Sunday, March 24, 2013

It Can, But Will It?

Earlier this week, I posted the following exchange from a podcast:
James Hughes (guest): "We have what we call out our techno-progressive critique, or our techno-progressive perspective, which is that we can radically improve the human condition through life extension and many other of the technologies that we talk about, but that they have to be proven safe, there have to be accountable democratic governments, there have to be universal health programs that make these technologies accessible to all and not just to an elite, you know, so that there are ways to say, yes, it’s possible to have the bright, shiny future that we want, but there are lots of things that we have to do to ensure that we get that instead of the dystopian outcome."

KMO (host): "When talking about these issues, people raise very legitimate, I think, concerns about the sort of perverse incentives that our current brand of corporate capitalism introduces into the use of technology and the way that people will adapt themselves to the workings of the system rather than the system being designed to maximize human benefit and human satisfaction and fulfillment and cultivation."
The guest speaking above is a self-described technophile and former Buddhist monk, and in his work he argues that there is a good chance that future technology can bring about a happier, more enlightened society, if only we make the right decisions, and he believes that we will.

I intend to argue the opposite from that view. I wish to question the accepted wisdom that technology, specifically recent developments in technology, has made our lives better and will continue to do so in perpetuity. And, following from that argument, I wish to directly confront and question the arguments that future technological advancements will lead to a better society, and in fact may turn things into a nightmare.

Before I do that, I will stipulate to one thing. Future technological developments can be extremely beneficial to us, as the quote above attests. But the question is: will they? I think that answer is far from assured. And, what is the potential that future developments will actually have the opposite effect, that is, they may actually make our lives worse? What if those "perverse incentives" put into place by our current political and economic systems will turn technology into a curse rather than a boon? Shouldn't we consider that possibility, and take it seriously, instead of assuming that things will all work out somehow? Because, when you read the above quote, you realize he is describing a completely different world that the one we currently live in.

Technology is indeed marching forward, but is there even the slightest inkling that were moving towards the type of society described in the quote above, with universal health care, responsible, law-abiding governments and relative equality? Or can we be said to be heading in exactly the opposite direction. And if that is the case, do these technologies not present a clear and present danger if they appear in a society undergoing rapid political and economic disintegration, dysfunctional institutions and declining social trust? I realize that it may an uphill battle to convince people of this in a culture where progress is taken as a given and novelty as a universal good, but I'll give it a go anyway. I guess I'm a sucker for lost causes.

1. No Exit.

Have you ever received an email from a colleague with the words "sent my my iPhone" with a time stamp of some outrageous hour? I have. Have you ever been out with someone socially and they're obsessively checking their hand-held digital gizmo for updates from work? I'm willing to bet that many people reading this can relate.

Because in this day and age, if you are a professional, chances are you're never off the clock. Chances are, you are expected to reply to any query at any hour any day of the week. In other words, you are never not working. And you cannot escape even during vacation time, because the digital reach is everywhere, even at the top of Everest. I've heard this referred to as the "laptop on the beach syndrome." I've also heard it referred to as the digital tether.

This feeling of never being able to get away, of never having time to oneself, of needing to constantly check in around the clock and provide instantaneous answers with no turnaround time or be branded as a laggard or nonperformer is making people crazy and stressed out. Make no mistake, it's taking a toll on our health. Robert Sapolsky, in "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," describes how we are not evolved to deal with the type of low-grade pervasive stress with no immediate outlet which is the result of these working conditions. Could this be the source of the raft of pharmaceuticals from antidepressants to sleeping pills to anticoagulants to erectile dysfunction medications that Americans now have to scarf down daily just to function like their ancestors in the "bad old days" before any of this stuff was around?

Yes, those same wonderful communications technologies that make it possible to talk to grandma in Albuquerque are the ones that have eliminated any non-work private space. Is it worth it? Well, that's ultimately a judgment call, but I for one long for the days when the work day ended at 5:00 PM and didn't resume until the next morning. I think a lot of people were a lot less wound up then. Communications technologies have certainly added a lot of enjoyment to people's lives, but for some reason, this downside, and it's negative consequences, is hardly ever acknowledged despite its pervasiveness.

Imagine going to dinner with someone not checking their cell phone or obsessively stealing glances at a small lit screen during conversation. When Don Draper went home after a day of work, it's not likely he would have to field phone called from his iPhone and check email on his laptop at home the way a modern executive would. No, the only way to reach him would be rotary phone, and that would not be likely except in an emergency. If he went to Acapulco for a vacation, he would truly be on vacation, with an expensive long-distance international telephone call to the hotel and a message to page him as the only way to reach him. Work was work, home was home, and vacations were vacations. And despite this "primitive" level of communications technology, you could still call grandma in Albuquerque on weekends.

2. Every Breath You Take, Every Move You Make

The digital tracking of employees' every waking hour is not a hypothetical scenario; it is a reality. The British supermarket chain Tesco is now attaching digital tracking to monitor all of their employees' movements. A company called Sociometric Solutions has created tracking devices to monitor employees for companies like Bank of America, Steelcase, Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc., and potentially General Motors (happily descibed as an attempt to improve teamwork). Google tracks its employees every minute of the day in and out of work as obsessively as it tracks our online behavior. Houston area schools are requiring students to wear electronic ID badges originally used to track cattle.

Is this just testing the waters? How much longer before this becomes pervasive? Email, cell phones and automated checkout lanes were once isolated curiosities too, and then they caught on. If there is enough money and will behind it, what was once exceptional becomes normalized. How are you going to feel then? Is that making our lives better?

The reality is, our economy is divided into owners and workers, and every bit of work you do gives profits to the owners, so they want to get as much profit out of you as they can. That is the way our economy functions, like it or not. What's next, microchip implants like some of the more paranoid fringes are imagining? Forget the digital tether, this is a digital ball and chain.

In all of the above scenarios, it can be objected that people can just set a rule to not take their laptop on vacation, or not take calls at home, or refuse to wear a digital tracking badge. But, of course, in America employers can fire employees anytime for any reason, or no reason at all. In an environment like the one we live in where jobs are scarce and people are terrified of losing them (see #4 below), who is going to risk that? And if they do, won't they just be replaced by someone who is willing to jump though all the hoops? What are the chances of your successfully resisting? I would say not good, unless there is some kind of mass movement to reject there technologies, something that there is no sign of currently on the horizon.

Do we want to give employers the ability to control our every waking hour? Because that's what's going to happen to new technology under the current regime. Is that going to make our lives better? How do you feel about that? So okay, maybe employees are repressed at work. But in those few hours outside of work, when we can steal them, don't we live in the freest society in the history of the world?

3. It's A Bird, It's A Plane, No It's...ZAP!

At first I was willing to pencil this idea of all-pervasive drones under the category of space colonies and jet packs as just another instance of futurism run amok. But now I'm not so sure.

The military currently conducts drone strikes in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, and has extensive bases and support networks for strikes in East Africa and Niger. There are currently debates about the use of government and private drones on United States territory, and whether the United States has the right to carry out extrajudicial killings at the discretion of the President and Department of Defense. In the words of one reporter, there is a "...growing perception—with elites if not the majority of the public—that Obama is running a secretive and legally dubious killing machine." BoingBoing (not a technophobic site by any stretch) put it this way: "US may use drones to kill US citizens on US soil but only bad people so don't worry."

Every day brings a new report of some kind of futuristic drone - drones that hover, drones that run, drones that camouflage themselves, drones that heal themselves, drones powered by solar energy, drones that kill. How comfortable are you that these will not be used domestically or turned on the American people? What happens when nanotechnology makes drones smaller than a mite? What happens if drones that small can be used to kill? Or, how about this: Weaponizing the Pentagon's Cyborg Insects
Today, many people fear U.S. government surveillance of email and cell phone communications. With this program, the Pentagon aims to exponentially increase the paranoia. Imagine a world in which any insect fluttering past your window may be a remote-controlled spy, packed with surveillance equipment. Even more frightening is the prospect that such creatures could be weaponized, and the possibility, according to one scientist intimately familiar with the project, that these cyborg insects might be armed with "bio weapons."
And drones are starting to be used by domestic law enforcement agencies as well. According to Wired, "It turns out that there is very little in American privacy law that would prohibit drone surveillance within our borders." California is already planning to deploy surveillance drones domestically.

The suggestion that we just build our own drones in a never-ending game of tit-for-tat escalating drone warfare seems like a recipe for disaster. If we go down that route, we will be in an arms race with the government, with nowhere to hide. Not to mention, resources that could be devoted to things like solar energy, public transportation, environmental remediation and poverty mitigation will instead by squandered on a useless and futile arms race between the government and an ever-more paranoid and surveilled population. It's a recipe for a never-ending civil war. That does not seem like a good place to me. How exactly is this technology helping anyone?

And that's not the only piece of new technology the military is salivating over. The military is moving full steam ahead in using cybernetics, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals to build "cyborg soldiers" like something right out of the craziest science fiction writers' imagination. From Wired magazine in 2010:
Eyes that are alert and steady. Skin that's sensitive to the touch. Arms that bend and grasp. To an unknowing observer, troops in the next-generation military might look much like today's. But those eyes are veiled by self-assembling contact lenses that transmit text messages and take blood pressure readings.

That skin is made up of nanowires laid onto flexible rubber. And the arm underneath? A prosthetic -- controlled by brain implant. The Pentagon wants troops to be faster, stronger and more resilient. And with help from robotics, nanotechnology and neuroscience, the military's cyborg army -- from human troops to rat-bot recruits -- is getting prepped for battle.
Exoskeletons, Robo Rats and Synthetic Skin: The Pentagon’s Cyborg Army (Wired)

How comfortable do you feel that these drones and super-soldiers are not going to be used against you? What if I told you that the government already spies on environmental activists, and that documenting conditions in a feedlot is considered an act of terrorism? And let's not forget the fate of the Occupy movement and similar movements in Quebec, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Syria - protest is being criminalized everywhere as we speak. As Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, China's state-controlled authoritarian model of capitalism seems to be the most likely template for the future.

4. Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto
Over the past two years, IBM’s researchers have shrunk Watson from the size of a master bedroom to a pizza-box-sized server that can fit in any data center...IBM is also working to program Watson so that it can pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.
“Software is eating the world.” —Marc Andreessen
I've written at length before on automation, so I won't rehash it here. To summarize, a perfect storm of artificial intelligence, computational speed, networking, the Internet, scanners, barcodes, sensors, voice recognition, smarter algorithms, portable digital devices and falling prices is leading to a rapid automation of nearly every occupational area imaginable, with no major occupational areas unaffected and no new fields coming online to replace them.

Cognitive tasks where humans can not be replaced still exist, but there are not nearly enough jobs in these areas to sustain the population, and thanks to digital assistants, people in these fields can work more efficiently than ever before. Even growing fields like biotechnology require only small teams of people who require years of expensive education that are out of the reach of most people, even those with the intelligence to do the work. And the people who do make it into these shrinking job slots frequently see those who don't or can't as either dumb or lazy, and blame them for their own plight.

Advocates of a do-nothing approach insist that just as Lancashire weavers and agricultural laborers eventually found other work, so too will automation generate entire new fields for displaced workers, and to assert otherwise is the Luddite fallacy, end of conversation. Nobody, however, seems to cogently be able to articulate exactly what those fields will be, and whether they will create enough jobs to absorb the displaced population. Already the deindustrialization of America over the past several decades has led to the death of unions and the rise of temporary, part-time, poorly compensated work replacing the family supporting jobs of yore, leading to social breakdown and leaving entire areas of the country looking like post-apocalyptic war zones.

Now, automation should be a good thing - increased efficiency can lead to higher living standards, less drudgery and more leisure time. We truly can automate the work that people really don't want to do. But if increasing automation leads to mass unemployment, destitution and misery for the unemployed, can it be said to deliver its benefits at all? And what are the signs that society will make the necessary changes to adjust to this post-employment reality?

Well, the early results are not good. Already one of America's two political parties has completely embraced what some have called "the theory of the moocher class," In a secretly recorded speech, presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who thought he was speaking off the record, asserted that nearly half of Americans "take no responsibility for their lives" and merely want to sponge off of people like himself and the wealthy millionaires who paid $50,000 apiece (more than the U.S. median income) to hear him speak. This man was nearly president (winning, ironically 47 percent of the popular vote). Does that sound like it's accepting the new reality?

At a local level, Tea Party politicians funded by wealthy plutocrats are waging an all-out war on the social safety net. For example in Wisconsin, governor Scott Walker, a Tea Party favorite, has made it harder to get unemployment insurance:
A sweeping overhaul of the state's rules being sought by Gov. Scott Walker would rewrite hundreds of regulations, eliminating dozens of them outright and doing everything from tightening the standards for receiving jobless benefits to changing rules to curb acid rain.
Gov. Scott Walker's rules overhaul would make it harder to obtain unemployment benefits (JSonline)

And see this: For Faster Growth, Soak the Poor? (Economist's View):
For 'Faster Growth,' Soak the Poor?, by By Josh Barro: This weekend, the Wall Street Journal assembled a redoubtable list of conservative heavies in economics (George Schulz! Gary Becker! John Taylor!) to produce a completely insane account of what is wrong with America's economy and how to fix it. The upshot of the piece is that the U.S. economy is in the tank because the government gives too much money to poor people, and so it should stop. ...
So why respond to the poverty-trap problem by calling for big cuts to benefits? The answer, of course, is that every economic ill must be shoehorned into an argument for lower taxes and less government spending. If a proposed solution to an economic problem doesn't involve taking benefits away from poor people, then it's not a solution at all -- at least by the logic that prevails on the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
And the leader of the so-called liberal party, President Obama, has repeatedly signalled his willingness to make "tough choices" regarding America's already threadbare social safety net, before even negotiating with those who want to eliminate it outright. For "tough changes," read: cuts; even with corporate profits at all-time highs and employees' share of profits at historical lows. Do we seriously think the push to automation will wait to fall in line with the way we've structured society around a weekly salary or destitution?

5. Nixon's Head In a Jar

Let's turn to a favorite of the Singularitarian crowd, life extension. Imagine a world where Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Larry Ellison and Donald Trump live forever and never age or die. Imagine The Donald bellowing "you're fired" two hundred years from now. Imagine a Jamie Dimon or a Lloyd Blankfein being worth a hundred trillion dollars because they have enjoyed the fruits of collecting compound interest for centuries. Sound crazy?

It seems like a logical conclusion. After all, these are the people who will be first in line to receive such treatments if and when they become available, as they will obviously be very expensive at first.

A world of seven billion immortal persons is a bit more problematic, however. But if these life extension techniques are given only to those "worthy" enough - like wealthy entrepreneurs, celebrities, and "job creators" for instance, then the problem goes away. No more worry about inheritance taxes, these wealthy will just hang onto their wealth themselves...forever. Oh, you think they're going to make that available to everyone, do you? How cute. After all, everyone today has private yachts and Gulfstream jets, don't they? Wait, what's that, they don't? Oh, hold on a minute...

But what about the new pharmaceutical wonders? Surely those are beneficial. Well, dump drugs into a hypercompetitive environment, where everyone is trying to get ahead of everyone else and into the shrinking circle of elite jobs, and what do you have? People drugging themselves silly to compete, that's what.

It's already a reality. Adderall, a prescription stimulant that increases one's ability to stay focused on a task and awake on minimal sleep, is nicknamed "Ivy League crack" as young students drug themselves to compete. The rampant use of performance enhancing drugs in sports as early as high school is common knowledge and need not be elaborated here. Military pilots on long missions are routinely drugged with anti-sleep stimulants. 

And if you don't want to drug yourself and suffer the inevitable, and often severe, side effects? Well, you can forget about that sports scholarship or plum job at that exclusive law firm. I guess it's a service job for you, or no job at all (see #4). There will always be those who are willing to do whatever it takes. It's already being normalized by the media.

I find the idea that the rich will share genetic enhancements with the rest of us laughable. Will that really be the case in our hypercompetitive society where the rich are always looking for an edge and even the one percent struggle to claw their piece of the pie from the 0.1 percent? Think of it this way: do you think a weightlifter who has taken steroids to win a competition is going to go around distributing steroids to all his competitors before the competition to level the playing field? Kinda defeats the point, doesn't it?

What it really means is that the wealthy, who are already able to purchase just about every advantage for themselves and their children, will now be able to purchase superior intelligence, longevity, better health, superior physical strength and stamina, resistance to disease, enhanced sight and hearing, and other genetic benefits. Won't this lead to even more social stratification as people buy what advantages they can pay for? Heck, look at America's two-tier education system. Now extrapolate that to genetic engineering. Will cyborg implants and genetic enhancements eventually allow the one percent to see themselves as an entirely different species from the rest of us mere mortals? And how do humans typically treat other species, hmmm?

It seems like this would only enhance the already bottomless narcissism, megalomania and lack of empathy of the wealthy elites at the top of society. Recall Mitt Romney's statement, above. Consider that the cutting edge innovations in healthcare even now are only available to the rich. Two-tiered health care is becoming ever more pronounced, not less. Life expectancy for the poorest Americans is actually declining. Even healthy, nutritious food is increasingly only available to the affluent, with the poor turning to cheap processed grains, sugary snacks, frozen food, fast food, and BPA-laden canned vegetables in ghettoized "food deserts."

6. The Digital Panopticon
Nielsen, the biggest marketing research firm worldwide, has its eye on data from "virtually all" credit/debit-card purchases and bank statements, and they're looking for ways to use it. "Basically, anything you buy, we now see," disclosed Senior VP Nada Bradbury. Nielsen wants to use this data in combination with its current tracking practices to pinpoint consumers' purchase activities even more exactly.

Nielsen's access to store receipts and household spending, together with its monitoring practices of the TV and Internet activity of "Nielsen families," led to the nickname "Big Brother" in a blog post by AMP, a digital marketing agency.
Nielsen Now Tracks 'Basically Anything You Buy' (Business Insider)
In shaping its targeted advertising strategy, it is no longer relying solely on what Facebook users reveal about themselves. Instead, it is tapping into outside sources of data to learn even more about them — and to sell ads that are more finely targeted to them. Facebook says that this way, marketers will be able to reach the right audience for the right products, and consumers will see advertisements that are, as the company calls it, “relevant” to them. In late February, Facebook announced partnerships with four companies that collect lucrative behavioral data, from store loyalty card transactions and customer e-mail lists to divorce and Web browsing records.
What You Didn’t Post, Facebook May Still Know (New York Times)

Technologies of control and dominance always seem to be developed to their apogee, while simultaneously technologies of scientific exploration human benefit all too often seem to languish, their promise unfulfilled. In the quest for revenue, the Internet has turned into an all-consuming surveillance state managed by a few giant corporations (Apple, Facebook, Google). Every click is stored. Every preference is catalogued. Every email is scanned. Every transaction is analyzed. Every keystroke is monitored. Every ad is targeted. Your so-called "private" personal hard drive has become a playground for other people's cookies, bots and spyware. And thanks to Big Data, its lasts forever. This article lays it out succinctly:
The Internet is a surveillance state. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, and whether we like it or not, we're being tracked all the time. Google tracks us, both on its pages and on other pages it has access to. Facebook does the same; it even tracks non-Facebook users. Apple tracks us on our iPhones and iPads. One reporter used a tool called Collusion to track who was tracking him; 105 companies tracked his Internet use during one 36-hour period...Everything we do now involves computers, and computers produce data as a natural by-product. Everything is now being saved and correlated, and many big-data companies make money by building up intimate profiles of our lives from a variety of sources.

Facebook, for example, correlates your online behavior with your purchasing habits offline. And there's more. There's location data from your cell phone, there's a record of your movements from closed-circuit TVs. This is ubiquitous surveillance: All of us being watched, all the time, and that data being stored forever. This is what a surveillance state looks like, and it's efficient beyond the wildest dreams of George Orwell.
The Internet is a surveillance state (CNN) See also Bruce Schneier's Web site

Are you comfortable with these companies tracking your every move? Do you believe this will all just be used for nothing more than letting you buy better products? What if you have no money to buy products (see #4 above)? Sure, there are ways around it for the tech-savvy, which is always going to be a minority. Plus, people aren't going to take the time to get up to speed and learn all the intricate ins-and-outs of disabling whatchamacalit and going through this-or-that proxy. They're already overworked as it is (see #1 above).

And it's not just the virtual world where you every move is tracked. Cameras with facial recognition scans on every streetcorner. A device that tracks your every move in your pocket. Checking in at various locations. Orwell? No, right now, today, with nothing new even needing to be invented.

Every country is falling over itself to buy the latest digital technologies created by private companies to spy on their citizens. And with droney the drone at your beck and call, you can eliminate pesky individuals at the push of a button without ever leaving your office (see #2 above) Imagine digital tracking and drones currently available in developed economies in the hands of a Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, or Saddam Hussein. What does that scenario look like?

How sure are we that they won't fall into the hands of those kind of sociopaths? Well, if you have any understanding of history and human nature, you probably shouldn't bet on it.


There are those who say that we just have to use all this new technology wisely. But look how we're using the technology we've already got! Are we using it wisely?

Look at antibiotics. Eighty percent are given to livestock, not people, to make profits for cruel, unnatural, inhuman CAFOs and leading to drug resistant strains. Cars have led to economic Balkanization, ghettos, traffic congestion, road fatalities and wasteful suburban sprawl. The Internet, for all it's benefits, has led to a golden age of outsourcing to low-wage countries, cybercrime, and threats of a "digital Pearl Harbor" as everything is now dependant upon it. Computer algorithms cause financial instability by trading millions of stocks per second to make fortunes for Wall Street. Beijing's air is poisonous, and the climate is screwed up. TV has created the hedonistic, infanitilized consumer culture, and TV news has morphed into propaganda outlets. New diseases are invented just to sell prescription drugs. Processed food is making us obese. Movies and video games encourage us live our lives by proxy. Is the next wave of technology going to be used more wisely? What makes you think so?

There's talk of technology being the great leveller, but how has that worked out for the past thirty years? Heck, it seems every technological advance since the invention of agriculture has led to more stratification and more control by elites. It seems as though technology has become advanced enough that, if we continue the way we have been by just dumping invention after invention into society with no larger considerations whatsoever, consequences be damned, and let the chips fall where they may; we are committing species suicide. As author Fred Guterl put it:
In the near future, many potential triggers could lead to a cataclysm. The 20th century gave us nuclear bombs and weaponized smallpox. The 21st will surely deliver a greater variety of bioweapons. The prospect of a natural killer like the influenza virus adapting to a globalized world of 7 billion people is worrisome. The machines we have built our civilization upon—computers, software, networks—contain the seeds of destruction for the simple fact that we have come to depend on them, and they are vulnerable to manipulation. We are always figuring out new ways of bringing apocalypse on our heads. Even climate, which we tend to think of as a slowly unfolding crisis, could conceivably bite us sooner than we think. Some researchers think that weather patterns such as the ones that bring monsoons to India and sustain glaciers in Antarctica could behave like dynamical systems, prone to sudden, unpredictable, and dangerous changes.
Could Humans Go Extinct? (Slate)

Look, I don't know the future, no one does. All I'm saying is that it's far from certain that the new technologies everyone is so excited about will enhance human well being. Unfortunately, based upon my reading of recent history, I actually find it doubtful. It seems that those of us who aren't unemployed, destitute and homeless will be further in debt, eating genetically-modified crap food while working twenty-four hours a day, drugged to focus and stay awake by immortal, hereditary super-elites who will justify their position based on their genetically-engineered superiority. Our every move on and offline will be tracked and stored permanently, and everything we see and hear will be controlled by a few digital corporations (Amazon, Apple, Google, News Corp.). And if anyone does manage to think for themselves and raise questions about this arrangement, they will be easily ferreted out by ubiquitous surveillance and surreptitiously terminated by drones.

Paranoid? Perhaps. But if we get it out there, maybe we have a chance at avoiding it. But right now, I gotta say, it doesn't look too good. In addition to all these technological wonders, the twentieth century has given us genocides, gulags, witch hunts, two world wars, economic crashes, overflowing prisons, mass manipulation of the media, rampant unemployment, low social mobility, and historic levels of inequality. Call me a skeptic, but I have hard time accepting the claims that cybernetic implants, nanobots, artificial intelligence, life extension, immersive worlds, 3d printing, self-driving cars, thorium reactors and the like are really going to make the average joe's life a whole lot better, much less usher in a utopia. Sometimes I long for the days of rotary phones, black and white TVs, movie theaters, newspapers, vinyl records and the like. I guess I'm a Luddite.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch some cat videos.

UPDATE: Zeitgeist? Serendipity? As I was writing this last night, here was one of the stories posted on BoingBoing: We have a choice about the world that technology will give us. A useful counterpoint. And someone in the comments linked to this: We lost the war. Welcome to the world of tomorrow. If anything, an even darker take than mine.


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  2. You are right, here. It looks bad.
    The big unknown and potential game-changer, of course, is peak oil.
    I do not agree with Ran Prieur and others who thing that current technological trends will go on as peak oil leads to reduced energy availability.

    I think John Michael Greer also stresses this point: the demise of empire leads to a decrease in complexity and levels of social organization.

    We'd better hope so.

    During the initial phase of real collapse (not this phony war), the powers-that-be will certainly divert more and more resources to maintaining control, including building drones and surveillance networks. However, as they do this, fewer resources will go into needed public infrastructure and services. The governments will lose legitimacy. The underground (economy and resistance) will grow. The USA is too big to control in the manner feared by total dystopians. Social lines and political loyalties will be in disarray.

    Another trope that I keep seeing, including by one of the articles you link to in your essay (the We Lost the War article) kind of bothers me... dropping out is usually rejected as completely unrealistic. "Too hard," nobody who tries it sticks with it, etc. Not true. There are communes started in the heyday of the hippie back-to-the-land movement that are still going. Read about "the farm":

    Thomas Merton, the well-known writer and Trappist Monk, chose a life like that! Contemplation and manual labor. As the Arch Druid Greer says, choose poverty before you are forced to.

    I've never made that plunge completely, but I have lived extremely simply at times, living on next to nothing, and working little at jobs that were none too stressful. My time was my own.

    I honestly do not think the techno-fascist regime will survive peak oil. It will go down in flames, though, and take a lot of humans down with it. Maybe billions...

  3. Mainly this essay was an attempt to get people to question the idea that the march of technology is inherently a good thing, or that it will necessarily increase the quality of life, which people seem to be taking for granted. My argument was that in many ways, new recent technology has actually diminished the quality of life - being always on call, disappearing into mindless escapism, anxiety and depression caused by TV and social media, technological unemployment, increasing pollution, and other such things, and we are just as likely to open Pandora's box to problems we can't even imagine right now down the road. Well, we can imagine them, and I did.

    Take social media. It breaks my heart what kids today have to go though. I'm sure many of us were outcasts in one form or another, and today there's cyberbullying, where you can never escape. One mistake is digitally stored forever. In tragic cases, it's even led to suicide. We're drugging our kids more than ever before, and no one stops to ask why. What are kids going to do for work outside of the minimum wage/debt slave dichotomy? And all this hype about the internet, and it's monitored by government censors in half the world, and controlled by a handful of corporations in the other half. And it's turning into little more than a shopping mall, marketing, porn distribution system. New technology ends up controlled by the elites and pandering to the lowest common denominator. It's human nature.

    As for the surveillance state, I have a suspicion you're right about that in the long run. Attempts to control people to that extent have historically had a limited shelf life. Stalinism is one of the longest lasting examples to date, but it eventually fell, beginning after his death and reaching terminal velocity after Gorbechev. Hitler burned out after 12 years. Allende and Pinochet fell too. the Arab spring overturned decades of authoritarianism, but its ultimate success remains to be seen.

    But you'll notice that in the above examples the people who had to live under these regimes suffered tremdously. In many cases, it lasted for an entire generation, even with "primitive" technology. The knowledge that those regimes eventually would fall was cold comfort to someone mining coal in Novosibirsk or making munitions at Auschwitz. That's what concerns me more. The normalization of such activities is as worrying as the technology. Would people in the past have expected to have to give their ZIP code whenever they purchased something, be practically strip searched when they go to the airport, expect to have all their communications monitored as a matter of course, and lock away one in thirty people? Not to mention that even the above tyrants didn't randomly check people's bodily fluids, as we do with employee drug testing. And if you question it, you're fringe. The control our employers already have over our lives scares me. What has already been normalized scares me.

    In the near term, I don't see a slowing of technology, and I always try to go where the evidence takes me. I remain willing to change my mind; in fact I hope I can. Greer's right about a lot of things, but on this issue and automation, I think he falls into the Kunstlerian trap of ignoring the evidence for mental models. In the long run, he's right, but what Keynes said about the long run is worth noting. What effects will social breakdown have - more or less control? Only time will tell. But apathy is not our friend.

    I always think on East Gemnay after the fall of the Berlin wall with citizens actively burning the files that the Stasi kept on them. If I do write that novel, I'm going to have a scene where Americans storm the digital record centers and delete every last file the government/corporations kept on them.

    More cats:

    1. correction: Allende was overthrown. Substitute latin American dictator of your choice.

  4. Hey - Allenda was a good guy who was overthrown with the help of our stasi, I mean CIA!

    I agree with you on social media. I recently left all social media except LinkedIn, for professional purposes. What a godsend! There was a bit of withdrawal to deal with, but... I found that those who only communicated with me through social media were not really friends!
    I now communicate with fewer people, but it is more meaningful.
    I still use electronic communication, such as email. It is odd, though, that email has become far less used now that social media has taken over. But again, those who have migrated to that realm are no great loss to me.

    I am also frightened by the apathy and complacency in the face of all the invasions of privacy and tracking and surveillance. Another reason I wish to live outside that. I'd rather live a life rich in terms of time and lack of scrutiny, and poor in terms of material wealth.

    One is looked upon as fringe for not only criticizing the current regime, but for not "buying in." I recall that a coworker a few years ago couldn't believe I'd never watched the show "Survivor."
    On is almost seen as being elitist for eschewing things like cable TV, tablet computers, or consumer junk.

    What do you think of Obamacare? It seems like another extension of neo-feudalism. I have friends who think that they will be freed to now start their own businesses, because they will be able to afford medical "insurance" even though they have pre-existing conditions. I can't believe how naive they are! The subsidies will be inadequate and quietly wound-down, and the available plans will be full of copays and other loopholes. But you are required to buy in. Another barrier to those who would like to drop out.
    We'll see.

    The majority are still on the buy side of techno-fascism.


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