WHAT WE HAVE WROUGHT
When I was growing up, our schools were replete with narratives of self-made men (among other things, it was a chauvinistic time): captains of industry, titans of finance ... I think you get where the imagery is from. Horatio Alger stories of rags-to-riches, from dishwasher to millionaire, were poured out over us supposedly as inspiration. Those stories were so prevalent that they became part of the American Dream. But it is, just that: a dream. For many today, it is a nightmare. The John-Wayne-rugged-stop-at-nothing individualist, who with his bare hands and sheer force of will reshaped his environment and made something out of nothing was held up as our highest ideal.
But it is important to note that he creates nothing, he only destroys. Left to his own devices, he will rape the environment, pillage resources, subjugate his fellow human beings, if necessary, and he produces things upon things, so many in fact that in the end, we have no idea what to do with them all. He does not make something from nothing, rather he replaces a circumstance of no things to one that is full of things. What becomes important, in the end, are just the things. What was once considered good and noble, the human spirit, for example, is now just a weakness. In the face of things, the things we have made, we account for nothing. Look at any balance sheet from any company, productive or not, and show me where that human spirit can be found. It is not there. The closest we get to it is in the income statement where we see that people are nothing more than costs. They stick out. They are the biggest single cost item any company has. If we only had completely automated production ... If we could only get rid of these troublesome employees ... If ...
It has become so self-evident that things, and particularly our machines and gadgets, are more important than anything else that we have come to a point where the most fundamental principles of economics no longer matter. There was a time when we believed that products were produced and sold on the basis of supply and demand. We have that backward too: it is just about demand and supply, and if there is no demand, well, then, that can be produced as well.
Not long ago, people camped out on the streets overnight (an act for which OWSers were beaten and arrested) so that they would be the first in line to get the latest iPhone. I doubt there was hardly a person in line who didn't have the previous version already. Apple, however, in its own nefarious way, has managed to make us think that without the latest and greatest, we are no better than third-class citizens. Even with the gadget, we are not as cool, as smart, as chic, as whatever as the gadget, so we are second-class at best. But there is something strange about it all.
An acquaintance of mine managed to latch onto one of the new phones. I asked him how he liked it. He told me that he really hadn't figured it all out yet. The phone was capable of so much that he was a bit intimidated about using it. He said it would take him a while to get up to speed. But, he noted, you have to see this, and I was introduced to Siri. Now I don't particularly care for the domina who orders me around from my navigation system, and I certainly wasn't getting drawn in by the Apple siren, either. My friend, though, stared at that thing with what I can only call abject submission. Had Siri told him his question was stupid and he should stab himself with a fork, I would have cleared all the silverware from the table. He was hooked. He had fallen for someone who didn't even exist. But the phone ... well, it is wonderful, and it now receives more tender strokes than his girlfriend. I sometimes wonder whom he is cheating on and when.
My friend is just one of many who stand in reverent awe before the technology. They believe, at some level, that the phone, the computer, the machine, the whatever, is simply smarter than they are. What do we know? Have a question? Google it. Need a place to eat? There is an app for it. Our devices are now omnipresent (how many of you turn off your mobiles at night, or are they sleeping next to you – on the nightstand, of course?), omniscient (my phone knows where I am, so I always get the best results, there is a Starbucks not far from here, and who tells me how to get there?), and so, they are omnipotent as well. We allow the machine to determine our fate.
You doubt me? Let me share a little story that Anders shared with me:
When the police action we now know as the Korean War broke out, MacArthur, the US military chief-of-staff, and technofreak in his own way, thought it would be a good idea to simply bomb the North into the Stone Age. If we nuked them; that is, if we simply pulled out our technological ace-in-the-hole, the matter would be settled in no time. Before the affair ended, of course, MacArthur was no longer in charge, but how is it that Truman came to fire him? Most of us assume that the mere mentioning of such a heinous act, such an outright, excessive-force solution offended our sensibilities as feeling, reasoning human beings. The use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had shown the world just how horrendous these devices were.
There were political, economic, human, and social factors involved, of course, but who wants to leave the fate of the world to such fuzzy factors as that? A clear-cut, clean, objective answer is required. So, instead of deciding first, Truman passed the responsibility onto the newly formed Defense Department's "electronic brain", which was fed all the data available on the enemy and American economy. The simulation was run to assess the feasibility and consequences of the nuclear option. The computer did not think it was a good idea, so Truman fired MacArthur. In other owrds, once the machine cleared the air, the decision was made.
Here we have a situation of what I would consider to be the deepest moral significance, and yet the humans involved, passed the buck to a machine that was programmed by no one we know and which arrived at a conclusion, we don't know how, which in turn became the basis for the next human step in history. Harry "The-Buck-Stops-Here" Truman could not bring himself to decide for himself. He shamelessly submitted his own judgment to that of an "electronic brain", for how on earth could we expect a human brain – as limited, finite, imperfect, and flawed as it is – to make such an important decision.