Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Where Are We Going? No Really, Where Are We Going?

Google Glass: 2012 preview, for release to consumers in 2014. Image Source: Extreme Tech.

The first twenty years of the Internet involved playing mental catch-up as the industry excitedly released each new application, operating system, or gadget. Except for think pieces at Wired, which launched in 1993 as a glossy magazine, few tried to grasp the implications as the sites and services rolled out - AOL (1991); Amazon (1994); eBay (1995); Yahoo! (1995); Craigslist (1995); Netflix (1997); PayPal (1998); Google (1998); Wikipedia (2001); Second Life (2003); Blogger (2003); Linked In (2003); Skype (2003); Facebook (2004); Digg (2004); YouTube (2005); Reddit (2005); Twitter (2006); Tumblr (2007); Pixlr (2008); Kickstarter (2009); Pinterest (2010); Instagram (2010). These are just the giants, with no mention of the porn sites, which do join the giants in the top rankings for traffic. See the Alexa Top 500 Global Sites for hundreds more of the most world's most popular Web hubs. There are also thousands more Web apps and services which you will have never heard of, unless they meet your particular needs.

The book reader of the future, from Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine (April 1935). Image Source: Paleofuture.

As great as these sites, services and devices are, if you are lucky, you can remember what life was like before they came along. It was far from perfect. But all someone had to do to become inaccessible was not answer the telephone. Now it takes a lot of willpower, excuses and effort to disconnect.

Wireless Emergency Alert System: "'Many people do not realize that they carry a potentially life-saving tool with them in their pockets or purses every day,' said W. Craig Fugate, administrator of FEMA." Image Source: NYT.

On the night of 5-6 August, a friend who lives in California was wakened in the middle of the night by cell phones in the house ringing an alarm he had never heard before: this was the state amber alert for a child abduction:
California issued its first cellphone Amber Alert late Monday, as phones in Southern California received an alert of two missing children in San Diego.

The timing differed from phone to phone but sometime between late Monday and early Tuesday many mobile phones across Southern California received an alert regarding James Lee DiMaggio, suspected of killing Christina Anderson, 44, and kidnapping one or both of her children, Hannah, 16, and Ethan, 8, the Los Angeles Times reported. ...

Some cellphones received only a text message, others buzzed and beeped as part of the Wireless Emergency Alert program, a cellphone equivalent of the Emergency Alert System that creates a high-pitched test tone on television.
The amber alert frightened many people when their mobile phones began ringing strangely (listen here). The system also warns the public about any other kind of major threat:
When you get an Amber Alert on your phone, you will definitely know. The sound is somewhere between a squeal, a siren and a series of tones. Even if you have your phone on silent or vibrate, or have enabled a "Do Not Disturb" or "Sleep" setting, your device may make this sound. The alert will appear as a text message including all pertinent information. ...
At the end of 2012, CTIA-The Wireless Association announced the transition from a Wireless Amber Alert program to a Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program. ... Now, the WEA program sends messages to users within the area of the suspected abduction. For example, if a child in Orlando is abducted, all eligible devices within that area will broadcast the alert. A representative from the California Highway Patrol told HLN that Amber Alerts have previously been issued through wireless carriers regionally, but Monday's alert was the first to be broadcast statewide. It is of note that the WEA system also broadcasts other types of emergency alerts, such as severe weather warnings and imminent threat alerts.
To my friend, the alert brought home the point that mobile phones have erased privacy and are just "personal tracking devices that we also use as telephones." Smartphones are good for tracking criminals. They're also good for tracking everyone else.

A system like this can be a very powerful tool, as Orson Welles discovered in 1938. The Emergency Alert even entered the English language: This is only a test. - Or - This is not a test. In February 2013, hackers hacked a Montana TV station's Emergency Alert System and aired a fake zombie apocalypse warning to demonstrate the system's vulnerabilities. Ars Technica reported in June 2013 that the TV and radio Emergency Alert System is generally hackable. I could not find comment online about whether the Wireless Emergency Alerts program is also hackable, but presumably it is.

Some would argue that worrying about the future is pointless and unhealthy. In a July post, Maria Popova noted that anxiety is often associated with contemplation of the future; also, recent psychological research links the suicidal mind with an over-contemplation of the future:
In Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception ... BBC’s Claudia Hammond explores the psychology of mitigating our worries: Ad Kerkhof is a Dutch clinical psychologist who has worked in the field of suicide prevention for 30 years. He has observed that before attempting suicide people often experience a period of extreme rumination about the future. They sometimes reported that these obsessive thoughts had become so overwhelming that they felt death was the only way to escape. Kerkhof has developed techniques which help suicidal people to reduce this rumination and is now applying the same methods to people who worry on a more everyday basis. He has found that people worry about one topic more than any other — the future, often believing that the more hours they spend contemplating it, the more likely they are to find a solution to their problems. But this isn’t the case.
But what happens when the future becomes the present? As the technological future approached over the past 20 years, there seemed barely time to digest what was happening. It was enough to just keep up with the changes. There is a need to stand back, to see the big picture, to contemplate how we are changing as human beings, to understand what is happening to society, politics, the economy.

Devin Coldewey a Seattle-based writer and photographer, has a number of interesting articles for Tech Crunch (here) in which he tries to make sense of the impact of the Technological Revolution with reference to the past. In 2009, he compared Google and its many services to the construction of Roman roads (here). It was a metaphor-laden piece and pretty clumsy in its historical analogy. Nevertheless, Coldewey's comparison - between Google's messy-but-often-cool labs projects and the Roman road system - was intriguing. But Coldewey misunderstood the potential parallel in his historical comparison. The Roman road system was technologically revolutionary, but the purpose the roads served was not revolutionary at all. The Romans were building an empire. And so is Google.

Coldewey revisited the topic on 17 March 2013 with an article, God Damn It, Google, in which he bemoaned Google's path:
A couple years ago, I wrote a post called Google, Rome, and Empire. The gist of the article, of which I was very proud at the time, was that Google’s grand plan mirrored the structure of Roman roads in their build-out period, and that Google would unify its dozens of small properties with its five or six big ones by means of a single meta-service.

I envisioned this rich tapestry of services, obscure to monolithic, hooking in through engines and tools to a vastness of data and users, and, at the other end of the telescope, a single point of entry through which one would have instant access to everything from maps to obscure scientific results to the current price of tea. A bit like the real (or rather, idealized) empire, really: An assemblage of hamlets and metropoli, farms and academies, every citizen knowing that their via vicinale led to a via rustica, which led to a via publica, which led to Rome.

This constellation of services, this web of empowerment, resources, and variety. This bright future.

I’m feeling let down. ...

Google+ was, as I saw it, a huge misstep, albeit a high-quality one. But other products, other “sunsets” ... hinted at a company growing not just sloppy, but callous. ... Now, with the senseless shutdown of Reader ... I’m faced with how deliberate and tawdry the whole thing has become. God damn it, Google. ...

It’s like seeing your favorite fighter ... throw a match for the money. He’s no worse a fighter for it, but could you ever cheer for him again?

How can I be excited for Google Glass now? How can I be pumped for I/O or 3D Google Earth or a partnership with the Library of Congress, or anything they come up with? They’ve poisoned the well in the worst way; they made it clear that Google is worse than mercenary — it’s banal.

I can still be happy for what they’ve given us ... . They led the data-voracious of the world, spurred sluggish markets into action, and truly revolutionized ... the way we navigate data by changing what we think of as data (namely, everything). I can still follow the good works of the Maps and Books teams with approval or marvel a bit at the technical accomplishment of Glass, or thank them for their advocacy in Washington, though now it is without positive sentiment ... .

Google’s greatest legacy may be in the lesson that they have given the next generation of companies and visionaries. Google said “Don’t be Evil,” and they meant it, but they found what others have found: it’s easier said than done, not because of temptation, but because nobody is quite sure what evil is. Luckily, those that are to come may be guided by a simpler principle: “Don’t be Google.”
Since when, God damn it, did a search engine company have plans to develop and control ... everything? Google introduced Gmail in 2008 and everyone climbed on board. At the time, there was some self-consciousness here and there about the fact that having a search engine running your private correspondence might not be a good idea. But because Gmail was initially introduced 'by invitation only' everyone thought only of the cachet and quickly forgot about privacy.

In Silicon Valley speak, the word 'services' has become a euphemism for 'nasty little surprises.' There was panic among Apple iPhone users when they heard that this year's Apple iOS7 will continually track and log your location. In response, Mysinchew asked: what's wrong with that?
"[T]he feature is innocent enough and is part of a larger service that will learn a user's behavior and be able to identify his or her favorite locations in order to improve services."
Forget Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google following your every move. Employers can now buy a software suite called Rapid Information Overlay Technology (RIOT), which lets them track everything you do and allows them predict your future behaviour.

The loss of privacy has a detrimental impact on mass psychology. Technology's intimate intrusion in our lives makes us doubt everyone and everything. Tech Crunch remarked in an article, Counterfeit is the New Real, that tech erodes trust, not just in governments, corporations and other people, but in reality:
Here’s a rather unfortunate development: The proliferation of recording devices and instant distribution is matched by our ability to falsify the information they produce. While they don’t exactly cancel each other out, they do have the awkward effect of turning an age of the most rigorous documentation into an age of jaded (and justified) suspicion.
Take this business of the [Russian] meteor. I don’t mean the imperturbable Russian who lowered his visor against a cosmic event of beauty and sublimity. I mean the rest of us. Be honest: How many of you, upon first seeing video of the meteor, immediately began thinking of the ways this could be a hoax or viral stunt? ...
Or perhaps you remember the amazing photograph published by Reuters of the becrutched Libyan rebel firing an RPG. It was so incredible that to many, it was literally incredible, and immediately a campaign was waged to expose this obvious fake. Of course, it turned out to be a completely genuine (and stunning) piece of photojournalism. On the other end of the spectrum, consider the fabricated video of the golden eagle snatching a kid. A similar skeptical effort was engaged in over that, but it had its defenders as well. After all, it looked quite real, even if in retrospect one can pick out some slightly stiff animation.
The first signs that our love affair with technology was turning sour began with outcry against Google glass. Then there were worries about whether Facebook's facial recognition system was "creepy" or "awesome." But if you want to sense where this is all going, have a look at:

Surveillance society. Image Source: The Art of Manliness.

Thus, the question arises, if the nexus between reality and virtual reality is manipulatable and reality is relative, who will control reality? Right now, almost anything goes on the Internet. That will change. Already, municipal police forces, with their cumbersome 19th century bureaucratic ranks and their 20th century technologies, are developing cybercrime units with a transnational reach. That force will guard the line between newly-determined legal and illegal activities. The FBI Cybercrime page asks:
We are building our lives around our wired and wireless networks. The question is, are we ready to work together to defend them? The FBI certainly is. We lead the national effort to investigate high-tech crimes, including cyber-based terrorism, espionage, computer intrusions, and major cyber fraud. To stay in front of current and emerging trends, we gather and share information and intelligence with public and private sector partners worldwide.
What 'cybercrime' and 'cyberterrorism' are, exactly, are points of growing debate. Much depends on the outcome of that debate, because what is fluid today will be set in stone tomorrow. Those who win the debate will harness the incredible power of the Internet, its access to billions of people, and its potential for dominating their thoughts and actions.

Are whistle blowers like Edward Snowden traitors to their country - or patriots fighting to keep the Internet free? Is Facebook a friendly service, or the first smiley manifestation of a huge global apparatus of surveillance, social control and simultaneous materialist profit? If the latter is the case, when, and on what grounds, will we consider corporate and online giants to be committing cybercrimes against citizens and consumers? Is it right to commercialize every tiny corner of the citizen's private mentality and existence?

On the other hand, it is easy to demonize governments and big corporations and businesses. The Web is seething with desk chair revolutionaries. Conventional authorities already dominate all the recognizable expressions of power, so they are easy to distrust. But their opponents have a similar stake in what the Internet will become. In researching posts for this blog, I see Netizens place a lot of blind trust in hackers and figures like Julian Assange. But the latter have shown unsettling signs of being just as interested in power and politics as those they condemn. Even if they start off as Millennial Robin Hoods, they are evidently seduced by their ability to manipulate sensitive information. Their tone is one of self-appointed judge, jury and executioner. Why would anyone automatically trust them - whoever they are - or place trust in what they will become? Why would anyone unquestioningly assume that the Cyber-Underground is virtuous, just because they think they are, and/or say they are?

In the 1990s, we assumed idealistically that unfettered communications about everyone and everything would naturally constitute a new, free, democratic order. The truth is: we do not know what kind of society will emerge when all secrets are told, when the private becomes public, when all information is totally free. There are troubling signs that it is incredibly easy to confuse the free passage of information with a politically free result.  Like Devin Coldewey's confusion over the historical meaning of the Roman road system, free traffic can easily be used to build an unfree technocracy characterized by social hierarchy, economic inequality, cultural degradation, political domination and world conflict. The innate freedom of the traffic is not automatically passed on to the end purposes it serves.

Perhaps it isn't information sharing, exactly, that is the problem. Rather, it is that the information sharing reflects still-unaddressed human problems. The Web is a mirror of who we are, just as the atomic bomb is, or a broken nuclear power plant, or genetic biotech research, or quantum physics. If we did not address pre-Web social problems successfully, if mutual social responsibility and consensus became passé before the Internet, then those unsolved problems will simply find new expressions online.

Then there is the fact that the Internet is an undiscovered country in terms of human social development. There are few social norms and values in this new environment. That grey area around what is right and wrong, moral and not, saw pornography absorbed into the mainstream. Pornography is dressed up in some Millennial circles as an expression of libertine freedom. Those who absorb pornographic memes into their personal lives fail to understand that the original Greek term pornai referred to the lowest class of slave. The Internet has also seen a sickening worldwide explosion of child pornography.

Porn is the thin end of the wedge in labeling and controlling online communities. Image Source: The Inquisitr.

However, the Web has a way of inverting the meaning of one worry, then inverting that meaning again. No matter how titillating, problematic or ghastly porn may be or become, when authorities clamp down on it, it reopens the question of freedom. This summer, UK authorities began planning an online 'porn block' for the end of 2014, which will set precedents for broader Internet censorship. The UK government wants to "protect children and their innocence." Who could disagree with that? Except - HM government also wants to block violence, alcohol, terrorism, smoking and 'esoteric material,' including eating disorder and suicide discussion sites.

Since these things will never disappear from human societies, it sounds like we are on our way to a two-tiered system. Will only Orwellian Inner Party members get porn and eating disorder privileges? Or will these topics revisit Depression-era Prohibition conditions, and be relegated to criminalized, encrypted, invitation-only online speakeasies?

How we identify with what is marginal or not, or acceptable or not, suddenly is up for grabs in a way we have never seen before. Or maybe we have. The Holocaust demonstrated that institutionalized social labeling can destroy and overhaul the entire structure and purpose of a society to a genocidal degree. Nor did authorities recognize and reject the perils of group labeling after the Second World War. Instead, they continued to indulge in rampant group labeling to build the post-war order. This process and way of thinking has infected almost every political discourse, every social discussion, every mode of organizing ourselves. Self-labeling, finding your sub-culture, became a pseudo-cultural activity, a fake way of 'defining yourself' in a positive sense. It is so second nature now that it is impossible to discuss anything meaningfully in contemporary affairs without using group labels. Yet modern and Postmodern labeling still carries a potential for destruction, dishonesty and danger. The Internet amplifies that potential.

The Internet lends itself to self-categorizations and micro-community-building. But Tech Crunch noted that you might be defined solely by what you do online, which is why there is so much insane pressure from tech companies to do more, buy more, see more on the Internet; these companies cannot define you and market your data, unless you define yourself through their algorithms and gadgets: "Facebook has a categorial imperative: [i]ts reason for being may be to provide a service, but its means for being is to systematize individuality." It is in this construct of the Online Self, weirdly filtered and falsely interpreted by the new class of tone deaf technocrats, where the positives of online community-building may be transformed suddenly into regulation, marginalization and discrimination.

"Dr. Phil McGraw, Syndicated Daytime Television Talk Show Host and Best-Selling Author, testifies at a hearing on Ensuring Student Cyber Safety on June 24, 2010." Video Source: Dr. Phil via Youtube

Do we let the government regulate these matters, or should we self-regulate? We don't seem to want either option when it comes to the Internet. A word that is coming up a lot these days is 'mindfulness.' There is a growing need for self-awareness, a consciousness of consequences of actions. But how is that possible, when the Internet removes social accountability? The problem is evident in Millennial online love affairs: there is an ill fit between the virtual and the real, especially in the damage Cyber-Sexting and emotional online chatting does to real life marriages. PBS did a Webinar series on this topic in 2011. One participant, Therese Borchard, regarded hundreds of angst-filled responses to that series as a sign that something is going wrong with online mating and dating:
Here’s my honest opinion, after reading hundreds of comments and emails from people who have been involved in online relationships or emotional affairs as well as the responses on the discussion boards of the Emotional Affairs support group on Beliefnet’s community site: Although the internet and social media can foster intimacy in a marriage, it seems to do more harm than good. Of all the comments I’ve read, 90 percent of the opposite-sex relationships that were damaging to the marriage happened online. According to a story on PI Newswire:
A recent study shows as many as one in five divorce filings cite problems on Facebook or other social networking websites. In Rochester, marriage counselors are sending a warning to even happily married couples: Facebook affairs are threatening healthy couples, too.
“I have suggested to myself to write a thank you note to the inventors of Facebook and Myspace because they have been responsible for a significant percentage of my income,” says marriage counselor Dr. Dennis Boike. He’s not kidding. “I’m having people say I never would have expected me to do this. I’ve turned down opportunities galore. But to see this seductive part of it is that no one else sees it. It’s in the privacy of my computer. I’m not going out anywhere, I’m not dressing for it, I’m not smelling of another’s perfume. There are no tell-tale signs except my computer record.
Women in the UK were threatened this summer with rape, bombing and murder on Twitter after a campaign to put Jane Austen on the new 10-pound note, including British MP Stella Creasy. In a recent series of posts on 'what strengthens and weakens our integrity,' The Art of Manliness observed that "the distance between that act and its consequences can increase our ability to rationalize immorality as acceptable behavior."

Image Source: Twitter via The Telegraph.

The online gap between actions and consequences is even worse for children. The Internet is a hotbed of cyber-bullying. it  It is destroying the lives of many children and teens whose critical social formation has occurred and is occurring online. The most recent alarming cases of cyber-bullying have been reported in the UK. Juveniles are socializing in environments where there are no rules. If someone really targets you, there is no way to fight back. This was why, misgivings about hackers aside, you could not help but cheer on Anonymous hackers when they went after a cyber bully who harassed Canadian suicide Amanda Todd. You cheered them on, until it emerged that they mistakenly gave the social networked lynch mob the wrong house address of the alleged bully.

Everywhere, the labeling of what is 'criminal' or 'acceptable' in virtual reality makes up a new order, followed by competing bids for external control or internal self-governance. In 2011, Sweden recognized file sharing as an official religion - Kopimism. But copyright holders - especially corporations who are part of the mass entertainment industry - declare file-sharing to be an international crime.

Political chatter is similarly regulated. In some countries, simply 'liking' and sharing political ideas on social networks can amount to cybercrime. Or it may not now, but will in the future. What we say online in 2013 may haunt us in the supersmart mechanized technocracy of 2023.

War and new technology: One missed call. Image Source: SEALofHonor.

John Havens at Mashable worries about the fact that A.I. will be as intelligent as humans within ten years. Unmanned drone strikes are a 'preferred' option to 'boots on the ground.' Weaponized robots mean that the act of war will be divorced from real consequences too:
As a technologist, I embrace the positive aspects of AI, when it helps advance medical or other technologies. As an individual, I reserve the right to be scared poop-less that by 2023 we might achieve AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) or Strong AI — machines that can successfully perform any intellectual task a person can.
Not to shock you with my mad math skills, but 2023 is 10 years away. Forget that robots are stealing our jobs, will be taking care of us when we’re older, asking us to turn and cough in the medical arena.

In all of my research, I cannot find a definitive answer to the following question: How we can ensure humans will be able to control AI once it achieves human-level intelligence?

So, yes, I have control issues. I would prefer humans maintain autonomy over technologies that could achieve sentience, largely because I don’t see why machines would need to keep us around in the long run.
It’s not that robots are evil, per se. ... It’s more that machines and robots are currently, and for the moment, predominantly, programmed by humans who always experience biases.
In a report published by Human Right’s Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, "Losing Humanity, The Case Against Killer Robots", the authors write: “In its Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2011-2036, the U.S. Department of Defense wrote that it ‘envisions unmanned systems seamlessly operating with manned systems while gradually reducing the degree of human control and decision making required for the unmanned portion of the force structure.’”
The "unmanned systems" refer to fully autonomous weapons that can select and engage targets without human intervention.
For a glimpse of how unmanned android super-solders could turn on us, see Philip K. Dick's story, Second Variety (see my related posts here and here).

The problem with Internet 'services,' communications, software and hardware is that we are using them as excuses not to answer the big question of where we are going. Why is it a crisis if a mobile phone does not double its technological power every 18 months? Who cares? So what if Moore's Law reaches its silicon limit in ten years? Where, exactly, are we rushing at these fantastic speeds?

In late 2012, Tech Crunch commented in a piece, Reach Out and Touch No One, that we are losing track of what it means to connect to others through this fabulous technology:
Listening to a kid in Syria talk about freedom helped drive that in for me today. At the other end of this apparatus of LCDs, copper wire, fiber bundles, switches, routers, and hard drives, there was a boy in a war-torn country talking into his phone, probably terrified that his house will be hit by stray bullets. And I was suddenly cognizant of both the ways in which the Internet has empowered him and us, and the ways it hasn’t. It makes me wonder whether the Internet really is a transformative technology, or merely a catalyst. ... I feel that we’re allowing the sheer size and potential of the Internet as a system to answer questions that it really can’t. A child may indeed now cry for help in Syria and be heard by millions. But if the result is the same as if he had cried out to an empty room, what does he gain by it?
As mentioned in this post, we have to reinvest some humanity in this great enterprise. Economist Robert J. Gordon insists that we must relate the virtual back to real:
“A thought experiment helps to illustrate the fundamental importance of the inventions of ... [the early phase of the tech boom] compared to the subset of ... inventions that have occurred since 2002. You are required to make a choice between option A and option B. With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002.

Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3 a.m. on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?”
Or, to put it more clearly, the uncontrolled exploration and expansion of the mechanistic, technological and virtual will eventually consume and destroy the real, if we blindly allow that to happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment