Caught in the Net

Written by on August 4, 2008 | Book Fragments

Mamori Oshii, the Japanese director, once said that “As humans have become more ‘mind-oriented’ and the environment has become more urban, some have forgotten the idea of the human body. As far as they’re concerned, the human body does not exist anymore.”

Today, more people think that way than ever before, perhaps because who we are can now exist outside of ourselves, in our words. We can call someone around the world, and not be there. We can be viewed by thousands of people, and not leave our armchair. But I think it’s more than just this. After our physical deaths, our memories and lives live on in a tangible form. Now that we are constantly recording our lives, we can separate our mind from flesh, and those thoughts and experiences live forever.

In short, like Oshii suggested, physical bodies no longer matter. Sometimes, we are but brief flashes of fame and recognition, slashdotted, Dugg, and then we disappear into the subconscious, a fired neuron becoming dormant until needed again.

We like to think that the machines are not intelligent, because we’re the ones doing all the thinking, and taking action based on that. We believe that the intelligence needed to make decisions on information is provided by an external source, such as a programmer, and this means that we maintain control over the machines. AI has not materialised. Humans are still what matter.

This is the symptom of a delusion that much of humanity suffers from. For some reason, we think of the Net in an abstract fashion. This delusion can be understood by the term, “user”. We’re constantly referring to “users”, as in, Net users. The belief, as noted above, that the intelligence needed to make decisions on information is provided by an external source, is a symptom of this, too.

Who says that the programmer is, in fact, an external source? Who says we are the ones using the Net?

We view the brain holistically, comprised of component parts that perform particular functions, and the brain in turn instructs our body what to do. Why do we treat the Net any different?

The collective of machines and human minds is, by definition, an “artificial intelligence” because there is nothing natural about the electronic unification of our minds. Andy Clark sums it up well, in that we are “human-technology symbionts”, “thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across biological brain and non-biological circuitry”.

To understand this point, we should look into our history towards Socrates. He argued that:

“[Writing] will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves.”

More than that, Socrates saw it as detrimental to society, because it destroyed community, and shifted the individual out from that community.

Over two thousand years of individuality later, a similar meme spreads regarding how the Net makes us stupid. Carr argued that the Net “is rewiring the neural circuitry of our brains in a way that diminishes our capacity for concentration, reflection, and contemplation”.

That “concentration, reflection, and contemplation” are inherently individual pursuits. Like Socrates was lamenting about the birth of individuality, Carr is essentially talking about the destruction of that individuality and the rise, once more, of communities, of tribes, in McLuhans “global village”.

But, there is more to it than just remembering, or the end of the individual. The BBC’s Bill Thompson wrote that:

Perhaps the real danger posed by screen-based technologies is not that they are rewiring our brains but that the collection of search engines, news feeds and social tools encourages us to link to, follow and read only that which we can easily assimilate.

As archaeologist Lambros Malafouris has noted how “ancient clay tablets” used for writing “were not mere objects [but] integral adjuncts of the human memory system”, so too we can recognise how the Net has become integral to our thinking. And, like Socrates identified how writing allowed us to stop remembering, what Thompson and Carr are identifying is that we no longer need to challenge our beliefs. We may no longer really need to think. Already, the connections are being made by machines, rather than us.

A lot of our decisions are based on the almost clichéd ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’. What this means is that we’re making our decisions on information generated by similar thinking people. More than that, we’re doing it based on logical decisions made by machines. You go to Amazon, browse their suggested book store. You buy something, marvel at how accurately they figured out what you like, but what really happened was that you were nudged towards something comfortable, in line with what you generally believe in, because of mathematical equations evaluating not just large numbers of other people’s actions, but you as an individual, too. This scenario is played out across search engines, blogs, social networks … all across the Net.

Increasingly, the actions we take are being based on information – instructions, even – by machines. In the same way that McLuhan showed us that it didn’t matter whether a machine was making cornflakes or cars, so too it doesn’t matter what the action is that we took based on the data they suggested.

When you view it in this fashion, it’s clear that the Net is thinking, and it does take action, it just happens to do so on a collective basis that incorporates us.

The only question then is: who owns the machines?


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Book Fragments
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Blind Control

Written by on June 30, 2008 | Book Fragments

“I’m not sure what else you hope we can do, sir.”

Alan Barter leaned forward over his mahogany desk. “In my experience, Mr. Davies, the impossible exists only for the lazy, or the poor, normally one and the same. I assure you, I have more than enough money to invest in your organization to find a solution.”

The white-coated hologram of the scientist looked at Alan uncertainly, eyes blinking rapidly behind wire-framed glasses. “Sir, your money has – is extremely welcome, but you’ve refused both cyberization and bio-tech methods for life extension, and –”

Alan shook his head. “Not good enough. What about transference?”

Davies’ face contorted in disgust. “With all due respect, I’ve told you before. Aside from the fact that it is highly debatable whether or not the technique actually exists, let alone works, our bioethics laws would never permit it.”

“Unethical! How many animals do you slaughter for research? What about saving my wife – is that not ethical enough for you? Where are your ethics in letting me die slowly, day by day?”

Davies’ mouth opened and closed like a ventriloquist’s puppet. “B-but sir … we can help you both, just please reconsider your fears about cyberization.”

“I will stay one hundred percent human!” shouted Alan, standing up and thumping his hand on top of the desk, scattering pens and knocking a photo frame over.

Davies took an involuntary step backward. “You? Perhaps you should think about what your wife would want.”

Breathing heavily, Alan slumped back into his leather chair, and glowered at the hologram, greying eyebrows knotted together.

“Mr. Davies, if I am unable to convince you to do what I ask, then I’ll have to seek help elsewhere.” Before the flustered scientist could respond, Alan disconnected, and the apparition of Davies disappeared.

The tick of the clock on his desk cut the seconds away. Alan reached out a slightly trembling hand and lifted the wooden frame back upright onto the desk surface. He stared at it longingly, remembering. The sun had been perfect that day, the sea flat, and the breeze gentle, as he and Annette sat there, holding cocktails, on holiday in Cuba at the Varadero Best Western the day it had opened six years ago. It seemed a lifetime away, but that was how he always remembered her: freckled skin, thinning, auburn-dyed hair, and a red lipstick smile full of life.

Not like now.

Did she dream in her cryonics chamber, he wondered – not for the first time – of her life with him? Was she waiting for him to come home, each day passing with the same emptiness he felt? Or was it like a paused film, everyone frozen within the frame at some point in time, waiting for someone to push play again?

He wanted her back, the way she was in the photo, not some … hybrid machine.

Leaning across the desk, he buzzed the old, worn out intercom that he’d kept since his first business in the early nineties.

“Yes sir?”

“Janine, I need you to clear my calendar for the next few days.”

“Is everything alright, sir?” She knew him well enough to know that he hardly ever avoided work, even holidays.

“Everything is fine; I just have some … private business to attend to. Call the airport and have them get the jet ready to fly out to Vilnius at five.”

“Yes sir. Will you be travelling alone?”

“No. There’s one other passenger. I’ll also need a few suits, the usual. I’ll be there for a few days.”

“Will you be eating on board the flight?”

“Yes, something special I think; maybe include something Russian for my guest. Surprise me. Oh, and make sure there is some champagne onboard.”

“You’re celebrating something, sir? Really?”

He paused, thinking. “Yes, Janine. Life.”

“Sir … It may not be my place, but I’m really grateful to hear you say that, because I’ve – we’ve all been a bit concerned about you. Ever since Annette –”

“Thanks, but I’m fine.”

“Yes sir.”

He hung up the intercom, got up from the leather chair and walked to the window that spanned the room, his footsteps echoing gently on the marble floor. Water streamed across the glass. The lights of Canary Warf and the rest of London looked like blurred splotches of flickering, blinking, and painted colour amidst the cloudy, dark-grey canvas of the sprawling skyline.

He tried to remember when it had last rained, but couldn’t; it must have been a few months at least. The sound of the rain drumming gradually emptied his mind and he closed his eyes, listening. It felt good not to think, but eventually a nagging sense of urgency began to grow.

Reluctantly, he snapped out of his reverie, and took out his phone.

“Dima,” he commanded. Barely audible beeps showed it was connecting, and then, a ringtone.

“Ah, Mr. Barter,” said Dima in his harsh Russian accent. “You call with good news?”

“I accept your offer. We leave this evening from Heathrow at five.”

“Yes, yes, very good. You make a very good choice. I will arrange for a hotel, a very good hotel.” Dima paused. “And, you have the money?”

“Of course … but, I must ask you a question.”

“Again? Mr. Barter, please –”

“Do you know what it’s like to get old? Wondering if the people who are now dead ever really existed?”

“No, I do not think about such things.”

“Reach my age, and that’s all you think about. That’s why I need to be sure.”

“How many times must I give the same answer? I assure you, transference is real.”

“It had better be; otherwise, no money.”

“Trust me, there is –”

“Even the Pope can’t be trusted when it comes to money, Dima. That’s business. If you want trust –”

“Yes, yes. I understand. I will see you at five,” Dima said, and hung up. As Alan put his phone away and turned towards the window again, the intercom buzzed on his desk. He walked back, and answered it.

“Yes Janine?”

“Sir, I just connected with Mr. McManus in the States, and he would like to speak to you before you leave. He says it is urgent.”

“Tell him he can call me on the way to the airport. I wish to be alone for a while.”

“Yes sir.”

Alan sat back in his chair, and stared into nothing, waiting.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

When the Sick Hyena Laughed

Written by on December 31, 2007 | Book Fragments

This is a short story that I wrote for a competition that was hosted by the RSA called Ethical Futures. It didn’t win, unfortunately, but it was still fun to enter and write. Here it is for whoever is out there to enjoy.

“You’ve been sick a lot recently, more than anyone in the office,” Elizabeth said in a slightly off-putting sing-song voice, a plastic smile moulded across her rubbery-looking face.

What about you? I thought. You’ve been off for a month this year at least. Isn’t maintenance the same as sick leave?

Instead, I said: “I’ve had a bad run recently. I caught flu, had neck trouble … stress. Plus, my girlfriend left me.”

“We understand. However, your medical records show no prescriptions for what you describe, and your medicine cabinet is completely empty.”

We: it was always disconcerting.

“I can’t afford the premiums.” That, at least, was partially true, but it was mainly because I hated the way my cabinet kept insisting I take the bloody medication, even if I didn’t really need it.

“Your bank balance says otherwise.”

“Are you accusing me of lying?”

She smiled that same production-perfect smile, her mouse-brown hair shifting slightly as she shook her head.

“No, but if you are sick, you must take medicine.”

“Like I said, I can’t afford it.”

“You have enough for binaural music and cigarettes.”

“It relieves my stress.”

“We understand,” she said, really saying that she didn’t. She shuffled some papers on the desk, a programmed action to make them fit in. It gave me the creeps. “The fact is, Peter, your performance is disappointing. On average, twenty percent of your day is spent unproductive: coffee breaks, reading the news, trying to talk to other employees, taking long lunches -”

“I’m doing the best I can.”

“We understand,” she repeated, “but we feel you can do better. You’ve refused to be chipped or to get an interface for religious reasons, but if your production continues to be substandard … well, maybe you should reconsider your position. There really isn’t anything to be afraid of.”

“Fine, I’ll consider it.”

“Good.” Smile. “Peter, we will come to the point. You need to promise you will not be sick anymore. We’ll be monitoring you closely, and expect to see you consult your doctor for some medication. We are willing to give you another chance.”

“Okay, I promise. Anything else?” She pushed a writing tablet towards me and asked me to sign. I passed my tag over it, got up, and walked out her windowless office, the door shutting behind me quietly. Damn HR bots. Predictable. Couldn’t stand them, though: clinical; something not quite right with the way they looked or behaved; almost human, but not. I preferred the older models. At least they didn’t pretend to be something they weren’t.

The silence was oppressive as I headed back to my cubic. No-one spoke as I walked past, each of my colleagues sitting in their tiny, walled-off spaces, staring blankly ahead of them, lost in parallel digital world; productive and efficient, unlike me.

Screw it, I thought. I’m getting a cup of coffee first.

The canteen wasn’t empty, which was unusual. A solitary red-haired suit sat alone amongst the dozen sterile white chairs that stood around the metallic table. It was James, one of the new managers they’d hired in the last reorg; can’t say I particularly liked him or any of the others, most of them in their fifties but not looking a day older than me, always tanned, always handsome. I got coffee, and they said I was avoiding work. Managers got coffee, and they were given bonuses for good delegation.

James had joined a few weeks before, and always acted as if he wanted to be my best friend, but I suspected that it was him putting the pressure on Elizabeth. He looked up from his cup and grinned, a perfect white line of teeth flashing from freckled flesh.

“Saw you with Elizabeth. What’s up with that?”

“You don’t know?” I asked, sarcastically.

He laughed. “Twenty years ago you could probably get away with calling in a few sickies. Not going to happen now.”

“Coffee, white, and two sugars,” I said to the machine.

“Please repeat,” it asked. Damn cheap Chinese junk. Couple hundred thousand for a HR bot, and they couldn’t get a decent drink maker.

“Coffee. White. Two. Sugars,” I repeated mechanically, and then turned to face James. “This time was legit; hell, I was coughing so bad -”

“Like I’ve said before, get some lung scrubbers, or an interface. You’ll quit smoking in no time.” He saw my grimace, shook his head, and chuckled. “Principles can only take you so far, Peter. Listen: get over it, and take off the tinfoil hat. The world’s only out to get you because you’re out to get it. Stop living in fear.”

“Twenty years ago I was treated as a human, not a machine.”

He shrugged. “Humans are machines, but we can hate it or just go with it. Either way, you’re still a machine. My advice? Enjoy it.”

“Coffee ready,” said the machine. I took it, and stirred it with a small synthetic spoon that the dispenser had thoughtfully plopped into the cup.

“Why can’t everyone accept me, instead?”

James laughed again, and smiled. “Because there are more of us. Just chill, Peter; the world doesn’t have to be so serious.”

Taking the steaming coffee, I went back and sat down at my desk, staring at the virt helmet lying on top of its smooth surface. Maybe I was wrong. Was there a difference between a virt helmet, and an interface? Between popping a few anti-depressants and simply conditioning your brain function whenever you wanted?

I’d always thought it was because I could take the helmet off and leave it behind for a few hours, that I had some privacy, or because a pill didn’t last. But everyone else was part of the machine, magnetically connected, all the time, to this … man-made God that watched constantly.

I wanted to stay human, and have a soul, but maybe it was all an illusion. When was the last time someone existed who wasn’t directly or indirectly affected by technology? Nothing in my life was really private. Just because I could disconnect from the net didn’t mean I wasn’t still a part of it.

I was just … dormant, on standby.

I sighed, picked up the helmet, and connected. The day turned out to be productive, and I helped describe a lot of information for the machines to understand.

Pages: 1 2 3

Fabrication II

Written by on April 1, 2007 | Book Fragments

“Get up,” said a disembodied voice.

Groggy eyes awoke in a stupor of gummed-up sleep. The walls were gray now, the room tinier, darker; the mirage was off, but something else was missing, like waking up in a hospital without knowing your leg had been amputated. Reality flittered in from the edge of dreams that were scuttling away into the darkness, that brief moment where consciousness and illusion collide into a confusing fragmented mass.

No external memory. Disconnected.

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Written by on February 11, 2007 | Book Fragments

Cold coffee was not what I needed right now, on top of everything else that had happened. Damn machine. Someone had probably made sure it wouldn’t work properly, too. The foul, black liquid spiralled down the drain as I rinsed out the synth cup and placed it back on the holder. Auto-pilot fingers jabbed mechanically at the small, dull-grey dispenser to make another, this time setting the temperature to scalding to reflect my mood.

Jarks probably all felt it dawn on them like this at some point, that weird feeling like the world’s conspiring against you, but then the consistent bad vibrations that led to paranoid suspicions. They would’ve only ever known rumours, quiet whispers on the dark nets if they knew where to look, but I should’ve known it was a fabber. Some sanctimonious bastard would probably have called it poetic justice to have seen me pacing the small, white-walled holding cell contemplating a world that was no longer my own. The eyes that were no doubt watching were probably saying just that. Someone, somewhere, was laughing as they watched my brain squirm.

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