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.
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.
It is with a fair amount of interest that I have followed the debate in Europe over the role of AI and how it should be viewed or regulated. Readers of this post may remember the kerfuffle caused by Sophia, the robot that appeared at Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh and caused a stir as a robot, as a woman robot and as a woman robot in an Arab country without a hajib. Well, the discussion has come up again in Europe where the European Parliament, to the outrage of AI specialists, advised that robots be given legal status. Like a corporation, this would not hold the companies that created the robots legally responsible for their behavior. It seems to be step in the Alfred P Newman, “what, me worry?” theology that seems to be the order of the day. If guns don’t kill people, then why should we think that companies that make robots are responsible for what they do. And yet, what about the place of robots as human beings. Would they have all the rights of a human or would they have some fraction like the 3/5 voting rights proposed for slaves by the Constitutional Convention of 1787? We seem to have such a good track record of integration and inclusion in this country, it seems strangely natural that we would not even be the ones having this discussion. Europe is far ahead of us on matters of understanding and regulating the role of this new technology, asking questions that we do not seem yet to acknowledge as issues. We can only hope that the robots that we give human status will be better humans than we seem to be.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what year it was, but one new years day I woke about 2 in the afternoon realizing that someone had been using my head as a gong and had knitted tiny booties for each of my teeth. The only reason that I woke up is that somewhere someone had turned on some music to greet the new year, playing the Bob Marley song, “Three Little Birds”. Those unfamiliar with the song should know the refrain goes, “Don’t worry about a thing because every little thing is going to be alright” While that was small solace to me at that moment, it seemed to sink into my memory and become a touchstone for the entire year, an island of hope which I often returned to. Listening to the news in the past few days reminded me of that song summoning me from a stupor and giving me hope. These days it seems like newscasters seem to be falling over themselves to tell us how the world is coming to an end. Not that there are not serious things going on in the world, it seems that each new media brings with it a new form of creative destruction. While the printing press brought the newly printed bible to the masses, it also created the Reformation; television brought the world into our homes allowing us to see racial segregation, carpet bombing and a Viet Cong officer during the Tet Offensive as well as Bernstein s Omnibus and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Those of us who remember our philosophy classes in college and Hegel may remember the dialectic, how each thing creates its opposite or what Taoist philosophers call Self-Manifestation through Contraries. While this process can be destructive, perhaps the only way to face this disruptive innovation is to think of the hopeful words of Bob Marley or these days a better choice may be the coping suggestion here from Bette Middler. Perhaps if we don’t face the music and dance, at least we can laugh.
Please take a moment to listen….
While largely about training horses, Allan Hamilton’s “Lead with your Heart” had some startling ideas about how we relate to new technology and the internet. It seems that in Hamilton’s mind, horse’s behavior is related to the fact that, in the wild, they are essentially prey. While a horse could easily trample us, it has over thousands of years seen itself as an animal of prey. Our approach to the horse must be as one who is non-threatening, moving in slowly and respecting the space of the animal, learning how to gently show our dominance of the animal with the respect it deserves. The thought that our behavior is, in a way, determined if we are predators or prey seems to have affected how we see ourselves on the internet and in social media. We frequently speak of internet predators that prey on children or the unsuspecting, uninitiated and yet, even knowing this, we seem unable to be aware and change our behavior. Each day brings more news of cyber-attack to businesses, but instead of taking action, many hide the problem and try to cover up the issue. In the wild, humans have the rare place of being both prey and predator. We can be killed and eaten as much as we can fight for survival. Somehow in the electronic frontier, we have dropped this ability to fight back, to realize that we are not babes in the woods but noble animals who deserve to be approached with respect.
There is an old joke told by Woody Allen, “A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.” This joke seems to highlight our growing dependency on social media. As much as we seem to demonize people looking at their phones everywhere, in lines, while driving, at the dinner table- it seems that no place is safe. It seems this electronic narcissism has taken over our consciousness and has invited a response asking us to be mindful of our screen time with the Bored and Brilliant program launched by the Note to Self NPR radio program. It seems that the only true response to the galloping monopoly of our face time is to turn away completely as Allan Curtis suggests. As much as we protest this media creep, perhaps we have to either do without the eggs or admit our powerlessness before our new media god.
It has been interesting watching the ever-growing value of a bitcoin and it causes me to pause and consider what it is about them we find so alluring. In a nod to previous precious commodities, bitcoins are not generated but are mined like gold, which as you may know was the backing for US currency until President Nixon took us off the gold standard in 1971. So we think of this cryptocurrency as we do gold or other precious metals or at least use language to give it that allure. Earlier, President Eisenhower passed a law that stated “In God, We Trust” in 1957 must appear on all currency. It seems that this is another step in the long, withdrawing roar, moving from belief to belief. Recently, in an interview, an expert in cryptocurrency said that people are putting their money and hope in bitcoin due to its ever-changing code- supposedly unbreakable and secure- more secure than government-backed securities or gold. It seems we have found a new impenetrable mystery in which to place our faith. While we move from God to Gold to code, I am reminded of a line from Lori Andersons “O Superman”
‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice
And when justice is gone, there’s always force
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!
Perhaps, today, when God is gone and Gold is gone, there is always code.