The Road to Hell is Paved with Semiconductors
So, my father recently drew my attention to the work of Jaron Lanier, a preeminent computer scientist, who has some concern regarding the future of humanity vis-a-vis the internet. To sum up his various articles at large, he suggests that the habit the internet has taken on of making users into resources by which advertisers make money has, in the end, some very dark and unsustainable ends. He hastens to say that he doesn’t consider the main culprits of this (Google, Apple, Microsoft, and their buddies) are ‘evil’, per se, but has mentioned that the Internet, far from raising humanity up, has served, on balance, to bring us down. He even refers to it as a ‘failed technology’ that is in need of saving.
In essence, if we continue to ‘streamline’ with the internet and continue to use computers to remove the need for human input in various capacities (and, given the improvement in computers, the numbers of things they are able to do continue to increase), what, then, happens to all the humans?
Lanier proposes two likely futures and hopes for a third. The first is a Marxist model, wherein the now-idle masses, their jobs taken by the super-efficient computer world, are supported by the state. This is at least partially already happening, as more and more manufacturing jobs are lost and retail jobs are replaced by computers. Robert Reich has noted this as well, in his artile “Why the Rich are Getting Richer and the Poor, Poorer”. It has all the ugly side-effects one would expect from a socialist society.
The other, and perhaps even worse, outcome is that the now-idle masses are left to wither and starve away until, at last, they die out. I touch on this idea of ‘thinning’ the human race in my article ‘This Ticking Time Bomb, Earth’, and point out how it would be a terrible, terrible thing.
“Pshaw” You scoff, “How can the internet do such a thing?”
Simple: It is making us pointless. I mean this in every concievable meaning of the word, mind you. As we outsource more and more of our brain into the ‘cloud’, the reason for us even being here dwindles. Remember when you had to remember phone numbers? Remember when you had to be good with directions? Remember when you had to know how to parallel park? Remember when you had to entertain yourself while commuting or on road trips? Well, if you do, you’re older than my students. Most of them have no memory of that time, and they are, frankly, the stupider for it. Much of my waking hours are spent idling away on the internet in-between bouts of productivity, and I am not alone. For many of my students, those bouts of ‘productivity’ are often just another form of idling away in the internet.
Here I am producing content for a blog, but for what purpose? One of the reasons I stayed away from blogging for so long was not because I can’t write or I am not interesting, but I had trouble figuring out what was in it for me. This is, ultimately, part of the point–the Internet doesn’t hold promise for you or me or for most people. All it is is a time-suck, an information drain whose purpose has drifted away from being practical and helpful to society to simply becoming maturbatory and inane. That doesn’t make it evil, of course, but it is robbing it of something that it could be. Lanier talks about that at some length in his article–I’ll leave you to read it.
It is not my purpose or desire to wax political or even historical in this blog. It is a space I perfer to reserve for flights of fancy, and so in that vein, let me offer you this: How many more ways can we be asked to waste time on the internet. Where does it all end?
To my mind, it ends in Huxley’s Brave New World, but only if we’re lucky. It is a society of vapid, brainless sheep who have nothing but purposeless, empty fun all day and work for a rigidly ordered society that strips from them all pretentions of individuality, romance, or inspiration. This is Lanier’s Marxist ‘solution’ (though both he and I shudder to call it that), and it would, should it come about, be as doomed to failure as any other Marxist state. The other side, well, there lies the collapse of civilazation as we know it.
The third way? Well, a revolution, of sorts. A fundemental reordering of the internet where we, the users, are not just product but also worker and consumer. A world where we get paid for what we produce and what we provide, and work the harder because of it. Is this likely to happen? Well, predicting the future is a fool’s game, and I should probably stop now. In all liklihood, all that I have thus laid out will not come to pass. Still, every time one of my students scoffs at the idea that there is such a thing as information that is not contained in Google, I cringe a little bit. I don’t like the idea of a world where that is the common belief. That way lies dragons.
Anyway, that’s what I have to say about that.
Now, back to Facebook.
Posted on September 21, 2011, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged computers, future, Lanier, scifi. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.
I’ll tell you what’s in it for you – when you submit manuscripts, publishers will be looking for you on the internet to see if you have an interesting online presence.
Or, you know, because you enjoy it. Or something that’s not completely self-serving.
Oh, I know the reason, Gina. I reject the reason as sufficient compensation for my efforts, is all. That I’m doing it is simply an admission of the times I live in, not a joyous affirmation of the glories of blogdom.
The idea that ‘somebody might see you and think you’re great’ is, essentially, the lottery approach to gainful employment. Now, as artists, we have lived and will continue to live in such a world for the rest of time. It has ever been thus and will ever be thus. It still sucks, of course.
For the rest of humanity, however, whose professional objectives do not lie in selling their creative output to the masses, blogging, tweeting and so on do not serve them apart from the minor ego boost sustained or the fleeting entertainment constructed. They do, however, serve to make money (and giant oodles of it, mind you) to massive corporations designed to use the teeming multitudes of the internet for their own private gain. So, in essence, the Internet has become or is becoming or will become a feeding tank, not a forum for the free exchange of ideas.
For the record, I’ve been quite enjoying both of your blogs, Auston & Gina. 🙂 And I’ve been enjoying doing more blog writing myself, and exploring the whole blog world a little more than I did on livejournal. LJ’s a lot more self-contained compared to wordpress.
Glad you’ve been enjoying it, Katie! I *have* been having fun, and I don’t begrudge the fun the Internet provides. I do think, however, that Lanier has a very real and important point. His article there is the kind of stuff that inspires the science fiction of the future (or, at least, it inspires me…with dread, but it’s still inspiration).
I don’t know if I was being naive or what, but I was actually surprised to find that it makes that much of a difference when a publisher is considering buying your stuff or not. I luckily made it through even with a barely perceptible presence online, but now I am wiser. (And busier…man, blogging is a time suck.)