A smartphone today has more computational power than Apollo 13. The computerised devices around us are increasingly smarter and they multiply at high speed changing the ecosystem in which we live. Some of us may feel suffocated by this change and with all the software code we use every day it seems human emotion is valued less and less.
One of the changes becoming more visible by the passing of each day is the invasion of data in the way we think. The digital replaces the analogue. Every move is broken down into small components and expressed into a binary form. Time is digital, distance is digital, the images are digital and the sounds are digital. The last two frontiers resisting to conversion are the tactile and the smell sense, but it is just a matter of time before they capitulate.
Has the technology made us less human?
It all started with “let’s improve our lives”. The cars have better controls, the phones are more convenient and helpful and the digital cameras are so good in capturing personal memories. At a personal level, this is a welcome upgrade. We like that.
But then, gradually, as these devices kept crunching numbers and generating more data than ever, a new development has grown out of the science labs into the daily life of the average person. This new wave of change is incessant and unforgiving. We were comfortable with the introduction of computing units at the beginning because the adoption process was so familiar: it was industrial, it was large and remote. The Univac, the IBM mainframes and the likes fit our industrial model of the world. There was a kind of order we were used to and we liked: punching cards required scheduling and approval from authority; the computer rooms had managers who made decisions after careful and lengthy considerations. In the old James Bond movies the computer labs are static, inflexible and secretive.
Digital change comes in waves
The first wave was about the macro-economy. Large data bits helped the modelling (through accidental and implicit development or by design) national economies and world trade in new ways leading to globalisation. The abundance of data changes the way nations trade among themselves, how populations live and how big infrastructure projects are built. One example in which this change had an impact on the human expression is tourism. Kevin Kelly (in “Pre-Globalization”) remarked how we lost in one swoop access to great historical and human treasures hidden in distant corners of the world. “Now every village gets visitors every now and then. Just as you get electricity, you get visitors. Multiplied by millions every year, the exchange produces a subtle leavening, a quiet education; a silent bridging that may in the end be as powerful as electricity and roads”.
The second wave brought change at home, at school, at work at individual level. You could call this the BYOD wave. It’s all about personal stuff. Maybe this started in the 90s when the PC started slowly to make its way into our lives with CD-ROMs, games and word processors. It is still happening at much accelerated pace: smartphones, tablets, heart monitors, digital cameras, etc.
The third wave, which started about 10 years ago, is about big data. Amazon was probably the first to recognise the value of customer data and monetise it successfully. Large networks received bits of information generated by our interaction with the electronic medium and make sense of what happens by reading behavioural patterns. All these innocent and cute devices that we love to have are in fact little Trojan horses opening the doors to a scary guy called Big Data. This guy is demanding now that we do things differently, forget about our old ‘human’ ways and learn new rational tricks.
Take this as an example: Progressive Insurance offers an insurance plan 30% less expensive if you agree to install a black box called Snapshot on your car. This device counts how often your slam you breaks, how many miles you drive and how often you drive between midnight and 4am. This a classic behavioural learning scheme based on stimuli and response. We are like lab rats.
Skills from out-of-body experience
The most unsettling aspect of the way big data influences our lives is that it diminished the value of knowledge accumulated through direct personal experience. As an individual we need to get good skills at learning about global knowledge and understand the large patterns. Intuition and emotion are very important, but it is essential to get better at bypassing emotional impulses based on individual experience in favour of “emotional” data patterns based on the experience of large groups. We need to develop antennas that capture large social digital signals.
So, are we less human?
In the grand scheme of things, the answer is no. We will be just different. If you take a hard look at our past, we were not that human as we want us to believe. Let’s not forget that there was a time when we thought children are little monsters and their evil needed to be eliminated through pain. Beating was OK. Jonathan Swift even proposed poor parents eat their children to reduce their burden and for the benefit of the public.
To survive, the human race needed to adopt behaviours that while cruel from a modern perspective it made sense at the time. We are readier to understand this when we observe other species. We watch on TV how lions kill the cubs bestowed with the ‘wrong’ DNA and we listen thoughtfully the voice of the narrator that explains that this is just natural selection. If we were an alien sitting on a distant couch and watch us changing family values, adopt new social norms and promotion systems would we be surprised at all about our new adopted behaviours? Not likely.
The problem with our times is that it doesn’t give us any clear clues about what will happen or what will need to happen so that all of us can finally relax and go to the beach. But when was the last time it did? Most probably never. I asked a friend of mine who has worked for the same company for over twenty-three years what he thinks about changes in his organisation and industry in general and after a thoughtful pause he said “I prefer the old times”. Always for people who lived long enough to be able to claim they reached the controversial middle age, the old times have an irresistible appeal.
If things don’t look good now, some of us may suspect this is just plain winging. If you really dig into the issues, the good ol’ times, aren’t that good and actually the present is as bright as it can be. It is in our nature, some would say, that we like the old times because we were young then and the experiences as we remember them are thrilling, surprising and full-on. And yet, our history hasn’t been a linear script. It is easy to look in the past and say “oh, those times were terrible because so and so” and even feel a bit baffled thinking why those people could not figure out the issues from the beginning, but when you are in the middle of that time, it is difficult to recognise the type of period you are in. However, the history it giving us clues and some of them are telling us that the present may be one of those grinding, nerve-racking, and turbulent periods.
Bill Gross, the PIMCO investment manager who oversees the world largest bond fund, describes the economic outlook as the “new normal” when growth is sluggish and spectacular returns are a thing of the past. Last week he went even further and declared that stocks are dead. People will have to work much longer to maintain their standard of living.
When times are tougher the contrast between the left and right sides of the political spectrum becomes sharper. This is could be an indicator that we are entering into turbulence. Deresiewicz wrote in his column at The American Scholar (“In League”) about a similar period preceding the New Deal marred by vicious confrontation between political sides supported by bankers, industrialists and businessmen promoting a Darwinian system and liberal politics represented by Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson Woodrow. The bad news is that great ideas and daring reforms do not come quickly and they are not designed by the mind of one hero. It takes time and public impetus to drive the change. Progressive steps are taken under the socio-economic pressures and they may look random and imperfect, but then over many years of public exhausting debates, loss of hope, arguments and confusion, a moment will come when everybody throws the towel into the ring and declare ready for a big change. Thus, the New Deal came at the right time only after many years of preparation.
Deresiewicz concludes that we are only beginning the grinding progressive period. We are comparatively in the year of 1882 which was the start of a process that culminated with the New Deal.
Will it take the same time to arrive at a new beginning for prosperous times? The chilling detail in the grinding period that gave birth to the New Deal is that we had to go through two worldwide wars before we settled.
Today, the political landscape is different. US political culture and socio-economic institutions are only a part of the global scene which all of us are part of now. Europe needs time to settle, Asian countries have to come to terms with new trading conditions that dampen their traditional export enthusiasm. The demographic forces are in full swing worldwide. Will migration patterns remain the same? This is a key question because when migration stops, a new order needs to be installed, and when that happens everything is on the table for negotiation.
We are in for a long soul-searching period. As Deresiewicz put it “for now, there is only blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
The total information digitally stored in the world in 2010 was 1 zettabyte. The human brain can store 2.5 petabytes. This means 400,000 people can carry in their brains the entire digital data stored in the world in 2010.
When the information stored will reach 7.5 billions (assuming population will reach this level in the next few years) times 2.5 petabytes = 18,750 zettabytes, ( that is 18.75 yottabytes), the size of the total digital information will be equal to the total information stored in people’s brains. When will that be?
If information stored doubles every 18 months, the world needs 14.195 periods to reach that limit. This is roughly the year 2032.
The computing power packed into microprocessors has followed the same growth rate for a long time, and it is highly probable it will do so in the next couple of decades. That means not only the computers will store more data, they will become significantly more intelligent.
We haven’t considered the networking effect. This increases dramatically the computing power of networked devices.
The digital ecology will look very different in 2032. Attempting to make detail predictions of what will happen is fraught with danger of missing the mark by a mile. However, we can try to anticipate some general changes based on past trends.
In the year 2032, a small personal device will have the smarts of a super computer today. The computers will have sufficient intelligence to display quasi-human attributes: metaphoric meaning, low level of perception, complex meaning, natural voice recognition, real time facial recognition, etc. The last two attributes will probably be heavily used in super-high definition of video cameras for pervasive supervision. The computing power will be sufficient then to create realistic special effects that can simulate voice and images, helping trouble makers to fool supervision cameras.
The drones will be smaller, faster and ubiquitous. They can be deployed by thousands to cover designated areas to identify and destroy strategic targets.
Cars will think and drive themselves even in busy urban districts.
Will we still use petrol? Maybe, but there will be a lot more green and smart energy by then.
How will people be?
Affluent society will thrive in creative environments where imagination will transform into usable, consumable outputs almost immediately. Creativity will be powered by work in collaborative and dynamic groups. Highly creative groups will be very fluid, surfing the wave of complexity and sophistication, enjoying privileges that come with success.
Robotics will replace humans in doing repetitive, dirty and dangerous jobs, but it is not likely that this will bring the happiness that many are hoping for. People who made a living out of those jobs will find they have nowhere to go. They can’t cope, they don’t know what to do and the growing gap between the social cognitive abilities of the ones who can and the ones who can’t will slowly push the unfortunate into ever larger enclaves.
This will be the biggest challenge of the modern days in the future: what to do with those who cannot adapt to complex and dynamic society. As the computing devices become smarter, the mental health of humans become a bigger problem. The cost of health, education and civilian protection will not go down, but up.
This is not new, but following a trend that started thousands of years ago when cities were invented.
This problem will be the seed out of which a danger will arise threatening the existence of the whole civilisation as there will be those who will use the ignorant and the desperate to commit crimes, a practice the evil born in wealthy mediums has known for a long time. Anger makes a very good recruiting agent for all the wrong reasons.
Maybe I should have called this posting “Niall Fergusson on Obama’s Lack of Strategy in the Middle East” because Niall takes a very critical stand on Obama’s position in the Middle East.
America always have detractors and supporters that are ready to say this is right or this is wrong. Niall is clear on his final assessment of America’s involvement in the Middle East’s recent events, but the reason originates in a historical context, in a large dimension that transcends short-term reactions.
Comparing Obama with Bismarck, Niall places the current events in a grander scheme, one that has ample ramifications. He is painfully giving away his disappointment for lack of strategy of Obama’s administration as he sees the fresh democratic wave crossing the Middle East and North Africa absent of any support from America. This is unacceptable in his view, a huge missed historic opportunity.
At times, we are playing the game of conspiracy in a number of ways, imperceptible, even if we don’t admit it, thinking that there is a plan, mischievous or benevolent, nevertheless a plan that helps the times move along. Or maybe we think there is a battle of plans between the left and right or between the good and the bad. A scenario where there is no plan doesn’t came easily into our minds; we need to blame someone.
This is exactly what Niall suspects it is happening right now: there is no strategy, there is no plan. In all “strategic planning” preparations before the Facebook revolution, no one considered that Egypt might revolt. This is perhaps a clue for all of us, something to think about. Because in fact it may support the opposite of what Niall is calling for: “Wanted: A Grand Strategy for America”. This is an argument for calling people to take matters in their own hands and create history through collective design as no leader is able to draw that grand strategy to take us all to the next step. It may be that in the new era of Internet it is not possible to have another Bismarck.