Slaves Of The Machine
by Ian R Thorpe
8 January, 2012
A widely viewed and discussed BBC documentary series of 2010 was "All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace" produced and presented by Adam Curtis.In the first of three one hour episodes Curtis suggests that man is not liberated by computers but actually enslaved. It is a premise that's difficult to argue against as I try to focus my thoughts on the subject in hand while being interrupted constantly by messages from winking, waving, desperately needy animated characters that jostle for my attention so they can tell me how my life will be improved if I install Skype, switch to online banking, hand over control of my life to a higher power namely Google or Facebook, sign up to receive regular updates, give my bank details and password to the former finance minister of the Nigerian government and all the rest of the bullshit. From time to time I am interrupted by IM and e mail alerts, mostly telling me that I will have a better web experience if I install skype, switch to internet banking, hand over control of my life to a higher power namely Google or Facebook or by way of a change, gt a really enormous penis (I still get mails inviting me to get really enormous breasts though I never understood why anybody would think a sixty-plus male might need any kind of breasts.
All the thoughts and emotions I communicate online are typed into a computer, pinged across to other computers, and updated on a website, where a comment box allows every cupid stunt in the world or at least the cyberspace dimension to 'share' with me their opinion of what a completely worthless and unpleasant person I am. My self esteem is measured by a league table of how many people clicked the 'like' button on each item I post. This is fine, it is just a modern way of communicating. But what about when the computers store details of all my activities and start to suggest pages I might enjoy, people I might like to contact or things I might like to buy. Harmless enough but irritating to those of us who like to think for ourselves. Take it a step further however and we get into a different arena. When search engine operators start to target me for advertising matter related to my recent activities and to filter the results of my searches based on what I have looked at in the past (and of course how much revenue a click on that site will bring the search engine operator though that is never mentioned) it starts to get a bit sinister. And it gets very sinister when, without my agreement, details of my online activities are broadcast to everybody in my contacts folder and anyone else who fancies snooping around my personal profiles.
Despite all this many webheads and science nerds were outraged that Curtis could suggest computers are becoming the bosses of us rather than our tools.
I post content on the web, mostly in text, people can read it or not as they choose, I do not add people to 'friend' lists because the software engine suggested I might like to link up with them because I heed the site's warning that we should only link up with people we "know". I will not download an 'app' because it is on the latest 'kool' checklist delivered to my desktop by a search engine. And anyone who wants to tell me what I may may not post according to their political prejudices can fuck the fucking fuck off. In fact they can fuck the fucking fuck right off. I simply don't care. What perhaps sums up the internet better than any of the pseudo - intellectual articles written by self styled experts on the psychology of social networking is that the more I go out of my way to piss people off, the more page views I get (with a high proportion of those viewers clicking through to other pages on my site.) And because I do not allow comments on my work, being unable to see any benefit in giving a platform to people who want to make free speech illegal and only permit opinions that concur with their own political positions I find a lot of opponents will write articles or blog items denouncing me as a mixture of fascist dictator and Enochian demon and linking to my article as an invitation for their visitors to see for themselves how evil I am. Cupid Stunts (h/t Reverend Spooner), for all their claimed techno savvy the links these people give me only boost my traffic.
Check out the queue outside you local Apple store for a new product launch sometime. Observe the deathly pallor of the pasty faced geeks who consider it a privilege to pay way over the odds for a gadget that duplicates functions of all the other gadgets they own but has a cutesy pie little logo of an apple with a bite taken out of it, simply for the warm, safe, comfortable feeling they get from belonging to the cult of Apple worshippers. Apple could be described as having made a reputation as great technical innovators by being masters of syllogistic rebranding. The reasoning goes: This is an MP3 player with a picture of an Apple. Apples are good therefore this is a good MP3 player. (The classic example of a syllogism is: Patience is a virtue, I am patiently waiting for an opportunity to kill my partner, therefore I am virtuous.)
And we are not just talking about Apple cult followers here. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have acquired a similar cult like control over the minds of fanatical followers.
When the families of these geeks, and we're talking about real people here, their Dear Old Mum, Dad, brothers, sisters, partners, kids; not the avatars of their Apple or Facebook family members, dare to complain that spending time online is becoming an obsession and alienating the cultist from the real world , many will try to solve the problem by buying their real life nearest and dearest notebook computers, or web browsers and wi - fi routers or cellular mobile web dongles so they can' keep in touch'. The pitch the cult geeks use to try and persuade family to join up or at least attend a couple of meetings is identical to that of a quasi - religious cult, that once people who doubt are on the network they will see how indispensable it is if one wants to live a full and happy life, be part of the future, get back on the evolutionary ladder (as humans evolve into unthinking automatons) and therefore be happy and fulfilled.
But how happy are the geeks who have evolved beyond thinking for themselves and acting of their own free will?
The biggest question we should be asking but few people and apparently no academics or senior politicians dare to, is the sanity of the business community and governments that placed computers in charge of global financial stability. If we examine the idea of computers creating a collective morality because they are impartial and objective being unaffected by human emotions. In fact computers can only do what they are programmed to do, scientists dreams of building machines that think like humans (true Artificial Intelligence) are as unreal as their ambitions to send interstellar expeditions to explore planets that might support life but are orbiting stars many light years distant from us.
A close look at some social science experiments in collective consciousness can be illumination too. There have been many exercises to recreate the Pavlov's dogs experiment using humans as the subjects being conditioned to respond to certain stimuli. The best know perhaps is The Milgram Experiment which demonstrated how little resistance most people would offer to a future fascist regime, turning perfectly reasonable people into bullying thugs simply by exploiting their desire for approval from an authority figure. Less frightening but no less informative is footage of Loren Carpenter's Pong experiment. Here, 5,000 individuals were left in a massive shed in front of a huge screen to ascertain whether they could work out why they were there and how to play a videogame. Carpenter's guinea pigs were gleeful when they connected as a "subconscious consensus", whooping with joy as their individual green and red bats moved the Pong paddle. They were all in this together. It made them feel great. Or did it? Episode one has no neat solutions to our growing submission to machines but is thoroughly worth the effort. Perhaps set your Sky+ or PVR remotely via your phone for it. Then series link it so it's neatly stacked up for when you've tackled all the other TV that the collective "reckon" has told you to watch. Or perhaps give it a miss. Ignore everything, suit yourself. Because you're the boss, after all, aren't you? ... ... You are ... ... Aren't you?
There is a section of Nessie the Mannerless Monster, Ted Hughes's poem for children, that in a prescient way nails the way new media is changing society. In the story The Loch Ness monster, annoyed that humans don't believe in her, rises out of the water and embarks on a reign of terror. First she trashes Edinburgh and then turns south, rampaging through England's industrial north as she marches towards London where the BBC than print media have their headquarters.
As she processes through towns and villages Nessie is shocked by what she sees:
"Everybody sits indoors in front of the TV with a dead stare.
There is nothing in the streets but cats, dogs and the odd parked car.
She peers in at the windows and whistles but nobody can hear
for the TV and its laughter and uproar and gunfire.
There is no other sign of life ...."
When, in the 1950s, media guru Marshall McLuhan wrote "the medium is the message", what he had in mind was that it is worth reflecting on how technological innovation changes us. A TV broadcasts content, but what is most socially significant about it is not what we are watching, but what it does to old ways of living.
In Understanding Media, McLuhan described the "content" of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. Immersed in the highly addictive fare of reality TV we miss the structural changes TV has made to us so what is the internet and social networking doing to the way we live?
Some years ago sociologists estimated the average person in Britain spends 11 years watching TV, an amount of time pioneers of the medium would have scoffed at.
How many hours do some people spend hunched over a computer, immersed in Facebook, twitter or something equally pointless; we neutralise the hitherto dividing distance between us and strangers on the other side of the world and yet lose contact with the people who inhabit the communities in which we spend our real lives. Only a being coming from the past, a caveman like Stig of the Dump, a hitch hiker from a previous era who had caught a ride in Doctor Who's TARDIS or a monster (with surprisingly human - like intelligence) rising from the primeval loch might be able to see how humans have changed.
A lightbulb is technology but unlike TV it does not deliver content in the form of information and ideas as television does. .Even so electric light changed human lives, giving access to more ideas and information by extending the time they could be accessed.Thus because of lightbulbs we can colonise the night, impose our cultural mores on an area that was once the realm of mystery and the unknown "A light bulb," McLuhan wrote, "creates an environment by its mere presence." So do mass media and new media, but our absorption in their content can easily blind us blind us to how the medium rather than the content changes us.
While taking a benign view of technological innovation as a means of providing ourselves with new tools to store, retrieve and communicate information we should also beware of the threat it poses, that fascination with the tool can blind us to it's true purpose. Rather that extending human abilities we can easily find a new technology, the internet in particular, curtailing them.
How difficult it has become for the online worker or leisure users (a writer like myself for example) to avoid distraction in this age of always-on broadband links and social media platforms that offer a constant stream of content that can even be described as a bit interesting on an occasion? Like Pavlov's Dogs we respond to the signal in anticipation of a reward. Does this type information snacking on a constant stream of small stimuli help us get done the things that must be done or do the constant updates and alerts interfere with our ability to concentrate on an individual task for practicalk periods of time? Social scientists, human resources managers and pychologists suggest not. And if we consider how information is presented in new media, with a snippet of information or an intriguing question contained in an eye catching headline, a teaser under it promising lots of interesting stuff if we click a link and finally the link.
Take a look at the spoof infographic posted by WebProNews in a report of theirs to see how this new media technique works. Yeah, I know I am playing the game but it would not be right to steal the work of the article's creator. Don't forget to come back here though. The point many people miss about this method of delivering information is that while it appears to be aimed at delivering content in snack sized portions its real purpose is to get the reader jumping from page to page, partly motivated by the promise that there will be something useful at the next link and partly by an urge to the instant gratification of impulses. Thus visitors to the page are led to look at many pages, all crammed with advertising material, to access less information that could be delivered in a single text page.
Friedrich Kittler, a German post-structuralist media theorist who died in October 2010, took a dystopian view of internet technology and new media. "The development of the internet has more to do with human beings becoming a reflection of their technologies," he once wrote. "After all, it is we who adapt to the machine. The machine does not adapt to us." Against McLuhan's view that ultimately media technologies are ultimately our tools, he argued, "media are not pseudopods for extending the human body. They follow the logic of escalation that leaves us and written history behind it".
In The Rise Of The Machine Kittler suggested we weren't masters of our technological domain, but rather that we were its pawns an idea explored in
The Big Ideas podcast: Friedrich Kittler's computer wars (audio)
The intellectual revolution that Kittler and like-minded thinkers predicted will displace humans further from the centre of the universe than even previous thinkers had envisaged. Copernicus had shown the universe did not revolve around us on Earth. Darwin had shown we descended from apes while Freud and Jung showed we were at the mercy of unconscious impulses. Now Kittler was suggesting we weren't masters of our technological domain, but rather that we were its pawns. It was a chastening view, and surely significant that he was producing his most potent work in the 1980s, when techno - dystopias were the stuff of Hollywood nightmares, when Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger came back from the future as a cyborg to terminate humanity.
And yet some scientists are obsessed with the idea of building machines that can think, reason and make decisions like humans but are devoid of human emotions, the factor that so often stops us from behaving rationally and logically. Would this be a good thing, a recent spate of Zombie movies and television series present a dystopian vision of a future in which most humans have lost their humanity and are animated only by those functions controlled by the brain's reptillian cortex. Those humans who remain fully human are struggling to survive against a ruthless, unfeeling enemy. Other threads of scientific research are equally obsessively trying to create hybrid embryos, create clones (as living spare part stores for when our natural bodies fail they claim) or embedding microprocessors in our heads to control emotions. These people are so arrogant, so deranged, they think they can improve on nature. Think of a world in which crocodiles could compete with us on equal terms with regard to planning and organising ability, power to use of technology and had opposable thumbs but were still animated only by the most basic instincts, to kill and eat, reproduce, survive and protect their territory. That is the kind of creatures these out-of-control goons would pit us against.
In prosecuting some of these argument I have come up against people who seriously cite Isaac Azimov's Laws of Robotics in trying to argue that robots could never harm or threaten humans. These are:
It makes me wish I was face to face with these morons so I could give them the "hairdryer" treatment, put my face very close to theirs and yell at full volume, "Azimov is science fiction, you effing dickhead. It's not real! NOW FUCK THE FUCKING FUCK OFF!"
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Copernicus many have recognised that we live in a heliocentric solar system but he did not have the means to understand we also live in a human centric universe. (Some would say a God centred universe) As long as we are the only intelligent life form we are the centre of the universe, looking outwards. Believers and non believers will argue forever about the nature of God but what kind of intellectual idiot can see an advantage to the species in displacing ourselves (or our Gods) from that position. Only scientists would be stupid enough to believe in the omnipotence of machines and propose making humans their slaves in a world controlled by a scientific elite.
Like many of the greatest thinkers about the power of mass media, for example Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard; Kittler's dystopian vision of technology was influenced by his experiences in World War 2.. Kittler argued that technology changed the nature of war: "It has become clear" he wrote, "that real wars are fought not for people or fatherlands, but take place between different media, information technologies, data flows." These were thoughts later taken up by Baudrillard in a notorious series of articles The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.
Kittler was born in Saxony, in the aftermath of the Nazis' defeat at Stalingrad. One of his earliest memories was seeing Dresden ablaze from a distance, bombed in February 1945 by the allies. He also recalled being frequently taken by his mother to a Baltic island to visit the site where Hitler's V2 rockets had been developed.
A theme of Virilio, a French theorist, was that innovation always had a dark side may have been caused by his being on the receiving end of Nazi rule and allied ordinance. His best-known statement, "the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck", expresses in a nutshell his career-long scepticism for those Panglossians who argue technology is entirely about progress.
Virilio developed the concept of dromology (from the Greek, meaning the science or logic of speed) and argued that the modern cult of speed, facilitated by technological innovation, would lead western civilisation to self destruct. "The more speed increases, the faster freedom decreases," he wrote. He was referring specifically to military innovation, but the remark could also be applied to the "just in time" approach to manufactiring supply lines, to businesses and government departments obsessed with targets to measure staff performance to broadband speeds.
Old wars were fought across distances. But technology destroys distance. New wars, inflected by technological innovation, were fought across time. He once wrote: "History progresses at the speed of its weapons systems", adding: The physical world ceases to be the battlefield and instead the battle becomes one of ideologies and economics and speed. By which he meant battles would be won by the fastest: "The class struggle is replaced by the struggle of the technological bodies of the armies according to their dynamic efficiency." This bleak vision of the future of human society infects everything: the faster you can deploy (your weapons, your money, your ideology), the quicker will be your victory.
Now that Kittler is dead, Virilio is the leading thinker of the techno-sceptics. In 2012 his book The Great Accelerator will be published. In it, the author, a devout Catholic casts a baleful eye over the attempts of scientists at CERN in Switzerland to discover the so-called "God particle". There is no coincidence, he suggests, that the high-speed hunt for the Higgs boson particle in an underground loop came off the rails in 2008 at the same time Lehman Brothers, titan of speeded-up global capital, filed for bankruptcy. Our love of speed leads to nowhere, or at least to nowhere good. There is at best a tenuous link between these things other than that both the Large Hadron Collider project and the perpetual growth led economy that required consumers to constantly consume more, faster actually served no real human need other than the need of elitist egos to be inflated.
Virilio's new book on the cult of speed and acceleration that technology has engendered has been described as a reworking of the Book of Exodus: in the new exodus from reality into a digitally created virtual promised land we aren't heading to a paradise flowing with milk and honey but into a technology dominated hell that makes Ted Hughes's vision of Britain appear close to William Blake's Green and Pleasant Land and makes McLuhan the Dr. Panmgloss of the digital world.
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