Buying the Future – What are we buying?

Skynet for DummiesA while back, I wrote about the Tyranny of an Inefficient Skynet. I found the thought of a Skynet that is buggy and makes a lot of mistakes a bit scarily amusing. We project our logic onto what we build and we almost always imprint at least some of our irrational behavior on it. Software developers of all ilks have their own styles; the conformists are usually the ones who made the wrong choice in major and feel like they have to suffer for it for the rest of their lives. Either way, all these people hammering out Code. Remember Lessig’s Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0?

Now we have the Internet of Things. IoT. A dressed up and marketable version of Web 3.0. People attaching all manner of things to the Internet, collecting data, acting on data when the people themselves may not even know what the data is. Privacy is traded for convenience and the ability to post cat videos on Facebook. The data is collected, decisions made – enough so where people will quite literally have worse lives if they don’t meet the criteria the algorithms (written by those software developers, remember them?)  fit, even if the data is misrepresentative or outright wrong.

That’s where we are now.

And with 3 decades of using and adapting technology behind me, I can’t help but wonder where exactly we’re headed as a society. Feynman spoke about it in his lectures (The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist) – from his perspective, it’s society that drives how we use science and technology. From the Atomic Bomb to your smartphone and it’s applications, small decisions add up to societal decisions… and ultimately, this Skynet we’re building. The Cold War gone, we live in an era where governments war over the Internet with propaganda machines powered by technology and hackers who have an allegiance of some sort, be it to a government or to a corporation or to themselves – rarely for society itself.

Children that used to go outside to play stay indoors, using software (games), living in worlds created by the imagination(s) of teams and implemented by programmers, increasingly educated by the same software with data that is selectively converted into information. And it happens faster and faster. Remember Gleick’s Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything?

So where am I going with this? I’m just wondering more and more often what sort of society we’re buying with our finances that are upended by algorithms on Wall Street. I’m wondering about all the shoddy software pushed out to meet some business need before it’s ready, fragile enough in certain spots that it allows breaking and bending at the weak points. We’re changing the world and we hardly know it as we drive into work, sipping coffee as we dodge traffic – but soon, the cars will be transporting us around.

The Internet has allowed people with common bonds to work together, play together – but in doing so, inadvertently, it has also allowed us to war against those we dislike – from CAPS-LOCK stuck on to outright attacks on someone else’s systems.

Transporting us around so that we can write code to buy things and influence our own future without a thought as to the long term consequences of our actions in a period of time where medicine and associated technologies will have us living longer to see the consequences of our collective decisions.

The small unconscious decisions making the big unconscious decisions for us, mindfulness out the window.

I suppose I may be in a dark mood this morning. I suppose that this may seem pessimistic or cynical. I suppose it’s disturbing if one were to think about it all.

We should go buy something to feel better about all of this…

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