Wednesday, September 13, 2017

World Without Mind

Back around the year 2000, Wendell Berry observed:

It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.

Just a couple of years ago, I composed a bit of doggerel on a similar theme:

Cyborg Blues

I've heard it from the Madman, I've heard it from the Sage:
The years in which we're living are the dwindling of an Age.

Machines will liberate us from the limits we have known,
Polymer and alloy will replace our skin and bone.

Our current form of life will gradually dissolve
As the species, Homo sapiens, continues to evolve.

We are entering an Era called "Posthumanist,"
Becoming dots on a screen small and luminous.

Will we recognize it, the day the threshold's crossed?
When what it was we used to be becomes completely lost?

We could test the waters cautiously, as human frailties we expunge.
More likely we won't know our fate 'til the end of a headlong plunge.

And now, in his new book,  World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Franklin Foer writes:

Until recently, it was easy to define our most widely known corporations. Any third-grader could describe their essence. Exxon sells gas; McDonald’s makes hamburgers; Walmart is a place to buy stuff. This is no longer so. Today’s ascendant monopolies aspire to encompass all of existence. Google derives from googol, a number (1 followed by 100 zeros) that mathematicians use as shorthand for unimaginably large quantities. Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google with the mission of organizing all knowledge, but that proved too narrow. They now aim to build driverless cars, manufacture phones and conquer death. Amazon, which once called itself “the everything store,” now produces television shows, owns Whole Foods and powers the cloud. The architect of this firm, Jeff Bezos, even owns [the Washington Post.] 

Along with Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, these companies are in a race to become our “personal assistant.” They want to wake us in the morning, have their artificial intelligence software guide us through our days and never quite leave our sides. They aspire to become the repository for precious and private items, our calendars and contacts, our photos and documents. They intend for us to turn unthinkingly to them for information and entertainment while they catalogue our intentions and aversions. Google Glass and the Apple Watch prefigure the day when these companies implant their artificial intelligence in our bodies. Brin has mused, “Perhaps in the future, we can attach a little version of Google that you just plug into your brain.”

More than any previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolies aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it. They think they have the opportunity to complete the long merger between man and machine — to redirect the trajectory of human evolution. How do I know this? In annual addresses and town hall meetings, the founding fathers of these companies often make big, bold pronouncements about human nature — a view that they intend for the rest of us to adhere to. Page thinks the human body amounts to a basic piece of code: “Your program algorithms aren’t that complicated,” he says. And if humans function like computers, why not hasten the day we become fully cyborg?

To take another grand theory, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has exclaimed his desire to liberate humanity from phoniness, to end the dishonesty of secrets. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” he has said. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Of course, that’s both an expression of idealism and an elaborate justification for Facebook’s business model.

There’s an oft-used shorthand for the technologist’s view of the world. It is assumed that libertarianism dominates Silicon Valley, and that isn’t wholly wrong. High-profile devotees of Ayn Rand can be found there. But if you listen hard to the titans of tech, it’s clear that their worldview is something much closer to the opposite of a libertarian’s veneration of the heroic, solitary individual. The big tech companies think we’re fundamentally social beings, born to collective existence. They invest their faith in the network, the wisdom of crowds, collaboration. They harbor a deep desire for the atomistic world to be made whole. (“Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community,” Zuckerberg wrote in one of his many manifestos.) By stitching the world together, they can cure its ills.

 Rhetorically, the tech companies gesture toward individuality — to the empowerment of the “user” — but their worldview rolls over it. Even the ubiquitous invocation of users is telling: a passive, bureaucratic description of us. The big tech companies (the Europeans have lumped them together as GAFA: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) are shredding the principles that protect individuality. Their devices and sites have collapsed privacy; they disrespect the value of authorship, with their hostility toward intellectual property. In the realm of economics, they justify monopoly by suggesting that competition merely distracts from the important problems like erasing language barriers and building artificial brains. Companies should “transcend the daily brute struggle for survival,” as Facebook investor Peter Thiel has put it.

When it comes to the most central tenet of individualism — free will — the tech companies have a different way. They hope to automate the choices, both large and small, we make as we float through the day. It’s their algorithms that suggest the news we read, the goods we buy, the paths we travel, the friends we invite into our circles.

It’s hard not to marvel at these companies and their inventions, which often make life infinitely easier. But we’ve spent too long marveling. The time has arrived to consider the consequences of these monopolies, to reassert our role in determining the human path. Once we cross certain thresholds — once we remake institutions such as media and publishing, once we abandon privacy — there’s no turning back, no restoring our lost individuality….

During this century, we largely have treated Silicon Valley as a force beyond our control. A broad consensus held that lead-footed government could never keep pace with the dynamism of technology. By the time government acted against a tech monopoly, a kid in a garage would have already concocted some innovation to upend the market. Or, as Google’s Eric Schmidt, put it, “Competition is one click away.” A nostrum that suggested that the very structure of the Internet defied our historic concern for monopoly.

As individuals, we have similarly accepted the omnipresence of the big tech companies as a fait accompli. We’ve enjoyed their free products and next-day delivery with only a nagging sense that we may be surrendering something important. Such blitheness can no longer be sustained. Privacy won’t survive the present trajectory of technology — and with the sense of being perpetually watched, humans will behave more cautiously, less subversively. 

Our ideas about the competitive marketplace are at risk. With a decreasing prospect of toppling the giants, entrepreneurs won’t bother to risk starting new firms, a primary source of jobs and innovation. And the proliferation of falsehoods and conspiracies through social media, the dissipation of our common basis for fact, is creating conditions ripe for authoritarianism. Over time, the long merger of man and machine has worked out pretty well for man. But we’re drifting into a new era, when that merger threatens the individual. We’re drifting toward monopoly, conformism, their machines. Perhaps it’s time we steer our course.


Jim Parker said...

Which is the authentic self? The private self or the public self? I have often felt uncomfortable when I have had to conceal who I thought I really am. Of course as I continue to age the "who" I am really am seems rather nebulous anyway.

GULAHIYI said...

"Nice to hear from you again. I didn't know anyone still visited this blog, but it's about the stories. That's why I keep doing it. The stories deserve to be rescued from obscurity.

I've asked your question myself in various ways over the years. "Does it matter if you have beautiful thoughts in your own mind if no one else ever knows them?" That kind of thing. Indeed, which is the authentic self? I've almost always had a sense of being put in a box by others (I guess most of us are guilty of that). Now that I'm past 60 and, all of sudden, the oldest person in the room on many occasions, I'm aware that people see "an old guy" when I'm just the same (hopefully improving) me. Actually, that stuff (perceptions and judgments of others) matters less and less to me. I used to resent rejection, but then I realized the rejection came from people I didn't much enjoy being around, anyhow. So I was creating my own misery by stewing over it. I still create my own misery, but I'm overcoming it more and more each day, by recognizing my tired and habitual ways of thinking and challenging them, then coming up with something new. I'm pretty peaceful and content, happy to still be human, myself, even if I'm surrounded by a bunch of Cyborg wannabes!