For centuries, religion was the primary vehicle of epistemological exploration. Since the Age of Enlightenment, we’ve done it equally through science. Science has also given us technology, whose aim is to alleviate the inherent suffering of existence. We battle hunger with agriculture, fight cold with heat, and struggle against injury and disease with medicine. In other words, we compensate for those things God did not provide.
Seen that way, technology can seem like an act of hubris, a thumbing of the nose at God, an implicit accusation that His world is not merely inadequate, but unfair. To compensate for His incomplete justice, we act as gods ourselves.
We know how those myths play out—Icarus, Pandora’s Box, Frankenstein. They don’t end well.
I don’t believe in the mystical or the supernatural, but there’s something fatalistic about the natural, social, political, and technological forces that are converging, as if we are about to receive a cosmic comeuppance from our 200-year experiment with fossil fuels.
Whether we’re challenging God or just following the logic of a Petri dish filled with bacteria and nutrients, our efforts to mitigate suffering with technology are only deferring that suffering in an account that will come due all at once when the climate collapses.
A System Tailor-Made for Centralized Abuse
The socio-techno-politico-economic system at the beginning of the 21st century could hardly be better designed for centralized authoritarian control. In less than two decades, society has transformed itself around the internet. Banking can no longer exist without the web. Nor can government services. No business can function today without email at the very least.
Electricity, fossil fuels, and globalization have yielded up a highly specialized technological economy that fewer and fewer fully comprehend at the operating level. If my computer chip breaks, can I fix it? No. I’m compelled to go to the priesthood of chip makers.
This is a world of Google maps and GPS, where terrorism lurks, where cultures conflict everyday and those conflicts are resolved with armed drones that home in on cell phone signals.
Notionally, this system exists through incremental, voluntary adoption. But how voluntary is it, really? One cannot opt out of the tech world without becoming a hermit. The system is now of a whole, run by a handful of people who, not coincidentally, amass more and more wealth while most others lose ground. Our technological society is not a set of discrete phenomena, but an integral dynamic that is accelerating exponentially in a positive feedback loop of innovation, incorporation into the physical and social infrastructure, increasing energy usage and carbon emissions, increasing dependence on centralized global infrastructure, and further innovation.
We’re not there, but Google’s aspirations are as clear as they are innocent: they want to own the internet. They analogize it to something soft, fuzzy, familiar, and natural: the cloud. All the better to promote our willingness to outsource our inner lives to them and, more to the point, their successors.
Google wants to own the razor, and are happy to encourage others to sell the blades. (They do have their own blades in the game, of course, but that is, for now, secondary.) Their business model is to compile all knowledge into one place (that they control), to connect all cars to a grid (that they control), to have all finance pass through and reside in central databases (that they control), and to drive all wireless communication onto one operating system (that they control).
They will probable succeed right about the time the summer ice collapses and drives the jet stream haywire.
The government gets all the attention for casting a wide, indiscriminate net on our private activities, but we are ceding our privacy to Google and other centralized data collectors willingly, or at least without much objection. Why? Because it’s private enterprise, and we are volitional agents. If the government were demanding that we do this, we’d resist.
As the Borg say on Star Trek, resistance is futile. Resistance consists of resigning from society, of being completely out of touch and unable to function as a citizen. It’s all very efficient and convenient, absolutely compelling, and a tightening spiral.
When the climate panic sets in, dwindling resources (e.g., food) will no longer be apportioned through strictly commercial means because mass commerce depends on willing sellers and a surplus capacity to make more stuff. The sellers will be unwilling and capacity will be constrained. So, there will be conflict for those resources, and those who control the infrastructure will prevail.
Imagine if Hitler or Stalin could have appropriated the internet, along with GPS, instantaneous communication, and cheap drones to augment their huge intelligence and military apparatuses. That will be the real fight: to control the controls. Who will win, and what will happen to those outside the inner circle? What redress will they have? To wish an afterlife of hell on the powerful who appropriate the scarce resources at the expense of others?
“Don’t be evil” may become the most cosmically ironic catch phrase ever coined.