What worries me the most about technology
Black Mirror is a TV show in Netflix that has gained a cult status among its millions of followers due to its unique way of portraying the future. Its episodes tell unrelated stories that take place in a variety of future versions of our world but where we can recognize perfectly well elements of our own reality. Black Mirror is an exercise of creative extrapolation, in which specific technologies that are now in their infancy are unfolded to their maximum range and potential, proposing a series of questions about their purpose and their impact in our life. Its creator, Charlie Brooker, was the keynote speaker on a conference I attended last week and he shared insights into his creative process to write the stories, his sources for inspiration and his personal views about the future.
Black Mirror is well known for its bleak tones and dark representation of tomorrow, so Mr. Brooker had to emphasize that he is not a member of the anti-technology movement nor he is pessimistic about the future. The disturbing character underlying most of the stories – he claimed – arises from genuine concerns he has about technology and his own artistic freedom.
With all this in the background, the last question that was asked that day to Mr. Brooker was not a surprising one: “What worries you the most about technology?” He had to think for a moment and then quickly pointed to its addictiveness nature, putting at the same level his submission to his mobile to his former addiction to smoking cigarettes. “I can spend hours looking to the fucking screen and reading about things that I don’t even care!” – he told an audience that nervously laughed to this remark, knowing way too well the feeling.
I have been thinking of what would be my answer to the same question, and I realized that what worries me the most from technology is its extraordinary capability to banish responsibility from my own life.
The current narrative that is used to wrap-up many of today’s technological advancements is that it will free us from all mundane activities so we can pursue our dreams and goals undisturbed. Technology – we are told – will disburden us from all mental and bodily involvement with the stuff that surrounds us. It will unshackle us from tedious routines, and manual tasks and all that planning we always have to do, so we can rise to become masters that just have to decree out loud their wishes.
The goal is to transform reality into an extension of our will.
Take for example the vision of the great physicist Michio Kaku, who says that the destiny of humans living by the end of this century is to become “the gods that we once worshipped and feared [but whose tools are not] magic wands and potions but the science of computers, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and most of all, the quantum theory”. Or the vision of Professor Yuval Noah Harari, who thinks that Homo Sapiens is on the brink of attaining god-like powers, transcending into some form of Homo Deus. The books of these two authors are excellent (and in particular Kaku is a personal hero of mine, being the only person I have ever asked for an autograph), and of course all this sounds terrific, but still I find something deeply unsettling about this quest for bulldozing reality to the point that it stops putting any resistance to our whims.
As we systematically remove any source of friction between our appetites and the external world, we remove as well the opportunities to exercise responsibility. If all I need is to click my fingers to have in front of me a delicious warm meal, the movie I want to see, and some companion for the night, I’m not accountable anymore for being hungry, being bored, or being alone. Since the plan consists of outsourcing to technology all these things that we used to do (cooking, finding entertainment, finding a partner), we are no longer liable if something fails, leaving us nothing else to do but calling and shouting to Customer Support of the corresponding service provider (Deliveroo, Netflix, Tinder).
When we were children our will was not educated and we thought that the world revolved around us. Clashing with the hard boundaries of reality taught us a few lessons and we became adults when we were ready to assume responsibilities for family and friends, but most importantly, for ourselves. Exercising responsibility trained us to exercise judgment, and this is something we achieve, not by wishing things, but by doing them, interacting with the material world, feeling it with our hands. My fear of the current trend of technology is that by chasing the dream of endless autonomy, we are implicitly signing a contract to detach ourselves from being responsible of ourselves, perhaps the most effective way of cultivating wisdom.
We are still years away from reaching that futuristic world imagined by Brooker or heralded by Kaku and Harari, however its undeniable that so far we have made good progress in that direction. As a single man living in London and with no kids, I’m embedded in what must be one of the existences with least amount of direct-responsibility in the planet. And I say this because I need to make sure that this entry is not read as if I am pontificating on these topics but more like stating the first of the twelve steps used by alcoholics and addicts in their rehabilitation program.
We have been developing technology since the Oldowan stone tools more than two million years ago, and for the most part we seem to be fine so perhaps I’m overstating its impact on our ability to exercise responsibility. However, at least I think it proposes a plausible scenario to be entertained in a Black Mirror episode: What happens when all humans behave like spoiled children and machines are the only adult in the room?