50. Techno-driven change

The year and a half I have been blogging has been full of surprises, delights and some disappointments. I have been positively surprised by the ever more visible advances for women and by the greater awareness of the electorate to environmental threats, but looking back I found that my prevailing and recurrent theme has been “change.”1 Small wonder: Technology driven change is overwhelming the world and all its inhabitants at speeds never previously experienced. Its scope and impact have been so powerful that I am finding it hard to write: There are now more cell-phones than people.

Instead of guiding change we are letting technology run away with it. The pace of change has been driven in part by an economic system ruled by both the profit motive and the demands for growth. It startles me that nobody is really questioning whether the global consumers of such rapid change are capable of handling it without enduring serious psychological and social challenges. More disturbing is that hardly anyone is asking where such change is leading us or even where would consumers like it to take them … or future generations. My goal in writing this blog has been to consider positive alternatives and to suggest different outcomes for free societies. But how to deal with the simultaneous rise of nanotechnology, automation, robot advances, data-driven algorithms, quantum computers, social networks, driverless cars, domestic control systems, threats to privacy, internet education, medical diagnostics, and internet banking – to mention a dozen that immediately come to mind.

Our immediate challenge is to confront the serious crises from technological advances creating (A) unemployment (particularly for the 16-to 25 age group) caused in part by robots and automation, (B) rising economic inequality, and (C) massive tax avoidance/evasion by global corporations.

For the less than one per cent of the population who were already wealthy, change has been extremely beneficial — even in a time of economic contraction. High tech capitalism tends to create rates of return on investment considerably higher than the overall rates of economic growth with the result that more wealth is transferred into the hands of an hereditary elite of investors to the detriment of most of society. This is the clear conclusion of Thomas Piketty’s massive book, Capitalism in the 21st Century. Hedge funds, like Renaissance Technologies, have found devious ways and loop-holes which allow them to borrow $17 for every $1 in the accounts of investors while those with ordinary brokerage accounts are legally entitled to borrow only $1 on every dollar held. These hedge-funds manage to pay long term tax rates on short term trades for their privileged customers even when the shares were held electronically for just a few seconds. Such operations have enabled the wealthy to greatly increase their holdings at the expense of the US and UK treasuries which have been deprived of billions in taxes.2

Technological solution-ism has been in full swing in Silicon Valley pushed by corporations whose goals would appear to be both profit (on revenues of over $200 billion in 2013) and the optimization of efficiency. They are actively researching the “smartification” of everyday chores in “smart” environments serving “ambient assisted living.” Would success of such a trajectory lead to an improvement of the human condition? As it is, both research and development seem to be headed towards a communication connectivity of our lives where home, business and personal associations will be linked. Is such change desirable? Make no mistake: the web, which was still free two decades ago, is now dominated by big corporations.

It has been said that the key to understanding the major corporate players in the electronics industry is to recognize that they don’t have any formal strategy. As the technology analysts from Gartner explain: “Google encourages innovation through emergence. It doesn’t have a strategic master-plan with investors or clients, which for some is a source of confusion or frustration. Applications, services and products that succeed — whether in revenue generation or serving as irritants and disruptors to its rivals — receive more resources.” What such analysis is saying is that there is no plan behind the changes we are all experiencing — there is only the market.

Larry Page, one of the developers of Google, contends that robots and machines should be able to provide a “time of abundance” where everyone’s basic needs could be met relatively easily. He recognizes that much of what people used to do has been taken over by machines over the past century and that this trend will continue.“90 per cent of people used to be farmers. So it’s happened before. It’s not surprising.” But Larry Page has no suggestions for the unemployed or under-employment in terms of work or income.

It is in fashion for those in Silicon Valley to use terminology like “The Cloud.” Down to earth, this term refers to using shared internet services to process, manage or store data instead of personal computers or local servers. This will come in handy for those somehow seeking to solve society’s problems with giga masses of data gathered from the ever multiplying “smart” devices. Such a data based approach to economics, politics and governance, or “algorithmic regulation” may indeed be in the offing but will it bring us closer to dealing with global problems?

One observer, Evgeny Morozov, suggests that “algorithmic regulation could certainly make the administration of existing laws more efficient.” It “will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots.”3 This sounds to me like a new definition for dystopia where human behavior is monitored and managed by smart ambient technology. This would be an invasive computer world where corporate executives and power-hungry politicians could control and manipulate the monitored population.

In a ‘visionary’ moment a year ago, Larry Page said: “We should be building great things that don’t exist … We’re really only at 1% of what’s possible, and maybe even less than that … we’re still moving slow.” Page is correct to say that we are still at an early stage of the possible. The effects on the “plugged in” new generations — whose attention spans keep on shrinking, whose memory lapses are on the rise, and whose stress levels are increasingly medicated — are inconclusively researched. Perhaps the fear is that the results of such studies could be so intimidating that they might induce panic in parents, teachers, politicians, corporations and the market.

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1The relevant blogs include:

2Report of the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, July 29, 2014
3Evgeny Morozov, The Observer, July 20, 2014, The New Review, p.11

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49. A Myth for the 21st Century

“Myth is one of humanity’s more creative forms — and one of the most necessary.
It is motivated by the emotions of joy, excitement, happiness as well as by great anguish and depression. Myth depends on the emotional and the glandular, rather than the rational and the logical. As such, it defies and challenges our fundamental categories of thought.” Ernst Cassirer1

A function of myth “is the sociological one, supporting and validating a certain social order in a culture.” Joseph Campbell2

The basic function of myths “is to introduce an instructive order into the randomness of events.” Yorick Blumenfeld3

* * * *

SPATIA believed that there was a secret force at work as she scanned unending
images on her computer screens. As an extraordinary young navigator with a global reputation, her spirit was eager not only to grasp the enormity of the Internet and all its apps growing like a galactic field of budding mushrooms on the digital landscape, but also to exert her newly established force on it. Most normal beings would find the scope of such a challenge overwhelming, but it did not affect Spatia in the least.

Spatia is most at ease when, swiftly tapping her multi-colored finger nails on the screen linking her with friends, and admirers as well as critics and irritating promoters — all of whom regard her impact on the www with a warranted degree of awe. They accept her as not being of any particular time, space, or age. What they get to see is her radiant energy and the delighted and occasionally mischievous gleam of her fast moving eyes. In the early morning as the sun is rising, her fingers are frequently shown clicking the plate of her app to swiftly produce the song and lyrics of “Oh what a beautiful morning” to greet her, her audience and the world.

The reality facing users has been that the chaos of choices, contacts, opportunities, information, games and distractions swirling around the www is as unfathomable as the notion of multi-universes and giga black holes. How could one hyper encyclopaedic unity cover all of history, religion, philosophy, languages, the sciences, dance, Bee-Bop and even mythology? The Greeks would have found such a phenomenal range of choice overwhelming even to the multiple gods on Mount Olympus. The knights of King Arthur’s table — if confronted with such a vast informational challenge — would have dashed away on their inexhaustible chargers. And the first Encylopaedists of the 18th Century might even have resorted to denial when confronted by such an enormity of knowledge. Not Spatia. She now skims over the endless commercial offers and the barrage of information on the Internet like a swallow gliding through the morning mist on the lookout for insect morsels. The overly-rich amplitude of instantaneous connections no longer phase her.

It was not always thus. At an earlier stage Spatia had been driven to near despair by her inability to navigate the Internet. She would be looking for the meaning of such words as “prognostication” and “metaphor” of whose spellings she was even unsure, and would find herself looking at violent Kung-Fu scenes or vegan cooking master classes. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to the offerings. She felt there was a real threat to her mind: could it be sucked into a whirlpool of irrelevant worlds? Italian fashions, Bloomberg economics, Facebook recognitions, explicit sexual encounters, endless blogs on environmental threats, tweets without sweets, extremes of violence in the Muslim world, and games of fortune all seemed to be part of one gigantic, unmanageable bundle. It stressed her to try and make sense or even to attempt wading through this thick jungle of jumbles. Tears of frustration were of no help when there seemed no way for Spatia to make any sense of such digital excess.

One late afternoon after hours on the Internet, her fatigued eyes closed and, although sitting in a chair, Spatia sank into a deep sleep as it turned into a sing-song of “Mr Sandman bring me a dream.” Indeed, Mr. Sandman did so on his magic beam. Without introduction, Steve Jobs – whose form seemed unrecognizable — told her that he had descended from his place in Apple Heaven because he was so moved by her strenuous efforts to make sense of this infant giant, the Internet. Growth was indeed wonderful, he told her, but such media chaos was not what he had intended during his time on earth. It was now his privilege, he explained, to show her how to navigate this supremely complex human creation.

“I admire the way and the ease and speed with which you have tried to incorporate the web to your own needs and wants,” Jobs said in a kind of steady monologue.
“You must strive to connect the string of experiences you have had on the Internet…
Look back and see if there was a design in the sites you visited … It will become
obvious to you that the program of the Internet is that there is no program … Scanning through the Internet is to examine the expression of the free mental energy of billions of the living … So ask yourself: Is there a mindshare of users?

My friend “Lick,” (formerly Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider)4 who has been enlightening me in my incredibly eternal cloud space, has offered to explain not only the need to bring direction to the media world of planet earth, but how you, Spatia, can bring this about.” At which the translucent Jobs vanished and was replaced by Lick in Spatia’s dream.

“Let me introduce myself,” said Lick with a modicum of modesty and determination: ”I was one of the first humans to foresee your modern interactive computing and its application to all kinds of activities. I also had an early vision of a world-wide computer network long before it was created. Perhaps, because I planted so many seeds of computing in the digital age, I have been called “the Johnny Appleseed of computing.” In all honesty, I was really the father of most of the significant advances in computer technology. In the long biography about me, called The Dream Machine, the future I envisioned would empower individuals instead of forcing them into rigid conformity. I was convinced computers were not just superfast calculating machines , but could become joyful tools that would serve as a new media of expression, inspirations to creativity and gateways to a vast world of online information.” So you see, Spatia, my dream turned into something causing you
nightmares.” Still fast asleep, Spatia nodded her head in agreement.

“So what has happened?” asked Lick. “I no longer follow daily events on our planet, but I can sense that trillions of sensors, screens, and devices in cities, cars, telephones, personal computers and apps have created a vast network which has become a kind of background to your changed lives on Earth. The Internet is now integral to the economic and social development of the planet. Inevitably, the ever increasing computer power around the globe will digitize almost everything which surrounds you and from the mass of data collected will provide significant insights into the interactions between people as well as those between humans and machines. What will be lacking is genuine human contact and that is where you, Spatia, may come in.”

“You, on this planet, must have the courage to challenge the commercial and political forces that – for personal gains — want a free hand, which is often called “the market.” It is true that gaming has become the favorite activity of those using tablets, laptops and various apps and devices, but this is pure diversion. Divergent efforts must be introduced to protect privacy, to increase knowledge, to advance humor and delight in order to collectively develop and advance life on earth. Towards this end you must ask: ‘How can I build a team which can help me bring about changes to make the media more comprehensible ?’ As computer literacy spreads, so must social and political activism and collaboration. The electronic sharing of ideas, hopes, skills and knowledge have made collaborative work much easier for your generation. But I have gone on long enough. You will have to stop dreaming and, bravely, start acting. If you succeed in bringing about real change to the internet you could soon become mythical — like Dido or Ophelia.”

With these inspiring words, Lick vanished and Spatia woke up from her dreams
much energized and stimulated. What was clear to her was that she had to take
action on what she had somehow been told. It was clear she could not simply act on her own. This meant that she had to use the internet to set up a widely based cooperative effort. She closed her eyes and thought about ways to use Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook , Microsoft and other outlets to get the message across.5 On reflection she decided that a social and cooperative form of branding was the way forward. She would create a digital seal adjustable for different age groups which would brand as much of the Internet’s public content as was feasible. This would create some order where there had been total chaos.

“I shall POUNCE on contents I like or approve of, CHUCK out the stuff I don’t like,
and I shall GARGLE over the material to which I am indifferent,” she said to herself. POUNCING, CHUCKING, and GARGLING would be the CORE (the Cooperative Organizational Reform Exercise) of her approach to branding all programs, films, texts, blogs, games and videos being provided on the Internet. Where bewilderment and puzzlement had been used by different producers to keep users on line, Spatia’s resolution was to stick to the direct, simple and readily understandable branding of content. She recognized that at the launch she would express her choice, but would explain that after such an ego-driven start, all the viewers would get their say, or their vote, and the branding would be taken over collectively by them.

A few weeks later, Spatia went on Twitter and Facebook to present her ideas on branding programs according to quality, usage, and desirability. She suggested that her approach would help to harmonize social networks and many digital devices. Her three branding words were soon taken-up by Google Plus, Yahoo, Microsoft and other outlets and caught on like fire. Designs for her digitalized CORE logo came pouring in. For her it was incredibly exciting to be pushing ahead with a dream based on the ideas suggested by Jobs and Lick.

A year or so later, the changes in the media were already noticeable. A degree of order was obviously preferable to the chaos which had existed. In turn, an acclaimed Spatia was pleased that kids as well as adults now referred to her by quoting her: “Spatia said” … ”Spatia would agree” … ”Spatia might object” and would also make assumptions about what she might like or dislike. Even more important to her was the sense that the multiple referrals to her CORE were bringing separate generations of media users together. That was a triumph for social cooperation at the same time that it was turning her, Spatia, into a contemporary myth.

_____________________________

1Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man (1972 edition) p.73
2Joseph Campbell, Power of Myth (1988) p.39
3Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium: Optimistic Visions for Change, (1997) p.462;
4Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, The Internet
5For inspiration see: Satya Nadella, letter to Microsoft employees, July 17, 2014