How unexpected consequences shape our lives
Some technologies are simply improvements on earlier efforts. For example, an electric oven is merely a better option than a wood-fired stove. But some technologies radically reshape everything in ways we rarely comprehend.
One example is the printing press. It enabled Martin Luther’s Reformation; within five years of him publishing his 95 Theses over 300,000 copies had been printed. This was hundreds of times more copies than all the hand-copied manuscripts earnest monks had produced between 400 CE and 1425 CE. The collapse of the Roman Catholic Church led to religious fragmentation in Northern Europe which permitted The Enlightenment and our modern industrial scientific world.
Because money could be made from printing we invented concepts like copyright and intellectual property, which hundreds of years later would result in a massive innovation boom.
But more than that: as people began to read they began to suffer from myopia, which led to the development of improved lenses, which led to microscopes and telescopes (initially built to spot the flags of ships out on the horizon and permit a quick profit in the local market) that ultimately were turned skyward and overturned the Copernican doctrine of the Catholic Church, which in turn further accelerated The Enlightenment and hence eventually resulted in our modern technological world.
The smartphone in our pockets is a consequence of Gutenberg’s movable type.
Another example of unexpected consequences is the automobile. Originally seen as simply a replacement for the horse-drawn carriage and buggy, it has radically altered modern life. Most of the USA west of Chicago is sculpted by the auto industry’s desire to ensure car ownership is a necessity: zoning means that everything is as far from everything else as possible so walking is infeasible for daily life.
Furthermore, commuting means that time for meal preparation is limited or non-existent, hence the rise of fast food. Which in turn leads to chronic obesity and a society so sick it requires enormous quantities of pharmaceuticals in order to continue to lurch and stumble to work every day.
Flying over the USA reveals how farming was changed by the internal combustion engine: vast fields could be harvested by mechanical combines, but those vast fields are stripped of topsoil by unhampered winds which leads to mineral depletion which leads to massive use of harmful fertilizers and pesticides. Which leads to even more health damage to humans and ecosystems alike.
The hoodie-clad twenty-somethings of Silicon Valley love to talk about “disruption” but the reality is they know nothing about real disruption. Their dreams are limited to creating mere substitutes for existing options, like the electric oven substituted for the wood-burning stove. Facebook is merely electronic graffiti; Amazon is merely an online shopping mall. And most smartphone apps are merely socially acceptable public masturbation.
Yet the Internet will be truly disruptive, like Gutenberg’s press and the automobile. Only it will be disruptive in ways no python-coding app-creating twenty-something can comprehend.
To imagine the kinds of massive changes the Internet will bring in the coming centuries we need to think about unintended consequences and who is well placed to benefit from its potential.
Who’d have imagined DuPont would set out to poison hundreds of millions of people merely in order to monetize its patent for lead tetraethyl?
Who’d have imagined large insurance companies, their origins far back in the need of wealthy individuals to limit the risk of trade by sailing ship, conspiring since the 1970s to profit en mass from the sickness of ordinary citizens?
Who’d have imagined Ford and GM would ensure that the physical structure of US towns west of Chicago would be so radically different from the human-centric structures that had dominated since 4,000 BCE?
Who’d have imagined that large scale social isolation behind small screens would result in an explosion of mob mentality, leading in turn to the end of representative democracy?
Those of us born since 1945 often imagine history to be a process of continual improvements, pace Stephen Pinker. We look at illustrations of people living in the medieval period and photos of people living in the 19th century and we contrast them with our modern world of technological conveniences. But hardly anyone alive knows how these conveniences work.
How many of us actually understand the everyday magic of our smartphones? 99% of people using them are merely apes pressing buttons, utterly clueless about how the processor chip works, about how the memory chip works, about how the codecs work, about how the cellular network functions, or even how signal compensation for the GPS satellites works to account for orbital relativistic effects.
It’s not surprising that given our general ignorance of everything we rely on today, it’s supremely easy for a few cynical people to take advantage of our naïveté. From Putin’s troll factories ensuring the success of Trump and Brexit to Nigerian scammers relieving credulous people of their savings, we reliably take the bait and hand over what is most precious. But these are simple and relatively predictable problems.
We humans used to be noted for our inter-relationship with grass. In a very real sense, we’ve been the servants of grass for the last 11,000 years. Thanks to human effort, grasses (barley, wheat, oats, rice, etc.) have come to dominate the planet. We’ve slaved and toiled on behalf of grasses to make them the most successful plants on Earth. Now we’re slaving and toiling on behalf of computers. Thanks to our efforts, enormous server farms are increasingly dominating our ecosystem. Power is generated to feed the servers and keep them cool; minerals and petrochemicals are removed from the ground to build them; economies are increasingly reliant on their capabilities. Some even hope that our fundamental medium of exchange (money) will become entirely dependent on these machines.
Our mental inputs are increasingly dependent on computers, from streamed video shows to YouTube rants by mentally disturbed individuals. We lead increasingly isolated lives, less and less able to interact with real live humans and more and more eager to interact in a funhouse mirror virtual reality in which nothing is true or false but saying makes it so.
Modern technologies are exacerbating the gulf between the small number of informed intelligent people and the great mass of those who find it easier to remain ignorant and simple-minded. Formerly society had ways, imperfect but relatively stable, to accommodate the Gaussian distribution of intellectual capacities and interests. Today those ways are collapsing and the present tsunami of populism is merely one consequence.
Mindless populism is inherently self-limiting because stupid people are incapable of maintaining and enhancing complex infrastructures (the collapse of the Roman Empire led to a thousand years of darkness, for example) but it’s entirely possible that in a few years clever people will become essentially slaves working for the mindless mob so that our complex modern technologies can be maintained and developed despite the fact that society as a whole will be increasingly foolish, infantile, and self-harming.
Lest anyone think this outcome is unlikely, it’s worth remembering that for several hundred years ancient Rome relied on tens of thousands of educated Greek slaves to perform the intellectual tasks their overlords required in order to maintain the complex bureaucracy of the Empire. It is not entirely improbable that history will dish up the irony of Sergei Brin and Larry Page’s grandchildren slavishly serving the needs of the grandchildren of the simple-minded dupes who today vote for blustering mindless creatures like Trump.
On a slightly less gloom-laden note it may be that in the medium term our modern technologies will result in the long-overdue end of the office, for this was the nineteenth-century’s solution to the need for centralized data processing. It always takes humans many generations to catch up with the potential of new technologies but perhaps fifty years hence the Great Daily Commute will be merely something people read about in online history courses. This change alone would massively reduce hydrocarbon consumption and spare the atmosphere many billions of tons of unnecessary CO2 per year, as well as making everyone’s lives less stressful, less unhealthy, and less needlessly squandered.
The demand for massive amounts of electricity will undoubtedly result in a swathe of new technologies, as well as in huge changes to the environment. Some are predictable: massive solar farms and new electricity storage technologies. Most, I suspect, are entirely unpredictable. Will we see conflict over land that’s ideally situated for photon collection? Will new nabobs emerge through control of distribution grids?
It’s already clear that any meaningful concept of privacy is finished. Today we happily spend our own money to install Orwell Boxes in our homes so that any third party can listen in to our conversations; wearables and smartphones ensure that anyone can track our location at any time and for any purpose. We post our lives on InstaSnapApp and MediaBook, creating an indelible record of our lives that can be used by anyone for a wide variety of purposes at any time. What will this do to our conception of self?
And although we’re intellectually aware of deepfakes, our emotions are incapable of discerning the difference between someone’s real image and voice on a videoclip and a deepfake of them performing some unsavory act. When we watch a deepfake of someone doing something horrible we inevitably associate them ever afterward with the act even when we know intellectually it was just a deepfake.
Even our own recollections of our own history are likely easily subverted by such means. Twenty years from now, confronted with seemingly irrefutable video evidence of our misbehavior in an unremembered bar on an unremembered evening, can we really be sure it really wasn’t us? When malign actors can so easily rewrite our own personal history, the present becomes supremely malleable.
Today we’re already seeing the consequences of mass entertainment: instead of looking for competence in our representatives we elect well-known faces: the freaks and buffoons and jesters who keep us amused during our eight-second attention spans. We act as though nothing we do has any consequences. We vote for morons and liars. We fail to exercise, we fail to learn about the real world, and we fail to eat properly. We have, in short, already become overgrown children ready to throw tantrums when we don’t instantly get what we want. We settle for simple-minded answers to complex questions and then scream when reality doesn’t oblige by being tractable to our infantile ideas.
Our modern world is absolutely made for populism, which means it’s absolutely made for tyrants and self-harm on a global scale.
Several nations are already using the Internet to disrupt Western nations; while Europe is trying to maintain some semblance of decency by creating regulations such as the GDPR the USA will adopt a very different framework based on ensuring the profitability of large corporations, as these entities can buy political favors while private citizens cannot. The USA has always gone down this road and there is zero reason to believe anything will change in future regardless of how harmful cyber attacks become. We can see that the USA is uniquely vulnerable to manipulation; Europe will be only slightly less so. In the longer term this means that the Internet will overall be an increasing force for authoritarianism and widespread social instability.
These however are merely the very first hints of much more radical change. If printing resulted in the dissemination of information and the creation of inventions that led to the scientific revolution, what impact will our Internet age have on our notion of truth and fact? We’re already seeing the first signs of a world in which few even understand what truth and facts are, never mind caring about such things. If we move deeper into a post-reality world this likely will bring our civilization to an end because short-term gain can readily be achieved by lying to the simple-minded but no civilization can sustain itself in this manner over the longer term. Reality always catches up in the end, as even the Roman Empire discovered to its cost.
A great many people fret about machine-based intelligence “taking over” while humans abdicate in favor of living in a perpetual mental childhood, but personally I can’t see any sign of this being possible. Artificial intelligence is merely self-enhancing algorithms which get better and better at highly specific types of pattern recognition. These algorithms can’t generalize in any meaningful sense. Nor can such machines inter-communicate in any meaningful way with each other, because an algorithm to recognize cartoons of cats has nothing in common with an algorithm to improve traffic flows in a city center. There’s no common ground by means of which either program would be in any way intelligible to the other. And there’s no impetus for anyone to attempt to create general-purpose inter-communicating algorithms, as there’s no commercial or military goal that such an attempt would in any way promote, even if the task were conceptually possible (which, for mathematical reasons, I’m skeptical about).
So I think we can discount SkyNet when we look to the future.
What is probable, however, is that the Internet will very soon cease to be a global standards-based experience and instead become Balkanized, with authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China creating standards and requirements that permit near-total control over own-nation content creation and delivery. The USA is likely to continue to pursue a strategy that ineptly attempts to combine a profit-oriented anything goes approach with backdoor access for the intelligence community that leaves it increasingly vulnerable to compromise by bad-faith actors. It is also probable that the highwater mark of global supply chains reached in the early 2000s will never be repeated, as major nations realize their vulnerability to cyber attack at the weakest points of a hugely complex web of suppliers, sub-suppliers, and sub-sub-suppliers.
In time this means that technological fragmentation may lead to a very different world than the one we see today, where a twenty-something in Moscow has the same electronic devices as a twenty-something in New York. Tomorrow’s twenty-somethings will live very separate lives of mutual incomprehension and suspicion. And in a work where governments increasingly control perception it’s easy to see how small miscalculations can quickly escalate out of anyone’s control.
If we manage to maintain some semblance of technological trajectory, however, it may be that virtual reality becomes a dominant feature of life. Today we have the beginnings: flight simulators to train pilots less expensively than hours spent aloft in actual aircraft; simulated surgery with robotics to train surgeons; and simulated hostage rescue environments to train special forces and paramilitaries. As the technological adequacy of virtual environments increases and the usability of interfaces improves, and as virtual increasingly augments real in everyday life, a great many people may retreat further and further into solipsistic universes. We already see people unable to break away from their devices for more than a few minutes at a time; more enticing and encompassing virtual worlds may mean than many lose themselves for days or even weeks at a time.
This in turn will stimulate the development of technologies that make such extended immersions possible. And, immersed in virtual worlds, who knows what sorts of mental states will develop? It does seem clear than the overall trend towards more sedentary lifestyles with all the attendant health problems will be exacerbated by increasingly alluring virtual realities.
All these semi-predictions are, however, merely obvious comments based on what we see today. As such they likely fail to encompass the truly significant changes that our new world of information technologies will herald.
If, that is, our civilization persists long enough to permit such changes to occur.
For the first time in human history we are facing a massive change while in possession of technologies that can eradicate civilization as we know it. There is a non-trivial probability that our future, rather than being one of increasingly sophisticated technologies and dramatic new social changes, will instead see us returning to the Dark Ages as a numerically diminished and technologically impoverished species once again.
And who knows? Perhaps that’s what we truly deserve. We have, after all, been atrocious stewards of the planet we depend on for our existence and there is no sign whatsoever that we’ll ever get any better at minimizing our impact on the world’s ecosystems and all the life that needs to flourish therein.