Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Global Panopticon and the Hive Mind

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes a specific type of prison in which the inmates can be observed at all times but do not know when they are being observed. Cells are internally lit with large windows or transparent walls and are arranged in a circle. In the centre of the circle of cells sits an observation tower which is not lit. This type of prison is called a "panopticon."

--> Privacy is a thing of the past. The newer generations, for the most part, seem to accept this, posting photos of themselves online in compromising positions and "tweeting" their every thought and movement. Privace watchdogs and rights groups are increasingly up in arms about the increasing discretion of federal authorities to monitor and control our online presence and about the misuse of private data by large corporations.

To see how far our privacy has been erroded, you only have to visit Google Earth. It will soon be possible to track our every movement using nothing but remote sensing satellites. As a remote sensing specialist, I am acutely aware of this. There are literally thousands of satellites sending terrabytes of information down to Earth, mapping the globe a thousand times over in a single day. I call this phenomenon, the "Global Panopticon."
Another thing I notice about today's young people (myself included, even though I'm not that young anymore), is that they seem to spend relatively little time living in the real world. Most of their living is done online. Walk into any bus and you will see many people staring into their cell phones, not looking out the window, not interacting with their fellow passengers. At some point, the internet becomes an extension of the brain. Suppose you're in a strange city and you get a sudden craving for coffee. Open up your smart phone and Google Maps can figure out where you are and where the nearest coffee house is in relation to you, printing off step-by-step directions.

Soon, even the intermediary in this procedure--the cell phone--will be unnecessary. The technology exists to do this directly from thought through a brain-computer interface. I estimate that it will be fully commercially viable in less than 40 years. I also predict that the vast majority of people will opt to have such a device implanted in their skulls. Make no mistake, there will be no coercion: people will be lining up for these things.

How does it work? Since the human brain operates primarily through electrical impulses sent along the neurons, all you need is an array of electrodes wired to a transceiver. A cross-wise incision is made in the gray-matter (perpendicular to the striations of the neurons) and then it is just a matter of training the brain to interpret the incoming signals and produce its own, outgoing signals which are picked up and decoded by the implant. This is the birth of the global consciousness, or, if we are more pessimistic, the hive mind.

If such a radical shift is going to take place in the nature of human consciousness, it seems we ought to prepare for it. Unfortunately, the young people, who, by-and-large, will lead the shift, strike me as anything but prepared. They will be acculturated in a way that will allow the shift to take place, but they will not be prepared.

Most multi-cellullar organisms are arranged in such a way that each cell is differentiated and performs a highly specialized function. The analogy of individual human beings as cells, however, may not be a fruitful or desirable one. I would suggest, rather, that we should strive to keep the same democratic ideals of freedom and equality that, at least nominally, exist today.

Suppose for the sake of argument we say that we need a "brain centre," a person or group to coordinate this great mass of bodies, a "ruling elite." I cannot think of a single person who would be qualified for the job.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Vernier clock

Tools, people and elephants

In the past, one of the things that has been cited as setting humans above the other animals is our ability to make tools. I think it's more accurate to say, rather, that we have a tool. Before you get the wrong idea, let me clarify that: we have, in fact, two tools. Highly sensitive and versatile tools. Tools we can use to make music, write poetry, design buildings and many other things. One of the most important functions of these tools is to make other tools, so you could call them meta-tools.

Of course, other animals have tools as well, but most of them are not as versatile. Contrast, for instant, an elephant. This is another animal with a highly versatile tool and a similarly large brain. How is it that humans got so much farther and became so much more dominant than elephants? Unfortunately, the elephant has only one such tool and although it is prehensile, it only has two digits instead of five. Because a human has two tools, it can use one tool to hold the object being worked on, say a piece of flint for an arrowhead, and the other tool to hold an object to work in the other object, say a strong, hard piece of rock to chip the arrowhead into shape. The extra digits on human tools serve a similar purpose, whereas the bare minimum would be only two opposable digits, as on the elephant's tool.

People argue about what, among the locus of traits--high intelligence, tool-making, language, walking upright--that supposedly distinguish us from the other animals, came first and what drove the changes? I would argue that our sensitive hands not only preceded the other traits, they are what drove them. Because we have these highly sensitive tools on our upper bodies, better to walk upright so they are not damaged. Their use requires high intelligence, but more importantly, instruction from an early age, which requires language.