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?
Perhaps it was unique to my neighborhood, but growing up as we played tag or any other number of games, the place that you tried to get without being tagged was called “ghoul”. Now I am aware that many others may have called it home or safe or maybe even goal but in my neighborhood ghoul meant safety. The sounds of friends saying good night as the summer street lights came on rang in my ears when I saw of Quora having almost 100 million of its accounts hacked only days after Marriott reported that hackers had been penetrating their Starwood network for years, and had compromised the data of 500 million people. It seems that in the cyber universe or cyberverse, nowhere is safe anymore. Indeed, when these instances occur, it seems the those affected are to blame, Quara’s programmers are now forcing affected users to reset their passwords, and it advises them to change these passwords if they’re used on any other websites, as if the blame were on the people for putting their information there in the first place and then not protecting it with passwords that were incorruptible.
While the argument may seem far-fetched, the buck doesn’t stop here. Sexual assault victims are being turned into perpetrators, (how dare they accuse a person of such behavior) school shootings are blamed on the schools; they are not well enough armed or trained in weaponry to defend themselves against the now obvious threat, as if there were protections in place in the past that have been left by the wayside, a childish illusion we have outgrown in this new adult age. Things like going home when the street lights came on in summer, playing outside with friends, or having a safe place which you might call home.
I believe it was E B White who once said, “When I arise in the morning I am torn between the twin desires to reform the world and to enjoy the world. This makes it difficult to plan my day…”. When I saw the article on how electronic tattoos may be able to be printed on our skin. While this would allow something like built-in thermometer tattooed onto the skin or a monitor a level of drugs in our body. While part of me is thrilled by the possibility of what is to come, there is another part of me that wonders about this new intrusion to our bodies and our own experience. Again, the question arises, who would own the data about yourself, who would possibly own your experiences. When a famous person dies it is their estate that manages their image and has the places and ways it can be used. Is that only the right of the famous? What about the experiences of ordinary people, what rights do we have to our experiences and our stories, indeed the very truths that make us who we are. If we think this data has value does that not also mean that the creatures creating these experiences have value also or can they be discarded as simple tin cans to wear our electronic labels.
While an art auction may not be anything that has major social ramifications, a recent auction at Christie’s in New York did catch our attention. While we like an auction as the next person, this one did have a picture painted by AI . Th piece, titled “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” was created by a Paris-based collective called Obvious Art created an algorithm that can create painted images. They are interested in exploring the boundaries of creativity, computers and AI and pushing the boundaries of what a machine can create. An idea that will be revisited here, the thing that came to mind was the increasing question of what it is to be human and if that is an answer that we really need. We used to try hold humanness out of reach of animals, like a treat from a dog made to jump at an ever higher raised treat, only to find no matter how high we set the bar, animals could rise to and above it. At first, we were the tool making creatures but soon we found gorillas had the same ability. We had a complex social structure only to find that many other animals did too. No matter how we seemed to try to set ourselves above and apart our specialness seemed to be co-opted by lower life forms. Now as we try to maintain our place in the center of our egocentric model (with apologies to Ptolemy) we find it harder and harder to find our ground in the center of the world. As AI and computers advance the Turing test, a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human seems to be nothing more than a roadside attraction we have passed whizzing by to a future which we seem unwilling to consider.
While AI advances make us less unique in the larger sense perhaps it should make us more aware of the things that make us unique as individuals. An algorithm can create a piece of art but only Picasso could create a Guernica, only Joyce, Ulysses, and these things could not exist until these consciousness beings created them just as Portrait of Edmond Belamy could not be created until Obvious Art programmed the computer to create it. Perhaps our uniqueness ought to be the measured by to our communal ability to create and discover, be we carbon or silicon-based than our need to divide and segregate.
“We were making the future…and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making”
H.G.Wells from “When the Sleeper Wakes” (1899)
The Portrait of Edmond de Belamy
Of course, you know the old story, to boil a frog, you don’t drop it into a pot of boiling water but put it in cool water and slowly turn up the temperature to boiling. The same seems true of the ongoing debates over privacy and net neutrality. Lulled into a false sense of security or blinded by naiveté, we allow corporations to mine who we are and what we choose to treat us like horses with blinders on, seeing only what they want us to see, and now we want to give them the ability to fast track the online content of their choice while allowing other content to linger in the slow lane. It seems odd that the same legal bodies, corporations, that created the financial crisis in the savings and loan and mortgage industry, not to mention the opioid crisis in this country now want to create a world where they control our access to information for their personal gain. In an economy where the bottom line is at best the shareholder (or more frequently the executives) payout, why should we think our best interests are a concern. The entire point of the internet seemed to be to allow everyone accesses to knowledge for the betterment of all. If we allow our access to the free flow of information to be restricted, we will be no better than frogs in warm bath water on the stove.
In everyone’s life, in some way, you come to a place you say about something you are doing or not doing- is this really worth it? Malcolm Gladwell calls that the tipping point, or “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” at which change becomes either obvious or inevitable. It happens to all of us and in all sorts of situations, that moment when you realize that change is inevitable and perhaps the only choice. It seems that wiser minds than mine have come to this conclusion, as when I read in the BBC that African nations have begun to worry about the risk of job loss in Africa as robots automate many processes that can be brought back to the US or other nations and not depend on the cheap labour force that Africa and other nations have provided. Those who deride the coming economic disaster, suggest that if only the African nations would educate their children in the magic world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), all problems would be solved. These children would rise along with all the other stem fed children to ascend into the light of a technological new day. But don’t worry, for those who are left behind by the ever upward spiral of capitalism, there is always the promise of the universal basic income, a salary for everyone at the cost of social services, so that even those of us who are misplaced in this economic game of musical chairs can receive money to live and, of course, buy things to keep the whole spiral going. Yet, what happens to people with no other purpose than to consume to keep an antiquated and harmful system running? What is the meaning of a life that is only based on our ability to consume? What happens when we reach our tipping point and realize that we are no better than veal calf’s being fattened to make our masters fatter.
Detroit has a special place in my heart. While performing there I had a lot of downtime in my schedule and as the days turned colder, I found myself spending many of them in my smallish downtown hotel room. My own strange fascination with poetry lead me to read Shakespeare and later, Whitman s “Leaves of Grass”, out loud to myself in the quiet of my hotel room. My fruitful isolation was not unlike our current hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over the many ways that the internet will lead us all to be social misfits who can’t handle being with others in the world or worse. The same was said to be true of television, that it would lead us to become isolationists, unable to relate to one another or the world. We needn’t look too far into our collective imagery to find examples of people who hide in books to escape a world. It seems that in this instance our new media is just the opposite of the book, while the book is static, the internet is constantly presenting us with new vistas, real and imagined. With Google Earth, I can see places that I may never be able to see in person. I frequently chat with several friends with whom I have never met and only know each other through email. Is that friendship any less valuable or is this just another example of the glorification of a first world problem? We find ourselves more obsessed with inane tweets than the situations that caused them. As long as we allow this to happen, we are creating a greater isolation by turning away from the events of our world and focusing on the distribution of content. Perhaps we need to look at this new technology as the gift that it is and if we choose to, we can turn our eyes from the projections of the blue light on the cave walls. Indeed, we are truly all connected to one another and neither cell phones, or books or anything other media can ever change that. The true delusion is thinking that we are anything other than connected, to each other and to our environment. Perhaps all we really need to do is have faith in our ability to change our world, knowing that it takes more effort than a swipe of the finger.