Readers of this blog will know the high esteem that we hold Ridley Scotts “Blade Runner” and then will not be surprised that we stopped to read the article about dolls being given a formal funeral service at a funeral parlor in Japan. It seems that in Japan, many still hold to longstanding Shinto and Buddhist beliefs that all things have a soul, and so in “death” they are given the respect of a passed living being, with an acknowledged soul and spirit. While Blade Runner deals with the human looking robots possibility of having a soul, what about the items that we use every day? Many of us spend more time with our phone than we do with other people, either one person or many. My laptop has been with me for a number of years and is considered a trusted friend. When it is no longer usable, what obligation do I have to it? How often do we say, my phone or laptop died when the battery runs out? When will we learn that we have a responsibility to ourselves but also to what we create and what we create relationships with? If we didn’t, why would Britain be debating if kill switches were necessary or worth discussion? We seem to go to great pains to respect human birth (seemingly disregarding them afterward in many respects) and when and if other people do and deserve respect because of it, but what of the things we create that are not exactly like us yet. How will we react to the human robot that begs for a merciful death, will we toss it away or respect the role that it has had in our lives and inherent dignity. Perhaps we will finally be compassionate beings in the digital space when we treat a computers demise with the respect and awe that we treat the launch of the newest tablet or phone.
A few years ago I came across a book, “The Illumination” by Kevin Brockmeier poses the question, what if our pain were the most beautiful thing about us. What if that which we seem to give little value were the source of our greatest beauty. This devaluation of a resource seems to be the story that many companies want to tell us about the data that we freely give them access our internet searches. Every search, shopping cart, web page we look at is regularly recorded, tracked and collated to give the meta-data that companies use to so that they can make data-based predictions about our behavior, our buying habits and sell us things before we know that we need them. All of this data comes from us and we give it freely but what if we didn’t? What if, as consumers, we realized the value of what we leave behind us in our data exhaust. As technology companies continue to try to find a way to monetize content what would happen if the sources of the data began to ask for their fair share of the pie. How would companies react when site users realize that our data exhaust is the most valuable thing about us and ask to be compensated for the diamonds we currently leave in the dust.
While thinking about Moore’s Law, you may remember, it states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years, with the second law being that cost would fall with each new development, I was reminded of a passage from “Big Data” by Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier about the growth of information and the ability to share it. From the advent of Arabic numerals, writing, print and so forth it seems that the pace of our ability to share and manipulate data has been getting faster not unlike Moore’s Law. The world that most of us grew up in is very different from the world that we are living in now and will, no doubt, look much different in the future. How are we to understand and relate to the world that may be changing faster than our ability to understand it. Motion picture film moves at 24 frames per second that transform single images into a fluid moving image. Will our technology begin to move so fast that the single now is transformed into a rapidly disappearing past, beyond our understanding or realization?
I often think of Galen better known as Galen of Pergamon, a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire. While accomplished of all medical researchers of antiquity, might be a strange person to dwell, he influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, as well as philosophy and logic. The problem was that as good as Galen was, his book was never updated for more current information. Centuries after Galen’s death, his book was taken as the book on medicine and when later scholars like Paracelsus disagreed with Galen, they were told that what they saw did not matter as it disagreed with Galen and Galen, they felt was truth hence, anything disagreeing with Galen was wrong. (There is a fascinating discussion of this in Daniel Boorstein’s, “The Discovers”, a book I highly recommend..)
This does not seem so far from the idea of alternate truths, and that today, with the internet one can find a source to back up whatever claim one makes. No matter how ludicrous a claim is made, it seems that someone can find some internet source to back it up. While, with Galen, it took years for the truth to will out, it now seems that we have a moving target in the realm of Alternate truth. Whereas with Galen, there was a finite monopoly on truth, the book was written and so his truth was determined. However today it seems that we have levels of truth, a tweet does not convey the truth but requires an interpretation and revision with a parade of soothsayers needed to discover the real meaning of the truth. Oddly enough, it seems that this was the initial objective of Galen.
Some time ago there was an article in the BBC about the legal status of robots which we commented on in this space. One aspect of the article which we did not go into was the idea that robots could come with kill switches, that is the ability to shut down the robot if necessary. It seems a curious question when the idea of doctor-assisted suicide is still unresolved that we should consider giving an artificial intelligence a greater right than those of us who created it. We fear to lose control of the creatures we create when we seem not to be able to control ourselves.
I woke up from a dream not too long ago, thinking about QWERTY. Now as you may know that is the name of the keyboard that I am using to type this and probably the keyboard you use too. I was surprised to learn some time ago that the arrangement of keys on the QWERTY keyboard supposedly was not to allow people to type quickly but to slow them down by placing the keys in award places to keep the levers that produced each letter from colliding as they typed. I like to think that the technology was changed to allow for human speed but it is common thought that that is not the case. This makes me wonder about the new coming waves of technology. It does seem that there will be a point where technology will move faster than we can as humans but will we remember who the technology is for? Will we make the technology serve us by intentionally slowing it down or will we force ourselves to work at a pace dictated by technology? In short, will we retain control or end up like Lucile Ball struggling with an uncaring production line of chocolate without the benefit of a laugh track.
In addition to the beautiful writing, I have been taken by the central idea behind Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass” asking that we reexamine our relationship to our environment, asking us to create “cultures of regenerative reciprocity” and invoking a relaationship to the earth like the native americans; taking just what we need and no more, remembering that giving is as important as getting and to have respect for where our gifts come. She laments the winner take all mentality we take to the planet, noting that in the long run, we are the losers. The impact and importance on the environment is clear as is the importance of this new paradigm she proposes. The thing that I found interesting was the parallel to the new paradigm that social media has created. It seems that the only reason that social networks survive is our generosity with not only our time but our information, opinions and lives. We must feel the need for gratitude for our efforts for 35% of people check their mobile phones before getting out of bed while 80% of smartphone users check their smartphone before brushing their teeth. Why else would we do this unless it filled a need, a need to have our gift acknowledged and hopefully commented upon, liked and retweeted?
It seems that what Kimmerer is looking for in our relationship to the world is what we are already doing in our relationship to social media. To give first, not expecting anything in return but being thankful and grateful for what we get, to take the gifts of others and share them hopefully respecting the dignity of their words and thoughts. The top down model, where content flows from top down is over, hopefully we can bring this new interactive approach to other relationships in our life and our world. While this new media destroyed the old media hopefully the social media paradigm will bear with it the seeds to save our world.