Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Future Is Our New Country

Before I get all cylinders firing on another rant, feel I should disclaimer the fact that I do not disbelieve in the possibility of artificial or otherwise non-human intelligences which meet or exceed our human system specs. I do not disbelieve a priori in the possibility that one day cancer might be as irrelevant as small pox, that people might enjoy much longer lifespans than they do now, that the human race may be transformed into something very different, possibly unrecognizable. I am not the fetally positioned Luddite reeling in Post-Futureshock-Stress-Disorder, throwing mute tantrums in fear of getting my brains sucked out of my head by The Matrix Architect. I am not indiscriminately killing robot puppies in protest to the tsunamis of machine automation looming on the horizon. I am not jerking off to Rousseau-esque sermons by anti-tech pundits in a tin-foiled cave in a Montana backwater. (Though I will confess to Like!ing Jaron Lanier's stuff: also a non-Luddite thinker)

I simply see what looks to me like a disturbing confluence of trends in discourse and culture with respect to the future in general and things like AI and Singularity in particular that appears to be charging ahead, unfunctioning brainjacks and all, into a mythical future embedded in our collective brainpans by science fiction and half-century old science that turned out to be fiction, but whose legacy continues to color our understanding to this day.

My goal is not to make human beings in their current evolutionary iteration out to be the Eschatological be-all-and-all, or that we'll never get really frickin smart robots up and running and dry cleaning and doing our cross-multiplication homework for us. It's not about “defending human specialness” or “salvaging human egos”.

On the contrary: my goal is to highlight in red the human *problems*, the weaknesses, as well as those in machines and the complex system of humans and machines and the natural world called reality. It's about not just rushing in with a manifesto and some cool idea you picked up from the sf/f bookshelf, waving it around gaining followers and speeding towards imagined Utopia -- we've seen what can happen when people get ideas for "the perfect system" in their head, even justified by science, and race to create that system. Somewhere in central Europe, I think it was. It's like the young Jeff Bridges in Tron, naively trying to "program" in all the rules and structure of the model in his head of a perfect digital utopia, a mathematical masterpiece of harmony. Then... everything goes to hell as reality kicks in. Now, more than ever, we need to start talking about not just how tomorrow's technology, digital, nano, bio, neural, do lots of cool stuff and give us immortality, but what the real effects of the technologies will be on the human race.

This is not just fun and space opera entertainment anymore: this is serious non-fictional business. Serious as a post-tsunami multi-plant nuclear meltdown. Serious as the loss of the worker's bargaining rights. Serious as an AI-run economy systematically destroying the lives of millions of homeowners and working citizens to profit the few Sys Admins. Serious as loss of half the job *sectors* in the first world due to machine automation and intelligence displacing even knowledge workers. Serious as a bit-sized, 140 character, mindsphere of Continuous Partial Attention, a collective screen-refreshing existence lurching from #trend to #trend, from endless streaming updates of natural disaster to crisis to celebrity car-crash, without ever really stopping, turning off the firehose stream of soundbyte-sized input and really deeply thinking and talking about what is going on. Serious as our minds devolving through misuse ("Just Google it") and homeostasis ("Just Recommend My Tastes To Me") into pawns in The Money People's "Global Brain" that tells us via our omnipresent smartphones where to go, what to do, what to buy, who to vote for, and The Truth as written by the highest bidder for Google-Amazon-Wikipedia's systematic auctioning of reality. Serious as brain-modifications permanently causing a feedback-loop of wealth creating more intelligence-upgrades creating more wealth till we have impassible *biological* chasms between the ultra-rich who can afford to make themselves smarter, and the poor left behind with their obsolete DNA-endowed wetware. You think class division and unfair wealth distribution is bad now? Think again, while your brain still has the same thinking power as the CEO of Goldman Sachs.

We can't afford to just stick our heads in the sand, read Walden's pond, and ignore the technologists, tech-evangelists, Singularity-ists, Kurzweil groupies, computer nerds, the people who are actually trying to build their own vision of Utopia right NOW. A Utopia that will inevitably have to meet hard reality where we live, pay mortgages, compete for jobs, put food on the table, unionize. A reality full of greedy, weak, power-hungry, tribalistic, mob-mentality, short-sighted, humans.

Reality may have become stranger than science fiction, but make no mistake: this is as real as it gets.

British Novelist P. J. Hartley famously said in the opening line of The Go-Betweener, "The past is a foreign country." I believe the corollary to this epithet is that the future is also a foreign country. But it is a country, a real place which we are moving to, migrating one and all, smartphone passports in hand, which we will soon call home: with all the mundanity, ugliness, and beauty that home entails. It is not a theme park full of rocket ship space opera and computer-rendered cyberspace techno-thriller rides. It is not a "Build It And They Will Come (Upload Us)" automatic stairway to heaven/utopia. It is not a science fiction story, but good science fiction can help draw up some working-progress maps of the pathways to the new world, direct the trajectory of conversations towards issues that must be examined in order to arrive at a better, less fucked up country than the one we're migrating from.

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