I started thinking about writing this piece earlier in the day, while I was at work. It’s night now and my workday is done. I work from home, sitting in front of a computer most of the time, 40 hours a week. My job involves creating websites that show a user how to perform maintenance on complex machines. Usually this is a video or an animation that demonstrates a procedure that is equally well documented in a user manual, with text and line drawings. But these days, people would rather watch a video than read a manual: It’s just what they’ve come to expect.
Working on a not particularly demanding task this morning, I decided to listen to a weekly podcast I enjoy, The C-Realm Podcast. It helps to numb the dull throb of cognitive dissonance that plagues my workday, especially when I get to thinking about what I really ought to be doing with my time. It’s a sunny late December morning outside on my farm and finally the torrential rains that seem to have lasted for weeks are gone. There’s plenty to do outside when it’s not raining. But I’m in here for now.
The discussion on this week’s episode of C-Realm focuses on how advanced computer technologies are displacing more and more workers from traditional salaried jobs and forcing them to seek the only other employment available, as independent contractors in the new gig economy. I’m curious about this, as I upload content — the content is now produced by an independent contractor — that I used to produce myself to one of my sites. For now, I’m lucky enough to have one of those salaried jobs, even if the work is sometimes tedious and repetitive.
Patricia Paul, one of the two podcast interviewees, is talking about the automation now taking place of so-called emotional work, giving the example of robot pets being used in nursing homes. Human bias, she remarks, conditions us to expect the changes wrought by automation to occur in familiar ways, for the automated replacement to look just like us, when in fact unexpected innovations like ‘an adorable purring robotic cat and a Fitbit’ can replace a staff of nurses. I’ve read about the benefits of animal therapy in medicine, but I have to wonder if people do really favour robot animals over the real thing in such cases.
I Google ‘old age homes, robot pet,’ and the first result I get is for the PARO Therapeutic Robot, a doll-sized robot that looks like a harp seal pup. According to the web page:
PARO can learn to behave in a way that the user prefers, and to respond to its new name. For example, if you stroke it every time you touch it, PARO will remember your previous action and try to repeat that action to be stroked. If you hit it, PARO remembers its previous action and tries not to do that action.
OK, fair enough — maybe we don’t want dementia patients abusing live animals. But what I read on the second site my search returns — a blog posting from medicalanimal.com, ‘Pet Robots the Future of Pet Ownership’ — is even stranger.
Facebook may have changed the way we interact with our friends, but new technology could change the way we perceive man’s best friend […].A new alternative to animal pets is slowly being introduced to the market; robot pets. In a detailed report, Dr. Jean-Loup Rault, An Australian animal researcher, has predicted that within the next decade electronic pets will replace animal pets […] as the population continues to expand and become more urban, ownership of pets will be reserved for a rich social elite […] Instead, electronic pets will offer owners a constant companion, able to bestow unconditional love at a realistic and affordable rate. Dr. Rault claims that there are plenty of patents circulating the internet which show the industry’s readiness for this new trend.
As I write, my dog is panting in the hallway outside and one of my two cats is sitting on a box set at desk level next to me. I put the box there so he can sit with me while I work. It’s hard for me to imagine that robotic pets are part of the world we’re entering.
Sometimes, however, the automated replacement does look like us, sort of. During the interview, Paul mentioned the Baxter model of automation: how ‘highly skilled workers still have a place, but fewer highly skilled workers, because a group of their tasks have been automated, and a lot of the stuff in the middle has been automated.’ Apparently, there are already robots that can learn to do tasks from watching YouTube videos. I make a note of this.
On the Baxter website I’m greeted by a robot with two friendly looking emoticon-ish eyes on its LED monitor, which forms the head. On either side of the head, in perfect bilateral symmetry, are two burly robotic arms: ‘Meet Baxter – the safe, flexible, affordable alternative to outsourced labor and fixed automation’ the web page reads. ‘This smart, collaborative robot is ready to get to work for your company – doing the monotonous tasks that free up your skilled human labor to be exactly that.’
I have to wonder about the sincerity of this statement as I reflect on the podcast’s discussion of AI algorithms that are now, experimentally at least, tasked with document discovery in legal proceedings and supplanting the role of highly-trained specialists in medicine; for example, the radiologist who interprets your MRI image.
Later in the morning, I receive an automated weekly email roundup I signed up for a few years ago. At the time, I was interested in the then-niche field of data visualisation. People, unlike computers and robots — though maybe not the robots that can learn from watching YouTube — are predominantly visual in understanding and interpreting data. Hence the need for all kinds of maps, charts, and graphs to make sense of the ever-increasing streams of data that inundate our consciousness daily.
This week, one link attracts my attention, so I click it and descend down a rabbit hole of linked pages until I’m at the project page for a new 3D imaging program. I’m curious because my department at work was tasked with creating a ‘virtual’ booth for the upcoming season of industry conventions and meetings.
A few months ago, when we discussed the project, I had to wonder why people would want to go to virtual booths in a virtual convention in the first place. Isn’t the point of going to one of these meetings to travel to a distant city—perhaps one with a nicer climate in February, than say, Chicago—to physically interact with the newest product lines and technologies, to attend talks and presentations, to get one’s hands on the latest equipment, and to maybe go out partying with colleagues at the end of the day?
The virtual booth and the virtual convention are the logical extension of a social media society, a sort of video game world where people accustomed to interacting through Facebook and LinkedIn and following Twitter trails on their smartphones can feel right at home. They can participate in symposia and Q & A sessions in real time, receive as much marketing material as they can possibly handle, friend and follow to their heart’s content. They can navigate through a simulacrum of a convention, as though piloting a drone or playing a video game, all without leaving the home or office. And as much as I’d like to say I don’t understand the appeal of this any more than that of a robotic dog, I think I do.
As Tom Smith has pointed out in his recent Dark Mountain essay ‘Flesh Weaving Flesh’ [See Dark Mountain: Issue 8 (Technê)], current generations have been conditioned to believe that ‘real life isn’t supposed to be difficult or challenging. The ‘device paradigm’, our age of technological mediation…famously puts convenience on a pedestal, assuming the equation of easy attainment with happiness.’
This is certainly one motivation behind the robotic cat that only purrs and never growls, the easy and non-committal empathy of the Facebook friendship, the comfortable distance of interacting among the anonymous community of the so-called global village — this, decidedly, more global and less village. Of course, a trivial, watered-down, corners-rounded-off version of life mitigated through technology doesn’t make us happier, it just makes us less capable, less human, less connected in the human ways that matter, and more like the technologies that increasingly dominate our lives.
I’m at the project page for that 3D imaging program, which touts itself as ‘Building blocks for the virtual reality web.’ I decide to check out some examples and of course the first thing I notice is… nothing. After installing more software, still nothing. But this time, the little box at the bottom of the screen informs me that ‘Your browser supports WebVR. To enter VR, connect a headset, or use a mobile phone.’ I don’t have either so I try to imagine what I could possibly be missing out on.
From there, I go to an example page, expecting some clue. What I’m looking at happens to be a VR data visualisation of sorts, showing development projects completed under Mayor Joe Riley, in Charleston, South Carolina, and published by the Charleston newspaper The Post and Courier. What I see is a 360-degree architectural model of Charleston, with the buildings of the city stretching out to the horizon from about 500 feet up, in gray and white. Real estate projects completed during the administration of Mayor Riley are highlighted in blue.
It’s impressive in its way, but from what I’ve seen, it’s not a far cry from the technology of 20 years ago when the Radiohead song that is the title of this essay was current. This is not to disparage the hard work, intelligence, design savvy and technique that went into producing this visualisation site. I know enough about the technology involved to know I couldn’t have built it myself. But the project site for this technology I’ve been researching — A-Frame, it’s called — aims to simplify things: ‘Use markup to create VR experiences that work across desktop, iPhones, and the Oculus Rift. Android support coming soon,’ the site reads.
I don’t know what the Oculus Rift is, so I search the internet for this too. The first page I come to shows a device that looks like a combination of horse blinders and a blacked-out scuba mask. As one tech news site breathlessly proclaims, ‘Virtual reality is no longer a work of science fiction. With the commercial release of Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR just around the corner, the world is about to experience a new era of entertainment and interaction.’ I’m not optimistic about this.
What’s a bit more unsettling about the Post and Courier VR page — that example link I followed — is the navigational control which, at least on my dumb desktop, is reminiscent of the barrel of a gun in a first-person shooter video game. To navigate to a neighbourhood or move through 360 degrees of Charleston, you have to move the circle with your mouse, as if aiming the sighting mechanism of a gun.
Not on this map is the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, located in historic downtown Charleston, where 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people earlier this year. In his mugshot, Roof seems remarkably similar in many ways to Adam Lanza, the Newtown, Connecticut shooter who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Both possess a distant, psychotic stare and sport absurd haircuts. Both reputedly suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, though Adam Lanza is believed to have suffered from a whole host of other emotional and psychological disorders beside, including undiagnosed schizophrenia and Asperger’s Syndrome.
But what Roof and Lanza have in common beyond the obvious psychiatric disorders is what they have in common with many of the perpetrators of the mass shootings that are now becoming almost routine events here in the US: They are angry young men, alienated and isolated from a world that they relate to mainly through digital media and violent video games.
Anders Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing fanatic and European outlier in this mostly American phenomenon, killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, training for the event by playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. According to a Guardian article, ‘The 33-year-old said he practised his shot using a “holographic aiming device” on the war simulation game, which he said is used by armies around the world for training…’ But Breivik also enjoyed the weird ‘community’ of multiplayer online games, taking ‘what he called a “sabbatical” for a year between the summers of 2006 and 2007, which he devoted to playing another game, World of Warcraft (WoW), “hardcore” full time. He admitted he spent up to 16 hours every day that year playing from his bedroom in his mother’s Oslo flat.’
Apparently, robotics designers deliberately engineer robots that occasionally make mistakes and that seem non-threatening, even lovable. Making them seem more human helps their human co-workers to accept them in the workplace. Patricia Paul mentions the design imperative to make robotics systems cute. I think of Spike Jonze’s Her, a movie in which a man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his operating system, whose ‘voice’ is played by Scarlet Johansson.
The podcast discussion shifts to the consequences for those unlucky enough to have been displaced by automation technologies, and why there is a stigma, especially in Silicon Valley, that hinders any frank discussion of the phenomenon of technological unemployment. Another topic includes the pros and cons of a sort of welfare state where the unemployed receive a stipend, in order to keep the consumer economy humming and for their tacit complicity in allowing their jobs to be outsourced to technological solutions.
What I take away from all this though, is not that machines are replacing human beings at doing work — this has been happening for a long time now — but rather that machines are replacing human beings at doing ‘human’ work, and maybe just replacing human beings entirely.
Even as machines are becoming more human, humans are becoming more scarily machine-like, in insidious ways. Were I to write this piece by hand today, I doubt that I or anyone else could read my handwriting, though, like riding a bike, I would at least remember how to form letters. But I wonder how long before children are no longer taught to write by hand in school.
Similarly, we can no longer remember phone numbers, conduct research at a physical library, or use a paper map, because it’s no longer required of us by our technologies. We are literally unable to find our way in the world any longer. A whole generation is reaching maturity for whom life without digital technologies would be unimaginable, because it’s the only one they’ve ever known.
As our consciousness is increasingly colonised by our technologies, our humanity — our human ways of being in the world and relating to other humans and animals alike — is one of the first things to suffer. As David Graeber has noted, the biggest medical breakthroughs of recent times are not cures for deadly threats like cancer, but rather anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications that make the increasingly inhuman demands of our technological society bearable to us.
It occurs to me that technology has its own logic, independent of our intentions or the directions we would like to take it in. I think of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, in which he takes a gene’s-eye view of the world, characterising our bodies as survival machines for the genetic material that comprises them. Our genes, in his view, largely determine our behaviour in the world.
In the book, he writes of a word he invented to describe the concept of ideological self-reproduction, the meme. ‘Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.’
Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976, but I don’t think I’d heard the word meme much until a few years ago, in relation to mostly trivial and unexplainable trends on the internet. But technology is the mother of all memes, the ur-meme, and it doesn’t care what happens to us humans any more than a flu virus does. In fact, it doesn’t care at all, because to care is human, though maybe technology is using us to help it evolve in the same way that our genes do.
The podcast ends and KMO shares a joke submitted by a listener: ‘The Internet of Things is when the toaster mines Bitcoin to pay off its gambling debts to the fridge.’ I chuckle.
It’s warming up outside and chickens and turkeys are moving back and forth outside my window. Tasha is out there as well, working on our farmstead that we moved onto about a year-and-a-half ago, which is where I also spend most of my free time. I’d rather be out there myself right now, doing work that will provide us sustenance and meaning when my job too has been made redundant by a robot or a programmed algorithm, or after the whole thing comes crashing down and life for most — if we’re lucky — is returned to the simpler, more honest, and more human work of growing food and making shelter.
The world that we’ve created, especially since the end of World War II, is a scary place. We’ve allowed our technologies to dictate and determine the nature of our reality, to erode our footing in the physical world of limits and animal needs. We’ve allowed our humanity to become so intertwined with our technologies that the line between the two is becoming indistinguishable. While species daily go extinct and the world we live in sinks into the ocean, we’re only too happy to blot it out with VR goggles and pipe dreams of leaving the world we evolved on for a shiny new one somewhere else, the ultimate conceit of a world lost to consumerism. Shadow epidemics, mass shootings, refugee crises — these are only news, which is to say, entertainment, and nothing to compete with the banal idiocy of the Kardashians, or the facile Facebook fix.
This distraction of the masses by trivia in the face of societal disruption is nothing really new. It has been going on at least since the time of bread and circuses during the decline of the Roman Empire. But Neil Postman, Nicholas Carr, and Robert McChesney among many others, have written about the unique dangers posed by modern mass communications technologies.
I think again of movies, but this time of a darker one than Her or even 2001 — I think of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Videodrome’s main character, Max Renn played by James Woods, is a television executive whose brain and body have literally been hijacked by a homicidal television programme. Most of the film revolves around various parties competing for control of Renn’s consciousness and to thus define the role of TV in the consciousness of the larger cultural milieu.
The film ends with the haunting scene of Renn in front of a TV on the deck of a boat where he is induced by the televised image of Deborah Harry, whose character Nicki Brand mysteriously disappeared earlier in the movie, to ‘leave the old flesh’. He witnesses his own image commit suicide on the television set, which explodes. Max imitates what he has just seen on TV, intoning as he shoots himself, ‘Long live the new flesh!’
The world of the old flesh, the one that our technologies are beckoning us to abandon, is the only real one, as far as humanity is concerned. The world of the new flesh is a Faustian bargain. While it may bring to our lives instant gratification, endless entertainment, and ever-greater convenience in the short term, this comes at the price of our humanity and the awareness of the physical world we live in, and perhaps our sanity as well.
I’m not unaware of the irony of all of this as I type these sentences on my word processor and do my research on the internet through Google. But the world of my day job is a world that I only provisionally accept, and one for which I have no binding allegiance. At the end of the day, I’ll gladly turn it off and step outside to breathe in the cold air, to smell the damp straw and the musky scent of goats across the yard in their pen. As night settles in, I can walk up the hill to the top of our hollow where the sky meets the rim of the horizon. When the stars come out, I can look up and know that I’m in exactly the right place. This is real.
Matt Miles is a poet, writer, permaculturist, maker, rock climber and ambivalent web developer. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where he and Tasha Greer run the reLuxe Ranch, a whole systems farmstead. They sometimes blog about it and other things at the-way-back.com.
Photographs by Timothy Miles