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.
There is an old joke about the performer in the circus who as he gets older keeps falling farther and farther down in the billing. A friend who he hasn’t seen in years sees him cleaning up the elephant dung and asks, “what happened, you were a big star! when the old performer replies, “ Yes but I’m still in show-business!” This punchline came to mind when I read in the BBC that professors at medical schools are finding that their surgery students are losing the dexterity to stitch patients. Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical. It seems that the simple skills that used to be common to us all, cutting textiles, measuring ingredients, repairing something that’s broken, learning woodwork or holding an instrument are no longer common in today’s young people. While we may be learning skills to help us swipe through screens of pixels, we may no longer be getting the training to live in the real world.
Post-apocalyptic television shows, like the Walking Dead and and movies such as World War Z create a fantasy where we test our survival skills by pitting us against zombies, over the top creatures or even other people in a world removed from the modern conveniences. Yet perhaps we don’t really need the zombies to bring us to our knees, we seem to be doing that for ourselves by losing even the most simple skills we need for survival. While its pretty to think we can navigate a world gone mad, many of us can not across town without a strong internet connection. So while we may not be able to stitch up a wound, at least we can do our Cyber Monday shopping in record time.
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
There are trends that are interesting and then there are trends that are disturbing. The latter seemed true when we saw that Netflix now seems to dominate 15 percent of the internet-while YouTube follows with another 11 percent and Amazon coming in with 3 percent. It seems that we are in a race for distraction and video content being the latest thing that no one can be without. Disney buys Fox not for the distribution but for the content as our voracious eyes must constantly be fed with new images. With Ford Motor stock being degraded to just above junk bond status and Sears filing for bankruptcy it seems that we are no longer a nation that makes or buys things but only one that prefers to watch others do things. While Napoleon had once called Britan a nation of shopkeepers, we have become voyeurs who only find value in what Noel Coward called “a talent to amuse” Hi ho, if that were all…
The title comes from a song by Noel Coward, the lyrics and a link to a performance are below.
In crying when I must
In laughing when I choose
Hey ho, if love were all
I believe the more you love a man,
The more you give your trust,
The more you’re bound to lose.
I think if only
Somebody splendid really needed me
Someone affectionate and dear
Wanted to have me near.
But I believe that since my life began
The most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse.
Hey ho, if love were all.
While our Janus’ face is often turned to the future, it took a brief look back to an old Burger King ad when we heard the news of a study that showed that Robots could create twice as many jobs as they destroy. It seems a bit optimistic of the World Economic Forum which says while machines and computer algorithms could displace 75 million people it could create 133 million jobs. Of course, we realize that new technology always creates in its wake social unrest and disruption. The printing press as a prelude to the Reformation, newspapers to the rise of unions, television ushering in the era of civil rights and protests that launched the end of the Vietnam war and started woman’s rights movement. While all of these innovations both technological and social have made people’s lives better, there are always those who are caught beneath the wheel of progress. And while we have no doubt that the rising tide of progress will raise many boats, what happens to those whose skills don’t fit exactly in the last lifeboat. Perhaps, social media has brought reality into our lives with an immediacy that television couldn’t match that perhaps is calling us to forge a new more compassionate version of democracy. One in which the winners don’t always have it their way, as Burger King commercials used to say, a new world in which the high tide raises all boats, not just the ones of the rich or famous.