L’Homme Machine*

3 06 2011

Seriously, it’s getting ridiculous, all this blather about the life-altering necessity of certain mechanical devices. This is from the latest Delta Airlines ad:

Face it — you need Wi-Fi. You crave it… and get irritated when it’s not around. We get that… so on flights over two hours, you’ll be able to stay connected to the precious, life-giving force that is the internet.”

I wish I could say that I get the sarcastic tone, but I don’t, because it wasn’t intended. Machines are now “life-giving forces.” Naturally.

To make matters only worse, we humans are increasingly referred to in mechanistic terms. The cover article of the most recent TIME magazine is about how we’re “wired” for hope (as we are “wired” for love, and survival, and belief in God, and to favor the color red, and the taste of almonds, etc.).

Inanimate objects as “life-giving forces” ~ humans as “wired.” Men as machines. No need to speculate about their future take-over. The future is alive and well right now. Machines already have taken over. Have you ever stopped to consider how many things would come to a screeching halt if the Internet suddenly ceased to function and all information was irretrievably lost? Does it sound that farfetched? Access to credit card accounts ~ gone. Access to years worth of emails ~ gone. Access to multiple phone numbers and contact information ~ gone. Access to stocks and and retirement portfolios ~ up in smoke. Planes would be grounded, Blackberries would cease to function, iPhones and iPads would become doorstops. Life for the vast majority of plugged-in souls under 40 would cease to have meaning on a visceral level. And that’s the rub: machines have become a visceral part of our daily lives. We depend on them, need them, crave them to give meaning to our paltry existences. How utterly pathetic is that? How utterly scary.

We’ve developed a new species: men-chines, half biological, half binary. We’ve all read the articles that deal with this not-so-new phenomenon, from the Atlantic Monthly’s “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” a few years back to Zadie Smith’s recent review in the New York Review of Books about Facebook and the movie “Social Network.” It’s like the 2004 tsunami: some folks saw it coming but were powerless to stop it, most didn’t see it coming at all. We don’t see this unadulterated embrace of all things technology for the tsunami that it really is. Many of us think it’s just an epic wave we can ride into techno-nirvana. We have no idea how our cultural, religious, and moral landscapes will be utterly changed by this new partnership. Already has been changed. Have you watched a rerun of “Friends” lately and noticed the conspicuous lack of cell phones and text-messaging and emails? The show was quaint enough to have them all gather at the local watering hole, or in each others’ homes, with no status updates, no Facebook updates, no Tweets… The show seems so, well… last century. Even the name “Friends” has taken on an entirely different meaning in this Facebook world of ours. Where would the show’s characters meet now? In a chat room?

Let’s face it: the technological tsunami has already washed over us and what was terra firma is now under 30 feet of water and we’re all floating around in this new existence hardly aware that we’ve developed gills in the process. Or to use another apt analogy, our individual and collective selves have evaporated into the Cloud.

Try this experiment. Go to the nearest mall or subway platform or airport or college campus or coffee shop and take in how many people around you are wired in and checked out. If it isn’t the majority, you’re clearly in Peoria (or its equivalent).

Or Kansas. But we’re not in Kansas anymore, are we? We left it a long time ago for Oz ~ for the ethereal world of make-believe and wizards behind virtual curtains. Ever actually wonder who controls the switch to the Internet? Who owns all the ISPs? And satellites? Does Corporate America? Or the Government? Or China?

Actually, who/what makes it work is the more interesting ~ and pressing ~ question. Turns out, the system essentially runs itself, a vast array of computers all humming away to keep itself alive. Pretty soon the Network won’t need us. Actually, that’s sort of the idea. Information Retrieval Technology, Artificial Intelligence ~ all of these are for the purpose of making our tinkering obsolete, presumably so we can go about the business of more salutary tasks like checking status updates and playing another round of Mario Brothers and tweeting our latest find at the flea market. Computers can already teach themselves. Computers learn. Think about that for a few weeks. And then consider this: computers are making the middle man obsolete, emphasis on the “man” part. We humans are quickly becoming expendable. We’re slower, less “renewable,” more prone to mistakes. The more we depend on them, the less they depend on us. Isn’t there some universal law with a name for that sort of thing? And if you think I’m blowing smoke, check out kurzweilai.net.

Man. Machine. Menchines. Ray Kurtzweil & Co. are laughing all the way to the future, and their dream has become our collective nightmare. Welcome to the Brave New World, folks. Or rather, welcome to the Cloud. And please watch your step. It’s a long drop down and back to yesterday, that sad slice of time starting about five years ago, which has already been relegated to Nostalgia. Even La Mettrie would, I think, be concerned.

But that’s the past. C’mon. Who needs it? Who wants it? Time to get on with the business of Now. Now is the time. Now is the place. Time to join the revolution.

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* Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709 – 1751) was an Enlightenment French philosopher and physician who coined the term as the title of a pamphlet he wrote rejecting the Cartesian dualism of humans as both mind and body. He claimed that humans were essentially biological machines.

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