The thought that some things are too complex to be explained simply is one of the reoccurring thoughts in Adam Curtis’ brilliant “HyperNormalisation”. It seems that now we find ourselves in a world where everything must be able to be explained in 140 characters (or better 120 allowing for the precious retweet) and that the idea of complexity must be shunned at all costs. How else can we explain the prevailing descriptions of antagonists on the world stage as, Bad Dudes or Bad Hombres? It seems that our current rush to the latest technology is creating an inverse colorization in our world. We seem to have to take vibrant colorful issues and reduce them to simple almost childlike realities so that we can regurgitate them on our Twitter feeds. And since when did a tweet become an appropriate media for a condolence letter? Have our emotions become so bite-sized that they warrant no more emotional room than a postage stamp? The world is a complex and colorful place and will continue to be so in spite of our tweets full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The world will not reduce itself to meet our small-minded needs and will only leave us behind with a handful of tweets, unable to understand.
As my friend and mentor, Father Charlie is fond of reminding me, the saying isn’t, “The truth shall set you free” but that “The truth shall make you whole”. That idea of the power of Truth or truth is something that kept coming back to me as I read, Marcus Wohlsen’s “Biopunk, DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life” for as fascinating and disturbing as the idea of the next great step forward in biological science would not come from a pharmaceutical company or a university but from people “hacking” biology in their own kitchens, garages and, in one case, walk-in closets. If information is the same as truth then perhaps it really will make us whole. It seems that there is an entire network of DIY scientist hacks working in such complex fields as gene splicing, genetic testing and more. It seems that our next major innovation in medicine may not come from the university or the major drug company but from people creating a cancer drug in their kitchen. As we give people greater and greater access to information, hopefully, we also liberate their imagination and ability to create a world vaster than what we have known. We have all heard the story of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak creating Apple in their garage and transforming the world. Who will be the next Edward Jenner or Antonie van Leeuwenhoek who creates the next wonder drug or engineer the next stage of human development? As Shaw said, youth is wasted on the young and perhaps our resources are squandered on the large institutions that have more interest in maintaining their own status quo than reshaping the world and the way we live in it. Honestly, how does a pink ribbon cure breast cancer or is simply raising our awareness of it all that we care to do? We can be aware of ethnic cleansing in the world but a ribbon or pin will not change that reality. Perhaps our current paradigm is supporting the truth but our information share will make us whole. If ever there were a time for free flow of information it seems it must happen now lest we are left strong in symbolism and weak in action. I believe it is our action that will make us whole.
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 leapt 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.
It was an honor just to be asked. I was a first-year masters student in the opera program and a very well respected accompanist asked me to sing on a recital of the songs of Hugo Wolf. The songs had been selected and I was ready for what was to become a pivotal event in my musical education. Among the songs was one, Abschied (there is a link to a performance below) that described a critic coming to the poet’s house and criticizing everything from the shape of his nose and going on from there. The poet listens and nods until finally he has had enough and on showing him out, kicks him down the stairs as the music turns to a waltz celebrating the speed to which the critic rolled down the stairs. This uninvited criticism has been on my mind for while with the incidents of body shaming that seem to be everywhere on the internet. Now, I firmly believe that everyone has the right to express themselves and if that means putting a large body into a very small swimsuit and posting pictures of myself on the internet- that seems to be my choice and by putting myself in the public sphere, I invite public discussion. However, discussion seems to be beyond the pale when people suggest that for my act of public exposure that I should instead, kill myself or be so horrified by my own existence, that I should somehow know better than to allow myself to be seen or exposed. How did we get to this point where everyone seems to have the right to say exactly what they feel whenever they feel it but no one has to take responsibility for their actions. It seems that we can say all manner of hate speech but that it is negated and indeed made all better when we apologize or in the case of 45 keep saying it more and more forcefully until it takes on the mangy robe of social media truth. Have we come to a gradation of truth- truth with a small t that can be altered with the shift of a hand like a magician making the ace of spades disappear. Indeed, perhaps we are at blame to give anyone’s words the mantle of truth. In the works of the Burton and Learner song, “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?” perhaps we must take everything with a proverbial grain or block of salt, believing only what we can confirm either in person or by volume of critical sources. Maybe the best approach is that taken by Wolf (and by extension Eduard Mörike the writer of the poem) that while we allow such comments to come in the front door- we also have the choice of which window to throw them out of.
It has been interesting watching the Janus faced march of the internet; on one hand offering us a new world of information and entertainment as well as the possible downfall of our democracy our social order and our idea of privacy. It seems that we have forgotten that each new innovation has both positive and negative aspects. And in the case of the internet, we seem to be shocked at each new turn- how can our wonderful new technology allow our elections to be hacked, our private information made public, our companies brought to their knees by cyber attacks. While computers work in a world of 1’s and 0’s we seem to have clung to that worldview also, being stuck in a worldview where things are either all good or all bad. We can’t seem to tolerate any variation on our singular thinking. You are either all for us or all of us- there is no common ground. Any deviation from the zero or one is not acceptable and must either be ridiculed or shunned. Recently, the term non-binary (NB), is a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are thus outside of the gender binary and cisnormativity. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction and we can begin to see colour where now we only see black and white not only in our future but in our relations with each other. Perhaps we are bound to live in a world of gods and monsters forever be chasing innovation in technology and as human beings with torches and farm implements until we discover the diversity between the zeros and ones.
In James Whales, Bride of Frankenstein, a character toasts the idea of Dr. Frankensteins creations saying, “To a new world of gods and monsters!”
It was an odd conversation though maybe not considering that as a part of a choir from a Midwest Lutheran college staying with a born-again Christian host family on a choir tour in the mid-80’s. It was a discussion of faith and the line went something like this, There is a tightrope across two buildings and Jesus pushes a wheel barrel on the tightrope from one building, across the tightrope to building that you are standing atop. He says to you, “ See how I have walked from one building to another across the tightrope pushing this wheel barrel? Now, why don’t you get in the wheel barrel and I will take you back to the first building by walking the tightrope.”
Now while I enjoyed the idea of Jesus on the tightrope, the thrust of the argument was that if you just saw Jesus walk the tightrope with a wheel barrel, shouldn’t you have faith to trust that he could make the return trip with you in the wheel barrel. While we trust the other person to do something alone, when we are involved it seems to be another matter. This also seems to be the issue with the current discussion on self-driving cars – in a recent Washington Post article, Seventy-eight percent of respondents to an AAA survey said they would not want to ride in a self-driving car. While we can trust our credit cards, our social security numbers our addresses and other personal information such as emails and texts to the internet even trusting planes to autopilot, we dare not get into the car with an electronic stranger. Equifax has the falsely earned idea of our trust, but we can not entertain a computer piloting us through city streets. Strange how so much of our society can claim unswerving faith in a deity that will save our soul but have no faith in something that affects every aspect of our lives on a day-to-day basis.
For those of us who still remember “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, from our typing class days, (Its a sentence that has all the letters of the alphabet which one would type endlessly for touch typing practice) the idea that we may no longer need to type to input information into our computers sounds like a good thing. It would mean an end to all those hours of finger drills on the keyboard or typewriter, helping us learn the skill of typing. New technology is moving forward the next level is access, making sure that everyone has the ability to meet the real or imagined need for Facebook, YouTube, and all the rest. The move toward a visual and voice based manner of interacting with the computers and the electronic world would open the next billion to the 21st century as we see it. This poses questions that we will be looking at over the coming weeks, one of these being the continued lowering of the bar to access. While there are no doubts that voice command or push button input would make life easier, I wonder, how easy do we need things to be? At what point will we not need to make any efforts at all and have everything being automated and done for us. The only glimmer of hope that we are beginning to see that too much automation makes a good case for our own extinction. Self-driving cars may eliminate five million jobs or more and the question quickly becomes, what do these people and what do we need them for? We are even looking at a universal basic income so that we can give those people whos jobs have been eliminated money to buy the products they used to make. Perhaps it’s not the jobs being eliminated that we have to worry about, what if we eliminate the need for ourselves?