Remember Science Fiction? No not that stuff with leather suits and spaceships that go whoosh in a vacuum. I mean stories about the future written in the past. The sort of Science Fiction that sparks your imagination not dulls your intellect.
Back in the ‘80s I subscribed to two magazines; Analog and Omni. Analog had been going since the 1930s and was a slim novel size magazine printed on pulp paper. Omni was the young upstart. A full colour glossy launched in 1978. Between them they presented ideas from science and technology. Many of the ideas are now mainstream but Analog and Omni got there first. Remember fractal images on old PCs? Omni ran articles about fractals before home PCs existed. The concept of memes has now been so debased as to mean a trending tweet but Omni covered memes years ago. Mars landings? Analog covered that in June 1981.
In my late teens and early twenties I read this stuff and regurgitated it down the pub. The reaction of my friends was mixed; the usual talk was of motorcycles and drinking. The potential for secret messages embedded in the waffle blurted out by talk radio hosts was not something they normally considerred.
Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card, Freeman Dyson, Alvin Toffler, William Gibson, William Boroughs. The magazines were not short of quality contributors. Some of those old stories stuck with me because they were based on thoughtful insights regarding the nature of humanity in a changing technological world. Regular readers may recall references to The Marching Morons.
Today, memories of another story arose through the cobwebs of decades though I can’t recall the title. It was about a group of astronauts who returned to Earth after many years in space. As they surveyed the earth they realized that a great catastrophe had taken place. The cities lay in ruins. The people were all dead. Wild animals roamed freely. After some observations they noticed that something else was going on. Tigers roamed the world and now hunted in packs.
I’ll cut to the chase. The people of Earth had figured out how to become telepathic and decided to make everyone on Earth telepathic by means of a kind of massive irradiation of the planet as far as I can remember. Suddenly everyone knew exactly what everyone else was thinking and the results were predictable. Pandemonium ensued, along with rioting and massive blood letting. Mix in the fact that all the animals also had became telepathic and you have packs of tigers working together to become formidable hunters.
In short, if we all knew what everyone else was thinking then civilization would collapse.
So what brought this to mind? Why am I reminded of this today? Because we all now know what everybody else is thinking. A brief glance at social media reveals the uninformed blinkered prejudice. The hate and the bile. The ranting self riotous bigotry. From all areas of the spectrum. All of us. All we need is to see something with which we disagree and we feel the need to sound off like Adolf fucking Hitler safe in the spurious certainty of our own morality. Digital media seems to have enabled a very general form of telepathy. The mass expression of our collective unconscious is now visible to everyone and it’s not pretty.
All of our dark demons and paranoid fears are expressed online. It’s popular today to dismiss the teaching of the Classics but I wonder if their emphasis on primal fears and almost Jungian archetypes may have been good lessons in the risk of unrestrained negative emotions which social media lies bare.we are all susceptible.
Every politician who’s views contradict our own becomes a Nazi, every actor who stumbles over some politically correct phraseology becomes a racist. Every Muslim becomes a terrorist. Every American an imperialist. Every union leader a Trotskyist, every discussion of World War 2 liable to allegations of anti-Semitism. Every motive assumed to be malicious. The online world seems now like an ancient Greek epic poem with evil tyrants, traitors and conspiracies.
These days the leading experts in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are the social media companies like Google and Facebook. Their algorithms absorb everything we write. Every time we rant our abuse that sentiment is noted.
When scientists go on telly and bang on about their AI systems assimilating knowledge they mean all the good stuff but they ignore the vast quantities of drivel that their systems are accumulating. The current obsession with screen controlled apps may soon give way to voice control apps. Microsoft have a voice controlled version of Outlook. Other companies make voice controlled computers for accessing the web. I can already yell commands at my smartphone. All this means that “the system” will be listening to us ALL THE TIME.
Civilization relies on trust. It is nurtured by discretion, politeness and respect. It requires a suppression of our knee jerk reptilian brain responses. Our hate and our fears. But the Internet is ever watchful. It reads our tweets and it sees our microexpressions. As the algorithms observe and learn they embed neurosis and psychosis at the heart of the system. As our subconscious thoughts are revealed what hope is there for trust?
Perhaps I’m too pessimistic. In an article on the BBC web site today, the prescient Charlie Brooker states: “There may be a lot of toxicity online, but I think eventually humans will work out a code of conduct without the need for legislation”. Looking at the candidates for the position of world’s top legislators I’m not encouraged. Many parts of the Clinton / Trump debates seem little more than irate trolling. It’s baffling that a nation as educated and privileged as the United States, with an adult population of nearly 250 million people, has boiled down its leadership prospects to these two…….ahem……people.