You could say I am a bit of a Luddite. I have never been a fan of the future and the only science fiction I like are the kinds that promise a return to simplicity, like Avatar, or those that are really fantasy in disguise, Star Wars, or those apocalyptic stories that warn against excessive technology, A Brave New World, 1984, Cloud Atlas. It may seem ironic to complain about technology in a blog, of all places, but what choice do I have? I live in a world surrounded by technology, as are all of my friends and family. It is inescapable. I would much rather discuss this subject around a tribal fire or at the local town square, but those things no longer exist. I am also not impractical. I am not about to go Ted Kaczynski and retreat into the woods to wage a personal war against IBM. Like most people on the planet, I accept the modern world. Hipsters who retreat to communes are deluding themselves if they think they’re going primitive. Nature is all well and good until somebody needs antibiotics. So, yes, I do own a computer, a laptop, a widescreen TV, a Blu-Ray player, a Wii U. I may sound like a hypocrite, until you ask me, why do I have all these things? And the reasons are plenty: loneliness, boredom, a desire to be part of society. Yet those reasons, those needs for technology, were less crucial when my father was growing up. For him, Facebook meant face-to-face conversation. Television was singing and playing the bouzouki around the dinner table. Halo was bird hunting in the Greek countryside. Now you might be saying, Sure, Nick, you say you want to live like that, but you’re just romanticizing the past. Certainly, it was a worse time to live. Maybe. But I can recall my own childhood, before hundreds of cartoons played 24/7 on TV, when all I had was He-Man, G.I.*Joe and Transformers. I remember a time before Nintendo, when I busied myself writing stories and living out those stories with my toys. Maybe it’s just nostalgia talking, but those were happier days. I actually used my own imagination then. I created my own worlds. Today, I watch my kids and they barely touch their toys, or think up games to play. Instead, they’ve become information sponges, absorbing whatever is coming from Nick Jr. or Super Mario Bros.. They definitely don’t look any happier with all of this extra stuff, and I am willing to bet that, as long as their basic needs are met, children of all generations are equally happy with the technology they are born with.
The notion that the next great thing will make you happy is a myth, perpetuated by corporations that need you to buy their stuff, by a consumer driven society that places emphasis on wealth. Blu-Ray disc is a perfect example. Everyone was content with the quality of DVD until high definition discs came along. But did the newer format make everyone happier? To me, it seems, all it did is make everyone unhappy with their old DVDs. It only goes to prove what Buddhists have known for centuries. Wanting things is the root cause of suffering. It is an ever perpetuating illusion. We pursue what we most desire, whatever it may be, a new car, a bigger house, the latest iPhone, like a donkey after a carrot on a stick, but those things never manage to provide what we actually want, or, if we do feel happy for a time, the feeling is short lived. Like a drug addict, we are convinced that the answer is more. More stuff. Newer stuff. It never ends. Like Henry David Thoreau said in Walden, and I paraphrase here, you don’t own things, things own you.
The impetus for this blog was an article a friend showed me by Ray Kurzweil. For those who’ve never heard of him, Kurzweil is an optimist and a futurist, and he has made some truly outlandish predictions. Among other things, by ten years time, he says, we will find a way to live forever. The basis for this claim is something he calls The Law of Accelerating Returns. According to the theory, biological and technological advancement accelerates on an exponential curve, which is itself exponential. With a whole lot of charts and graphs, Kurzweil describes the rapid evolution of life, from animal species to man, the light speed achievements of civilization within geologic time, and the current rate of doubling computer power. With considerable evidence, he makes a compelling case for a world dominated by nanobots, computers that can think far beyond human capacity, and for a time when biology and technology are integrated to form a new kind of human. He’s not talking science fiction here, or a distant, unimaginable future. For Kurzweil, this will be happening in our own lifetimes. My friend who showed me the article thinks this is all hunky dory, but I find it unnerving. OK, maybe I am being short sighted. Maybe my children or grandchildren will think me old fashioned, the way I think of my father, as I cling to my books and my disc based entertainment, while they have nanobots inserted into their brains for virtual reality experiences.
I will admit that many modern conveniences do make our lives better. It brings to mind The Carousel of Progress, which was featured at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, by one visionary future optimist, Walt Disney. You can still see it at the Magic Kingdom. The show is literally a carousel that rotates in stages, showing scenes as played out by animatronic actors. Each stage is a time period. As the decades pass, you can see how simple things like plumbing, washing machines, and electric ovens saved people, especially housewives, from devoting all of their time to work. The final stage, representing “the future” is hardly futuristic at all. Grandma is playing some video game with a heavy looking VR helmet and the oven has an automatic sensor to detect when the food is cooked. We basically have these things already. We are living in the future Walt Disney envisioned. But how much better is human life today when compared to the 60’s, the 70’s or the 80’s? As I see it, our existence has become too convenient, which is why we suffer from obesity. At the same time, it has also become more stressful, with all of our time devoted to filtering spam in our e-mails and checking our bank accounts on our phones. Technology has made it so that I can roll my car window up with the push of a button, except that now I have to worry about rising gas prices, global warming, and a car payment. I would much rather ride my bike everywhere, but the streets are congested with technology, cars, cars and more cars! Even cell phones, everyone’s favorite new distraction, has its pitfalls. The other day I sat in an ice cream shop with my daughter, watching five teenage girls, all seated around a single table, simply staring in silence, like zombies, at their iPhones. What Kurzweil fails to realize with all of his graphs is that for every major innovation, new, unimagined problems are created. He argues that technological development will continue to become more prevalent in our lives, whether we like it or not, and so the best solution to the evils of technology is more good technology. He uses the triumph of programming over the computer virus as an example, which is all fine and good, but where is the programming to help bring people together? I remember a time when kids met at arcades and played in the street or in the woods. Time travelers from the 60’s would find our neighborhoods gravely quiet. They might assume some calamity took place to have made the children vanish, or, should they look through a window, for parents to feel the need to sequester their kids indoors.
I cannot deny that change is coming, unimaginable change. But change isn’t always for the better. Computers superior to humans? Hasn’t Kurzweil seen The Matrix? Terminator? Even if those scenarios are unlikely, a more possible outcome, I think, is a world where humans become obsolete. Who needs writers, musicians, painters, directors, when a machine can do just as well if not better? Kurzweil counters that humans will also have advanced, but unlike machines, people will continue to have selfish needs, like incomes and free time to play and rest. Just as factory machines replaced countless artisans during the Industrial Revolution, computers will takeover the last vestige of human expertise: artistic endeavor. If a computer can write a better screenplay, without pay, why hire a writer? OK, so maybe I am overreacting. Let us assume Kurzweil is correct and a new species of uber-human will out-compete computer labor. What will be the nature of this new humanity? In his article, Kurzweil delves into the philosophy of identity. He argues, rightly so, that we are not made up of the same cells since birth, that we’re not even our physical selves from the previous year—each of our cells die off and are then replaced by new ones. In essence, we are more like a river, with our cells passing in and out of existence, leaving only a repeating pattern. Should, then, each of these cells gradually be replaced, one-by-one, by nanotech, would we then not retain our identities while becoming superior in the process? He makes a compelling case, but there is a flaw. As I see it, Nick Alimonos is neither a cluster of cells nor a recurring pattern. Nick Alimonos is comprised of the times and places he has lived, the people and experiences he has known, and yes, his strengths and his limitations. Of the many facets of my personality, one is simply this: I do not like sports. Why? Most likely because I am extremely near sided, which I never knew until the 6th grade, so I never learned to catch a ball properly. I also have weak lungs and my heart rate is all over the place, so I am physically ill-equipped for sports. P.E. was a continual torment for me. I was ridiculed, almost continuously, by my coach and my classmates. Like Pavlov’s dog, I was conditioned to dislike football and basketball, so I turned my focus to what I could do well, like reading and writing. My lack of ability defines who I am. Place me in the body of Michael Jordan, which I am sure is right around the corner should we ask Kurzweil, and I am no longer Nick Alimonos.
Maybe I am being overly sensitive, but the future scares me. Unlike Kurzweil, I see a potential looming dark age. History is cyclical. Before 1200 B.C., the Cycladic Greeks lived in a kind of paradise (from which the Atlantis myth derives). Afterward, Greece entered into a thousand years of darkness. The same thing happened after the fall of the Roman Empire. Kurzweil argues that, looking at the larger picture, humanity has continually moved forward, and I cannot argue with that, but as individuals we are short lived and fragile. Should we enter another dark age, one populated by killer cyborgs, we may die before coming to an eventual utopia. I am not all doom and gloom about the future, however. I look forward to a time when fossil fuels are replaced by clean energy, when cities are redesigned to integrate seamlessly with nature, when food is grown hydroponically in skyscrapers, and where the primary method of transportation will be either walking, cycling, or mass transit. But what we do not need is nanobots inserted into our brains, or computers that can outthink us, or robots to do all of our laundry. It’s all just stuff, newer and better, but stuff has never made us any happier and it never will.