I believe it was Cheap Trick that had the song with the lyric, “Surrender, but don’t give yourself away” but it seems like that is exactly what is happening as Facebook is going forward in its plans to create its own cryptocurrency for use across its platform and other partner platforms. While we are invited to surrender to a world of convenience and security we also seem to be on the brink of giving too much away. With the creation of a stand-alone currency seems to be running the risk of starting a stand-alone economy. With the global online economy now running almost seven trillion dollars imagine the power that a corporation could wield in world politics. With a current value of almost 2.3 billion, they could become powerful enough to begin to dictate financial policy in the same way Walmart dictates when it will receive certain merchandise to its loading dock. While we have seen the effective ways that savings and loans can regulate themselves into a $160 Billion dollar bailout, and later banks almost bankrupted the economy only to get a $700 billion bailout, what could possibly go wrong with a single industry dominating online currency and online transactions? Let us embrace our inner Alfred E Neuman- why worry? A rising economy lifts all boats even at the cost of flooding the low lying ports. So sit back, relax and enjoy the ever warming bathwater.
While washing dishes after dinner, I was surprised to hear Conway Twitty singing “Long Black Train”. Now you might be of a generation similar to mine, thought of Conway Twitty as a punchline to a joke or some late night commercial for someone who had sold more records in England than the Beatles but I was surprised how much he sounded like a young Elvis. He invoked that same Elvis mystic and actually was a really good singer and not just that guy from the late night commercials. It got me thinking about the idea of cultural quality or how far we have come from the idea of high culture and low culture. The idea of the interaction of these was best explored by Carlo Ginzburg in his article, “Morelli, Freud And Sherlock Holmes: Clues And Scientific Method” at which he details the interaction between high culture and low culture. While Ginzberg is looking backward, Janus faced we look forward at how this relationship seems to be dissolving in our time. It seems that with the advent of new media the line between high and low is either blurred or so totally obscured that we have no idea of what culture is anymore. Is rap culture or the cry of an unheard population- or is that a cultural appropriation of a voice of dissent and rage. While some seem to be focusing in what makes us different, our culture seems to want to make us all the same. Anyone can take up any motto or slogan and embrace it as their own. A few years ago there was a commercial where a white businessman, who when asked by his white male secretary what he had to do today, replied, “another day of fighting the oppression of the man” to which the secretary replies sheepishly, “Sir, you are the Man”. The effect may be drowned out by the silent screams of a generation fighting the power of the man laid low in the streets fighting for their civil or human rights. Maybe, we have lost all perspective when drinking from this fire hose of media. History may have become a world of fairy tales and lies. Retreating from a world that is too much with us, late and soon, we find ourselves in a cocoon of constant now. Our power of perspectives has been overwhelmed by a waterfall of information, too much too soon, which has laid waste to our powers to hear properly with an ear out of tune, to know the difference between a King and a punchline.
It was with a certain pleasure I read John Chen’s excellent article, “The Simple Solution To The Technology Trust Crisis” and its suggestions as to how to resolve the issue that people don’t trust the technology that they seem to rely on every day. He suggests that we must own our data and be allowed to be responsible for the monetization or non-monetization of our data, our choices and by extension ourselves, something we have been saying here. It got me thinking of having drinks with a lovely girl from South Africa while in college. She was African and delighted in telling me how in Apartheid South Africa, I would be thought of as less than white, with my olive skin and dark curly hair, that I would fall somewhere on the scale of quadroon, or octoroon. The dictionary reminds that quadroon refers to one who In the 19th century was a person who was one-quarter black and three-quarters white. In other words, a quadroon had one grandparent of African descent. The dictionary goes on to declare that the term is deeply offensive and obsolete.
While that is a charming thought, perhaps the future will see a return of that type of classification for our relation to our digital assets, perhaps we will allow the big tech companies to own our digital personality- digital slaves. Perhaps we will find this term useful to declare how much of ourselves belongs to us and how much is owned by Google, Facebook or Amazon. Author Kashmir Hill, tried to remove herself from the snarl of big tech only to find that she was unable to live without its convenience. Perhaps we are already fast asleep, and the oozy weeds about us twist as we give the only power have, the power to make choices for ourselves, away. Maybe, for us to even think of ourselves as complete owners of our data, our choices and by extension ourselves is only make-believe.
There are few stories that capture my attention more than those involving the mirepoix of Technology stories, Robots, Japan and velociraptor. You can imagine my delight when we saw the story of Japanese robots being fired for not being human enough. It seems that a hotel in Japan had fired most of its human workers, replacing them with robots only to find that the robots were not human enough to replace the human workers that they had replaced. The robot maids and bellhop lacked a human touch and often malfunctioned though it does seem like the velociraptor concierges did seem to be a departure from this plan. The entire situation though brings up the question, what is it that we really want from these robotic aids? This confusion seems inherent in the situation in this hotel, where the concierges were robots made up to look like the aforementioned velociraptors. Do we really want cheaper humans as Wal-Mart seems to think, replacing the people who used to mop the floors with robots, or do we want comical C3PO’s that speak in a charming British accent and add some comic relief to our day-to-day routine? And what about race, do we want our robots all to be white and male or should they be modeled after the Kardashians- (or would that be redundant) in a generic idea of western beauty or would we accept a rainbow of robots in various colours and shapes? In short, are we creating something in the image of a self like us or are we striving toward a future populated by a self-better than who we are?
There was always that one guy in High School (at least when I was in high school) who would go to the mat to try to make you believe that Paul Mc Cartney was dead. True to form, the urban legend states that in 1967 Paul McCartney had been killed in a traffic accident while driving along the M1 motorway. While there was no real proof, only rumors, and hazy evidence, the rumor persisted and still has its followers today. The insecurity of the past, the idea that we can’t be sure of what really happened can take many forms, from a false memory, where a person recalls something that did not happen or differently from the way it happened but the idea is taken to a whole new level around 2014 when a concept “The Mandella Effect” began to take hold. It seems that some people remembered Nelson Mandela’s tragic death in a South African prison, prior to late 2009. (In this reality, Mandela died in 2013.) The idea being that someone had gone back to tamper with the past and re-set our experience of it. While we have often spoken of cyber truth in this blog, this idea seems to take the idea into a much larger and more terrifying realm. While a computer could easily erase our bank records we like to think that we have some memory of what happened and that other people could confirm our story. However, the more terrifying reality is that we could find ourselves in a George Bailey like fate, alive and remembering a world in which he never existed. As we continue to hear more tales of data being stolen, do we not see that the true goal may not be just our data but the very fact that we ever existed?
If I remember correctly, in the closing lines of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident”. Now, while the quote goes on, I find it interesting this idea of somethings self-evidence; the idea that something is known to be true by understanding its meaning without proof. It seems self-evident that people have rights though we may argue as to the breadth and depth of those rights and that machines, as non-human, non-feeling entities do not. This notion was challenged when I saw an article in the BBC about the appearance of a woman robot in Riyadh Saudi Arabia at the Future Investment Initiative conference. Sophia, as she is known, was given Saudi citizenship but she was allowed to appear without the traditional headscarf and abaya, the cloak that Saudi women are obliged to wear in public. Of course, social media pundits leaped to their keyboards noting that not only had this electronic “woman” not only been granted citizenship but had rights that Saudi women only dream of. Here was a woman speaking alone on a stage where under the Saudi Guardianship system every woman must be accompanied by a male companion who has authority to act on her behalf. It seems as if Saudi Arabia had become the Manor Farm for the day where all women were equal except that those women who were silicon-based were more equal than those of a mere carbon base.
While it may seem laughable now, it is not impossible to imagine that we could create a world in which computers would have more rights than some or maybe even all people. We seem to delight in ways that we can segregate and remove ourselves from those who we deem somehow different or less than us but now we seem to have taken that talent to a whole new level. We could create machines to look down on us- maybe outsource our racism so that we would be free to pursue more noble goals? While it may seem absurd, there are some of us who remember when the idea of an actor as president was a punchline and not a reality.
Growing up, Mad magazine was a staple in my brother and my lives. My personal favorite was the Spy VS. Spy cartoon, where a pair of nearly identical spies, one in a black costume and one in a white, constantly execute each other’s demise. In one episode the white spy blows up the black and in the while the next, the reverse occurs. Seeing the latest reports of cyber hacking and assurances that measures were in place to ensure our privacy, it seems that we seem to be in a Spy vs. Spy reality. No matter how much we assure people that their information is safe, with the next breath we are detailing the amount of information that was hacked and lost. However, the victim, in this case, seems to be people’s faith in the protection of their information in this new Cold War. What happens when, like the spies, both messages destroy each other, as much as we claim to be safe we are also met with similar messages that our information is not safe? Perhaps we are embarking on a new strategy, one of Mutual Information Distrust.