Whether I call myself a Stoic or a Buddhist, I try, on a daily basis, to find happiness in the small stuff. Walking my dog, eating a peach, playing the ukulele given to me by a new guy friend. Real world stuff. Or should I say non-virtual stuff. Parsing the distinction between the two leads me to some deeper questions that, like a swarm of robotic mosquitoes, keep arising in my mind about the role of technology in our biospherically challenged future.
Ah, Technology - key to the kingdom, tool of liberation, and all that… Am I dependent on it? Certainly I am, in my day to day meanderings, in which I spend a lot of time staring into a screen seeking amusement, information, possibility and, most currently, answers to our current planetary crisis. But can technology, as a recently discovered meme on Google suggested, save the day and, somehow, save us from ourselves?
Now before I head off into a possibly dark version of La-La-Land, I preface my exegesis with some salutary remarks. First of all, Technology is us. Us writ huge and mathematically. Us in our infinite curiosity, at once childlike and transcendental. Us with our irrepressible will to dominate reality. Us at our most aspirational.
But we now find ourselves at a watershed moment where ‘who we are’ will become ‘what we have programmed’. It seems likely that Artificial Intelligence will build such momentum it will become larger than human life, conceivably overwhelm our own will to dominate and itself become the great dominant of reality. Unless some new Messiah arrives with the keys to a more enlightened life, AI could possibly take over that role and play Messiah itself. Maybe not such a bad thought actually, given today’s leaders…
But technology is also us in our desperation and depravity. Us at our most delusional. Thinking that technology can actually alter the course of our benighted trajectory?
Because really, if technology is so damn great, why hasn’t it already solved the Climate Crisis? That term is so 2018, right? Because we’re now on to the Climate Apocalypse. Or Climageddon. Or how about Bio-spheric Blowback? (Lovely to name things. You can then put ‘em in a box with a label then shove it one of the numerous drawers hidden in the dark recesses of your subconscious.)
It is undeniable that humanity has cleared serious hurdles through advances in technology - in medicine, agriculture, manufacturing… But then consider in how many ways the massive deployment of social technologies has imperialized culture. We all the know the consequences of isolation, fragmented attention spans, disinformation and fear mongering leading to enormous polarization in modern societies, invasion of privacy and state-led espionage. Whether it’s algorithms or AI automation, technology has replaced human skills, human reason, and its concomitant human emotion, with the artificial.
Yes, technology is also us at our most self-involved. And it’s clear that right about now we need to seize it by the balls. But is it even conceivable we could reorient our tech industries, especially the huge energy and media/communication companies, toward higher, or rather more basic, goals - like survival?
As it stands, the lords of Silicon Valley keep pushing out more alluring apps and devices for their amped up, board room concept of the ideal life, while essentially seeking to further fuel and expand their various fiefdoms. As for us, their docile consumers? We’re checking our social accounts, online dating profiles, and the sorry state of today’s news; we’re commuting while listening to Nero fiddle on Sirius FM; we’re glued to youTube while a deluge rushes past our doors.
On an ironic sidebar: We suck up fossil fuel as if it were an infinite chocolate milkshake, but when the ‘syrup’ hits the fan, what could well come under fire would be all those massive internet server farms which house all of civilization (or at least all of our oh-so-important, curated and redacted social identities and government secrets, our high resolution video streaming and smart TVs, the surveillance cameras, the records of the world’s banks and corporations, not to mention all the AI apps, driverless cars, and robots currently in development).
According to The Guardian: The Information and Communications Technology industry could use, without dramatic increases in efficiency, 20% of all electricity and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2025 and up to 40% of global emissions by 2040. (that story...)
Perhaps the question is: will we become just one more thing in the algal-like growth of the Internet of Things? And will we care, if our future is handed to us as a Hollywoodian CGI-enhanced fantasy? Clearly it behooves us to wonder where technology is in fact taking us. MIT, one of our most revered scientific research institutions, has put $100 million into a lab searching for a way to give robots a sense of smell, but what will it matter when we can all smell the winds full of wildfire smoke? (Oh well, maybe that's something a California university should look into, because that fire problem is so West Coast…)
But I must remind myself, Technology is not merely, as translated from the Greek, ‘the science of craft’. Modern tech is a business. An unregulated business. If the invisible hand of the marketplace rules here, clearly we need a new and visible hand. (Tyrion Lannister where are you?)
Look, I’m no pundit or think-tanker, but IMHO, grinding backward from the precipice would only be possible if the world’s greatest coders and engineers got together with the world’s greatest climatologists, agronomists, city planners, politicians, social activists, and industry leaders and got to work on a unified vision. And since the world’s governments, especially the US, have failed to come together on this score, it seems we need to develop an independent entity that could finance this work.
What if every nation on earth tithed into this fund at a ratio befitting their GDP, and every industry player tithed a ratio of their profit, and those major polluters an extra chunk? Masses of dollars lurk in private bank accounts only to be whipped into action for further empire building or funneled into philanthropies designed to accord higher social standing and freedom from taxation. What if those donors tithed as well into this effort to solve humanity’s most pressing problem?
I‘m reminded of that scene in Jurassic Park where the research trailer gets bashed so hard by a T-Rex that it slides off the cliff, and winds up suspended over the ocean by the merest cable. Julianne Moore nearly crashes through the bottom-most window and all that holds her back from death on the rocks 20 yards below is Jeff Goldblum's outstretched hand.
The Green New Deal is being signed by many a Democrat running for office in 2020, but so far only Elizabeth Warren has outlined a strategy. Could she be our Jeff Goldblum? And eerily, as if answering my plea, two more possible contenders for that role just showed up after I posted this article. As of June 7th, 2019, Michael Bloomberg is pitching in $500 million to shut down the country’s coal plants by 2030. And Robert Downey Jr. just now declared a fledgling, and as of yet amorphous, effort to launch an AI and nanotechnology program into Planet Deliverance mode, to be made public in 2020.
At last there are some leaders who have heard the snapping jaws of T-Rex, our own stupidity writ large and Mesozoic, and are taking action. This doesn’t mean there won’t be some hair-raising encounters ahead with the forces we’ve unleashed, but I’m ready to do my part and start adapting as soon as there are signs of a group effort. If it takes a Hollywood hero like Tony Stark to actually pull a real-world, high-tech, Iron Man maneuver and spark some serious change in this world, I'm all in.