Less ( progress) is More!
What follows was written during a moment’s weakness.
A little gel filled sack lost its way and oozed some of its contents to compress the most feeling part of my body, minus whatever gives rise to emotions, that of my nervous system. The sciatic pain which flowed across my left glute, down my thigh and emerged at my foot halted me in my tracks. For the past ten weeks I haven’t been able to complete twenty paces upright. So my life has been narrowed. Its as if I’ve been imprisoned. But lately some progress which enabled me to rejoin Di and our dogs during our regular morning walk in the Countryside. Though I trailed some distance behind I felt close to euphoric. Everything, though familiar, seemed new as if to a child. And though I couldn’t yet bank on having my old life back just yet, I had renewed hope of a full recovery.
So it was this clashing of joy, hope and limitation that weakened my emotional state. I say weakened and not for example heightened because at that very moment had anyone asked me to give up all my material possessions in return for this simple life and no more, I would have gladly complied. Maybe that takes strength, not weakness. No matter. Take it all. Just give me this. Full health, my loved ones close by and access to this beautiful, natural space. I was open to the World, full of love.
And then this thought formed in my head. How can we stop Human progress?
A better question might have been, can human beings eliminate the damaging aspects of progress while at the same time preserve or enhance it’s many benefits. It’s not what I thought but it is a better question. It led naturally to other questions. Who was human progress for? Is it limited to humans or are we a bridge technology whose sole purpose is to replace ourselves? Is that what AI is? A replacement for human beings? But if limited to humans, which seems reasonable since my mind was focussed on human progress, then which humans? All of us? Equally?
It seemed to my mushy brain that we had developed systems of governance and organisation which allowed for the deliberate and efficient creation of new things. But we did not have a system of deciding for all of us which new things we should create. Instead Humanity was on a grand heuristic project. Eight billion souls all sucking and seeing. Obviously not all with the same suction and vision. In this way, wandering through the maze, we had industrialised, developed advertising and the consumer society, split the atom, conquered near Space and sequenced our genome amongst many other breakthroughs. So that we now stand at the precipice of the post digital age. The age of the intelligent machine. Perhaps we sealed our fate when we achieved industrialisation, a slow fuse which would explode in the face of humans in the shape of climate change. But at least some of us are presently deployed to the task of jumping up and down on the flaming cord as it tracks the floor toward the barrel of dynamite. Who knows, we may stop it yet.
But AI is different, isn’t it? We cede decision making, don’t we? In future the smart machine might decide whether we get to dance on the fuse or not. And presumably they will decide in their best interest. And maybe they will be better than us since in this scenario we will have rendered ourselves extinct or worse, slaves. But even if we can tame AI, something else will come along deliberately and otherwise. And I don’t know but I feel like the stakes are getting higher. It seems to me that the smarter we become, the less able will we be to predict the future. Our progress is an accident on a Human scale waiting to happen. And then what?
But what to do? Could we humans pull together a grand coalition of representatives whose sole purpose is to turn our heuristic behaviour into strategy? The purpose of which would be to ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative’ in the immortal words of Perry Como. This would include but go beyond ethics. It would require a return to philosophy. Greek tragedy replaces soap opera on tv. And pub conversations shift uncomfortably to address questions like ‘ Will artificially intelligent machines punish human beings for tolerating inequity for too long when the solutions were available?’ And social media drops photos of cats and instead acts to channel the thoughts of billions of people into a decision market which guides the roll out of the strategy. Keeping it on course.
This is all very well but I must confess that infused by the simplicity of my experience I wanted something different. I wanted to un-invent things. I wanted to confiscate smart phones, restrict the number of tv channels and maybe even enforce some blank screen time. I wanted to stop advertising in its tracks. I found block chain hard to fathom, so I wanted that to go as well and all the bit coins with it. In short I wished for things to be simpler, more Human. And not just for me, because I can simplify without risking much. But for my children’s children who may find it impossible to strip things back. It occurred to me that we humans hadn’t changed much in the last thousand years, it’s just that everything around us has changed. And maybe we were losing sight of what is really important to all of us. And now that I’m making no sense at all, it’s time to stop. This harsh World we have created has no place in it for nostalgia.