Renown Czech intellectual and economist, Tomáš Sedláček, explores the double-edged sword of progress. Written by Tomáš Sedláček, translated by Denis Bravenec.
Man is a being with stone age instincts,
institutions and faith from the middle ages
gifted with near god-like technology.
~ Edward O. Wilson
By all accounts, the human race has existed for nearly 200,000 years. During this time, it has taken around 190,000 years to slowly worked its way to the top of the food chain — we learned how to use (initially stone) tools, but otherwise we lived and suffered with animals. Only in the last 10,000 years has our species learned to not only gather food, but to grow it, change the surrounding world, even create our own world, tailored to ourselves. We domesticated animals and our earth. 6000 years ago, we learned to influence and employ the power of iron, taming it under an insane onslaught of violence — through smouldering and beating.
5000 years ago, we learned to read and write. After that, nothing remarkably changed in the average household’s instruments; children continued to play with roughly the same toys. The third revolution began 300 years ago, more specifically in the year 1712, when the first machine – the steam engine – was built in England. And so began the age of machines and tectonic changes occurred, turbulences which had an impact on literally the whole planet, the economy, politics, and our thinking. This way, mankind irreversibly nestled itself at the top of the food chain and became the first species to have the ability to create and destroy on a planetary level. Today, we are finding ourselves at the start of the fourth tectonic revolution: the digital one.
If we succeed to create artificial intelligence, which will live in a digital world, there is a large fear that our position at the peak of the food chain will be lost. And if this fear of summoning a digital demon – as feared by names such as Hawking, Musk, Kurzweil – was likely in the case of only a few percent, let us say 30 or only as little as five percent and we’re threatened by a self-created doom, how would we prevent it? Where is the ‘off’ switch for the internet? How do we stop humankind’s curiosity?
In every desire, there is fear
Progress. We madly seek it. It excites us, and differentiates us from other species. It’s something we work on for 40 hours per week, and we pin all of our hopes and reasons to it. But when we film a movie about the future and progress, it is a horror film. To this day, I actually do not know whether I am a big enthusiast of new technologies, or if I fear them. I conclude with the fact that, generally speaking, in every desire there is an element of fear — and at the same time, in every fear there is a small element of hope.
Progress is a double-edged sword. And for now it looks as though it is up to humans to decide how we will forge it. Take for example computers and mobile communication — do you remember the initial promise we found when we purchased them? To save us time. The answer to the questions about whether mobile communication was successful whether we have more time than twenty years ago are not trivial. Or whether the frequency of the phrase “I do not have time” is more common than it used to be. Nonetheless, we live in a bustling time, best seen in the toys of our children.
Until recently, whole generations of children played with more or less the same toys. Wooden, canvas or clay representations of the world around them. Today’s children own toys which would actually be incomprehensible to adults of the past generation. Within one generation, the child’s world changed beyond recognition — let alone the world of adults.
10 years ago, the world was quite predictable. It was the year 2006, and despite what we experienced with shock of 9/11, the global financial crisis was still a way off, long before Greece’s quasi-bankruptcy, long before Ukraine and the refugee crisis, long before Brexit. The world’s basic coordinates were still being redrawn. Who would have thought 20 years ago just how powerful China would become? And in the backdrop of all these changes, an even more important revolution is taking place, which does not seem like a revolution to us, due to the fact that it is relatively slow and its larger problems haven’t been fully realised. This is the digital revolution.
Social science fiction
Our fear of the future is depicted in our movies and books. All are in a sense chilly dystopias, where man in one way or another is pitted against the machine (Robot RUR, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Terminator, Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, and even newer I, Robot, Ex Machine, Her, Transcendence). It is also worth noting here, that Star Wars is perhaps the only saga in this category that does not suffer from a Man vs. Robot dualism; There is no fascination with robots, nor are they feared, which is a rare exception in an otherwise anti-robot genre.
And so we live in a time, where films (made for entertainment) are becoming prophecies. A certain voluntary The Matrix, with rebellious groups that will attempt to wake us from our digital dreaming, is fully imaginable when you take into account the advent of virtual reality (or rather, a real virtuality). The movie Her (in which the protagonist falls in love with artificial intelligence in his mobile phone) is in fact, quite conceivable as Transcendence (where the soul is moved into a neural computer network), even if neurologists say that it will take some time before anything of this sort is possible.
Nonetheless, it is imaginable that in time it will be possible to “live” on the internet. It is imaginable that with time, man will have cameras (situated around the world) instead of eyes. Instead of fantasy, an augmented reality (fighting with dragons in a forest will not require fantasy, rather VR glasses, that will complete our reality based on our needs). RAM instead of memory, Microphones instead of ears. Global chatter on Twitter instead of a by word-of-mouth. Surely, one will have their original eyes and biological ears, but they will probably be as useful as being barefoot today. Or a naked body. Or teeth without a dentist’s work. Old eyes without glasses.
Similarly, a long time before the birth of the internet, the sociologist Marshall McLuhan described how each augmentation of our original properties also meant a weakening of the original. Cars augment our legs, which does not mean that we will lose our biological legs, but they will no longer be sufficient. Without cars today, man would feel immobile, as if without legs. Without a mobile device (try leaving it sometime at home for a day), we would quickly feel that we are disconnected, that we are not in touch with the world, unable to hear or talk. All of a sudden, our “sandbox,” our sphere of influence, shrinks from the whole world and our understanding of it to our immediate surrounding.
Digital technologies connect us, but they also distance us in the same way that money does. Thanks to the technological progress and digital collapse of space, we can maintain connection with hundreds and even thousands of friends. But to how many people did you write a letter over the last year that had more than a single page, or even tried sending them an email of this same length? We are present to the whole world, and the whole world is present to us — but we are absent at dinner with friends. Our minds and attention are somewhere else.
Humans have long searched for wormholes that would transport us from one distant place to another, into the depths of space. But in fact, every one of us holds a kind of digital wormhole in our pocket – our mobile phones. These act as a black gate to a time- and space-collapsed world of digital internet. They are becoming our “closest neighbor.”
Already, it is very well possible that you have spent more time with your mobile device than with a living person — we travel with it, sleep with it, we go to the bathroom with it, to the pub, to school, to work. Constantly touching them as if — in an increasingly touchless and contactless world — they “suck” our touches away. Our center of gravity, the center of our soul is slowly moving away from this material world. After all though, whoever claimed that the biological form of life is the highest possible one, right?
But this is certainly more than twenty years away from us. Meanwhile, other things will slowly change. Have you noticed that the internet is an interesting experiment in spontaneity? No one owns the internet, even though various firms are looking treat it as a economic harvest ripe for harvesting. States and nations play a feeble role here – there are no taxes, almost no rules, it is a world of unfettered imagination. The internet works on a strange economic model and despite being comprehensible to us, we would have a hard time explaining it to the previous generation. Almost everyone has access to the internet – both the rich and poor. The richest person in the world will not have a much better smartphone than a bachelor’s student.
Likewise, the age of experts is being washed away — a ten-year-old’s favorite toy (smartphone) will be the same as the most important “working tool” of the vast majority of top managers and scientists. On the internet, which spontaneously arises, people help each other with anything and the overwhelming majority of “internet services” are free. All your favorite music, lectures, recipes can be found on YouTube — let us not even start discussing Wikipedia. With my “friend” on Facebook from China, I can have many more common interests and questions than with my “biological” neighbor, who does have the same nationality, language and customs as me. Maybe such an ideological grouping of related persons will in the future be more important than nation states.
I am a citizen of the Czech Republic and thus also of the European Union — just like every citizen of the Czech Republic, because we entered the EU as a state. An individual actually does not have this choice, just a nation as a whole. Although nationalism is one of the big threats to the EU, the enlargement of the EU strictly follows the logic of the nation-state. There are not too many reasons, why our ideological preferences should be dictated by geographic proximity. In such a way, non-geographical nations of the future could very well look like this.
Or everything could go wrong. In any case, in an overwhelming majority of fields, we expect further tectonic changes. Nonetheless, Economics of Good and Evil, will help you form your own opinion on future matters. And for those, who look at progress with skepticism — here you will find encouragement, to enjoy our world as it is. Because it will not stay the same for long.
Header: Tomáš and Alex at a photoshoot after an interview in Berlin in October 2013. Image: Lars Mensel