By Kurt Cobb
Apple Computer’s 1984 Superbowl commercial—one of the most iconic television commercials ever made—announced two things: the introduction of the Macintosh computer and that this computer could in some fashion allow each of us to escape a future of tyranny and social control prophesied in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.
The computer age and the coming of the internet have certainly moved more power into the hands of the individual, giving him and her access to social and professional connections around the world, information on every conceivable topic, and awareness of events in real-time or near real-time across the globe. The possibilities of the combined computational power of the modern computer and the connectivity of those computers across the globe are still being explored and expanded every day.
So, how is individual empowerment faring? Not so well. It turns out that practically every device, piece of software and internet platform not only holds the promise of enhancing the individual’s power but also can be weaponized to undermine it.
We somehow forget that for every thing and every person we can look up on the internet, those things and people can look back. Naturally, we can try to protect ourselves with antivirus programs and firewalls. But as with any arms race, there is a never-ending back-and-forth struggle to create better tools and strategies for snooping on and disrupting computers and their networks and simultaneously to build defenses against the newest methods of attack and surveillance.
But I am less concerned with this battle than I am with the voluntary things we do that undermine all the individual empowerment that was supposed to come our way.
The single most important power humans have is their ability to pay attention. It’s our focus that allows us to do not only our daily tasks but also to perform progressively better at tasks we choose. Now the most important thing to know about our attention is that it is a limited resource. There are only so many hours in a day and only so many of those when we are not sleeping and only so many of those when we can pay attention to something outside our basic needs of eating, getting a livelihood, staying safe.
I have noticed a distinct generational divide between those who have grown up with cellphones and computers and those who purchased their first cellphone and personal computer after age 30 when their daily habits and outlook were already well-cemented. Those who joined the computer, internet and cellphone age as adults tend to see these devices and networks as tools for accomplishing certain tasks they had previously accomplished some other way such as keeping a calendar, holding meetings and writing and sharing documents.
Those who grew up in the age of the computer, cellphone and internet view these technologies as portals to experience. The most important things that are happening in their lives, social, cultural, and economic, are happening online and via cellphone. Experiences mediated through electronic means have become primary and more important than direct immediate experience.
I am most struck by this when I walk the streets and see person after person listening to something coming from their cellphones as they walk, run or bicycle. People can listen to whatever they like as far as I’m concerned. But it occurs to me that they cannot simultaneously pay careful attention to the world right in front of them AND to whatever they are listening to.
It reminds me of the quote attributed to then California gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan about the cutting of the state’s redwood forest: “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” That’s not exactly what he said, but his opponent captured Reagan’s view all too well.
In any case, we now have a segment of the population which apparently believes that there is little to notice in any environment and for whom the physical world is just a concept and not at all the endlessly complex, differentiated, nuanced and ever-changing place that I experience.
Today, we have virtual reality to entertain us, complete with virtual reality goggles. Does it not occur to those putting on the goggles that they are limiting their reality rather than expanding it? That they are limiting it to what the creators of that particular virtual reality wish to convey? And, all this is undertaken when the reality that is right in front of them in their homes, workplaces, and outdoors has barely been explored or understood.
Every modern communications device, cellphone, computer and virtual reality machine gives us a highly edited version of the world, one designed especially to meet the goals of those who created the devices. The primary goals are making money and controlling our behavior in order to get us to pay more attention (so our attention can be sold to advertisers) and/or to get us to make additional purchases.
The addictive quality of these technologies has been well-documented. But it is in the nature of the addict to believe that he or she is being nourished by the very things to which he or she is addicted. And, that is the most devilish trick of modern networks: the idea that our futures and very well-being will be enhanced—when, in fact, our autonomy is simply being dissipated as we give our attention to things which sap our own power and health and enslave us to marketing and programming executives who themselves are caught up in a system that does not value individual autonomy in the least.
There are, of course, the myriad ways in which individual empowerment has backfired and put us into far more danger than ever before. The ability of a small group of hackers to tap into critical networks which service power generating stations and water and sewer plants is a rising concern. Especially concerning are nuclear power plants.
Miniaturization technology is making it possible to put more and more destructive power in smaller and smaller packages. Combine that with the ready availability of drones and you get a lethal combination.
The rise of designer viruses, though not yet open to those without sophisticated laboratories, threatens an unstoppable epidemic.
Empowering the individual sounds great when you say it. But it helps to be specific about what kind of power you want the individual to have and how that power might be used in nefarious ways or simply dissipated by absorbing a person’s attention in ways that undermine that empowerment.
The centers of official power—economic and political elites, corporations, and the government security apparatus of police, intelligence agencies, militaries—are all petrified at the vast destructive power flowing to the hands of individuals and small groups. And, they are equally petrified at the individual economic, political and social empowerment available to the individual through the very technologies these elites have unleashed.
The first threat they use as an excuse for blanket surveillance, preventive detention and secret prisons. The second threat they hope will be dissipated by the myriad distractions that the commercial interests which now largely control the internet provide to the public.