Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Strange Gifts From The Gods

‘For most consumers—who learn about new technologies only when they brighten the windows of an Apple store or after they’ve already gone viral—it’s easy to imagine that technological progress is indeed dictated by a kind of divine logic; that machines are dropped into our lives on their own accord, like strange gifts from the gods.’
Meghan O’Gieblyn, As a God Might Be –Three Visions of Technological Progress

Among other things, Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere play with the long-established SF trope of ancient alien technologies that disrupt human society, get inside our heads, have agendas of their own. A trope that, like most, is really about our fear of our own future (which is why fictional futures are almost always worse than the actual future when it catches up with the present).

The smarter technology becomes, the more we lose control over it. We are not the customers of social media; we provide the data it sells to advertisers. Most of us no longer programme computers; we buy software and apps approved for use in the operating system’s walled garden. Smart phones contain smart assistants that answer our questions, but they also brick if they’re repaired with unapproved components. An NSA machine learning algorithm extracts profiles of possible terrorists from metadata gathered from mass surveillance of Pakistan’s cell phone networks, random decision forests assign scores, and profiles with the highest scores are forwarded to the CIA or the military as potential targets for drones or death squads -- theoretically, assassinations could be carried out without human intervention. The NSA program that uses that algorithm is called SKYNET.

Truly advanced technologies aspire to the condition of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s black monoliths. Pursuing cryptic plans of their own, changing and manipulating us in unknown, unpredictable ways. Strange gifts of the gods, indistinguishable from magic. All we can do is hope to appease them by cargo-cult ceremonies that borrow gestures and language from science. Already, many machines in daily use are imprinted with a warning that echoes the curses sometimes set on ancient Egyptian tombs: Warranty Void If Opened.
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