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Topic: dehumanization due to technology

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Subject: dehumanization due to technology
Date Posted: 2/14/2010 11:43 AM ET
Member Since: 9/3/2008
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So I was reading the book reviews in the paper this morning (online version included here)  and I started thinking about how the dehumanization of people because of technology (and the struggle to overcome this) is a pretty prevalent  theme in the science fiction genre.  I then tried to think of books suggesting the opposite. A book where society has become more connected and maintained their humanity,  individuality, responsibility and core values or these traits have even become enhanced due to technology.  I know there has to be something out there.  I'm just drawing a blank.   Does anyone know any titles?  -psi stuff doesn't count unless technology plays a big part in enhancing the brain function -not evolution.

 

Book review: You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier

It's not often that one of the creators of our new digital culture comes forward to say: I made a mistake; this is not what I intended.

But Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the invention of virtual reality, has done just that. Breaking with the ideas of technology-boosting friends and colleagues, such as Kevin Kelly, former executive editor of Wired magazine, and Chris Anderson, Wired's current editor, he goes so far as to call them "digital Maoists."

A self-confessed "humanistic softie," Lanier is fighting to wrest control of technology from the "ascendant tribe" of technologists who believe that wisdom emerges from vast crowds, rather than from distinct, individual human beings. According to Lanier, the Internet designs made by that "winning subculture" degrade the very definition of humanness. The saddest example comes from young people who brag of their thousands of friends on Facebook. To them, Lanier replies that this "can only be true if the idea of friendship is reduced."

Anyone who has followed technology and for years has resented the adoration heaped upon the ascendant tribe will positively swoon as Lanier throws into one great dustbin such sacred concepts as Web 2.0, singularity, hive mind, wikis, the long tail, the noosphere, the cloud, snippets, crowds, social networking and the Creative Commons -- dismissing them all as "cybernetic totalism" and, more fun yet, as potential "fascism."

The "cybernetic totalists" base their thinking on decades-old ideas known as "chaos" or "complexity" theory, which began with a question about ants: How does something as complex as a colony arise from the interactions of dumb ants? This approach can be useful if one is studying mass phenomena such as traffic jams. The problem comes when we try to apply ant-derived thinking to people who are trying to lead creative, expressive lives.

In the totalist model, algorithms (most of them secret and proprietary, such as Google's search engine) create knowledge by making links among the system's many human participants. From this possibly infinite set of connections arises intelligence. The creative actor is no longer the human being but the system and its algorithms, out of which emerges a living, nonhuman or trans-human higher being. (Lanier does not hesitate to compare this to religion.) There are some, such as Google co-founder Larry Page, who believe the Internet will soon be alive.
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The poor human participants become "peasants" working for the "lords" of technology: those who have deeper access to the workings of the Web (read Google, Yahoo and hedge funds with vast analytic resources) and who profit from our volunteer labor. Our role is simply to keep contributing our code-bits and snippets and Facebook pages. We become what Lanier calls "computer peripherals," and he is raising a defense against this reduction of our being.

Lanier says there is still time "to promote alternate designs [of the Internet] that resonate with human-kindness." He is fighting for something "ineffable" in the human imagination and creativity; for us to see personhood as "a quest, a mystery, and a leap of faith." These are not views normally expressed by computer scientists, and anyone but Lanier would get laughed off the stage. Yet he dares to say the forbidden: that computers as we know them may be incapable of truly representing human thoughts and relationships.

This book is very much like the Jaron Lanier he shows in his public appearances: mind-bending, exuberant, brilliant, thinking in all directions. He describes how computer software locks us into rigid ways of thinking (which brings up the next logical question, though he fails to ask it: How can a computer, with its need for standard interfaces, not lock us into the behavior and thought patterns implicit in our software?). He discusses how pack-like attacks arise on the Web wherever there is an opportunity for "consequence-free, transient anonymity." The topic hardly matters: "Jihadi chat looks just like poodle chat."

He describes the sad, stressful lives of young people who "must manage their online reputations constantly." He makes the point that the free use of everything on the Web leads to endless mashups, except for the one thing legally protected from being mashed-up: ads, making advertising the one thing on the Internet that can be "owned." In the book's final pages, he tries to imagine an alternative to "totalist" computing: a new sort of virtual-reality software that would allow us to express ourselves through transformations of our virtual bodies, as if we were cephalopods. All of which sounds quite wild, but so did virtual reality in 1980.

Overall, the book is a delight; it gives us the privilege of riding inside Lanier's "adventurous individual imagination that is distinct from the crowd." The most serious problem is the lack of citations. Many of the ideas Lanier describes have been expressed previously by others. Yet he quotes only his friends, employers and research associates, as if only their thoughts mattered and all other ideas simply came to him through the ether. He recognizes how this happens: On the Web, "often you don't know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote a comment, or who shot a video." But he did not choose to place his manifesto on the Web; he chose to write a book, so we have the right to expect more of the author. He might have asked himself: How did I come by these ideas? Are they all wholly mine? His dedication, in part, thanks someone named Lillibell, "who taught me to read anew."

The preface says he is grateful for the "real human eyes" that will pass over the following pages, and for the "tiny minority" of humanity that still reads books. Yes, Jaron, we are still here. We few, we happy few.

Ellen Ullman, a former software engineer, is the author of "Close to the Machine" and "The Bug: A Novel.
 

Date Posted: 2/14/2010 1:00 PM ET
Member Since: 4/18/2009
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Hmmm. . . that's a toughie. . . I can think of a lot of books where it simply isn't an issue (technology has advanced but otherwise people and societies are fundamentally the same) but I can't think of anything where technology has created a MORE connected society. . . all the books I can think of that take place in the future and show humanity as MORE connected involve some sort of apocalypse, or humanity's return to a pre-technological state, or humanity's transcendence into non-corporeal beings. . .

Date Posted: 2/14/2010 1:39 PM ET
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The closest I can think of is The Rite of Passage Alexei Panshin.  But the technology is not that advanced.  They aren't really plugged in to a network -and on lots of worlds there is no modern technology -and it's the interactions with those people that the book is about.

Maybe I should ask over at librarything or booksleuth:

Help -I can't remember the name of this book.  It's about a society in the future that is highly advanced and everyone is plugged into a network but they don't becone all drones or conformists.  Individuality is prized.  Does anyone remember the name of this book?

 

and see what books people come up with  I think that smiley is supposed to be a devil but it looks more like a cat drawn by a first grader.

Date Posted: 2/14/2010 2:17 PM ET
Member Since: 6/4/2007
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I don't know that I'd call the attempts at bringing people together through technology successful or not, but in Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has an element called Mercerism that is meant to create a society-wide sense of empathy for all living things.  Come to think of it, the ending to the story is a bit cynical in regards to the type of story you're looking for, but it's still got a bit of the flavor (at least for a while).

Date Posted: 2/14/2010 3:54 PM ET
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I love Dick.  He's so pragmatic most of the time but a very weird weird man.   I'm going to have to re-read that story because I can't remember the positive.  I think that's the one that the movie blade runner was from right?  I hope I have that one otherwise it's another on the old wishlist...

Date Posted: 2/16/2010 2:02 AM ET
Member Since: 7/19/2008
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One that springs to mind is Interface Masques.  But I don't remember if it ends positive or negative about tech.

S N Lewitt (AKA Shariann Lewitt) has several about tech vs non tech, such as  Angel at Apogee, which is about 1 society divided into 4.  1) low tech, 2) high tech, 3) educational institute and 4) control group.  Whoops.  Was that a spoiler?

Oh oh oh.  Sharon Shinn's Archangel series.  About genetically created angels that use music to control the science.  And then, over time, forget that it is science.



Last Edited on: 2/16/10 2:09 AM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 2/16/2010 11:32 AM ET
Member Since: 4/9/2009
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This is Not a Game by Walter John Williams deals with humans and social networks. Not sure it shows any more "connected'ness" though...

Date Posted: 2/16/2010 6:12 PM ET
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These posts made me remember a book from YEARS ago, but it isn't a fiction work.  The title is The Human Use of Human Beings, and its author was Norbert Weiner.  That fellow had genuine foresight.

Date Posted: 2/16/2010 11:00 PM ET
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It looks like This is Not a Game by Walter John Williams is the closest of the ones mentioned to what I'm wondering about (if the blurb has any relation to the story) Since you have millions hooked into a network -they must work together but they have to be autonomous at the same time. It doesn't seem to be the whole society though -more a large fringe element. I'm going to have to think about this: "high technology" = connected yet individualistic society that prospers/is happy because or in spite of the technology.

I think I may have read a book about another world that was this way and we came in and wanted something from them and almost destroyed their society but either a kind hearted xenobiologist female or a kindhearted engineering male worked with the people and saved the world. (no not avatar:)

 

and while Interface Masque is not quite what I was looking for it looks like a good read!

I would say Darkover might count but I can't remember how they developed the psi capabilities.



Last Edited on: 2/16/10 11:06 PM ET - Total times edited: 2
Subject: Arthur C. Clarke
Date Posted: 2/19/2010 12:45 PM ET
Member Since: 3/25/2006
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To the original question...

I think an outstanding example of a pro-science theme would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke.  Science and knowledge in general has enabled humankind to reach the moon and eventually Saturn, where we are therefore able to transcend the limits of our mundane existence.  I think a lot of Clarke's writing conveys a similar attitude.  Unfortunately, Clarke is now passing out of science fiction awareness, perhaps soon out of print.

-Tom Hl.

Date Posted: 2/19/2010 4:11 PM ET
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I think a lot of Clarke's writing conveys a similar attitude.

Totally agree!

Date Posted: 2/19/2010 5:38 PM ET
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I don't know-  I kind of feel like he's saying --watch , wait,  be wary.  It may be a good thing but it may bite you on your butt.  I think if we use 2001 as an example here:  He is pro technology and thinks it's positive in general but if you don't keep a good eye on it then bad things might happen.   HAL may have been acting that way for (pro)  the human race in general but to the one he was dealing with it didn't appear as though HAL was benevolent.  I feel like he believe  that technology is a good thing as long as we don't get complacent.  This does suggest t hat people can't become simple 'hive members'.  That they must retain their autonomy for the good of society.   New technology is good but you must be aware at all times to preserve humanity  -keep your thumb on it -or else you will all become ants...   I think he like HAL better than the people...  So to him it's good but dangerous. 

Don't worry Tom -Clarke won't fade away.   My kids have read him, Bradbury and others of that era and they really like it.  My son is taking a class called Science Fiction in Literature.  I'm so excited about it -he won't tell me anything -liitle punk.  He says he'll talk to me once class is over.  (he does dribble bits and pieces to me) I will say we had almost every single story/book for the course so he didn't have to buy any books.  The authors were Clarke, Bradbury,LeGuin, Lem, Verne and I can't remember who else.   One of his writing assignments was to rewrite one of the short stories from a different characters point of view.  Why didn't I get to do that in college?

Subject: Clarke & college
Date Posted: 2/19/2010 7:01 PM ET
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II think the movie 2001 emphasized HAL, but the book was about transcendence.  Well, hmm, actually they're pretty close, but I think HAL was more easily conveyed in a visual medium.

I should relate that my 23yo son last year showed me a book he had read, saying, "Have you ever read THIS?"  It was Childhood's End.  All hope is not lost.

I was fortunate to be able to take not just one sf class, but three different ones.  I actually have 10 credits in sf.   Note that this met my humanities requirement for my undergraduate engineering degree. 

 

-Tom Hl.

Date Posted: 2/19/2010 9:54 PM ET
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I have tried (2x) to sit though that movie and just never could.  I know I'm incorporating more  than the one story though.  I do feel like he tries to portray technology as good for society but the humans as not quite getting it.  But who's fault is that?  So is it good or bad?  Argh it's hard to keep the points clear.

OT:  When I was working on my PhD (EE) I had to take 6 graduate level credits per semester to get my RA stipend.  I took 3 hours of english lit classes every semester until I was found out.  (Unfortunately there was no sci fi lit back then)  There was no requirement that the classes be in your school or field simply because no one had done what I did.  I was spoken to quite firmly.  I wasn't in a hurry so I just wanted to take a bunch of different classes.

OOT:  See-- the kids of parents that like to read will keep all these books in print -probably by pilfering the parents books so we have to buy new ones...

Date Posted: 2/19/2010 9:57 PM ET
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Ann, half the reason I've got the collection I do is so that my son can pilfer; I've even got doubles of some titles I'd like to keep just in case lol

eta: I never make it through the opening sequence.  It's like valium or something.  Nothing against the whole classical music interstellar ballet of it all, but it seriously puts me down for the count.  I got a copy for Christmas, wonder if I should make some coffee and give it another shot...



Last Edited on: 2/19/10 9:59 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 2/19/2010 10:18 PM ET
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not coffee   -I think most people that liked it were on something like acid or mushrooms  -can't spell halucinagin but that's what I mean...  No offense or suspicion to/on those who liked it:)  And my book collection is dwindling rapidly because of my darling children.  But I'm actually happy about it.  I can always get more here!

 

Date Posted: 2/20/2010 3:30 AM ET
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Huh. I want parents more like you guys. I've had to buy my OWN copies of all the books my parents have that I loved. . . though this is partly because I feel bad that I destroyed their old Daw paperbacks before I knew how to properly treat books. (I used to like reading on my stomach. Out in the sun.)

The effect, obviously, is the same: classic authors stay in print, just barely. But my parents have more money to replace their library! Ah well, that's what we created PBS for. . . :)

Date Posted: 2/20/2010 1:34 PM ET
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Phoenix,  I will admit I've been reading a lot more fairytale fantasy types lately.  I know they won't walk off with those before I've finished reading.  Of course if they are desperate for reading material all bets are off.   I've been bugging one of them to return Name of the Wind to me since I haven't read it yet.  Spring break is soon.  When I go to pick him up I will check his bags to make sure that's coming back!  I'll have to read it before the other one gets it.  He goes to a university in this area and comes home once a week to get fed and take books.  (at least that's how I view it)

Date Posted: 2/20/2010 3:04 PM ET
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I should have encapsulated what Weiner said in his The Human Use of Human Beings.  Or at least tried . . .

The gist of the book was his expectation that the machines would continue to become more and more human while the humans would become more and more mechanical.   Some years ago, a woman I used to know was engaged by Bell Corp. to do "human engineering".  It seems there was a need to give serious attention to the man-machine interface, as in the cockpits of some of those super-duper new go-karts the U. S. A. was building.



Last Edited on: 2/20/10 3:05 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 2/20/2010 3:37 PM ET
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Weiner had some very interesting scientific thoughts -some breakthroughs. In my particular field he developed a transform/filter. He was rather more political and therefore went theoretical in many of his articles. He was actually excessively pro-cybernetics (high tech) although many people attributed a serious warning to his writing. I think it was because he was so precise in his explanations. This actually is a more engineering point of view (vs theoretical math) -just the facts ma'am! As far as human engineering -many high tech cockpits now have comic books as user manuals... makes me a bit nervous.

 

remember -when he was writing about cybernetics - it was like writing about global warming now...  He was a voice of reason in an emotionally charged subject

 



Last Edited on: 2/21/10 6:32 AM ET - Total times edited: 2
Date Posted: 2/20/2010 4:20 PM ET
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You mean this global warming?

http://www.therenewableplanet.com/blogs/the_daily_green/archive/2009/11/24/global-warming-hoax-emails-leak.aspx

Date Posted: 2/20/2010 4:48 PM ET
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edited to remove taking the bait on the hijack. 



Last Edited on: 2/20/10 4:49 PM ET - Total times edited: 2
Date Posted: 2/20/2010 5:01 PM ET
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Ahh...  see my point exactly --slightly emotional slightly scientific.  Global warming has become more political than scientific.  That's where cybernetics was in the 60s.   There's a fear factor.   GIVE ME DATA let me interpret it -don't do it for me!  It's so hard to figure out what's going on because of the emotions & politics and lack of actual data because people are too controlling.

 

Date Posted: 2/26/2010 12:22 AM ET
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To hijack again...

I kinda like the idea of cockpit directions being comic books.  I some how imagine pilots as being visual thinkers rather than verbal thinkers.  And I really like the theory that they would actually be able to recall what to do in case of problems.  But then, I've always learned better to diagrams and songs.  Give me a book with meter, and I'll be happy as a clam.  Give me a dry textbook, and I'll be asleep.

Typos!  Oh my.

And my library has You are not a gadget on order.   Whee.



Last Edited on: 2/26/10 12:24 AM ET - Total times edited: 2