12.20.2009

Smarter Things as Parasite, Host, Concubine and Slave-Master

Several ads from IBM have appeared lately declaring their intent and ability to help build smarter cities, smarter government, smarter health care, all in all a smarter world. The tag line "Lets build a smarter planet" makes the engineer, tinkerer and yes the Utopian in me sing! In one such ad we see an amazing traffic management system in Stockholm that can bill drivers automatically by reading all the cars license plates enabling the enforcement of a new "congestion tax." Whenever someone leaves or enters the city this system knows about it. This new system has made traffic in Stockhom less congested but it gives one pause, it seems a little ominous. But then we are reminded of how many billions of hours we spend in traffic, how many billions we spend on wasted fuel, this is clearly a big savings and clearly a smart thing to do. I cant tell you how much I love the idea of smart technology. Its exactly what we need to do to solve our problems, but there is something deeply insidious about a train of thought like that of these ads. They have so many built in assumptions. After a little reflection I'm amazed at how many more ideas are packed into the silent assumptions of these ads, far more than their glossy, overt messages. I would argue the real power of propaganda is its ability to quietly instill in us these covert, logical basies all wrapped up in seemingly innocuous or unquestionable messages. All the more likely to take hold I suppose...



More technology, smarter things, progress!! Obviously a good thing right? That perspective is valid but certainly not the whole story. What is it that the ad does not ask us to think about? Well... alot. In our technopheliatic daze we usher in the great new threats of the future. IBM is as good a case as any. Both historically and presently they prove to be at this nexus of technology where it can tilt the scales of fate in favor of society or just as easily provide other, less desirable, outcomes. In 2001 Edwin Black extolled of just such dangers in his book "IBM and the Holocost." In a CNET interview he summarized the findings of his extensive research clearly...

"...I finally assembled this dark puzzle that had eluded the 15 million people who have seen this machine in the Holocaust museum. I finally connected the dots. And those dots are that IBM engineered a strategic business alliance and joint planning program with Nazi Germany from the very first moment in 1933 and extending right through the war that endowed the Hitler regime with the technology and the tools it needed to expedite and, in many ways, automate, all six phases of Hitler's war against the Jews. Those six phases are identification, expulsion, confiscation, ghettoization, deportation and ultimately even extermination."
- http://news.cnet.com/2009-1082-269157.html

But that is an extreme case, no? Even if IBM didn't work with the Nazi regime Hitler's minions may have been able to steal or develop a similar technology. This is not to point fingers at IBM nor let them off the hook but to point out this... Many people focus on the actors, the company, the leaders, the governments, the extremists, the consumers but it is not the actors that we should worry about, instead look at the stage itself. We needn't fret that our technology will fall into the wrong hands, because of course it will. Furthermore negative consequences often arise from the best of intentions. Pay then more attention to the opportunities a new technology provides. Often, unbeknownst to us, new technologies enable whole new echelons of power and its abuse, new expanses of capability and deeper chasms of failure, collapse from even greater heights; at every stage enabling those who would bravely or brazenly create a yet newer world...

A brave newer world of what may be great progress for the state of humanity but perhaps equally as likely is a new scale of risk that our beloved progress is simply a more advanced form of devastation we yet fail to recognize. With ever increasing speed and ever broadening horizons we are always behind the steepening curve of the unpredictability wrought by "progress". By the time we realize all the bounty this new fertile land could provide its too late, someone already planted the magic beans and climbed up into the clouds waking a giant. Any moment now it could come down and eat us all for dinner. The industrial revolution spurred on by fossil fuels presents a text-book example. By the time we realized the dangers of filling our atmosphere with millions of years worth of the sequestered carbon we had unlocked from the earths crust the planet had already been put into a positive feedback loop of global warming. What no one wants to talk about is that we do not know if we will be able stop it even if serious action is taken on a global scale. This essentially means all the "progress" for society brought on by the industrial revolution may have simply been a hastening of our demise. The industrial revolution happened and can not be reversed, so we are left to mange its outcomes. It is a matter of pride that we control and manage things, that we are not pushed around by them. but what looks looks like control from one perspective may look like a side effect from another. We now have multiple technological revolutions happening in sync. Information technology, bio-technology, nano-technology, each of which could individually transform our world in ways that are impossible to predict, but together they feed of each others technological capability growing like a tiny, artificial black-hole with an advancing event horizon which we may become enveloped by never again to look down upon and imagine our control there of.

Smarter things lead to what end? Ever more, smarter, things? Things may be the product but there are other by-products. Soon the people are unencumbered with toil, memory tasks, intellect, learning, creating, thinking.... they become dumber and the things become more important than the people that make and use them. Now so many people depend upon our techno-sphere that nobody really owns these things. The makers don't have a product without the vast user base and community of third party service providers and integrators. Its a flourishing ecology but to serve what purpose? These systems are vast ontologies of interdependent electro-flora and digital fauna. They depend upon legions to keep them going. Whole swaths of the worlds people do nothing more than attend to theses systems' every need. We are immersed in and subsumed by an authentically new world of our own making. Now the products of our genius and labor are simply its accoutrema, to it perhaps, a utility service like electricity.

Lets not forget these things do not have souls. But notice how the more we live for our things the more we disembody ourselves and put us in them and the more we become hollow and robotic. Our guts in its guts, its brains taking over for ours all the waking hours of the day, leaving a more robotic yet living organism behind. Imagine if we took all the cloud computing hardware and all the PCs and Macs, all the television sets and Play Stations, purge them from society, put them on ships like the trash we used to dump in the oceans. God the massive barges of iPods and keyboards alone would boggle the mind... We could take them all and set them adrift off the southern coast of Japan. Dump em in, let them sink to the vast depths of the Marianas Trench and they would be just as content there at the bottom of the ocean. But not us... the effect of the purge on our sense of purpose, progress, identity, power, culture, history, our very existence, would be seismic. Technological progress, scientific progress... progress towards what? There is only an impenetrable fog before us there is no goal only a dream of what lies beyond. We put one foot in front of the other because our bodies were not made to stand still for too long and with each step we tell ourselves we are closer to the edge of that dark fog, each step another tick in the clockwork that will tell us at the zero hour weather all of this was either a noble journey or death-march.

There is no stopping this new progress only the illusion of managing it.