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?
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.
Recently, the news has been filled with the FDA’s approval of a drug that carries within it a small sensor that documents that the pill has been taken. Essentially the pill, once taken, would be sent to a patch worn by the pill taker and then the data would be sent to one’s cell phone, announcing that the medication had been taken. While it would take between thirty minutes and two hours for the pill to report that it had been taken it still has the ability to transmit information. While at this time it would only be the fact that the pill has been taken but what about other information that it could transmit. While it may seem silly now, what if it could transmit our location so that marketers could target marketing to our us possibly based on what we had eaten or if it has been a while since we ate.
By tracking our location we could be inviting big brother to know our every move. What if this pill also created a trackable response in us perhaps it makes us hungry or ill after a certain period of time and only a certain product would relieve the hunger or pain. While it may seem crazy, it wasn’t too long ago when we found that cigarette companies were knowingly creating products that could kill us but still went ahead and added addictive chemicals to increase their addictive nature and their bottom line. While I believe technology can be a great tool, we seem to have the habit of dropping it into the wrong hands and then being shocked when we find we have let ourselves be taken advantage of by those we believe to have our best interests at heart. Surely we can’t be naive forever.
He said he was going through some papers in his mother’s house and found it, a postcard I had sent him years before when I still lived in New York. It was the Empire State Building and a brief greeting scribbled on the back- how I was working (or not) and sending good thoughts to a friend in Italy. He scanned it and sent the image to me saying- “Remember when people used to actually sent messages with pen and paper?” As I looked at the image, the sepia-toned memory was quickly replaced by the buzz of my phone announcing another post on Instagram and it made me wonder, what really has changed. While we used to send letters we now send emails and postcards have become Facebook or Instagram posts. We seem to be exchanging one devil for another constantly shedding the shell of the old for the perceived new. As Virginia Heffernan writes in her brilliant “Magic and Loss” we seem to be heralding back to a Victorian age where children are to be seen and not heard. indeed, she suggests that now we produce children only to produce images to spawn more likes and shares, their images frozen in electronic amber. People now scale construction sites and buildings to post images from these heights, now known as rooftopping possibly giving up their lives for a like. Yet if we lose our life in this pursuit our digital legacy will live on. Our digital artifacts will outlive us and one day might be museum pieces, like stereoscope or view-master slides holding us all captive in an electronic eternity.
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.
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 have been following the Facebook controversy where a photo of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming in pain and terror after a napalm attack in an iconic Vietnam War photo. The controversy began after the editor of the Norwegian newspaper said he had received a demand from Facebook to remove the photo, which was in an article posted to his page. Within 24 hours, he said, Facebook removed the photo and the article itself. While there is a question of nudity, there is also a question of our tailoring our view of the past and possibly the future to suit our wants. I am reminded of Mrs. Jellyby, a character from Dickens, Bleak House, rich socialite obsessed with helping the neglected children in Africa while neglectful of her own children. Dickens describes her as having wonderful eyes that could see the starving children in Africa while unable to see the condition of her children at her feet. If we can remove a picture as it is, inappropriate due to nudity, what other reasons are there for us to remove content. Perhaps we would find pictures from the Holocaust too disturbing to be seen or video of Christine Chubbuck, a newscaster who committed suicide on camera too much to be online. While the latter has been removed due to the family’s wishes, there are many sites that will tell you the details of the incident while withholding the images. We still have a visceral appreciation of the event even if we don’t see it. But what about those images that contribute immeasurable value to our understanding like the photo of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the Vietnamese girl. Is this what do we do with things that are too difficult to see, will we also remove those images and posts or websites, in a way denying their existence? Could we become an electronic Mrs. Jellyby, seeing only the things that we want to see while ignoring others?