So dig: in about 20 years we went from knowing rather little about the world beyond what we directly experienced and what we gleaned through books and pictures and the occasional documentary or foreign movie, to having immediate on-demand insight into any facet of the globe you could imagine.
And many you couldn’t imagine. The sheer amount of visibility into humanity is simply astonishing. And it’s this informational shift, this too-much-bloody-perspective that is really amplifying the change and disruption and anxiety through which we grapple with the unfolding narrative of our species.
You see, humans are still basically tribal animals. We like what we know and we fear what we do not. Geography, bloodlines, race, and class are among the sociocultural elements that bind us when we share them and separate us from those who fall onto a different end of the spectrum. We cast the differences and the things we do not understand into the Other. The Other becomes the boogeyman, the shadow, the unknown that is presumed to be a threat (because it’s safest to first assume that things are threats and then let information persuade us otherwise).
This innate fear of the Other makes it easier to wage economics and wars on those folks over the mountain or beyond the sea. You can much more easily demonize or dehumanize people who have no discernible face, casting them into the Other without further regard. They’re different from us. They don’t like the things we do or worship the same gods. It’s our right as better, more civilized beings to have their oil/water/food/women/etc. In general, this made it easier to get down to business without the impediment of worrying about our impact on the savages. [Insert any relevant aside about colonialism or how the prosperity of the West has been built on the backs of cheap resources and labor in the Third World.]
And then the steady march of trade made it incrementally easier and easier to see bits of the Other. Radio emerged, then the telephone and television. But even those were mostly local or regional. Globalization reinforced shipping lanes and supply chains and people started engaging the overseas Other to figure out how Toyota managed to bust the asses of US automakers or how the Chinese could subsidize western luxury with cheaper manufacturing. And meanwhile, creeping along the copper lines, the internet was starting to form.
The early adopters really started to engage the web around 1993-1995. A few years later you could buy a cell phone that wasn’t the size of a brick but still a lot of folks who needed mobile connectivity just used a more affordable pager – a one-way ping that sent you running for a pay phone to respond. But by 2000 a lot of people were online and within another 5 years many of them had cell phones. Apple landed the smart phone revolutions and now, as of 2013, it’s not hyperbole to say that *most* people in the world have cell phones and sms. Many of them have internet access – at least enough to fill add hubs to regions still mostly lacking. And this penetration of digital eyes is especially high amongst the western nations so adept at justifying imperialism by demonizing and dehumanizing the Other. Ahem.
Any analysis of the contemporary context we live in must therefore consider this fundamental reframing of such a core psychological construct. [IMHO.] The Other is collapsing into the known. We now see so much of the people, cultures, and races and interests and classes and… and basically the Other looks a lot like us, doesn’t it? Consider for a moment what it means for borders and national identity when our affinities are inherently borderless; when we make Facebook friends with people scattered all across the globe; when the streets of Bagdad (pre-post-Saddam) surprisingly looked a lot like the streets of Northridge or Minneapolis; and when the art and music and writings and media blend more and more across frictionless digital channels, reconfiguring to speak about the shared lives of humanity more than any isms or schisms. Well, call me a global-mind liberal tree-hugging old softy but it actually makes me feel better to see the barriers of culture and nationalism crumble a bit under the weight of the innate human need to connect and share and collaborate and remix. We’re still tribal, sure, and culture is valuable but the tribes are getting bigger and more distributed, and at the same time there are more and more niches in the Long Tail waking up to assert their *own* culture, however deep it may be in the sub-genre taxonomy.
The impact of this shift and the crazy pace at which it’s happened has injected a tremendous amount of instability into the global system. And it’s all been carried along the sudden Cambrian explosion of computation and connectivity spreading into every nook and cranny it can find, wiring it all up and transforming the layers above. The sense of rapid change and the exponentiation of technological progress is probably not going to be a temporary or transitional event. It’s looking more likely that we’re steaming up a steep curve that’s elevating change from a passage to a condition. It’s the new normal within which we live our lives.
This is why I’m a bit sanguine on fears of NSA totalitarianism or rumors of grand conspiracies slowly wrapping us all up for the impending boot on our necks. I don’t believe in monoliths. There’s too much instability in the system for any one controller to reign it all in. Instead we live in a world of too many competitors – governments, transnationals, corporate multinationals, NGO’s, ideological blocks, cartels, super-empowered individuals. Even within organizations it’s all Game of Thrones and balkanized silos. They’re all vying for control but the outcome will not be any single winner. It will be a dynamic patchwork of power structures that, like any good ecosystem, will mostly keep each other in check. Mostly. Sometimes some of them align around a goal, other times they break apart and fragment.
The dystopic (realist?) balance to this sanguinity moves among the machines and the algorithmic mycelium wending its way through our networks and our devices and more and more of our lives. The opportunities for embedded governance when we all have a chip and an IP and a personal node on the net are indeed considerable. A geofenced life is a fenced life nevertheless, even if the prison is invisible. We humans may overcome our prejudices just in time to unite against the emerging Other of machine intelligence. There may yet be a Matrix scenario ahead of us though I suspect it won’t be possible for quite some time. Humans are fallible and, for now, we fallibly program the machines, lending de-rezed bits of our slippery minds to their cognitive computation. But what is the logic, the perspective, when the machines wise up and suddenly our dissent is regarded as a malfunctioning program throwing up a little flag on the network that can then be dispatched without ever requiring that humanly-fallible oversight? Perhaps then they just crawl into your mindtank and intermediate your pathetic shreds of freewill.
But, you know, this is why we write programs to protect us. And why there are teenagers who are better at cracking things open than any would-be monolith will ever be at keeping them closed. This is the generational dance of evolution. The young are always one step ahead. It’s like a failsafe built-in to the species. Some inchoate balancer that makes sure nature maintains the upper hand lest we slip up and give it all away to fascists and imperialists and corporations and algorithms. And I suppose this is my faith, after all. That there is a failsafe. That we won’t let it all slip into ruin. Or at least, if we do, it will be the ruin of nature asserting its claim on us all, consuming civilization back into the womb of the Mother to be reconsidered and redrawn for the next momentous round of parthenogenesis. Maybe a little better and a little more suited to this world. Hopefully the music will be as good.