Fast-track to a ‘World without Mind’?
Technological development has quickened its pace; it’s now speeding down the autobahn in a super-car. For the dreamy-eyed, it’s risk-free, without limits, and will deliver us to a better world. The right to drive forward, as fast as possible is considered by a number to be sacred, even an entitlement. Yet, at such high speeds, not all can stay in control, predict the unexpected, or react ethically. An exhilarating journey, but where exactly are we headed? Seated in the back, a nervous passenger en route to a promised land of augmented existence (Anderson & Raine, 2018), I’m not sure to be calling out ‘are we not there yet?’ or ‘can we slow down?’
According to Brey & Søraker (2009) the term’ cyborg’ is employed in three broad senses. A traditional definition is that of “a being composed of both organic and artificial systems, between which there is feedback-control, with the artificial systems closely mimicking the behaviour of the organic system”. Broader conceptions include reference to any individual with any artificial parts, or even any individual who relies extensively on tech devices and artefacts to function. Adopting the latter position, many of us have already morphed into cyborgs!
Power in the hands of the few
I am interested in technology’s impact on the human, with the goal of facilitating the up-skilling of citizens living in a high-tech, VUCA world. This looks beyond productivity and efficiency and includes a human life with meaning and purpose on a healthy planet. I look forward to the benefits that technology can, and will bring to our own and future generations lives. Yet, the deeper I delve, the more evidence or revelation of manipulation, control and unfair practice I unearth.
Slowly, but surely, day by day, as the majority connect further and deeper into the ‘networks, systems and platforms’ run by a new elite growing further in power, I question whether the future will free us, or lead us into oppression. From this perspective, there is a danger the future ‘cyborg’ represented as a ‘human life augmented’ will not offer ‘boundary-crossing’ freedoms (Hermans et al., 2017), but marks instead, a global state of uncontrollable technology that does not respect boundaries (Calvert,2016).
Technology firms are already seated in robust positions dominating a growing portfolio of industries. from entertainment, media, publishing and retail (Kotkin, 2019). Technology in Education, known as Edtech is one of the fastest-growing sectors (Rice 2019). The relatively newer endeavours such as autonomous cars, space-exploring drones, and artificial intelligence are almost entirely driven by the tech oligarchs.
We know who they are: The big 5, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon.com, Alphabet (Google) and Facebook (Divine, 2019).
Between them, they stand accused of blocking competition and bullying tactics (The Guardian, 2018, BBC News, 2019;) and “arguably wield more power than many governments… [with] an out-sized influence on the global economy” (Bruceb News, 2019).
How far the tech giants have progressed to control what we see, what we read and what we think is shocking. Amazon has already invaded the publishing world (Montgomery, 2019), and is arguably aligned to own, in the near future, our every reading decision [or potentially, in a cold war manoeuvre, restrict access]. A third of purchases on Amazon are already generated from their ‘recommendation’ algorithms (Foer, 2017). Algorithms which can be manipulated to the giant’s advantage. Algorithms that can erode free will, choose on behalf, or at least nudge us in the right direction, without us even being made aware (ibid). Our ability to access different views or ideas is being increasingly reduced through the power of the few.
Algorithms are increasingly invading our lives. They make decisions about us and on our behalf. The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organisations that run the machines (Foer, 2017)
The automation of thinking & living
There’s no secret that AI conspires to remove humans from the process, whether that be for altruist purposes or otherwise. Yet I don’t remember seeing in any small print, an agreement that ‘human’ should be left manipulated, controlled and encased by plastic or metal, potentially held distracted and placated in a VR world.
So I have some key questions I can’t quite put out of my head.
- Who benefits from the decisions or directions that we take now with AI?
- If we look beyond the marketed promises of a better life, what reality have we really signed up to, each time we procure a new device, platform or service?
- What type of physical life and physical world are we now ‘invested in’, not just for ourselves, but for the future generations?
Science-fiction morphs into reality
This week I heard the television ad for ‘VR in the classroom’ brag that our children will never need to leave the classroom again for a class field trip. I’m all for the extension experience, adding value to an education, but not at the expense of our children being held hostage, like battery chickens with headpieces. At this point, I’m sure there is no plan to replace all ‘live human experiences’ for our young but are we not inching, device by device, platform on platform, silent and distracted into a Steven Spielberg science fiction horror.
Take your pick from a long list of AI- inspired films (Wikipedia, 2019).
• Humanity dependent on virtual reality simulation to escape the desolation of the real world as witnessed in Ready Player One (2018). We could consult the parents of the Fornite addict generation (Feeley & Palmerini, 2019) for an informed viewpoint?
• A climate-driven apocalypse, as seen in the Hunger Games franchise (2012-2015), with its Orwellian undertones and an extreme and violent popularity game-show for public entertainment. BBC’s Survivors (Agius 2017) meets the 2017 ‘The Show’ (orig. This is Your Death)?
• A Bladerunner (1982) broken world, devoid of trees and nature with dreary weather. Humanlike robots and superstrong ruthless replicant soldiers threaten to uprise against their human overlords (Schoeneberg, 2019)?
• A ‘Terminator’(1984-2019) inspired dystopian society with AI robots hell-bent on the destruction of the human species (Goldberg, 2019)?
• A world in which people enthusiastically supply all their personal data, details, exchanges, habits and movements to a Google-style internet company, which is employed for mass surveillance and ultimately feeds the corrupting power of technocracy (The Circle, 2018)?
Mass capture within the Ludic Loop
Checking updates or responding to notifications from a breath of platforms or email is a familiar pattern to many. They grab our attention, each with a promise to reveal something interesting, worth the time. This phenomenon has a name, courtesy of the cultural anthropologist, Natasha Dow Schüll. It’s the’ Ludic Loop’. However, as highlighted by Zhang (2018), the implication of the devices or mediums that lure us in with their facilitation of order, efficiency, information sharing and communication, is the altered way we acquire knowledge and develop interactions within our world.
Zhang (2018) suggests knowledge is acquired in a number of ways:
- Through perception or via our five senses
- Through inference and our own innate ability to draw associations and conclusions
- Through testimony and the word of other avenues of knowledge, whether through the word of our peers, our authoritative figures, or through the media
Zhang (2018) warns of the constant engagement with the outside world solely through feeds will eventually dull our own abilities of perception and analysis. “If everything we learn and everything we think is fed to us via the digital ludic, and none of our own thoughts are truly of our own creation, we will eventually forget how to think”.
Foer (2017) offers a clear view of the revolution of who controls knowledge and information today, the result of the world racing to embrace the products and services of a few titanic corporations. “We shop with Amazon; socialize on Facebook; turn to Apple for entertainment; and rely on Google for information. These firms sell their efficiency and purport to make the world a better place, …[through an] intoxicating level of daily convenience”.
“As these companies have expanded, marketing themselves as champions of individuality and pluralism, their algorithms have pressed us into conformity and laid waste to privacy. They have produced an unstable and narrow culture of misinformation, and put us on a path to a world without private contemplation, autonomous thought, or solitary introspection–a world without mind” (Foer, 2017)
Apart from the loss of ‘thinking’, we should also factor in the impact on our precious commodity, time (Ballantyne, 2018). It is commonly acknowledged that people are highly distracted or even addicted to their devices (Gazzaley & Rosen, 2016). Research has revealed a significant negative relationship between device use, internet surfing and even academic performance (Kirschner & Karpinski, 2010; Ghulami et al., 2018; Azizi et al., 2019). This is a mere scratch on the surface of findings to date. So whilst there are social benefits from use of our devices, how, why, and for whose real advantage we gift so much time and effort to them, is surely worth deeper scrutiny and public consideration.
At stake is who we are, and what we will become. One may embrace the future ‘cyborg’ world facilitated by the tech elite, and genuinely see the new world where “people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (Haraway, 1991). Or, one may take a more cautionary stance, and look to thwart totalitarian domination by science and technology, where all persons and cultures are open to technical manipulation.
It’s easy to feel powerless as an individual, captive in the back seat of the super-car charging down the autobahn. One almost feels resigned to sit tight and follow through with the ‘developments’ of an accelerating developing world. Transported at speed to a future, planned, shaped, designed by the technology giants; multi-industry oligarchs fast merging into global monopolies.
Have we already relinquished far too much control to the ‘few’ who have cleverly and unscrupulously build the tech empires that pervades all sectors to date, possibly sealing our fate?
We stand in 2019, fast-tracked towards a ‘World Without Mind’ (Foer, 2017); potentially manipulated and nudged quietly into a future of reduced choice, and diminished free will and value.
So, maybe we do need to at least consider en route …
How we start to reclaim our private authority over how we intellectually engage with the world? and
How we ‘take back the mind’ before we cross further boundaries of being?
‘Part 2: Reclaiming our minds’ to follow
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