Sunday, 11 June 2017

We Become Machine

The Art Show, 1963-77 (Environment aus Galeriemobiliar und 19 Figuren) - Edward Kienholz und Nancy Reddin Keinholz

Technology’s advance, trampling across the first few decades of this millennium, has been rampant, unstoppable.  Every day we plug into our machines and are bombarded with countless pieces of information – more than we can ever properly absorb.  People flick through information, hardly ever reading to the end of an article.  Look at the tube – everyone stuck into their phones in the morning, all silent and lost in a bubble of information.

In fact, we have become so dependent on our machines that our memories just don’t work as well.  How often have you tried to recall something, then instead just checked Google?  This happens mid conversation with some friends - I’ve even done it myself.  ‘Hang on, let me check the collective consciousness,’ I’ve quipped, to stifle my slight embarrassment, to try and cover the hiatus in normal conversation.

But hang on a minute… What has happened here?  Let’s recap a little.  Most human communities were hunter gatherers.  Then came increased agriculture, industrialisation and the move into big cities.  Could we really cope?  Not so much.  The sheer size of our communities was confusing for our brains.  People were used to running around but suddenly have sedentary lives.  We hadn’t properly evolved into such societies.  But suddenly we were in the middle of them, trying to cope.  Cue diabetes, heart disease, mental health disorders and a whole host of other medical problems.

Now throw in tech.  And our increasing reliance on it.  Another significant step change from our hunter gatherer predecessors.  No wonder our minds are going crazy with this.  Our tech is interrupting our normal human interactions, changing us as humans, affecting our relationships and our minds.  And no wonder we are getting addicted to our tech.  And it IS addictive.  That feeling you get when you look at the TV, then look at your phone, then back to the TV?  That’s dopamine, released by your basal ganglia and causing pleasure.  And an addictive pleasure at that – it is the same reward pathway associated with heroin addiction.

The Art Show, 1963-77 (Environment aus Galeriemobiliar und 19 Figuren) - Edward Kienholz und Nancy Reddin Keinholz

When writing ‘Update 13.0’ all these thoughts were floating around.  I was trying to envision where our tech will take us next.  Attending the Keinholz exhibition in Berlin solidified some of the ideas in my mind.  Keinholz was critical of many of the facets of modern life and his strange chimeric human machine creations are a reflection of this.  It came as a shock to see his work, which preceded our modern day society, but to which we've been heedless.  In Update 13.0 I came up with a weird amalgam of our current tech and our biological form, which needless to say has disastrous consequences: it is meant to function as a stark warning, similar to Keinholz's work.

But would it actually happen like this?  Would our nervous systems be able to cope with such a wetware interface?  Our current technologies prevent us from sleeping properly, due to the blue light, the repeated stimulation.  And as humans we need sleep.  Poor sleep can cause a host of disorders, from depression to poor glucose control and, some even suggest, obesity.  And this is even before we talk about the disruptive effects electromagnetic fields can have on the brain. 

I’ve been listening to the mindfulness tsar Burgs recently, who claims that even plugging ourselves in for a short time can cause significant damage.  And that’s really it - we stop being mindful, we lose ourselves in our phones and stop being aware of what is around us.  We lose the beauty of the world, and instead become reliant on that dopamine fix.  Generations of people hooked on the drug of information.  This is our version of Huxley's Soma, and it has crept upon us so quickly we haven't even really considered it; we've hardly had a chance to sit back for a moment and wonder whether this is actually a good idea.

The Art Show, 1963-77 (Environment aus Galeriemobiliar und 19 Figuren) - Edward Kienholz und Nancy Reddin Keinholz

Update 13.0 is one scenario, but there are others.  Lavie Tidhar’s wonderful Central Station, a Clarke award nominee this year, shows us tech a bit further along: this has become so prevalent that if you aren’t enhanced, you are regarded as a cripple.  It isn’t hard to imagine being regarded as a pariah if you don’t have a phone – I’ve seen people look askance at those who have one of the older Nokias and refuse to update.  ‘You can’t get Facebook on your phone?  What are you, some kind of dinosaur?’

However, the floodgates have opened and now there is no turning back.  But we need to be able to deal with the flow of information, and somehow control the proliferation of technology before it harms us significantly as a species.  For all Gate's genius, he didn't foresee the alternative consequences.  We need to take stock and consider the negative effects these new technologies can have before we plunge headlong into a virtual reality, where real human life no longer really exists.  As I see it, we are moving towards a worrying singularity event.  Every technology has its pros and cons, and whilst our current tech is useful, it isn’t part of the reason for our existence.

Step back, go outside, look at the trees, listen to the birds.  Consider why you are here.  There is a big world out there, outside the confines of your computer, your phone.  There is a reason mindfulness is suddenly the rage.  Unplug for a while and then you might, if you are lucky, start to live properly again.  Or maybe, if that is too much to ask, put down your phone, pick up one of those paper books and read it to the end.

The Art Show, 1963-77 (Environment aus Galeriemobiliar und 19 Figuren und Guy T. Martland mit iPhone) - Edward Kienholz und Nancy Reddin Keinholz

Read Update 13.0 by Guy T. Martland here:

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