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The last Neanderthal sat in his dark cave, surrounded by the bones of his family. No one really knows why the primitive ancestors of modern man disappeared 40,000 years ago. For almost 6,000 of those years, Neanderthal and Homo sapiens coexisted, and I’m going to say this was an awkward arrangement. Suddenly, one day, a bunch of new technologically advanced monkeys showed up in Europe from Africa, and the world just wasn’t big enough for both species.
There are many hypotheses as to why the Neanderthals died out: Homo sapiens conquered them, interbred with them; the climate changed, and they couldn’t adapt. If you can’t adapt, you die. Those are the rules. I don’t make them up.
I am not an professional anthropologist, but here’s what I think happened to the Neanderthals: They gave up.
The end didn’t come fast. There was no meteor this time. No. Neanderthals couldn’t adapt fast enough. There had to come a point where, even in their simple minds, the survivors of this failing species must have known there was no hope.
Extinction is a slow process.
Let’s imagine that last Neanderthal, shivering from cold, digging into earth to find withered roots to eat. The others are dead. Murdered by those with stronger, longer, sharper spears. Stolen by these creatures who are so much better at tracking and trapping. They can light up the night. He is dying, and he knows it because animals always know when they’re dying. Hunger and boredom drive him to spy on the others. He wants to see their fire. The skins they wear to protect themselves. The tools they use. Some have wolves that serve them — bark and guard and sniff. They must be gods?
Now imagine he — the Neanderthal — is in their cave. They’re gone, for the time being, off hunting or foraging or dancing. Why is he there? I don’t think to steal. He would be terrified. But solemn curiosity propels him to explore. And a kind of sadness, too. The Homo sapiens tribe will have a tomorrow. His tribe will not. This kind of inspection, I think, is the primary occupation of ghosts.
On the cave walls are paintings. Human figures around open flames. Bison and deer running. Colors and movement. They caught life in their hands like a firefly and smeared it on the wall.
This is more than the crude etchings on his own wall, put there by a brother or a sister, mostly because back during the fat lazy summers there was so much boredom. No. These images are almost too much for him to comprehend. He runs his fingers over the paintings. These creatures — who look so much like him — can force cold, solid rock to speak. The walls of their cave are alive. This is power beyond his reckoning. He is not favored anymore by the unbelievable secret powers that make the wind and the lightening and the giant beasts.
So, I imagine, he runs from the cave. Sticks cracking underneath calloused feet. He retreats like an animal into the darkness. Crawls into the cave of bones. He closes his eyes and remembers, dimly, days of full bellies and babies suckling and long winters defeated. He then becomes the darkness.
Chinese tech CEO Jack Ma recently said that “machines will partner and cooperate with humans.” He was speaking at an entrepreneur conference about the future. I bet those conferences have excellent snacks. He warns that computers will change humanity, and this change will be harder for some than others.
The warning is a little too late. Computers have already changed humanity. Evolution isn’t voluntary.
I am finding it hard to adapt. I do everything I’m supposed to do. I buy the new smartphone. I watch the shows everyone is talking about. My social media strategy is love me, love me, love me.
But there’s going to come a time when I won’t be able to keep up.
Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen once said, “The spread of computers and the internet will put jobs in two categories: people who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.”
It’s a pretty famous quote, or at least, that’s what the internet tells me. I’ve never been entirely sure what, exactly, a venture capitalist is, but I like to think it’s actually short for “adventure” and they fund explorations to mysterious islands.
I stumbled over his quote while reading about a very near future — so near we’re almost touching it — when humans will become machines. I will probably live to see this marriage, but I will not understand it. This event is called the “singularity.” I don’t know why. It sounds cool, tho. Especially if you’re part of it.
But, right now, I understand this rich guy’s prediction. Because it has come true. I do what computers tell me. I make a living writing for the internet, which means I write what the computers tell me to write. The computers know the humans they serve, and they want them to be happy. The search engines want to give them what they ask for. The social platforms know what humans like better than humans ever will know. It’s a dance of seduction.
The computers read love letters and late-night texts. Medical bills and paychecks. They make a note of every song listened to and TV show watched. They know every superficial political belief — loose collections of secondhand opinions, mostly — and glorify them.
The computers are eagerly building little worlds for every human. Comfy little bubbles.
The computers then tell humans to create content. For almost 20 years, I’ve made a living creating digital content. When I’m feeling especially self-important, I call myself a writer. But mostly I just fill the trough. I’ve run portals and updated databases. Written countless lists, and explainers, and hot takes. I almost missed my monthly traffic quota once, so I filled a slideshow with stock photos of sleeping kittens and titled it “Kittens: Dead Or Asleep?” The computer told me that people like cats, at that point. I knew they couldn’t resist clicking through glossy photos of slumbering cats just to see which ones had “asleep” or “dead” underneath it.
My job has been to give people exactly what they want. I used to know what they want. Not anymore. My imagination is no match for the data. The computers want humans to be content. Which is what I create. Content. Writing for humans of the internet is, in a way, not unlike cooking for toddlers. Toddlers like chicken fingers. They do not want anything different or challenging. I make chicken fingers for adult human brains.
It can be fun. In the old days of a decade ago, you could create something truly original and stupid and people would email it each other and no one in the real world cared. These early days of the hive were definitely more unpredictable. There was less order, and the computers weren’t quite as good at vacuuming up all the little puzzle pieces that make a regular human mildly unique.
Last summer, I had a content job at a site that clocked more than 20 million sessions a month. Years ago, the metric of success was page views. Before that, “hits.” It doesn’t matter what they’re called, but it’s how success is measured. Then, one day, one of the social platforms changed its algorithm. I’m pretty sure that the word “algorithm,” like “brand” or “sessions,” is meaningless. The computers changed their mind about what the humans wanted. Our traffic nosedived. We took a few weeks to divine the computers instructions. I suggested a human sacrifice. Seems creating more partisan political polemics sufficed.
It is hard for humans to resist being told they’re pretty or smart or smretty. That’s why we keep feeding the computers information about ourselves.
I’m not creating content right now. For the time being I’m doing the next best thing — marketing. It pays the bills. Marketing is easier when the social platforms let you “target” customers who like a specific thing. We all have targets on our heads. It’s a relief not to have to care about what I’m creating for a change. I mean, I am writing this. For a social platform. But I don’t think the computers will notice, because I’m not sure anyone really wants to read what I’m writing. Which is liberating.
There is a generation coming who will happily do what the computers tell them. Maybe they’ll be happier? Maybe they’ll be part computer, too. Smarter, faster, better than I’ve ever been? Each individual a blinking Christmas light connected by umbilical cords of light. They’ll understand things I could never understand. Technology will disappear into flesh. Memories will hang in vast interconnected night skies like stars. There will be no secrets, no loneliness, and endless chicken fingers for all.
I’ll run my gnarled fingers over smooth touchscreen faces with uncomprehending awe. My obsolescence will be beautiful and terrifying, like a tornado in the distance. These new humans will do exactly what the computers tell them, and they will thrive because of it. I will haunt this world for awhile, and then retreat into the darkness. Curl up. Close my eyes.
Extinction is a slow process.
Read other installments of Our Dystopian Present: