The lullaby of The Technojungle

“The numbing affect that technology has on us. Kind of lulling us into a false sense of security.”

The above came from a publisher friend in a reply to one of my E-mails. Not long after I received it, I awoke one morning with these two sentences at the front of my mind and the word ‘lull’ leaping out and rolling around in my thoughts as if a revelation.

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To be lulled is to be calmed and soothed to sleep; to give or lead to feel a false sense of safety; cause to be less alert, aware, or watchful; to cause (someone) to feel safe and relaxed instead of careful and alert; to cause to relax vigilance <were lulled into a false sense of security>.

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This is a time when people can become almost drunk with technology. Our gadgets can soothe and entice us. Go to a coffee shop, dentist or doctor’s office, or any place where people gather and where they once may have read a magazine or entered into conversation with each other, you will find so many peering into their gadgets, immersed and captivated.

I go from room to room in my house and carry with me my smartphone, just in case I get a call. This just happened. I was out of the room for only a minute and the phone rang. I had to run to catch it. When I first heard of online banking, I said to myself, “I will never do that, I know how unsafe the Internet is.” I must confess, I have been lulled into online banking.

Even when we know better, we can easily be lulled in. When it comes to technology, we need to be vigilant and carefully intentional in how we allow it into our life. If we are not, we risk being consumed by the expansion of technology in our society that competes for our attention.

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For many people, technology is security in a world of complexities that can bring anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. In these times of constant rapid change and dangers of terrorism, we feel the need to be informed and connected to each other. Yet technology works both ways—good and bad. The more technology we have to make us feel secure, the more technology we need to maintain that security. Consider the technologies use in warfare. They don’t end war or even make it better, so often they make it worse. Gunpowder was going to end war. Even with very sophisticated technologies, errors occur that kill innocent people.

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We need to keep in mind that as we nestle with our comforting and ever growing technologies, older technologies sneak up on us and can deliver us a surprise. The war on terrorism proves this. While consumed fighting the high-tech side, someone walks in with an old fashioned bomb.

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Most corporations, including financial institutions, fight constant attacks from cyber criminals who breach the security systems of their computers in what can only be described as common and inevitable cyber terrorism. If only we knew what truly goes on with cyber terrorism daily behind the scenes of our lives, we would lose any confidence we have in the systems of our society. There is an on-going escalation of technology to provide security in the flimsy online world we have come to rely on.

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What goes hand in hand with security is privacy. It seems a safer world where everything is monitored by cameras. Even where cameras are not yet permanently mounted, everyone has one in their phone and someone is always perfectly willing to capture an event. With facial recognition software, evil doers can be picked out of a crowd. This all sounds like it brings a safer more secure world, yet, we give up our privacy. This seems to be part of an axiom these days. That technology feeds us security which we pay for with our privacy. Sometimes we lose both our security and privacy at the same time.

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The smartphone seems to have become the security blanket for many people. While allowing us to connect with each other at will, it also reveals where we are. All cellphones constantly tell the service provider where they are. Want to make sure you can track everyone, make sure everyone has a cell phone. How do you make sure everyone has a cell phone, make smartphones that can do things that people can’t do without. Interestingly, someone was just telling me of a trend back to regular cellphones. Dumbphones?

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Everything we do involving the Internet leaves a trail. Each one of us is leaving our footprints on computer servers all over the world to be tracked and followed by those who might seek us, such as advertisers. One might say they don’t care about advertisers, or anyone else following them, however, if advertising did not work to influence our lives, companies would not spend trillions of dollars on it.

People seem all to willing to post much of their life on social media, thereby surrendering, piece by piece, their privacy and security—who they are. You are your privacy and security; it is a huge aspect of you. Social medias are not free services, they turn their users into products and their information into profit by selling links to advertisers. It could be one of the greatest scams ever.

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Sure the sea of information out there in the cyber world may be seen as a place where your information is lost in the abyss with others. Yet today vast super computing power can search that information to discover valuable chunks of data that can be linked together and used for purposes we could never imagine. As more devices become computerized and ‘smart,’ there will be an explosion of information gathering. As we look toward the horizon of technological change we see computers with artificial intelligence out-thinking humans and using all this gathered information.

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There are times of the year such as during the post-holiday lull when we often look for relief from the doldrums of life. Let us remember that we need to be wary of the numbing affects of technology and not be lulled into a false sense of security. This is a time when we must learn how to be more human and not fooled by the temptations of technology.

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Let’s think about it!

© 2015 by Bob Grahame
Please do not reproduce this article, or any part, in any manner, without my permission. Thank you!

The real ‘Final Frontier’

As we hurl ourselves down the technological path toward a life assisted by artificial intelligence, we need to ask some questions that have been asked for decades by science fiction writers. These are serious questions that we all should be asking and considering. Turning our lives over to intelligent machines might just have some pitfalls that we may not foresee.

The truth is that we are not living simple harmonious lives with our technology. Our lives are complex, full of anxieties and overwhelming. Technology is developing faster than we can keep up. We simply ‘attempt’ to find a way of managing. In the midst of all the technology and information clutter, we are being led into a life where very smart, artificially intelligent, machines are going to be integrated ever deeper into our lives and in very important aspects of our lives.

Fifty years ago, around 1965, likely a couple of years later, the sci-fi TV show Star Trek became popular. It was different, not like the usual spaceship from Mars or the monsters from outer space. This show had deep drama and looked at some serious questions in an entertaining way. It actually had a small budget, but I liked it. I would never have called myself a Trekie, however, I can look back and see how metaphorically, the show can teach us about some of the issues and possible circumstances we may have or be facing.

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There are many episodes I could write about. However for now, let me pick one, The Ultimate Computer, and recount what I can from mostly memory. In this particular episode, a super computer is installed on the Starship Enterprise and given full control. Most of the crew are given leave and the ship has a skeleton crew. After some simple maneuvering exercises, everyone is amazed. Another starship captain said to Kirk, “My regards to Captain Dunsail.” Nobody understands what that means. Mr. Spock explains that it is a term used among midshipmen to refer to a part which serves no purpose. The comment is meant to indicate that Captain Kirk is no longer needed. A human replaced by a machine. Several starships engage the Enterprise in some war game exercises. The computer mistakenly thinks the Enterprise is actually under attack. Kirk, realizing that something is going wrong, commands the helmsman to break-off the attack. When the helm doesn’t respond, Kirk orders manual over-ride to no avail. By now the computer has had the Enterprise destroy a cargo ship and damage a starship killing crew members. Thus they head to the room where the computer is to see how they might get it to respond. With communications cut off, they are unable to contact the other starships to explain what is happening.

Finally, it was determined that the plug should be pulled. Strangely, as I recall, it was actually plugged into the wall. A man goes to the plug and a blue beam is sent across the room by the computer across the room and the man was killed. The man who created the computer stated that the computer needed more power and the man got in the way. Kirk’s memorable reply, I think was, “How long until we all just get in the way?” Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy states that the computer inventor is unstable and becoming psychotic.

They are in a typical Star Trek pickle for which there seems to be no solution. The computer is using the Enterprise to shoot up other starships and there is no way to stop it. Once again, it takes Captain Kirk to save the day. Under the threat of an order from another captain to the other Federation vessels to destroy the Enterprise, he decides to persuade the computer to break-off the attack. He learns that the computer must protect humans. When Kirk points out that the computer is killing humans and asks what the penalty is for murder, the computer drops the shields that protects the ship from the retaliation of the other starships and turns itself off. The crew were able to take back control of the Enterprise. Kirk however orders that the shields remain down and that the ship remain dead looking. They would not defend the Enterprise and would risk being destroyed.

This episode, like most Star Trek episodes, metaphorically presents us with some important issues to consider in our current relationship with technology. We are entering the final frontier. It is not necessarily space, although that is certainly a part. The frontier we are entering is of sharing our lives with artificially intelligent machines—perhaps even becoming nearly one with our machines. Machines that have access to all the knowledge we have stored on the Internet, to information that we are willingly allowing the Internet to collect about us daily—machines that can amplify the human mind and eventually out-think humans. An important point here that will be discussed further in another article is that much of the information on the Internet is inaccurate, even false, or at the least, often noise.

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The computer in the Star Trek episode, is allowed to have full control of the ship and the lives of all those left on board. It makes a fatal mistake of mis-interpreting what are supposed to be exercises to evaluate the effectiveness of the computer. In a simulated attack situation, the computer believes it is under an actual attack. We can argue that safeguards may be developed to protect an artificially intelligent system from technical errors, from malicious attack and other possible ways it might malfunction. But, what happens when the machine simply makes a mis-judgement. We humans and our methods of communicating are complex. There are ways we understand each other through language and other means that a machine might not interpret in the same way. What if, in protecting its group of humans, it attacks another group when it perceives that the other group is hostile in some way? What happens when our computers lock-out human intervention?

The computer installed on the Enterprise is somehow based on the mind of the man who developed it. As the man exhibits unstable behaviours, so does the computer. If we do this with our machines, might we also transfer those aspects or characteristics that cause us to have discrepancies among ourselves that lead to war? If we become machines in this way, we could be no better off than we are now as flesh and blood.

We know that the Internet was invented during the Cold War of the 1960s and that one of the goals is for it to be able to survive any sort of attack, such as a nuclear holocaust. In other words, the Internet can’t be turned off or disconnected. Sound familiar? If we tell the machine, as they did in the Star Trek episode, that the situation is only an exercise, will the machine believe us? Or, might it think that our statement is dis-information and part of the attack? Any sort of ‘protect the human’ mandate could easily result in a ‘protect the human at any cost mandate.’ Does the computer protect a single human it is assigned to? A particular group? Or, will the machine have to figure out how to protect all humans at any cost? What might we have to destroy to stop a machine that is out of control?

A man trying to pull the plug, was killed. The explanation given was that he simply got in the way. Might we eventually simply get in the way of our intelligent machines? If the mandate of the machine is to protect humans, then it must protect itself above that mandate or else it would fail. How long until a machine perceives something we do as a hostile action against it? Will our machines all be linked to work together, or will we have several, or thousands, or millions of those smart machines working independently or, in some way, inter-dependently? How will they work together and not end up working against each other and against some humans? What might have happened if all the starships had the same computer testing each other?

We are on the verge of having autonomous driving cars. Should we take a look at the metaphorical story presented to us in this episode of Star Trek before we release ourselves to the fate of machines? Once we have this technology installed and are using it, if we determine that we no longer wish to use it, will we be able to disconnect it? What about other technology applications of smart artificially intelligent machines, such as information and communications?

There is another problem. Suppose we are successful in developing machines that can take over functions that humans can do? This already exists and has for decades. How many of us actually do math in our heads? Do we not turn to a calculator? How about spelling? I used to know many telephone numbers that I could recall as I would dial, almost automatically. Today, I probably only know two. In the field of education, we have a saying, “Use it or lose it.”

Imagine the Enterprise has been operated for a long period of time under the control of a machine. A situation arises where a human needs to intervene and even take over. At best, the person, the Captain, would be rusty. At worse, those fantastic skills of running a starship might even be lost. As we turn over our tasks to machines and come to rely on machine support in our lives, we find our abilities diminish and may disappear.

I suggest we cultivate and nurture the qualities that truly make us human. As the Enterprise, by Captain Kirk’s order, lies disabled, shields down, open to attack, the commander of the Federation starship war games orders that all the other ships to stand down. When questioned about his dangerous decision, Kirk replies, “I gambled on Bob Wesley’s humanity.” McCoy’s comment is poignant, that compassion is something that computers will never have. Let us consider other human qualities that a computer may never have.

This is the real ‘Final Frontier’.

Let’s think about it!

© 2014 by Bob Grahame
Please do not reproduce this article, or any part, in any manner, without my permission. Thank you!

Scanning and skimming for the message (as published in The Light Magazine)

In the olden days of the newspaper business, not so long ago, newspapers sold advertising and the reporters wrote to fill the spaces left over. Because it was difficult to determine the exact size of the hole the story would fill, writers were required to write so that the piece could be chopped at any point and still convey the most important points. Phototypesetting machines turned out long strips of paper called galleys. These paper strips were waxed and pasted-up on a large sheet of paper the size of the newspaper page with a grid printed on it. This grid sheet caused the galley of text to flow around the advertising. When the space was filled, the galley was chopped with a razor blade. Many readers actually read the entire paper in those days.

While advertising still drives the space for content, the way newspapers are read has somewhat changed, thanks to the Internet. Most people today are immersed in an overwhelming sea of various types of information from numerous sources. It is not humanly possible to keep up. E-mail alone can occupy a large portion of reading time. The result of this information overload is that we have become a society of scanners and skimmers. Worried that we might miss something important, we scan the newspaper, or any other information source, for what might be important. When we think we have found something, we skim it.

Scanning and skimming is not new; however it has become an essential skill. If we cultivate this skill, we can learn to spot important information, such as medically-related, and gain necessary time to be able to read it properly. An important aspect of life in the information age is the amount of noise. Noise is considered the not important information that vies for our attention. Remove it and what is left is considered the signal, or main message that is important to you.

Today, instead of in-depth content, we find space-constricted print and click-driven eContent. As printing becomes more expensive and an environmental concern, more content is migrating to the Internet, combined with other media. Take a look around at online content. Much of it is spread among many pages. Advertising costs in print are based on the portion of a page consumed and the position in the publication. In the online world, advertisers pay for clicks. A page with shorter content costs the same as a long page of content. Splitting the content up can generate more clicks and thus more revenue for the publication. While a long page is harder to read, the extra click can mean the loss of the reader, if they decide they have read enough.

We are an attention-split society. This ball we call Earth is becoming like a giant brain with expanding networks of neurones. It overwhelms us with information as our attention span keep shrinking. Young people find they must do several things at once in a desperate attempt to keep up. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the millennial generation is spending 18 cumulative hours a day on media.

My kids gave up on E-mail years ago. We were told to use texting if we wanted to communicate with them. Text is an on-going short conversation that slips away. There is a sense among many youth that nothing is important or has value. Having to deal with an E-mail inbox that keeps filling up requires too much time.

What does all this mean for Christians? According to the Barna Group, a Christian research organization, ‘…while the Church is often accused of being several steps behind the culture at large, Barna’s research shows practicing Christians want to keep up with culture and trends just as much as anyone else…’ They continue with ‘…people want to be culturally informed, but they are becoming accustomed to skimming content.’ Yet in today’s 24-hour news cycle, “keeping up” can be hard work. The socialization of news has created an international, ongoing conversation that never sleeps.’

We need to become the editor for our lives. Armed with our virtual razor blade, we need to chop the galleys of endless text and other media that we don’t need to read—think noise. I admit that I have to develop my skills. Like any skill, it takes a concerted effort to develop. I encourage you to join me in focusing on skimming media carefully and then scanning contents for the message. Say no to noise and yes to the Message.

Editors Note: Is there something you want to say? Send in your Viewpoint (500 – 750 words) to editor@lightmagazine.ca. Please note we cannot gaurantee publication of all the pieces we recieve.

September 2014 (2014-08-26)

 

 

Let’s think about it!

© 2014 by Bob Grahame
Please do not reproduce this article, or any part, in any manner, without my permission. Thank you!