I once taught a graduate seminar on Science Fiction films and their social meaning. From Metropolis to Minority Report , their view of the future and the role of technology in our lives was universally grim. There is a scene in Ridley’s Scott’s brilliant Blade Runner , in which the lead genetically engineered robot Roy Batty wants to determine if he is human. He puts his hand down on a nail, which pierces his flesh, but he feels nothing. I’ve thought a lot about that scene recently because the notion of what it means to be human is increasingly challenged by the blind obsession that technology inevitably leads to a better life.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus believed that the honest and good life was made up of three elements.
The company of good friends
The freedom and autonomy to enjoy meaningful work
The willingness to live an examined life with a core faith or philosophy
I think all three of these elements are being challenged by the techno-utopians. Would Epicurus think my 2600 “friends” on Facebook qualify for his first maxim? Of course not. Do the majority ( or even a significant minority) of the world’s citizens have “the freedom and autonomy to enjoy meaningful work”? Of course not. Do most people live “an examined life with a core faith or philosophy”? Of course not.
But you ask, why is technology to blame for this? To begin with, the very nature of friendship is being challenged by our incessant desire to spend our time “networking”. What does a post on Facebook or Twitter really signify, but an idle act of self promotion? Is that friendship? What does the ceaseless march of automation and outsourcing do, but to reduce the supply of meaningful work for those without a job and to reduce the autonomy of those who still have one. And if you have outsourced all your personal decision making to the crowd with an app like Seesaw, can your really be said to have a core faith or philosophy?
Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, even wants to give us a “cybernetic friend” that could satisfy our wants before we are aware of them. By monitoring our conversations, e-mails and reading habits, he said, “it may pop up and say: ‘Well, you mentioned two weeks ago you were worried that vitamin B12 isn’t getting into your cells. There was new research just released two seconds ago that speaks to that.’”
So the vision of Minority Report where the commerce genie (photo above) is always whispering in your ear as you wander through the mall is already here. With your Google Glasses always on,sending the video streams to Google of your life and those of strangers and “friends” alike, will the very notion of privacy have been finally banished from our lives?
Perhaps this is why Rand Paul’s 13 hour filibuster caused such a stir last week. Perhaps a somnolent public is waking up from its reality show induced trance to realize that the technologies of geotargeting, drones and behavioral advertising have all made them less human. Maybe the revolt of the Replicants has begun.
As for me, I am off to India for two weeks to try to shock my system with another kind of reality. I may or may not be able to post from there, but I will certainly report back soon.