I’m in elementary school, second or third grade, and I’ve just said my nightly Our Fathers and Hail Marys and am staring at the ceiling. It sneaks in undetected and waits for the right moment. It detonates and my world is vaporized: “God is a lie, you are going to die and that’s it. Not even blackness. You’ll be reduced to nothingness.” Fear and existential panic sweep over me. I lose my breath and my vision momentarily blurs. Everything loses its meaning. Around the same time, I learn about the Cold War and nuclear weapons. I believe this is what will send me into the void. From then on a large portion of my thoughts are taken up with death, Godlessness, and international relations. As an adult, I read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. My pulse quickens and similar feelings creep over me; fear, dread, and existential panic.
After The Singularity is Near I read every article and book I could find on the subject. I wrote up simple summary articles for my senior classes, for whom English is a second language, and we spent weeks discussing AI (Artificial Intelligence) and the Singularity. When I exhausted my curiosity I relegated the subject to the back of my mind. I thought my fascination had ended. I rested easier and had fewer Mad Max style dreams. For a while things seemed to return to normal. Then I watched Johnny Depp’s movie Transcendence. Shortly after that a coworker sent me an article by Stephen Hawking warning humanity about the singularity. I rediscovered the theories of Hugo de Garis and the Artilect Wars, and began thinking about the singularity and AI all over again No! Just when I had forgotten about humanity being overrun by AI! I really love my life right now I can’t be bothered with a cyborg apocalypse or Skynet type event! I don’t want to have to move out to some tree fort in the Rocky mountains to join forces with the terrans!
Maybe that’s going a bit too far but, although it might seem like Bradbury-esque science fiction, it’s already happening. The human experience is being rapidly transformed by technology. We are in the process of becoming cyborgs, or, at the very least, something other than what we were. It’s been happening since we discovered language but at a glacial pace compared with change in the industrial and digital age. As technology increases exponentially so does the rate of our change.
Not too long ago my smart phone was on the fritz. It would make strange electrical noises and then shut off. While running I heard the noise, which meant my run tracker application wasn’t tracking. Great, now I can’t track my run or get my stats. I won’t be able to beat yesterday’s pace per kilometer and won’t know how far I’ve run. My whole log for this week will be off. What’s the point of running? Guess I’ll just chalk it up to a loss and run in the morning and at night tomorrow. I’ve got to get this fixed by then. I guess I could use my wife’s phone if it came down to it….
On the way back to my house I thought about how absurd the whole thing was but it didn’t change my feelings. If I couldn’t track my stats, part of me felt like I wasn’t even running. I realized how many things I used my phone for: tracking my fitness (pushups, situps, pull ups, runs), voice memos, internet browsing, Korean dictionary, guitar tuner, calendar, camera, photo album, encyclopedia,mp3 player, ereader, alarm clock, email, Nintendo emulator and more. With annoyance I saw my smart phone was becoming necessitous. Almost as if it were part of me. Without it I felt like I wasn’t getting the full experience of being me. How many of us could live without our smartphones? Are you reading this on a smartphone? If not how long has it been since you touched your smartphone? How many of us, if it were possible, would incorporate the functions of our smartphones into our biological systems? It might seem like a scifi kind of question but think about how you feel when you leave your smartphone at home or it’s broken. It’s only a matter of time before we have to seriously ask ourselves questions like this.
For digital natives, the internet, smartphones, and wireless everything might seem like second nature but for those of us old enough to remember using card catalogs, green screen dos computers, typewriters, and encyclopedias the exponential growth of technology is readily apparent. I’d even go as far to posit that it’s very hard for digital natives to understand life in the pre-digital world.
My first computer was an Apple IIe and while it was interesting and much better than using a typewriter, the thing that really brought me into the digital world was console gaming. My first game console was the Artari 7800, then Nintendo, followed by Nintendo 64, Playstation, Nintento Game Cube, and finally Nintendo Wii, which I bought more out of nostalgia than actual game-lust. I loved Nintendo for the same reason I loved books. Both allowed me extraordinary experiences that otherwise would have been impossible: hunting vampires in Transylvania, sprouting a raccoon tail and flying, zapping evil mushrooms with fireballs, or living in 16th century China as a rural farmer. They allowed me to experience other realities. Thinking back on it something else happened as well. In many situations I began thinking of real life as a video game. I did it with unpleasant things. Ok just do two more pages of Math and then you’ll get a power up (a glass of milk and cookies) that will give you the energy to finish the chapter. That will help you to beat the test and then you can advance to Level 4 (fourth grade). When I was cutting the grass I’d imagine I was playing a video game about cutting grass. I do the same thing with exercise and running. Although video games were originally an escape from reality, or an alternate reality, they affected the way I perceived the reality they were supposed to represent. It’s a kind of feedback loop -- reality inspires games inspires reality inspires games inspires reality and so on.
Simply put, how we self-identify and experience life is changing. At restaurants I see people taking pictures of food and posting it to their social networking accounts. At tourist destinations people snap pictures next to a monument or landscape and hurry away to the next photo op. On some level the validity and authenticity of our experiences are tied into how many Likes or Rechirps we get on social media sites. We can only truly appreciate an experience looking back on it through our smartphones from the comfort of our living rooms. Yes that old Grand Canyon was something else wasn’t she? Wouldn’t have gotten one hundred Likes if it wasn’t!
It seems that some are living more for the secondary experience than the actual experience itself. Could it be Facebook and other social networking apps are becoming extensions of our personalities and even our biological memories? It really hit me a few months ago when my son and I were playing on the floor and my wife was on the couch looking at pictures of the baby in her phone. She said: “Oh my gosh he is so cute!” The baby was right there in front of her but she chose to look at pictures in her phone instead. Our electronic devices are already becoming a part of us, extension of our brains, and upgrades to our memories.
Whether we want to believe it or not technology is changing what it means to be human. The transformation is already underway. All you need to do is take a look around, or inside, yourself. The real danger doesn’t come from sentient machines wanting to destroy, dominate, or enslave the human race -- at least not yet -- but from what we’ll transform ourselves into with the power we’ve harnessed.
Author Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist and English lecturer at the Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea where he lives with his wife and son. He is interested in evolutionary biology, the Cold War, international relations, existentialism, British roadsters, sailing, jujitsu, East Asian history and cultures, and literature. His first novel, Saving Bill Murray is available here, His second novel, Wine Tasting is Bullshit, is forthcoming.
Futuristic Female Android image courtesy of Shutterstock