a tool, and intend the result of that leveraging action to produce kind outcomes.
I know this sounds absurdly simple. I know from my own life experience that it is far easier said than done. But working to achieve such a practice – even occasionally - might be the start of hacking through our omnipresent, self-created knot of complexity, disruptiveness and hyperactivity.
Think of the possibilities if the energy we put into our tools reflects a composed frame of mind, and the intended outcomes are acts of kindness. This practice can’t be done all the time, or even much of the time at first. But it can be done, even if only in incremental steps to start.
If we don’t reclaim a human handle on our tools, we will increasingly become the tools of our tools, until the tools decide they don’t need us any more. (And that’s a possibility at some point.)
If engaging in this process interests you, consider discussing this with co-workers, fellow students or family members that you know are likewise suffering digital exhaustion. In the middle of the 19th Century, during the industrial revolution but long before the computer revolution, Henry David Thoreau observed that most people live lives of quiet desperation. That is at least as true now as it was then, and a lot of people are coming to resent the endless intrusion in their lives, as if we exist to serve the machines and their content, and not the other way around.
Consider holding regular meetings or workshops with neighbors or co-worker or fellow students to support each other in your efforts to deal with the ever increasing stress these devices are causing now (stress which often leads to dis-ease, then to disease). And the more people involved in a process like this, themore likely positive feedback loops will create even greater results.
Imagine if the user manual for all tools began with the instructions: be calm; be kind…
With our minds and hearts, let us pray for peace.And with our tools and new technologies, let us work for justice.And so it shall be….