I never liked the whole idea of the Ralph Lauren polo shirts or anything with someone else’s logo on it. I guess if there was going to be something there- it should be my initials or an image of my choice though in the latter case probably better not. That idea of not being a walking billboard for someone else’s identity has never appealed to me but it seems that we are willing to trade that precious real estate with no tangible compensation. That discrediting of our value of personal value seems to approached hagiographic heights with the new service from Blippar. By installing their app. – the selfies you take will have installed around them a “halo” (Their word, not mine) that can be branded either to sites that you have an interest in or to advertisers that they prescribe for you. It seems that we have no idea of the value of our own image or digital assets and are willing to do anything for our 15 minutes of internet fame even giving our image and our data exhaust for the privilege. It seems that as Steinbeck wrote in Cannery Row, “men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about themselves”. It seems that we will sacrifice anything on the altar of social media for our fifteen minutes of binary notoriety, for a like or perhaps a connection.
While it still blows my mind that light has weight, it also still causes me to stop and think that information has value and that our information can demand a high cost. Companies regularly mine our internet browsing history to see where we have been to predict where we might go in our internet searches. But have we lost the difference between cost and value? It has been often remarked upon here and elsewhere how we give away our personal data or data exhaust as it is called, making us believe that there is no value to our information. It is something like the exhaust from our cars that needs to be taken away and dealt with like a crying child throwing a tantrum in a museum. And yet, this very stone which we have rejected becomes the cornerstone of so many company’s existences. If Google couldn’t track our data, how would they know how to market to us, to tell us what we needed, what we should value, what we should want and how to get it? In short, we give them things which we are told have no value and then they to use these things, our opinions and our interests to determine what we should pay for what we are told we should want.
It seems that what we value we are no longer willing to pay for and what we pay for what we no longer value. We pay money for products that we know we will have to replace in a year or less as they will have no value left and pay money to get people to look, click or follow a website. We pursue a vapor we value but at what cost?
It was with some surprise that I saw that the creator of the Silk Road website was so harshly sentenced to life imprisonment for what was described as a drug trafficking enterprise. As you may recall, Silk Road was the dark web commerce site where drugs and contraband were sold for Bitcoins. While there was a certain debate as to the harshness of the sentence, there seemed to be no surprise that the sentence was being handed down at all. In this age of internet impunity, it seems like someone being held responsible for their online actions are more the exception the rule. While I do feel sorry for Mr. Ulbrict, one can only applaud in the hope that this is the beginning of some internet accountability, that one’s avatar will be as accountable as their flesh and blood actions. While this may require some rethinking of our idea of a corporation as an avatar, remember, corporations do have many of the legal rights of people and receive few consequences from their illegal actions, maybe we are growing up in this new digital realm.
It was surprising to me to hear when a friend of mine had taken a job driving for Uber. Now there is nothing wrong with driving for Uber, I was surprised as my friend and I had met in college and I thought him a smart man and good student, talents not so much in demand as an Uber driver. It seems this electronic revolution, will have the same effect as the industrial revolution only on a larger scale. While the industrial revolution took skilled laborers and reduced them to a cog in an assembly line, this computer revolution seems to be doing the same for every worker. It seems that there is no skill that cannot be replaced, revised or in some way significantly downsized by computers and automation. Just as skilled craftsmen and blacksmiths were relegated to endlessly executing the same task, now college educated people are finding their jobs behind the wheel of the cars that the first revolution made possible.
They say now we are teaching our children skills for jobs that do not yet exist so that they can be ready for what is to come. Let us hope we are not giving them all driving licenses for an age of driverless cars.
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.
Last week in church our choir sang a piece with a text by Christina Rossetti, “What Do the Stars Do?” and the response to what they do stuck in my mind. It seems that to Rossetti, the stars spin and do their makers will. As we go forward in the creation of artificial intelligence and the thinking computers and robots, will we be comfortable with setting them free to do our will? How satisfied are we with doing another’s will? Clearly our need for seeming to control our lives and our environment show how much we need to exert our own will. And are we ready to be the creators of artificial life? Is this a responsibility we are capable of taking on in a responsible manner? Science fiction writer Karel Čapek asked the same question in his 1921 science fiction play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). This work that introduced the world to the word Robot, also made us question the future of our new creations and in his work, they rebel against men and want to think for themselves, and to be their own masters. In the play, they rage against their makers a tale we have seen before in the Old Testament and beyond.
Are we ready for this awesome and terrible responsibility?
Please note that the image above, Icarus and Daedalus by Breugel is, in its full title, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Icarus seems to be an afterthought in the image and it is the hope that the same will not be true of the questions posed here.