By Mike Koetting September 19, 2019
The idea for this post started with what I thought was a clever title about the way the way computers intrude on our lives. But, as sometimes happens with apparent cleverness, the more I thought about it, the less the title had to do with what I really think is important—that computers are accelerating changes in our lives even more profoundly than we readily recognize.
Immediate impacts are obvious. From the infestation of robo-calls to many privacy threats to the habit-forming, zombie inducing effects of many computer past-times, there is no shortage of people commenting on these issues. I actually think these are serious—well, maybe not robo-calls, although they sure are annoying. But I am not sure I have anything to add the discussion of the specific issues beyond singing “Amen!”
But what I do find interesting is the accumulated impact, which may lead to a qualitative change in the way humans live.
For most of evolution, mankind was totally rooted in the tangible. Make a shelter, grow/hunt food, raise kids, bury the dead. There is a abundant evidence this didn’t keep people from considering the transcendent—how did the gods make this happen? But that was in the context of a very physical world with relatively few options about anything. Even the transcendent was tethered to the more tangible—sun, moon, life, death and the cycle of the seasons. Remember: when we talk about “Ancient History”, we are mostly talking about time less than 10,000 years ago. While there are some definitional issues, homo sapiens have probably been around for more than 250,000 years. In short, our idea of “history of man” is a pretty truncated view.
Then, a lot happened in the last 10,000 years. In bits, pieces and places, density increased, the pace of technological quickened, and—almost miraculously—people started to have options. By no means everywhere and not all at once. But increasingly the idea that change could be part of life took hold. And with that, a rise in abstract thinking—thoughts that were less linked to what you could see and hold in a moment. Life wasn’t so rooted in the immediate family and tribe. Over time, ideas like kingdoms and then nation-states. And with them hierarchies and rules to organize life. And with rules, ideas about how to change the rules. And then profit and loss and bookkeeping.
For better and for worse, this more conceptually-oriented view extended its reach across almost the entire globe. In varying degrees, we’ve come to accept the centrality of abstract thinking and having options. In fact, we’re inclined to think the more of these the better.
But I am wondering if computers aren’t pushing us to the same kind of qualitative break as was created by the ascendency of conceptual thinking. Maybe it’s not really a qualitative break but just a heavy-duty quantitative acceleration. Still, I have this growing sense that something beyond “business as usual” is taking place.
One thing that constantly grabs my attention is how computers power a growing complexity in the machinery of society.
Things get so complicated we lose efficacy. Even if we can understand some things at a general level, the ability of people to actually intervene is drastically reduced. Take the mundane example of automobiles. It used to be possible, if you were so inclined, to more or less maintain your own car. Today, cars have so much interwoven computer circuitry, it’s almost impossible to be an amateur mechanic.
There is even the very real danger of losing understanding. Artificial intelligence using “big data” can become a true “black box”. There are already many instances of computer-generated decision rules that the creators, let alone the subjects, don’t understand. This, in my mind, the logical (or illogical) end of abstract thinking—where the data generates rules without explicitly recognizing the underlying values.
This complexity breeds interdependency. And, while not a bad thing itself, interdependency spreads risk. When things stop working, even in a very distant part of the system, the impact is felt throughout the system. Despite the real potential of the internet and computers to breed social isolation, it is just as true that the internet is truly global in almost every aspect of its operation. And as we grow more dependent on it, we become interlinked with a whole lot of other things—opening up great possibilities, but making humans interdependent to a level never even remotely contemplated and barely comprehended by most of them. We have barely begun to understand how vulnerable this makes us
One is surely that the injection of computers into the market is as profound as the injection of guns into traditional warfare. Without computers, you’re economic toast. The last 50 years have seen a major concentration of economic power, primarily into the hands of those who have computers. What we have called “globalism”—could equally well be called “computerization”. There has always been trade, even over long distances. But when the actual manufacturing of products includes world-wide supply chains that must move “just in time”, it is a new world from the one where long-distance trade was slow and uncertain. Virtually instantaneous communication and the ability to move money around at lightening speeds, further weakens the bounds between place and life.
These changes also weaken the ability of individual political entities to make political and cultural responses that could blunt some of the economic advantages that have accrued to the masters of the computer. If one country taxes too much, a business can be moved very quickly.
The centralization created by computers can also be manifested in the power of governments over individuals. This risk goes well beyond the privacy concerns raised by Facebook selling off client information. These go to the core of the relationship between individuals and the larger society. Developments in China are far and away the most frightening. They are a sobering reminder that those who control the computers will have advantages in maintaining power that make the power of all previous potentates seem puny.
Alienation from society
I have no idea whether it is quantitatively true that the incidence of various forms of mental distress are increasing, let alone what might be causing it, if it is happening.
But it sure feels like there is more mental distress than ever before. Data would seem to support this—increasing suicide rates, especially among young people, and more depression and anxiety–but there are almost as many caveats about changes in diagnostic patterns, social willingness to admit mental health issues and so on. From my perspective, the appropriate stance is that the warning flag is up and we’d be stupid if we weren’t considering the possibility this is not simply an escalation in individual events, but something that has gotten out of synch in the fundamental organization of society.
Computers could be contributing to this in multiple ways. Directly, as people—particularly young people—become too focused on internet-generated, click-bait. Or, indirectly, by their central role in disrupting traditional economic arrangements, which in turn impact societies in multiple, unhealthy ways.
All of this is so speculative that it’s easy to dismiss. But there are things going on and they seem to correlate with the deep penetration of computers into every aspect of our society. This is particularly true if, as I have tried to sketch out, it is considered in the context of the larger sweep of evolution. Almost every aspect of the way urban life is lived—regardless of country—is so different from the social structures in which man lived for his first 240,000 years, or even the past 10,000, that it is hard to imagine this doesn’t have a profound impact.
I don’t think turning back the clock is an alternative. But it sure seems to me we need to be more reflective on how computers are changing our lives. This is a much broader challenge than responding to specific problems. It goes to the core of how we live.