Technology in all its glory and squalor

On a high summer afternoon we were swimming at a state campground beach. A family of campers, a couple with a young son — perhaps 5 or 6 years old — splashed in the shallows, laughing and chattering, apparently enjoying themselves on a sweet afternoon. But my spouse overheard the following exchange between mother and son:

Boy: “I want to go home and be on the internet.”

Mom: “We can’t do that out here.”

Boy: “I know. That’s why I want to go home, to play games and watch a movie.”

Mom, teasingly: “What would you do if you couldn’t ever be on the internet again?”

Boy: “I’d go underwater and hold my breath until I died!”

As an aging boomer, whose household didn’t own a temperamental black-and-white cathode ray tube television until I was that boy’s age, I’m careful what I make of his comments. First, of course, he’s a child and likely doesn’t fully comprehend the nature and implications of death and suicide. Words spill out easily (though it would be reckless to discount them). Second, given the same tech he has, I might also have preferred cyberspace to the beach.

But the point is, I don’t. That’s not to imply the internet and technological infrastructure driving it doesn’t have value — certainly it does. Nevertheless, I was disturbed by the conversation and suspect that many of my peers would also find it cringeworthy. Was it about values or merely taste? Worldview or fashionable entertainment? Childhood toys or tidal wave of the future? I thought about the rollicking, uber-gamer novel “Ready Player One.” The scraps tossed to conventional reality seemed forced and obligatory — like, we’d rather live in cyberspace, but I suppose flesh-and-blood must be served. At least for now. I do believe that ultimately we only truly value what we cherish, and only protect what we value. I value the beach, the lake and the old white pines on the shore. What do that boy and his generation value? Now, and as adults? They are the inheritors of what current society bequeaths them, and our primary gift has been information technology in all its glory and squalor.

At the end of our rural driveway in northeastern Minnesota there is now a junction box for fiber optic cable. At a reasonable price we could have that line extended to our log house. We haven’t. It’s not a Luddite impulse. If we had a home business that demanded the speed and bandwidth fiber optics provides, it would be a boon. As it is, the cable would merely allow us to watch more movies and play elaborate online games. Maybe that will seem important someday. Many consider the cable a blessing, but I’m not sure. What is the ultimate impact of a technology that makes it easier to spend more passive and captive hours in front of screens watching other peoples’ fantasies — not only purposely fictional entertainment, but social and political propaganda presented as truth? Is that passivity inevitable?

The dystopian arguments have been made for 70 years. Ray Bradbury published a short story in 1951 entitled “The Pedestrian,” about an American society in 2052 where a man is arrested for going on an after-dark walk in his residential neighborhood instead of being inside watching television. A robotic police car delivers him to the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.

In his 2019 book “Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence,” scientist and inventor James Lovelock, a creator of the Gaia hypothesis, and 100 years of age in ’19, lays out the semi-immediate future. He cogently argues that after three centuries the Anthropocene — the age of human-made, planet-altering technology — is already ending. It’s been driven by the exploitation of fossil fuels, that is, stored solar energy. In the Novacene Age, our machines — he terms them “cyborgs” — will attain ascendancy and independence “when [direct] solar energy is converted into information.” Our function, or more specifically, the function of our scientists, engineers and coders is clear: “We can be almost certain that an electronic lifeform such as a cyborg could never emerge by chance from the inorganic compounds of the earth … the emergence of cyborgs cannot be envisioned without us humans playing a god-like, parent-like role.”

So we’re responsible for the initiation of the Novacene, and Lovelock considers that the redeeming feature of Homo sapiens because the cyborgs require the same planetary temperature range to survive as do we and they will therefore stem/reverse global warming. He assumes their main tools will be the biological processes already extant, those that the Anthropocene has compromised to the brink of catastrophe. The cyborgs will accomplish this because given Moore’s Law (exponential increases in computing power), they’ll be processing information 10,000 times faster than we can. With that disparity, how will they view us? Lovelock theorizes the cyborgs will consider us in the manner we regard house plants, or maybe pets.

Thus out of the dangerous transformations of our Anthropocene is provided the remedy: Our evolutionary descendants, electronic life-forms — as Lovelock insists they’ll be — will clean up our mess in their self-interest. What happens to us is unclear, but it’s hard to imagine a relatively rapid wholesale revamping of the Anthropocene without human casualties.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But how many of our devices, appliances and tools are already connected to the “internet of Things,” and when was the last time you heard or read a news item or advertisement about tech that didn’t mention AI — artificial intelligence? What Lovelock is saying is that there’s nothing artificial about it — that a machine age is the inevitable result of our digital technology, and we’ll be eclipsed by it.

Vantage point is important. A half-century ago when we saw the first photographs of our planet from space, we were collectively stunned by the beauty, but it was science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke who noted that the images indicated we were in error to call our world Earth. It obviously should be called Ocean. So when we glibly talk about “tech” or “IT” or “AI,” perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak of metamorphosis. Or paradigm shift. Or salvation. Or apocalypse. Too early to tell.

As Bradbury’s protagonist in “The Pedestrian” savors his nighttime stroll, he regards the houses of his neighbors as, “The tombs, ill-lit by television light, where the people sat like the dead, the gray or multicolored lights touching their faces, but never really touching them.”

That’s probably too harsh an assessment of the typical screen enthusiast of 2021, but we know those faces fixated on glass, and the youngster at the beach longing to return to his portal into an alternate reality. Perhaps he’ll welcome the cyborgs, or maybe the transition to the Novacene Age will be seamless for his generation — just one more app to a tipping point where online presence is barely distinguishable from the outdoor world. Only old fogies or malcontents will be sent to the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies, though it’ll probably be cleaner for the cyborgs to simply uproot plants that aren’t doing well, and euthanize pets who make a mess in the house.

Lovelock’s Novacene represents the authoritarian view that we’ll significantly respond to anthropogenic climate disruption only if we’re forced to, or if someone else does it for us — cyborgs being the epitome of deus ex machina. Political observers have noted a global trend toward more autocratic governments, and one critique of democratic societies is that they are slow and cumbersome in responding to challenges like the pandemic and climate change.

An alternative to denial or dictatorship, and the path celebrated by the Biden administration, is crisis-as-opportunity. In short, mitigating climate change can generate new businesses and jobs while giving us a healthier environment and a more prosperous economy. We don’t deny or coerce, but rather encourage, assist and nurture. Of course we must also convince, cajole and ultimately vote — not only with ballots, but with our wallets and our time. It is the rockier route, but it offers us more control. Something big will happen on the climate change front, and it might be best if most of us were driving events. It could be another inheritance we leave to the kid on the beach.

Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.

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