The Kingdom of Glass Walls: A Fable


There once was a king of extraordinary vanity who liked to spend his time riding throughout the great city he ruled on his gilded coach allowing all who saw him to marvel at his attire which was woven of gold thread and bejeweled with diamonds and sapphires.

The vain king especially liked parading himself in the neighborhoods of the poor reasoning that their sight of him would be the closest thing to heaven such filthy people would have before they died and met God’s glorious angels. It was during one of these “tours” that a woman threw a bucket of shit out of her window which landed squarely on the king’s head.

Who knows if it was by accident as the poor peasant girl claimed that she was merely emptying onto the streets the overflow of her commode when the bucket slipped from her hands and fell onto the king? In any case the king awoke from unconsciousness after the blow a changed man with his vanity transformed.

The changed king adopted the unusual style of doing away with all prerogatives of royal privacy and ordered the bricks of his castle walls be replaced with the most transparent glass. Anyone could now literally see all the doings of the royal household as if the court were now fish in a bowl to the great annoyance of the queen.

The king soon went so far as to abandon his former golden attire for no clothes at all. The queen at this point wanted to have the royal doctors declare the king mad on account of him having been hit by a bucket on the head, but there were powerful courtiers in the court who decided that the king was to remain on his throne.

After having a dream that his city-kingdom had been invaded by an enemy that feared the naked king was planning a surprise attack he had the defensive walls of the city leveled, so that no one could might think he meant them ill. Having experienced how liberating it felt to be open to all the world through his glass or torn down walls and nakedness the king wished that all his subjects could experience what he had.

He thus offered to pay out of his own treasury the cost of any of his subjects replacement of their walls of wood, brick or straw with walls of glass. Many of his subjects took the king up on the offer, for who would not want their cold house with walls of straw or dilapidated wood to be replaced with walls of clean, shiny glass?

But then a bug was placed in the king’s ear from a powerful anonymous courtier : “He with nothing to hide has nothing to fear” and with that the suspicion entered the king’s mind that the only people who would have kept their opaque walls must be hiding something.

Criminals and bandits soon found ways game this system largely by using disguises and fake scenes painted on their glass walls while those with enough money found that with the proper “donation” they could keep their brick houses if they just put in a few more windows. However most law abiding persons now completely surrounded by glass had left themselves open to all sorts of peeping toms, shisters, and burglars. And with the walls of the city taken down some said they could see the torch lights of an army on the nearby hills at night.   

Citizens began to complain that perhaps replacing the walls of their homes with glass and tearing down the walls of the city was not a good idea. Just then the king announced to everyone’s’ surprise that he had fallen in love with a pig and wished to divorce the queen and marry his newly beloved scrofa domesticus.

At this the queen and even more importantly the powerful courtiers had had enough. The king was arrested and placed in a dungeon, although, not to be accused of cruelty, he was allowed to keep his pig with him. New walls much thicker than before replaced the castle’s walls of glass and the walls around the city were rebuilt.  

A decree went out from the court declaring that no citizen was allowed to replace the glass walls of their homes. The queen claimed that such total transparency among the subjects was necessary to catch criminals and even more so spies from neighboring kingdoms who meant to do the city harm, and after many years the people forgot that things had ever been different or that they had once been ruled by a transparent king.         

Why aren’t we living in H.G. Wells’ scientific dictatorship?

HG Wells Things to Come

One of the more depressing things to come out of the 2008 financial crisis was just how little it managed to effect our expectations about the economy and political forms of the future. Sure, there was Occupy Wall Street, and there’s been at least some interesting intellectual ferment here and there with movements such as Accelerationist Marxism and the like, but none have really gone anywhere. Instead what we’ve got is the same old system only now with even more guarantees and supports for the super rich. Donald Trump may be a blowhard and a buffoon, but even buffoons and blowhards can tell the truth as he did during last Thursday’s debate when he essentially stated that politicians were in the pocket to those with the cash, such as himself, who were underneath it all really running the show.

The last really major crisis of capitalism wasn’t anything like this. In the 1930’s not only had the whole system gone down, but nearly everyone seemed convinced that capitalism, (and some even thought the representative democracy that had emerged in tandem with it) was on the way out.

Then again, the political and economic innovation of the early 20th century isn’t the kind of thing any of us would wish for. Communists, which to many born after 1989 may seem as much like antiquated creatures from another world as American revolutionaries in powdered wigs, was by the 1930’s considered one of the two major ways the society of the future would likely be organized, and its’ competitor over the shape of the future wasn’t some humane and reasoned alternative, but the National Socialism of Hitler’s dark Reich.

If one wants to get a sense of the degree to which the smart money was betting against the survival of capitalism and democracy in the 1930’s one couldn’t do much better than that most eerily prescient of science-fiction prophets – H.G. Wells. In many ways, because he was speaking through the veneer of fiction Wells could allow himself to voice opinions which would have led even political radicals to blush. Also, because he was a “mere” fiction author his writings became one of the few ways intellectuals and politicians in liberal societies could daydream about a way out of capitalism’s constant crises, democracy’s fissiparousness and corruption, and most importantly for the survival of humanity in light of the nation-state’s increasingly destructive wars.

Well’s 1933 The Shape of Things to Come, published not long after the Nazis had come to power in Germany, is perhaps his best example of a work that blurs the boundaries between a work of fiction and a piece of political analysis, polemic, and prediction. In the guise of a dream book of a character who has seen the future of the world from the 1930’s to the middle of the beginning of the 22nd century, Wells is able to expound upon the events of the day and their possible implications- over a century into the future.

Writing six years before the event takes place Well’s spookily imagines World War II beginning with the German invasion of Poland. Also identifying the other major aggressor in a world war still to come, Wells realizes Japan had stepped into a quagmire by invading China from which much ill would come.

These predictions of coming violence (Wells forecast the outbreak of the Second World War to be 1940- one year off) are even more chilling when one watches the movie based upon the book, and know that the bombings of cities it depicts is not some cinematographer’s fantasy, but will no doubt have killed some of those who watched the film in theaters in 1936- less than five years later.

Nevertheless, Wells gets a host of very important things, not only about the future but about his present, very wrong. He gets it ass backwards in generally admiring the Soviet Union and seeing its’ problem not being the inhuman treatment by the Communist regime of its citizens, but the fact that they have wed themselves to what Well’s believes is an antiquated, dogmatic theory in Marxism.

Indeed, Wells will build his own version of dictatorship in The Shape of Things to Come (though versions of it can be seen in his earlier work) using the ideas of two of Soviet communism’s founders- Trotsky’s idea of a global revolutionary movement which will establish a worldwide government and Lenin’s idea of an intellectual nucleus that will control all the aspects of society.

Nor, did Wells really grasp the nature of Nazism or the strange contradiction of a global alliance of fascist regimes that ostensibly worship the state. Wells saw Hitler as a throwback to a dying order based on the nation-state. His only modernity being

“…control by a self-appointed, self-disciplined élite was a distinct step towards our Modern State organization.” (192)

Wells therefore misses the savagery born of the competition between world shaping ideologies and their mobilization of entire societies that will constitute the Second World War and its aftermath.

Ironically, Wells mistakenly thinks WWII will be short and its fatalities low because he gets his technological predictions right. He clearly foresees the role of the importance of the tank, the airplane, and the submarine to the future war and because of them even anticipates the Nazi idea of blitzkrieg. At one point he seems to have a glimmer of the death spirit that will seize over humankind during the war when he compares the submarine to a sacrificial altar:

The Germans supplied most of the flesh for this particular altar; willing and disciplined, their youngsters saluted and carried their kit down the ladder into this gently swaying clumsy murder mechanism which was destined to become their coffin. (70)

Nevertheless, he fails to see that the Second World War will unleash the kinds of violence and fanaticism formerly only seen in religious wars.

Two decades after Wells’ novel many would think that because of the introduction of nuclear weapons wars would be reduced to minutes. Instead conflict became stretched out across multiple decades. What this is should teach us is that we have no idea how any particular technology will ultimately affect the character of war – especially in terms of its intensity or duration- thus those hoping that robotic or cyber weapons will return us to short decisive conflicts are likely seeing a recurrent mirage.

Wells perhaps better understood than other would be revolutionaries and prophets of the time just how robust existing societies were despite their obvious flaws. The kind of space for true political innovation had seemingly occurred only during times of acute stress, such as war, that by their nature were short lived. A whole new way of organizing society had seemingly revealed itself during World War I in which the whole industrial apparatus of the nation was mobilized and directed towards a particular end. Yet the old society would reassert itself except in those societies that had experienced either defeat and collapse or Pyrrhic victory (Italy, Japan) in the conflict.

Wells thus has to imagine further crises after economic depression and world war to permanently shatter Western societies that had become fossilized into their current form. The new kind of war had itself erased the boundary between the state and the society during war, and here Wells is perhaps prescient in seeing the link between mass mobilization, the kinds of wars against civilians seen in the Second World War and insurgency/terrorism. Yet he pictures the final hammer blow not in the form of such a distributed conflict but coming in the form of a global pandemic that kills half of the world’s people. After that comes the final death of the state and the reversion to feudalism.

It is from a world ruled by warlords that Wells’ imagined “Air Dictatorship” will emerge. It is essentially the establishment of global rule by a scientific technocracy that begins with the imposition of a monopoly over global trade networks and especially control over the air.

To contemporary ears the sections on the Air Dictatorship can be humorously reminiscent of an advertisement for FedEx or the US Navy. And then the humor passes when one recalls that a world dominated by one global straddling military and multinational corporations isn’t too far from the one Wells pictured even if he was more inspired by the role of the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages, the Hanseatic League or the what the damned Bolsheviks were up to in Russia.

Oddly enough, Wells foresaw no resistance to the establishment of a world-state (he called it The Modern State) from global capitalists, or communists or the remnant of the security services of the states that had collapsed. Instead, falling into a modernist bias that remains quite current, Wells sees the only rival to the “Modern State” in the form of the universal religions which the Air Dictatorship will therefore have to destroy. Wells’ utopians declare war on Catholics (Protestants oddly give no resistance) forcefully close Mecca and declare war on Kosher foods. And all this deconstruction to be followed by “re-education” Wells thinks could be done without the kinds of totalitarian nightmares and abuses which are less than two decades away from when he is writing The Shape of Things.

I am not particular fan of the universal confusion called post-modernism, but it does normally prevent most of us from making zingers like Wells’ such as this:

They are going to realize that there can be only one right way of looking at the world for a normal human being and only one conception of a proper scheme of social reactions, and that all others must be wrong and misleading and involve destructive distortions of conduct. (323)

Like any self-respecting version of apocalypse, Wells imagines that after a period of pain and violence the process will become self sustaining and neither will be required, though most honorably for the time Wells thinks this world will be one of racial equality that will never again suffer the plague of extreme want.

Analogous to the universal religions, after the establishment of the Modern State all of humankind will become party to ultimate mission of the scientific endeavor which the protagonist in the movie version sums up manically in this crazy speech at the end of the film:

For man, no rest, he must go on. First this little planet and its’ winds and ways, and then all of the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets above and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he conquers all the depths of space and all of time still he will not be finished.

All the universe or nothing! Which shall it be?

(As a side note Ken Stanley Robinson seems to think this modernist’s dream that the destiny of humanity is to settle the stars is still alive and kicking. In his newest novel he is out to kill it. Review pending. )

To return to our lack of imagination and direction after 2008: we, unlike Wells, know how his and similar modernist projects failed, and just how horribly they did so. Nevertheless, his diagnosis remains largely sound. It might take a crisis the scale none of us would wish for to engender real reform let alone the taking of radically new directions. Given historical experience such crises are much more likely to give rise to monsters than anything benign.

Anarchists seem to grasp the shape of the time but not its implications. In a globalized world power has slipped out of the grasp of democratic sovereignty and into the hands of networked organizations- from multinational corporations, to security services, to terrorists and criminal groups able to transcend these borders. Yet it is tightly organized “machine like” organizations rather than decentralized/anarchic ones that seem to thrive in this feudal environment, and whereas that very feudalism and its competition makes achieving a unified voice in addressing urgent global problems even more difficult, and where despite our current perceptions, war between the armed groups that represent states the gravest existential threat to humanity, we, unlike Wells, know that no one group of us has all the answers, and that it is not only inhumane but impossible to win human unity out of the barrel of a ray gun

William Gibson Grocks the Future: The Peripheral

William Gibbson pencil_sketch_photo_effect 2

It’s hard to get your head around the idea of a humble prophet. Picturing Jeremiah screaming to the Israelites that the wrath of God is upon them and then adding “at least I think so, but I could be wrong…” or some utopian claiming the millenium is near, but then following it up with “then again this is just one man’s opinion…” would be the best kind of ridiculous- seemingly so out of character to be both shocking and refreshing.

William Gibson is a humble prophet.

In part this stems from his understanding of what science-fiction is for- not to predict the future, but to understand the present with right calls about things yet to happen likely just lucky guesses. Over the weekend I finished William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral, and I will take the humble man at his word as in: “The future is already here- it’s not just very evenly distributed.” As a reader I knew he wasn’t trying to make any definitive calls about the shape of tomorrow, he was trying to tell me about how he understands the state of our world right now, including the parts of it that might be important in the future.  So let me try to reverse engineer that, to try and excavate the picture of our present in the ruins of the world of the tomorrow Gibson so brilliantly gave us with his gripping novel.    

The Peripheral is a time-travel story, but a very peculiar one. In his imagined world we have gained the ability not to travel between past, present and future but to exchange information between different versions of the multiverse. You can’t reach into your own past, but you can reach into the past of an alternate universe that thereafter branches off from the particular version of the multiverse you inhabit. It’s a past that looks like your own history but isn’t.

The novel itself is the story of one of these encounters between “past” and “future.” The past in question is a world that is actually our imagined near future somewhere in the American South where the novel’s protagonist, Flynn, her brother Burton and his mostly veteran friends eek out their existence. (Even if I didn’t have a daughter I probably love Gibson’s use of strong female characters, but having two, I love that even more.) It’s a world that rang very true to me because it was a sort of dystopian extrapolation of the world where I both grew up and live now. A rural county where the economy is largely composed of “Hefty Mart” and people building drugs out of their homes.

The farther future in the story is the world of London decades after a wrenching crisis known as the “jackpot”, much of whose devastation was brought about by global warming that went unchecked and resulted in the loss of billions of human lives and even greater destruction for the other species on earth. It’s a world of endemic inequality, celebrity culture and sycophants. And the major character from this world, Wilf Netherton, would have ended his days as a mere courtier to the wealthy had it not been for his confrontation with an alternate past.

So to start there are a few observations we can draw out from the novel about the present. The hollowing out of rural economies dominated by box stores, which I see all around me, the prevalence of meth labs as a keystone of this economy now only held up by the desperation of its people. Dito.

The other present Gibson is giving us some insight into is London where Russian oligarchs after the breakup of the Soviet Union established a kind of second Moscow. That’s a world that may fade now with the collapse of the Russian ruble, but the broader trend will likely remain in place- corrupt elites who have made their millions or billions by pilfering their home countries making their homes in, and ultimately shaping the fate, of the world’s greatest cities.

Both the near and far futures in Gibson’s novel are horribly corrupt. Local, state and even national politicians can not only be bought in Flynn’s America, their very jobs seem to be to put themselves on sale. London of the farther future is corrupt to the bone as well. Indeed, it’s hard to say that government exists at all there except as a conduit for corruption. The detective Ainsley Lowbeer, another major character in the novel, who plays the role of the law in London seems to not even be a private contractor, but someone pursuing justice on her own dime. We may not have this level of corruption today, but I have to admit it didn’t seem all that futuristic.

Inequality (both of wealth and power with little seeming distinction between the two) also unites these two worlds and our own. It’s an inequality that has an effect on privacy in that only those that have political influence have it. The novel hinges around Flynn being the sole (innocent) witness of a murder. There being no tape of the crime is something that leaves her incredulous, and, disturbingly enough, left me incredulous as well, until Lowbeer explains it to Flynn this way:

“Yours is a relatively evolved culture of mass surveillance,” Lowbeer said. “Ours, much more so. Mr Zubov’s house here, internally at least, is a rare exception. Not so much a matter of great expense as one of great influence.”

“What does that mean?” (Flynn)

“A matter of whom one knows,” said Lowbeer, “and of what they consider knowing you to be worth.” (223)

2014 saw the breaking open of the shell hiding the contours of the surveillance state we have allowed to be built around us in the wake of 9/11. Though how we didn’t realize this before Edward Snowden is beyond me. If I were a journalists looking for a story it would be some version of the surveillance-corruption-complex described by Gibson’s detective Lowbeer. That is, I would look for ways in which the blindness of the all seeing state (or even just the overwhelming surveillance powers of companies) was bought or gained from leveraging influence, or where its concentrated gaze was purchased for use as a weapon against rivals. In a world where one’s personal information can be ripped with simple hacks,or damaging correlations about anyone can be conjured out of thin air, no one is really safe. It merely an extrapolation of human nature that the asymmetries of power and wealth will ultimately decide who has privacy and who does not. Sadly, again, not all that futuristic.

In both the near and far futures of The Peripheral drones are ubiquitous. Flynn’s brother Burton himself was a former haptic drone pilot in the US military, and him and his buddies have surrounded themselves with all sorts of drones. In the far future drones are even more widespread and much smaller. Indeed, Flynn witnesses the  aforementioned murder while standing in for Burton as a kind of drone piloting flyswatter keeping paparazzi drone flies away from the soon to be killed celebrity Aelita West.    

That Flynn ended up a paparazzi flyswatter in an alternate future she thinks is a video game began in the most human of ways- Netherton trying to impress his girlfriend- Desarda West- Aelita’s sister. By far the coolest future-tech element of the book builds off of this, when Flynn goes from being a drone pilot to being the “soul” of a peripheral in order to be able to find Aelita’s murderer.

Peripherals, if I understand them, are quasi-biological forms of puppets. They can act intelligently on their own but nowhere near with the nuance and complexity of when a human being is directly controlling them through a brain-peripheral interface. Flynn becomes embodied in an alternative future by controlling the body of a peripheral while herself being in an alternative past. Leaves your head spinning? Don’t worry, Gibson is such a genius that in the novel itself is seems completely natural.

So Gibson is warning us about environmental destruction, inequality, corruption, and trying to imagine a world of ubiquitous drones and surveillance. All essential stuff for us to pay attention to and for which The Peripheral provides us with a kind of frame that might serve as a sort of protection against blinding continuing to head in directions we would rather not.   

Yet the most important commentary on the present I gleaned from Gibson’s novel wasn’t these things, but what it said about a world where the distinction between the virtual and the real has disappeared where everything has become a sort of video-game.

In the novel, what this results in is a sort of digital imperialism and cruelty. Those in Gibson’s far future derisively call the alternative pasts they interfere in “stubs” though these are full worlds as much as their own with people in them who are just as real as us.

As Lowbeer tells Flynn:

Some persons or people unknown have since attempted to have you murdered, in your native continuum, presumably because they know you to be a witness. Shockingly, in my view, I am told that arranging your death would in no way constitute a crime here, as you are, according to current legal opinion, not considered to be real.(200)

The situation is actually much worse than that. As the character Ash explains to Netherton:

There were, for instance, Ash said, continua enthusiasts who’d been at it for several years longer than Lev, some of whom had conducted deliberate experiments on multiple continua, testing them sometimes to destruction, insofar as their human populations were concerned. One of these early enthusiasts, in Berlin, known to the community only as “Vespasian,” was a weapons fetishists, famously sadistic in his treatment of the inhabitants of his continua, whom he set against one another in grinding, interminable, essentially pointless combat, harvesting the weaponry evolved, though some too specialized to be of use outside whatever baroque scenario had produced it. (352)

Some may think this indicates Gibson believes we might ourselves be living in a matrix style simulation. In fact I think he’s actually trying to saying something about the way the world, beyond dispute, works right now, though we haven’t, perhaps, seen it all in one frame.

Our ability to use digital technology to interact globally is extremely dangerous unless we recognize that there are often real human beings behind the pixels. This is a problem for people who are engaged in military action, such as drone pilots, yes, but it goes well beyond that.

Take financial markets. Some of what Gibson is critiquing is the kinds of algo high-speed trading we’ve seen in recent years, and that played a role in the financial the onset of the financial crisis. Those playing with past continua in his near future are doing so in part to game the financial system there, which they can do not because they have a record of what financial markets in such continua will do, but because their computers are so much faster than those of the “past”. It’s a kind of AI neo-colonialism, itself a fascinating idea to follow up on, but I think the deeper moral lesson of The Peripheral for our own time lies in the fact that such actions, whether destabilizing the economies continua, or throwing them into wars as a sort of weapon’s development simulation, are done with impunity because the people in continua are consider nothing but points of data.

Today, with the click of a button, those who hold or manage large pools of wealth can ruin the lives of people on the other side of the globe. Criminals can essentially mug a million people with a keystroke. People can watch videos of stranger’s children and other people’s other loved ones being raped and murdered like they are playing a game in hell. I could go on, but shouldn’t have to.

One of the key, perhaps the key, way we might keep technology from facilitating this hell, from turning us into cold, heartless computers ourselves, is to remember that there are real flesh and blood human beings on the other side of what we do. We should be using our technology to find them and help them, or at least not to hurt them, rather than target them, or flip their entire world upside down without any recognition of their human reality because it some how benefits us. Much of the same technology that allows us to treat other human beings as bits, thankfully, gives us tools for doing the opposite as well, and unless we start using our technology in this more positive and humane way we really will end up in hell.

Gibson will have grocked the future and not just the present if we fail to address theses problems he has helped us (or me at least) to see anew. For if we fail to overcome these issues, it will mean that we will have continued forward into a very black continua of the multiverse, and turned Gibson into a dark prophet, though he had disclaimed the title.


2014: The death of the Human Rights Movement, or It’s Rebirth?

Edwin Abbey Justice Harrisburg

For anyone interested in the issues of human rights, justice, or peace, and I assume that would include all of us, 2014 was a very bad year. It is hard to know where to start, with Eric Garner, the innocent man choked to death in New York city whose police are supposed to protect citizens not kill them, or Ferguson Missouri where the lack of police restraint in using lethal force on African Americans, burst into public consciousness, with seemingly little effect, as the chilling murder of a young boy wielding a pop gun occurred even in the midst of riots that were national news.

Only days ago, we had the release of the US Senate’s report on torture on terrorists “suspects”, torture performed by or enabled by Americans set into a state of terror and rage in the wake of 9-11. Perhaps the most depressing feature of the report is the defense of these methods by members of the right even though there is no evidence forms of torture ranging from “anal feeding” to threatening prisoners with rape gave us even one piece of usable information that could have been gained without turning American doctors and psychologists into 21st century versions of Dr. Mengele.

Yet the US wasn’t the only source of ill winds for human compassion, social justice, and peace. It was a year when China essentially ignored and rolled up democratic protests in Hong Kong, where Russia effectively partitioned Ukraine, where anti-immigrant right-wing parties made gains across Europe. The Middle East proved especially bad:military secularists and the “deep state” reestablished control over Egypt – killing hundreds and arresting thousands, the living hell that is the Syrian civil war created the horrific movement that called itself the Islamic State, whose calling card seemed to be brutally decapitate, crucify, or stone its victims and post it on Youtube.

I think the best way to get a handle on all this is to zoom out and take a look from 10,000 feet, so to speak. Zooming out allows us to put all this in perspective in terms of space, but even more importantly, in terms of time, of history.

There is a sort of intellectual conceit among a certain subset of thoughtful, but not very politically active or astute, people who believe that, as Kevin Kelly recently said “any twelve year old can tell you that world government is inevitable”. And indeed, given how many problems are now shared across all of the world’s societies, how interdependent we have become, the opinion seems to make a great deal of sense. In addition to these people there are those, such as Steven Pinker, in his fascinating, if far too long, Better Angels, that make the argument that even if world government is not in the cards something like world sameness, convergence around a global shared set of liberal norms, along with continued social progress seems baked into the cake of modernity as long as we can rid ourselves of what they consider atavisms,most especially religion, which they think has allowed societies to be blind to the wonders of modernity and locked in a state of violence.

If we wish to understand current events, we need to grasp why it is these ideas- of greater and greater political integration of humanity and projections regarding the decline of violence seem as far away from us in 2014 as ever.

Maybe the New Atheists, among whom Pinker is a member, are right that the main source of violence in the world is religion. Yet it is quite obvious from looking at the headlines listed above that religion only unequivocally plays a role in two of them – the Syrian civil war and the Islamic state, and the two are so closely related we should probably count them as just one. US torture of Muslims was driven by nationalism- not religion, and police brutality towards African Americans is no doubt a consequence of a racism baked deep into the structure of American society. The Chinese government was not cracking down on religious but civically motivated protesters in Hong Kong, and the two side battling it out in Ukraine are both predominantly Orthodox Christians.

The argument that religion, even when viewed historically, hasn’t been the primary cause of human violence, is one made by Karen Armstrong in her recent book Fields of Blood. Someone who didn’t read the book, and Richard Dawkins is one critic who apparently hasn’t read it, might think it makes the case that religion is only violent as a proxy for conflicts that are at root political, but that really isn’t Armstrong’s point.

What she reminds those of us who live in secular societies is that before the modern era it isn’t possible to speak of religion as some distinct part of society at all. Religion’s purview was so broad it covered everything from the justification of political power, to the explanation of the cosmos to the regulation of marriage to the way society treated its poor.

Religion spread because the moral universalism it eventually developed sat so well with the universal aspirations of empire that the latter sanctioned and helped establish religion as the bedrock of imperial rule. Yet from the start, religion whether Taoism and Confucianism in China to Hinduism and Buddhism in Asia to Islam in North Africa and the Middle East along with Christian Europe, religion was the way in which the exercise of power or the degree of oppression was criticized and countered. It was religion which challenged the brutality of state violence and motivated the care for the impoverished and disabled . Armstrong also reminds us that the majority of the world is still religious in this comprehensive sense, that secularism is less a higher stage of society than a unique method of approaching the world that emerged in Europe for particularistic reasons, and which was sometimes picked up elsewhere as perceived necessity for technological modernization (as in Turkey and China).

Moving away from Armstrong, it was the secularizing West that invented the language of social and human rights that built on the utopian aspirations of religion, but shed their pessimism that a truly just world without poverty, oppression or war, would have to await the end of earthly history and the beginning of a transcendent era. We should build the perfect world in the here and now.

Yet the problem with human rights as they first appeared in the French Revolution was that they were intimately connected to imperialism. The French “Rights of Man” both made strong claims for universal human rights and were a way to undermine the legitimacy of European autocrats, serving the imperial interests of Napoleonic France. The response to the rights imperialism of the French was nationalism that both democratized politics, but tragically based its legitimacy on defending the rights of one group alone.

Over a century after Napoleon’s defeat both the US and the Soviet Union would claim the inheritance of French revolutionary universalism with the Soviets emphasizing their addressing of the problem of poverty and the inequalities of capitalism, and the US claiming the high ground of political freedom- it was here, as a critique of Soviet oppression, that the modern human rights movement as we would now recognize it emerged.

When the USSR fell in the 1990’s it seemed the world was heading towards the victory of the American version of rights universalism. As Francis Fukuyama would predict in his End of History and the Last Man the entire world was moving towards becoming liberal democracies like the US. It was not to be, and the reasons why both inform the present and give us a glimpse into the future of human rights.

The reason why the secular language of human rights has a good claim to be a universal moral language is not because religion is not a good way to pursue moral aims or because religion is focused on some transcendent “never-never-land” whereas secular human rights has its feet squarely placed in the scientifically supported real world. Rather, the secular character of human rights allows it to be universal because being devoid of religious claims it can be used as a bridge across groups adhering to different faiths, and even can include what is new under the sun- persons adhering to no religious tradition at all.

The problem human rights has had up until this moment is just how deeply it has been tied up with US imperial interests, which leads almost inevitably to those at the receiving end of US power crushing the manifestation of the human rights project in their societies- what China has just done in Hong Kong and how Putin’s Russia both understand and has responded to events in Ukraine – both seeing rights based protests there as  Western attempts to weaken their countries.

Like the nationalism that grew out of French rights imperialism, Islamic jihadism became such a potent force in the Middle East partially as a response to Western domination, and we in the West have long been in the strange position that the groups within Middle Eastern societies that share many of our values, such as Egypt today, are also the forces of oppression within those societies.

What those who continue to wish that human rights can provide a global moral language can hope for is that, as the proverb goes, “there is no wind so ill that it does not blow some good”. The good here would be, in exposing so clearly US inadequacy in living up to the standards of human rights, the global movement for these rights will at last become detached from American foreign policy. A human rights that was no longer seen as a clever strategy of US and other Western powers might eventually be given more room to breathe in non-western countries and cultures and over the very long hall bring the standards of justice in the entire world closer to the ideals of the now half century old UN Declaration of Human Rights.

The way this can be accomplished might also address the very valid Marxists critique of the human rights movement- that it deflects the idealistic youth on whom the shape of future society always depends away from the structural problems within their own societies, their efforts instead concentrated on the very real cruelties of dictators and fanatics on the other side of the world and on the fate of countries where their efforts would have little effect unless it served the interest of their Western government.

What 2014 reminded us is what Armstrong pointed out, that every major world religion has long known that every society is in some sense underwritten by structural violence and oppression. The efforts of human rights activists thus need to be ever vigilant in addressing the failure to live up to their ideals at home even as they forge bonds of solidarity and hold out a hand of support to those a world away, who, though they might not speak a common language regarding these rights, and often express this language in religious terms, are nevertheless on the same quest towards building a more just world.


Mary Shelley’s other horror story; Lessons for Super-pandemics

The Last Man

Back in the early 19th century a novel was written that tells the story of humanity’s downfall in the 21st century.  Our undoing was the consequence of a disease that originates in the developing world and radiates outward eventually spreading into North America, East Asia, and ultimately Europe. The disease proves unstoppable causing the collapse of civilization, our greatest cities becoming grave sites of ruin. For all the reader is left to know, not one human being survives the pandemic.

We best know the woman who wrote The Last Man in 1825 as the author of  Frankenstein, but it seems Mary Shelley had more than one dark tale up her sleeve. Yet, though the destruction wrought by disease in The Last Man is pessimistic to the extreme, we might learn some lessons from the novel that would prove helpful to understanding not only the very deadly, if less than absolute ruination, of the pandemic of the moment- Ebola- and even more regarding the dangers from super-pandemics more likely to emerge from within humanity than from what is a still quite dangerous nature herself.

The Last Man tells the story of son of a nobleman who had lost his fortune to gambling, Lionel Verney, who will become the sole remaining man on earth as humanity is destroyed by a plague in the 21st century. Do not read the novel hoping to get a glimpse of Shelley’s view of what our 21st century world would be like, for it looks almost exactly like the early 19th century, with people still getting around on horseback and little in the way of future technology.

My guess is that Shelley’s story is set in the “far future” in order to avoid any political heat for a novel in which England has become a republic. Surely, if she meant it to take place in a plausible 21st century, and had somehow missed the implications of the industrial revolution, there would at least have been some imagined political differences between that world and her own. The same Greco-Turkish conflict that raged in the 1820’s rages on in Shelley’s imagined 21st century with only changes in the borders of the war. Indeed, the novel is more of a reflection and critique on the Romantic movement, with Lord Byron making his appearance in the form of the character Lord Raymond, and Verney himself a not all that concealed version of Mary Shelley’s deceased husband Percy.

In The Last Man Shelley sets out to undermine all the myths of the Romantic movement, myths of the innocence of nature, the redemptive power of revolutionary politics and the transformative power of art. While of historical interests such debates offer us little in terms of the meaning of her story for us today. That meaning, I think,  can be found in the state of epidemiology, which on the very eve of Shelley’s story was about to undergo a revolution, a transformation that would occur in parallel with humanity’s assertion of general sovereignty over nature, the consequence of the scientific and industrial revolutions.

Reading The Last Man one needs to be carefully aware that Shelley has no idea of how disease actually works. In the 1820’s the leading theory of what caused diseases was the miasma theory, which held that they were caused by “bad air”. When Shelley wrote her story miasma theory was only beginning to be challenged by what we now call the “germ theory” of disease with the work of scientists such as Agostino Bassi. This despite the fact that we had known about microscopic organisms since the 1500s and their potential role in disease had been cited as early as 1546 by the Italian polymath Girolamo Fracastoro. Shelley’s characters thus do things that seem crazy in the light of germ theory; most especially, they make no effort to isolate the infected.

Well, some do. In The Last Man it is only the bad characters that try to run away or isolate themselves from the sick. The supremely tragic element in the novel is how what is most important to us, our small intimate circles, which we cling to despite everything, can be done away with by nature’s cruel shrug. Shelley’s tale is one of extreme pessimism not because it portrays the unraveling of human civilization, and turns our monuments into ruins, and eventually, dust, but because of how it portrays a world where everyone we love most dearly leave us almost overnight. The novel gives one an intimate portrait of what its like to watch one’s beloved family and friends vanish, a reality Mary Shelley was all too well acquainted with, having lost her husband and three children.

Here we can find the lesson we can take for the Ebola pandemic for the deaths we are witnessing today in west Africa are in a very real sense a measure of people’s humanity as if nature, perversely, set out to target those who are acting in a way that is most humane. For, absent modern medical infrastructure, the only ones left to care for the infected is the family of the sick themselves.

This is how is New York Times journalist Helene Cooper explained it to interviewer Terry Gross of Fresh Air:

COOPER: That’s the hardest thing, I think, about the disease is it does make pariahs out of the people who are sick. And it – you know, we’re telling the family people – the family members of people with Ebola to not try to help them or to make sure that they put on gloves. And, you know, that’s, you know, easier – I think that can be easier said than done. A lot of people are wearing gloves, but for a lot of people it’s really hard.

One of the things – two days after I got to Liberia, Thomas Eric Duncan sort of happened in the U.S. And, you know, I was getting all these questions from people in the U.S. about why did he, you know, help his neighbor? Why did he pick up that woman who was sick? Which is believed to be how we got it. And I set out trying to do this story about the whole touching thing because the whole culture of touching had gone away in Liberia, which was a difficult thing to understand. I knew the only way I could do that story was to talk to Ebola survivors because then you can ask people who actually contracted the disease because they touched somebody else, you know, why did you touch somebody? It’s not like you didn’t know that, you know, this was an Ebola – that, you know, you were putting yourself in danger. So why did you do it?

And in all the cases, the people I talked to there were, like, family members. There was this one woman, Patience, who contracted it from her daughter who – 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca – who had gotten it from a nanny. And Rebecca was crying, and she was vomiting and, you know, feverish, and her mom picked her up. When you’re seeing a familiar face that you love so much, it’s really, really hard to – I think it’s a physical – you have to physically – to physically restrain yourself from touching them is not as easy as we might think.

The thing we need to do to ensure naturally occurring pandemics such as Ebola cause the minimum of human suffering is to provide support for developing countries lacking the health infrastructure to respond to or avoid being the vectors for infectious diseases. We especially need to address the low number of doctors per capita found in some countries through, for example, providing doctor training programs. In a globalized world being our brother’s keeper is no longer just a matter of moral necessity, but helps preserve our own health as well.

A super-pandemic of the kind imagined by Mary Shelley, though, is an evolutionary near impossibility. It is highly unlikely that nature by itself would come up with a disease so devastating we will not be able to stop before it kills us in the billions. Having co-evolved with microscopic life some human being’s immune system, somewhere, anticipates even nature’s most devious tricks. We are also in the Anthropocene now, able to understand, anticipate, and respond to the deadliest games nature plays. Sadly, however, the 21st century could experience, as Shelley imagined, the world’s first super-pandemic only the source of such a disaster wouldn’t be nature- it would be us.

One might think I am referencing bio-terrorism, yet the disturbing thing is that the return address for any super-pandemic is just as likely to be stupid and irresponsible scientists as deliberate bioterrorism. Such is the indication from what happened in 2011 when the Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier deliberately turned the H5N1 bird flu into a form that could potentially spread human-to-human. As reported by Laurie Garrett:

Fouchier told the scientists in Malta that his Dutch group, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, had “mutated the hell out of H5N1,” turning the bird flu into something that could infect ferrets (laboratory stand-ins for human beings). And then, Fouchier continued, he had done “something really, really stupid,” swabbing the noses of the infected ferrets and using the gathered viruses to infect another round of animals, repeating the process until he had a form of H5N1 that could spread through the air from one mammal to another.

Genetic research has become so cheap and easy that what once required national labs and huge budgets to do something nature would have great difficulty achieving through evolutionary means can now be done by run-of-the-mill scientists in simple laboratories, or even by high school students. The danger here is that scientists will create something so novel that  evolution has not prepared any of us for, and that through stupidity and lack of oversight it will escape from the lab and spread through human populations.

News of the crazy Dutch experiments with H5N1 was followed by revelations of mind bogglingly lax safety procedures around pandemic diseases at federal laboratories where smallpox virus had been forgotten in a storage area and pathogens were passed around in Ziploc bags.

The U.S. government, at least, has woken up to the danger imposing a moratorium on such research until their true risks and rewards can be understood and better safety standards established. This has already, and will necessarily, negatively impact potentially beneficial research. Yet what else, one might ask should the government do given the potential risks? What will ultimately be needed is an international treaty to monitor, regulate, and sometimes even ban certain kinds of research on pandemic diseases.

In terms of all the existential risks facing humanity in the 21st century, man-made super-pandemics are the one with the shortest path between reality and nightmare. The risk from runaway super-intelligence remains theoretical, based upon hypothetical technology that, for all we know, may never exist. The danger of runaway global warming is real, but we are unlikely to feel the full impact this century. Meanwhile, the technologies to create a super-pandemic in large part already here with the key uncertainty being how we might control such a dangerous potential if, as current trends suggest, the ability to manipulate and design organisms at the genetic level continues to both increase and democratize. Strangely enough, Mary Shelley’s warning in her Frankenstein about the dangers of science used for the wrong purposes has the greatest likelihood of coming in the form of her Last Man.


2040’s America will be like 1840’s Britain, with robots?

Christopher Gibbs Steampunk

Looked at in a certain light, Adrian Hon’s History of the Future in 100 Objects can be seen as giving us a window into a fictionalized version of an intermediate technological stage we may be entering. It is the period when the gains in artificial intelligence are clearly happening, but they have yet to completely replace human intelligence. The question if it AI ever will actually replace us is not of interest to me here. It certainly won’t be tomorrow, and technological prediction beyond a certain limited horizon is a fool’s game.

Nevertheless, some features of the kind of hybrid stage we have entered are clearly apparent. Hon built an entire imagined world around them from with “amplified-teams” (AI working side by side with groups of humans) as one of the major elements of 21st century work, sports, and much else besides.

The economist Tyler Cowen perhaps did Hon one better, for he based his very similar version of the future not only on things that are happening right now, but provided insight on what we should do as job holders and bread-winners in light of the rise of ubiquitous, if less than human level, artificial intelligence. One only wishes that his vision had room for more politics, for if Cowen is right, and absent us taking collective responsibility for the type of future we want to live in, 2040’s America might look like the Britain found in Dickens, only we’ll be surrounded by robots.

Cowen may seem a strange duck to take up the techno-optimism mantle, but he did in with gusto in his recent book Average is Over. The book in essence is a sequel to Cowen’s earlier best seller The Great Stagnation in which he argued that developed economies, including the United States, had entered a period of secular stagnation beginning in the 1970’s. The reason for this stagnation was that advanced economies had essentially picked all the “low hanging fruit” of the industrial revolution.

Arguing that we are in a period of technological stagnation at first seems strange, but when I reflect a moment on the meaning of facts such as not flying all that much faster than would have been common for my grandparents in the 1960’s, the kitchen in my family photos from the Carter days looking surprisingly like the kitchen I have right now- minus the paneling, or saddest of all, from the point of view of someone brought up on Star Trek, Star Wars and Our Star Blazers with a comforter sporting Viking 2 and Pioneer, the fact that, not only have we failed to send human visitors to Mars or beyond, we haven’t even been back to the moon. Hell we don’t even have any human beings beyond low-earth orbit.

Of course, it would be silly to argue there has been no technological progress since Nixon. Information, communication and computer technology have progressed at an incredible speed, remaking much of the world in their wake, and have now seemingly been joined by revolutions in biotechnology and renewable energy.

And yet, despite how revolutionary these technologies have been, they have not been able to do the heavy lifting of prior forms of industrialization due to the simple fact that they haven’t been as qualitatively transformative as the industrial revolution. If I had a different job I could function just fine without the internet, and my life would be different only at the margins. Set the technological clock by which I live back to the days preceding industrialization, before electricity, and the internal combustion engine, and I’d be living the life of my dawn-to-dusk Amish neighbors- a different life entirely.

Average is Over is a followup to Cowen’s earlier book in that in it he argues that technological changes now taking place will have an impact that will shake us out of our stagnation, or at least how that stagnation is itself evolving into something quite different with some being able to escape its pull while others fall even further behind.

Like Hon, Cowen thinks intermediate level AI is what we should be paying attention to rather than Kurzweil or Bostrom- like hopes and fears regarding superintelligence. Also like Hon, Cowen thinks the most important aspect of artificial intelligence in the near future is human-AI teams. This is the lesson Cowen takes from, among other things, freestyle chess.

For those who haven’t been paying attention to the world of competitive chess, freestyle chess is what emerged once people were able to buy a chess playing program that could beat the best players in the world for a few dollars to play on one’s phone. One might of thought that would be the death knell for human chess, but something quite different has happened. Now, some of the most popular chess games are freestyle meaning human-machine vs human-machine.

The moral Cowen draws from freestyle chess is that the winners of these games, and he extrapolates, the economic “games” of the future, are those human beings who are most willing to defer to the decisions of the machine. I find this conclusion more than a little chilling given we’re talk about real people here rather than Knight or Pawns, but Cowen seems to think it’s just common sense.

In its simplest form Cowen’s argument boils down to the prediction that an increasing amount of human work in the future will come in the form of these AI-human teams. Some of this, he admits, will amount to no workers at all with the human part of the “team” reduced to an unpaid customer. I now almost always scan and bag my own goods at the grocery store, just as I can’t remember the last time I actually spoke to a bank teller who wasn’t my mom. Cowen also admits that the rise of AI might mean the world actually gets “dumber” our interactions with our environment simplified to foster smooth integration with machines and compressed to meet their limits.

In his vision intelligent machines will revolutionize everything from medicine to education to business management and negotiation to love. The human beings who will best thrive in this new environment will be those whose work best complements that of intelligent machines, and this will be the case all the way from the factory floor to the classroom. Intelligent machines should improve human judgement in areas such as medical diagnostics and would even replace judges in the courtroom if we are ever willing to take the constitutional plunge. Teachers will go from educators to “coaches” as intelligent machines allow individualized instruction , but education will still require a human touch when it comes to motivating students.

His message to those who don’t work well with intelligent machines is – good luck. He sees automation leading to an ever more competitive job market in which many will fail to develop the skills necessary to thrive. Those unfortunate ones will be left to fend for themselves in the face of an increasingly penny-pinching state. There is one area, however, where Cowen thinks you might find refuge if machines just aren’t your thing-marketing. Indeed, he sees marketing as one of the major growth areas in the new otherwise increasingly post-human economy.

The reason for this is simple. In the future there are going to be less ,not more, people with surplus cash to spend on all the goods built by a lot of robots and a handful of humans. One will have to find and persuade those with real incomes to part with some of their cash. Computers can do the finding, but it will take human actors to sell the dream represented by a product.

The world of work presented in Cowen’s Average is Over is almost exclusively that of the middle class and higher who find their way with ease around the Infosphere, or whatever we want to call this shell of information and knowledge we’ve built around ourselves. Either that or those who thrive economically will be those able to successfully pitch whatever it is they’re selling to wealthy or well off buyers, sometimes even with the help of AI that is able to read human emotions.

I wish Cowen had focused more on what it will be like to be poor in such a world. One thing is certain, it will not be fun. For one, he sees further contraction rather than expansion of the social safety net, and widespread conservatism, rather than any attempts at radically new ways of organizing our economy, society and politics. Himself a libertarian conservative, Cowen sees such conservatism baked into the demographic cake of our aging societies. The old do not lead revolutions and given enough of them they can prevent the young from forcing any deep structural changes to society.

Cowen also has a thing for so-called “moral enhancement” though he doesn’t call it that. Moral enhancement need not only come from conservative forces, as the extensive work on the subject by the progressive James Hughes shows, but in the hands of both Hon and Cowen, moral enhancement is a bulwark of conservative societies, where the world of middle class work and the social safety net no longer function, or even exist, in the ways they had in the 20th century.

Hon with his neuroscience background sees moral enhancement leveraging off of our increasing mastery over the brain, but manifesting itself in a revival of religious longings related to meaning, a meaning that was for a long time provided by work, callings and occupations that he projects will become less and less available as we roll through the 21st century with human workers replaced by increasingly intelligent machines. Cowen, on the other hand, sees moral enhancement as the only way the poor will survive in an increasingly competitive and stingy environment, though his enhancement is to take place by more traditional means, the return of strict schools that inculcate victorian era morals such as self-control and above all conscientiousness in the young. Cowen is far from alone in thinking that in an era when machines are capable of much of the physical and intellectual labor once done by human beings what will matter most to individual success is ancient virtues.

In Cowen’s world the rich with money to burn are chased down with a combination of AI, behavioral economics, targeted consumer surveillance, and old fashioned, fleshy persuasion to part with their cash, but what will such a system be like for those chronically out of work? Even should mass government surveillance disappear tomorrow, (fat chance) it seems the poor will still face a world where the forces behind their ever more complex society become increasingly opaque, responsible humans harder to find, and in which they are constantly “nudged” by people who claim to know better. For the poor, surveillance technologies will likely be used not to sell them stuff which they can’t afford, but are a tool of the repo-man, and debt collector, parole officer, and cop that will slowly chisel away whatever slim column continues to connect them the former middle class world of their parents. It is a world more akin to the 1940’s or even the 1840’s than it is to anything we have taken to be normal since the middle of the 20th century.

I do not know if such a world is sustainable over the long haul, and pray that it is not. The pessimist in me remembers that the classical and medieval world’s existed for long periods of time with extreme levels of inequality in both wealth and power, the optimist chimes in that these were ages when the common people did not know how to read. In any case, it is not a society that must by some macabre logic of economic determinism come about. The mechanism by which Cowen sees no sustained response to such a future coming into being is our own political paralysis and generational tribalism. He seems to want this world more than he is offering us a warning of it arrival. Let’s decide to prove him wrong for the technologies he puts so much hope in could be used in totally different ways and in the service of a juster form of society.

However critical I am of Cowen for accepting such a world as a fait accompli, the man still has some rather fascinating things to say. Take for instance his view of the future of science:

Once genius machines start coming up with new theories…. intelligibility will seem like a legacy from the very distant past. ( 220)

For Cowen much of science in the 21st century will be driven by coming up with theories and correlations from the massive amount of data we are collecting, a task more suited to a computer than a man (or woman) in a lab coat. Eventually machine derived theories will become so complex that no human being will be able to understand them. Progress in science will be given over to intelligent machines even as non-scientists find increasing opportunities to engage in “citizen science”.

Come to think of it, lack of intelligibility runs like a red thread throughout Average is Over, from “ugly” machine chess moves that human players scratch their heads at, to the fact that Cowen thinks those who will succeed in the next century will be those who place their “faith” in the decisions of machines, choices of action they themselves do not fully understand. Let’s hope he’s wrong on that score as well, for lack of intelligibility in human beings in politics, economics, and science, drives conspiracy theories, paranoia, and superstition, and political immobility.

Cowen believes the time when secular persons are able to cull from science a general, intelligible picture of the world is coming to a close. This would be a disaster in the sense that science gives us the only picture of the world that is capable of being universally shared which is also able to accurately guide our response to both nature and the technological world. At least for the moment, perhaps the best science writer we have suggests something very different. To her new book, next time….

Sherlock Holmes as Cyborg and the Future of Retail

Lately, I’ve been enjoying reruns of the relatively new BBC series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which imagines Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective in our 21st century world. The thing I really enjoy about the show is that it’s the first time I can recall that anyone has managed to make Sherlock Holmes funny without at the same time undermining the whole premise of a character whose purely logical style of thinking make him seem more a robot than a human being.

Part of the genius of the series is that the characters around Sherlock, especially Watson, are constantly trying to press upon him the fact that he is indeed human, kind of in the same way Bones is the emotional foil to Spock.

Sherlock uses an ingenious device to display Holmes’ infamous powers of deduction. When Sherlock is focusing his attention on a character words will float around them that display some relevant piece of information, say, the price of a character’s shoes, what kind of razor they used, or what they did the night before. The first couple of times I watched the series I had the eerie feeling that I’d seen this device before, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then it hit me, I’d seen it in a piece of design fiction called Sight that I’d written about a while back.

In Sight the male character is equipped with contact lenses that act as an advanced form of Google Glasses. This allows him to surreptitiously access information such as the social profile, and real-time emotional reactions of a woman he is out on a date with. The whole thing is down right creepy and appears to end with the woman’s rape and perhaps even her murder- the viewer is left to guess the outcome.

It’s not only the style of heads-up display containing intimate personal detail that put me in mind of the BBC’s Sherlock where the hero has these types of cyborg capabilities not on account of technology, but built into his very nature, it’s also the idea that there is this sea of potentially useful information just sitting there on someone’s face.

In the future it seems anyone who wants to will have Sherlock Holmes types of deductive powers, but that got me thinking who in the world would want to? I mean,it’s not like we’re not already bombarded with streams of useless data we are not able to process. Access to Sight level amounts of information about everyone we came into contact with and didn’t personally know, would squeeze our mental bandwidth down to dial-up speed.

I think the not-knowing part is important because you’d really only want a narrow stream of new information about a person you were already well acquainted with. Something like the information people now put on their FaceBook wall. You know, it’s so and so’s niece’s damned birthday and your monster-truck driving, barrel-necked cousin Tony just bagged something that looks like a mastodon on his hunting trip to North Dakota.

Certainly the ability to scan a person like a QR code would come in handy for police or spooks, and will likely be used by even more sophisticated criminals and creeps than the ones we have now. These groups work up in a very narrow gap with people they don’t know all the time.  There’s one other large group other than some medical professionals I can think of that works in this same narrow gap, that, on a regular basis, it is of benefit to and not inefficient to have in front of them the maximum amount of information available about the individual standing in front of them- salespeople.

Think about a high end retailer such as a jeweler, or perhaps more commonly an electronics outlet such as the Apple Store. It would certainly be of benefit to a salesperson to be able to instantly gather details about what an unknown person who walked in the store did for a living, their marital status, number of family members, and even their criminal record. There is also the matter of making a sale itself, and here thekinds of feedback data seen in Sight would come in handy.  Such feedback data is already possible across multiple technologies and only need’s to be combined. All one would need is a name, or perhaps even just a picture.

Imagine it this way: you walk into a store to potentially purchase a high-end product. The salesperson wears the equivalent of Google Glasses. They ask for your name and you give it to them. The salesperson is able to, without you ever knowing, gather up everything publically available about you on the web, after which they can buy your profile, purchasing, and browser history, again surreptitiously, perhaps by just blinking, from a big data company like Axicon and tailor their pitch to you. This is similar to what happens now when you are solicited through targeted ads while browsing the Internet, and perhaps the real future of such targeted advertising, as the success of FaceBook in mobile shows, lies in the physical rather than the virtual world.

In the Apple Store example, the salesperson would be able to know what products you owned and your use patterns, perhaps getting some of this information directly from your phone, and therefore be able to pitch to you the accessories and upgrades most likely to make a sale.

The next layer, reading your emotional reactions, is a little tricker, but again much of the technology already exists, or is in development. We’ve all heard those annoying messages when dealing with customer service over the phone that bleats at us “This call may be monitored….”. One might think this recording is done as insurance against lawsuits, and that is certainly one of the reasons. But, as Christopher Steiner in his Automate This, another major reason for these recording is to refine algorithms thathelp customer service representatives filter customers by emotional type and interact with customers according to such types.

These types of algorithms will only get better, and work on social robots used largely for medical care and emotional therapy is moving the rapid fire algorithmic gauging and response to human emotions from the audio to the visual realms.

If this use of Sherlock Holmes type power by those with a power or wealth asymmetry over you makes you uncomfortable, I’m right there with you. But when it gets you down you might try laughing about it. One thing we need to keep in mind both for sanity’s sake, not to mention so that we can have a more accurate gauge of how people in the future might preserve elements of their humanity in the face of technological capacities we today find new and often alien, is that it would have to be a very dark future indeed for there not to be a lot to laugh at in it.

Writers of utopia can be deliberately funny, Thomas More’s Utopia is meant to crack the reader up. Dystopian visions whether of the fictional or nonfictional sort, avoid humor for a reason. The whole point of their work is to get us to avoid such a future in the first place, not, as is the role of humor, to make almost unlivable situations more human, or to undermine power by making it ridiculous, to point out the emperor has no clothes, and defeat the devil by laughing at him. Dystopias are a laughless affair.

Just like in Sherlock it’s a tough trick to pull off, but human beings of the future, as long as there are actually still human beings, will still find the world funny. In terms of technology used as a tool of power, the powerless, as they always have, are likely to get their kicks subverting it, and twisting it to the point of breaking underlying assumptions.

Laughs will be had at epic fails and the sheer ridiculousness of control freaks trying to squish an unruly, messy world into frozen and pristine lines of code.  Life in the future will still sometimes feel like a sitcom, even if the sitcom’s of that time are pumped in directly to our brains through nano-scale neural implants.

Utopias and dystopias emerging from technology are two-sides of a crystal-clear future, which, because of their very clarity, cannot come to pass. What makes ethical judgement of the technologies discussed above, indeed all technology, difficult is their damned ambiguity, an ambiguity that largely stems from dual use.

Persons suffering from autism really would benefit from a technology that allowed them to accurately gauge and guide response to the emotional cues of others. An EMT really would be empowered if at the scene of a bad accident they could instantly access such a stream of information all from getting your name or even just looking at your face, especially when such data contains relevant medical information, as would a person working in child protective services and myriad forms of counseling.

Without doubt, such technology will be used by stalkers and creeps, but it might also be used to help restore trust and emotional rapport to a couple headed for divorce.

I think Sherry Turkle is essentially right, that the more we turn to technology to meet our emotional needs, the less we turn to each other. Still, the real issue isn’t technology itself, but how we are choosing to use it, and that’s because technology by itself is devoid of any morality and meaning, even if it is a cliché to say it. Using technology to create a more emotionally supportive and connected world is a good thing.

As Louise Aronson said in a recent article for The New York Times on social robots to care for the elderly and disabled:

But the biggest argument for robot caregivers is that we need them. We do not have anywhere near enough human caregivers for the growing number of older Americans. Robots could help solve this work-force crisis by strategically supplementing human care. Equally important, robots could decrease high rates of neglect and abuse of older adults by assisting overwhelmed human caregivers and replacing those who are guilty of intentional negligence or mistreatment.

Our sisyphean condition is that any gain in our capacity to do good seems to also increase our capacity to do ill. The key I think lies in finding ways to contain and control the ill effects. I wouldn’t mind our versions of Sherlock Holmes using the cyborg like powers we are creating, but I think we should be more than a little careful they don’t also fall into the hands of our world’s far too many Moriarties, though no matter how devilish these characters might be, we will still be able to mock them as buffoons.