There are two divergent streams at work in the Idea-o-Sphere, currents that are not only divergent in size, strength and assumption, but are in fact antithetical.
The most dominant, of course, is the imminent AI-Robot Revolution, which threatens to bring a very real apocalypse into our world if in fact it flowers as predicted (and isn't just a big scare to keep the peons from asking for raises).
So we're hearing that not only truck drivers, widget drillers and burger flippers are at risk of imminent penury, so too are lawyers, doctors, accountants and all manner of other professionals whose livelihood is based in their capacity to process huge chunks of complicated data and subsequently make decisions and judgments that are useful to others who can't.
Programmers- and AIs themselves- are currently working around the clock to fill the shoes of these well-paid professionals with cheap, off-the-shelf software programs that will reliably get that same cognitive work done at a tiny fraction of the cost.
Elon Musk is (ostensibly) so terrified of the AI Revolution he is planning to colonize Mars as a life-raft for the human race, who presumably will have to flee a Skynet/Terminator type scenario. That Mars is utterly incapable of supporting human life- at least at present- seems to be besides the point.
Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire behind social media giant Alibaba, has suddenly turned Cassandra as well. Long a reliable source for corporate technohappytalk, Ma is suddenly warning of dark days ahead.
"In the next three decades, the world will experience far more pain than happiness," the billionaire said, adding that education systems must raise children to be more creative and curious or they will be ill-prepared for the future.
Robots are quicker and more rational than humans, Ma said, and they don't get bogged down in emotions -- like getting angry at competitors.Terrific. I was just thinking what the world needs now is more pain than happiness. But given his position as a Techno-Celestial, Ma couldn't serve up the medicine without at least a tiny spoonful of sugar:
But he expressed optimism that robots will make life better for humans in the long run.
"Machines will do what human beings are incapable of doing," Ma said. "Machines will partner and cooperate with humans, rather than become mankind's biggest enemy.""Make life better for humans in the long run," he says. Well, what exactly is "the long run?" Three decades is a long time- maybe even a lifetime- for that 99.99999999999% of the human race who aren't tech billionaires. Halfway through that painful three decades most of us aren't going to be thinking much about "the long run."
And what exactly does "far more pain" imply? I'm not sure I want to know what Jack Ma's definition of pain actually means, given our disparate cultural contexts.
It's here I begin to think back on last year's Lucifer's Technologies series (more accurately, Satan's Technologies) and wonder about where our modern electronic superstructure actually came from. Because that goes a long way in gleaning where it's actually going.
Many have claimed that our present technology arose from contact with alien intelligences. Whether you believe that or not, one thing is certain; the rate of technological progress shot up like a rocket shortly after the end of World War II.
And it must be said that technology seems more and more like an invasive-- or alien-- contagion, disrupting entire industries, economies, and communities.
Now techno-utopians like Jaron Lanier and Douglas Rushkoff are techno-cassandaras, preaching a message of dislocation and social collapse.
Look at it this way; steam engines had been known for almost 2000 years by the time the Industrial Revolution took hold, longer still if you consider prototypes. The Ancient Greeks knew them, they just didn't have any use for them.
But the evolution from a computer that was was essentially the size of a suburban house and boasted the power of a pocket calculator to the working prototypes of the desktop, the Internet, computer animation, teleconferencing and nearly everything else we take for granted today took just a little more than two decades.
An eyeblink of history.
For at least 5000 years-- five-hundred decades-- horse-drawn carriages and wooden ships with cloth or leather sails were the state of art in transportation technology. By contrast, we go from aeroplanes made of wood and canvas to the SR-71 Blackbird, a machine so advanced our best engineers today seem unable to match it*, in the space of four decades.
In historical terms, this is as if your three year-old were in nursery school one day and then graduated from Harvard at the top of her class as soon as she turned four. There's simply no precedent for the high-tech explosion that began in the late 1940s...
Yet no one stops to question how such a technology would arise so instantly, in historical terms. Go look at a book from the late 19th Century- hell, look at a children's book from that period- and tell me people weren't a hell of a lot smarter than they are today. Maybe even smarter than they were in the 1940s...
Yet even the best and the very brightest were stymied by problems for decades, problems that seemed to solve themselves, literally overnight, shortly after World War II.We take it all for granted now, especially if you were born at a time when a Commodore 64 and an Atari console were part of your natural landscape. But in fact all of this technology is so anomalous, so disruptive, so improbable in the entirety of human history (never mind natural history) that it is in a very real sense alien, even if (on the offhand chance) it's not actually "alien."
Well, we've been over all of that before, haven't we? What about that other current?
There was very good reason to do so; these were black, belching, smogpits filled with hazardous machinery and/or chemicals that ripped the folk up from communion with the Earth and into virtual (sometimes actual) prisons, in which their humanity was stripped away in service of industrial manufacturing.
In response to the dehumanizing effect of these hells, the sensitives of the time reached back into humanity's childhood (in the case of Spiritualism) or its adolescence (as with the Classically-oriented secret societies). And it could be argued that it worked- that we didn't entirely surrender to the regimented reality of the factory writ large, that Industrial political systems like Nazism and Communism were held at bay (at least in their original incarnation) and that individuality was held up as a social good.
Well, at least until it was subverted as a tool for political atomization.
The counter-Industrial spiritual movements of the 19th Century weren't shy about co-opting the means of mass-production (in this case, industrial-scale publishing) to pursue their aims. And so it is with the new breed of Chaos magicians and their fellow travelers (I'm not sure if meme magic counts here), some of whom are themselves well-paid Skynet employees, many of whom are tech-savvy and nearly all of whom are plugged deep into the Grid. Becoming the ghost in the machine is the basic idea.
Magic, in this context, acts kind of like Jacques Vallee's "Control System." Things get too hot (or cold, depending on your own worldview) with technology and regimentation and Magic comes in and turns on the AC (or cranks up the woodstove, again according to your POV).
Magic and its cousin Psi are erratic and unreliable for most people at most times but when the pressure comes down they become attractive alternatives to the crushing predictability of the Black Iron Prison. It may also, in the form of collective ritual, grow in popularity as a tonic against the the paradoxical effect of social media to grow loneliness in Meatspace.
While it offers an easy way to keep in contact with friends — and meet new people through dating and friendship apps — technology's omnipresence encourages shallow conversations that can distract us from meaningful, real-life, interactions.
Researchers at the University of Essex found that having a phone nearby, even if we don't check it, can be detrimental to our attempts at connecting with others. Smartphones have transformed post office lines from a chance for some small-talk with the neighbors to an exercise in email-checking, and sealed the fate of coffee shops as nothing more than places of mutual isolation. And technology will only become more ingrained in our lives.The isolating, dehumanizing effect of technology may once again find its match in the ancient power of ritual, everything from lighting candles at a Catholic shrine to meth-fueled fuck-a-thons while drenched in pig's blood. The collapse of conventional social mores and the now-standard presumption that anything you do that isn't harming anyone else is your lifestyle choice will certainly push all this forward.
Remember too that this same impulse popped up as a reaction to the hyper-rationalism of Classical Greece with the rise of the Mystery Cults.
Magic almost seems like Nature asserting herself in the face of an outside intervention. Its like the doggedly-persistent vines rising out of toxic soil and strangling the rusted girders of an abandoned factory. Or a stubborn strain of virus slashing its way through some futuristic megalopolis somewhere in the Pacific Rim.
Or a solar flare frying all of our electronics for good in the blink of an eye.
Computer technology has already destroyed entire industries, disrupted entire societies, and changed every aspect of our lives in 70 short years? And now we're being told that it threatens to create an entire infrastructure that will make most of us obsolete? I don't know about you but it sure as Hell sounds an awful lot like Borg-assimilation, only on a frog-boiling schedule.
The question becomes if the host can fight off the infection, or at least learn to manage it and coexist with it. I can't begin to pretend I know the answer but it seems to me that reasserting our messy, chaotic humanity is probably a good place to start.