Category Archives: The Future

The Last Post

In all likelihood, this is the last post on this site. The blog has run for precisely three years, this post aside, and was, in good part, a deliberate but modest exercise for me. During its first year (2013), I set myself the task of writing a post every week, and then did that, before tailing of to a more intermittent schedule. As I wrote in an earlier article, I have blogged as a creative outlet, for myself, because I actually enjoy the art and craft of writing, especially when I can do so on my own schedule.

Photo: Thomas Hawk
Photo: Thomas Hawk

Maybe the writing and posting is little more than the piteous human impulse to leave something behind, after we’re so soon gone: a small stack of notes, initials carved in the trunk of a tree, ‘handprints on the wall of the digital cave.’

My approach has of course meant that the size of the audience for this blog has been limited, to say the least, but I’m not too fussed about that. Its final value for me has lain elsewhere.

Maybe one day it will be appreciated as one small record kept during times which were changing as quickly as they have ever changed for humankind. The disruption of the digital revolution was in high gear back in 2012-13, and it seems to me that it has slowed some in more recent years. Robotic cars are coming on rather more slowly than did smart phones.

These days, it feels more like we are living in a time of reckoning with that technical, social, economic disruption, a time when many people are looking for someone to blame for the more difficult circumstances they suddenly find themselves living in. And, sadly, there are always politicians willing to step up and seize the opportunity afforded by those searchings, politicians like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. Clearly there is a price to be paid when change is not so well managed by those with control of the social and economic levers. If we don’t get effective progressive change then we get reactionary change, and reactionary change is doomed to fail, at least in the long run.

The most impactful change has of course been economic, the result of globalization in a capitalist society which makes having more, as opposed to less money ever so much more convenient and status boosting. Median incomes have stalled in the West, given global competition; jobs have disappeared, the kinds of jobs available have changed, and it is so much easier to blame immigration—the visible signs of change—than it is to blame, say, automation, which has been so much more likely to have undermined your economic well being.

What does it mean for the future? It’s always hard to say. Events are by their very nature unpredictable, and unforeseen events can quickly sway historical outcomes in big ways. As the human species continues to overrun the planet, we are going to have to wrestle certain problems—overpopulation, ecological damage (especially climate change), economic inequality—to the ground, or we are in for a rough ride.

Can we do so? It’s certainly possible. All it takes is the right choices, collectively and individually, made by the right people at the right times. Simple, right?

No, not so simple. But then, what we can do individually is restricted, so that makes it a little easier. Educate yourself, sit back, see the bigger picture, make choices for the greater good, rationally rather than out of frustration, resentment, anger or any of those other emotions which we then look to rationalize. Try to be aware of when you are acting selfishly, blaming others, speaking only to those from your own ‘tribe’, however that may be defined, whether by class, race, religion or nationality. Like it or not, we are all in this together. That colony on Mars will never be our salvation.

Maybe, just maybe, this blog has helped someone other than me to do these things, to maintain a wider perspective, clarify, stay calm and choose wisely. If so, bonus. Great. If not, that’s okay too. It’s helped me.

Eating Meat

Yesterday, more than 150 million animals were slaughtered for human consumption. The same number will die today. This is a worldwide number, and it doesn’t include marine life.

It’s a veritable animal Holocaust, happening everyday, out of sight, out of mind. And I use the H-word advisably here, not in any original way. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Jewish, Nobel Prize-winning author who in 1935 fled the growing Nazi threat in Warsaw for New York, referred to our daily massacre of animals as “an eternal Treblinka.”

It arises from something called speciesism, the notion that humankind enjoys a set of rights which all other living species do not. It’s applied unevenly of course, without any real logic. We kill and eat cows, chickens and pigs, but protect cats, dogs, horses and… great apes, that is select wild animals. Lest you immediately think the concept is truly wacko, I would remind you that, only 50 years ago, a large number of people believed that all members of another race enjoyed considerably fewer rights than did we white folks. If we track back 200 years we find that nearly everyone in the West believed this.

Back to great apes for a moment, as we consider the wacko-ness of speciesism. Are you entirely comfortable with the idea that we capture and imprison a mountain gorilla for our edification and viewing enjoyment? Me neither. The next question would be, why not? (Sure, zookeepers argue protection of an endangered species, but if that was the only reason we would put all our resources into protecting gorillas in place.)

*     *     *     *

Back in 2006, Dr. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas published a book called The China Study, rightly subtitling it “The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted.” Dr. Campbell is a Professor Emeritus from Cornell University, and The China Study was conducted through that University, Oxford, and The Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine in Beijing. The gist of the massive study’s findings might be summarized as diets with higher meat and dairy consumption correlate directly and significantly with higher rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, the so-called ‘diseases of affluence.’ Likewise with obesity, same sort of correlation.

The typical Chinese diet contains less fat, less protein, more fiber and iron, and much less animal foods than does the typical American diet. And the incidence of the most common killers in North America is far lower. Interestingly, the average Chinese citizen actually consumes more calories than does the average American, indicating that it’s not how much you eat, but what, plus how active you are.

What’s more, Dr. Campbell and his cohorts discovered that, if you were already afflicted with the diseases of affluence, a plant-based diet is in fact effective treatment of those diseases.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard more of this study, you might want to read Dr. Campbell’s chapters on “Why Haven’t You Heard This Before?” The experience he describes directly parallels the too-long successful campaign by the fossil fuels industry to obfuscate the climate change debate—essentially the meat, dairy and egg industries pay for research which contradicts The China Study, succeeding not in refuting the evidence presented, but in simply ‘muddying the waters,’ causing you to think there is no conclusive case to be made, either way.

*     *     *     *

The Factory Farm: Old McDonald meets McDonald's
The Factory Farm: Old McDonald meets McDonald’s

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the devastating ecological effects of the livestock and fishing industries worldwide, and how the big environmental organizations like Greenpeace, in their own selfish interests, avoid criticizing these industries. With the possible exception of our global abuse of fresh water resources, no single factor contributes as much to our environmental peril as do the farmed animal industries. You likely have only to think about habitat loss, factory cattle and hog farms, and the water-born runoff of pollutants to grasp the enormity of the destructive impact, including the industry’s contribution to climate change.

There is really no doubt about it, whether you come at it from a moral, health or environmental perspective, there is no good reason for our continued consumption of animal-based foods. There is, of course and however, one overriding explanation as to why we continue to eat meat: habit.

Death As A Process

We are all hurtling toward oblivion. And none of us want to talk about it, much less think about it.

Alex Proimos photo
Alex Proimos photo

The real problem, however, is that, although we are all careening toward our own personal extinction, modern medicine is doing a bang up job of forestalling the moment. Average life expectancy back in classical Greece was under 30 years; life expectancy in many countries today is over 80. Globally, over the last 200 years, life expectancy has essentially doubled, and the trend continues. A recent Lancet study tells us that life expectancy for men and women has increased by about six years in just the past two decades. It is said that the first person who will live to age 200 has now been born!

‘What’s the problem?’ you may ask. Longer life = a good thing. No?

Well, no and yes. A healthy, meaningful life, free of pain, sure. But, as many of us have seen, the final years, under a miraculous contemporary medical regime, can be contrary to all three of those descriptors.

We used to, more often than not, die at home. Not anymore, although almost all of us will say that we’d prefer to. And again, the trend continues; one study says that in the U.K., by 2030 fewer than one in ten will die at home (and that includes a ‘nursing home’). When the end comes, we are very likely to be within the walls of a cool, clinical institution.

But again, I don’t think that’s the worst of it. We used to die far more precipitously. We got old, we got sick, we died, like dropping off the earthly plane. Now, as stipulated in Being Mortal, Atul Gawande‘s excellent book on this untidy business, the pattern of our death is typically a prolonged series of much shorter drop-offs. We develop heart disease, there are effective drugs for that. Our legs go; here’s an electric wheelchair that can spin around inside an elevator. Cancer crops up, begin chemotherapy. Today’s medical model is an interventionist one; if the problem can be addressed it will be, or at least it should be. And so our lives are repeatedly extended, and each time, the quality is not quite what it was.

What’s more, the final expiry itself is no longer definitive. Our demarcation of death used to be based upon the heart and lungs stopping their involuntary movement. Then, back in the late 60s, given the interventionist aplomb of doctors, we switched to ‘brain dead.’ But now, even that definition isn’t working for us. In a recent National Geographic article, brain death is broken down into five separate stages. (The first is short-term memory loss, and if that’s true, I’m dying as I write this.)

Just above, I used the word “moment” in referring to death, but hang on. As quoted in the same article, Sam Parnia, in his book Erasing Death, refutes that notion explicitly: death is “a process, not a moment.” And doctors can now resuscitate our dying selves well along into that process, up to 30 minutes in with adults, much longer for children, long after we would have been ‘left for dead,’ just a few decades ago.

It’s all very disorderly and difficult, and something we all need to think about, vis a vis our own short lives. As my mother said several times in referring to particularly decrepit friends, “We can live too long.” And yet, as a friend of my own once said, with unsettling accuracy, “We cling to life.” (Well, not my mother. She wasn’t in pain, but, dying of cancer, she asked for, and would have taken, if it had been provided for her, a “euthanasia pill.”)

And a final point here. It is often the family members of the dying, not the dying themselves, who prompt the intervention. We cling not only to life, but to our connection to the dying. And if one thing is clear to me in all this messiness, it’s that the decision to intervene should rest with the dying, not the interventionists, whoever they may be.

Ask your aging loved ones what they want, what they fear, when the end comes. Make sure that you have a ‘Living Will’ in place, that a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ sign will be hung on the end of the hospital bed where you will likely expire, if that is your desire. Make your wishes known to your family members before you’re incapacitated, and the decision has to go to them.

If nothing else, go out on your own terms.

 

 

The Sacred Cow

It begins with this startling fact: the livestock industry (meat and dairy) is responsible for the release of more greenhouse gases than is the entire transport industry combined (cars, trucks, trains and airplanes). According to a 2013 UN report, greenhouse gas emissions originating with the raising of cows, pigs and chickens constitute about 14% of the world’s total; the collective emissions from motor vehicles of all kinds are 13%. Not a vast difference you might think, though, like me, you may well be surprised by this truth, but here’s an even more disturbing fact:

None of the big environmental activist organizations—not Greenpeace, not the Sierra Club, not the Rainforest Action Network, none of them—want to talk about it.

Why? Well, sadly, it comes back to that truism that applies to corporations; these environmental organizations are just that, organizations, not-for-profit ones, but organizations just the same, and just like Shell and GE and H&M and all the other for-profit companies that the environmental groups like to condemn, they are first of all concerned about their own bottom line. To attack the livestock industry would be to damage the inflow of their donations, their membership fees.

p10935874_p_v8_aaThis is all pretty much nailed by the feature documentary Cowspiracy, by the way. A new version of the show is currently available on Netflix.

The harmful impact of the livestock industry is multifaceted of course. Not only do cows fart prodigious amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more destructive than carbon dioxide, the industry is also the leading cause of species extinction, largely through habitat destruction, and water pollution. What’s more, animal agriculture is currently consuming water at an absolutely unsustainable rate. The growing of feed crops for livestock alone accounts for more than half of all the water consumed in the U.S. And water, in the coming days, is going to be increasingly scarce in many populated areas, courtesy of climate change.

I’m reminded of the time, years ago, when I was producing a documentary about a group of men with severe spinal cord injuries trying to leave the institution they lived in, trying to establish an independent group home. This was during the time that Rick Hansen was travelling the globe by wheelchair, raising awareness everywhere of the rights and prospects for those with spinal cord injuries. I naively supposed that Rick Hansen’s organization would be encouraging of our efforts; after all we were supporting the same cause, but no, I was surprised to learn that individuals within that organization (not the man himself) were badmouthing us and our project. And then it occurred to me—the Rick Hansen organization’s prime cause was the Rick Hansen organization, not spinal cord injury sufferers per se.

It’s a distressing reality. All organizations seek first of all to augment themselves, and individuals within any organization seek above all to further their own careers, to add to their own bank accounts.

But the larger issue here is indeed the unsettling certainty that, in future, we all should eat less meat and dairy, a lot less meat and dairy. And the large environmental organizations are right; few of us want to hear that. We enjoy eating meat and fish and eggs and cheese, and, more fundamentally, we don’t appreciate anyone, organization or individual, telling us we shouldn’t. Guilting us. It’s a lifestyle change that isn’t easily managed, but like any habit, it’s one that is most easily changed incrementally. Think of it this way: ‘meatless Monday’ eventually needs to become ‘meat Monday,’ the one day of the week when you eat meat guilt-free, but for now maybe it can be meatless weekdays, or maybe meatless days beginning with S or T.

Whatever. It’s a discomforting secret that we all need to wake up to. If we are to collectively escape the worst effects of climate change, as Michael Pollan has so rightly recommended, we need to eat “mostly plants.” And it seems that, for the foreseeable future, we are all going to have to do so without the help of the very organizations who claim to be most concerned about climate change.

 

Rewilding Galiano

When the British writer George Monbiot moved in 2007 to a small town in Wales located on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains, he was excited about the chance to explore this largely uninhabited ‘wilderness area.’ The Cambrian Mountains Society describes it as an “unspoiled landscape with a rich cultural history and vibrant natural beauty.”

'The Cambrian Desert?" Brother Magneto photo
‘The Cambrian Desert?”
Brother Magneto photo

When he ventured out onto this landscape, however, Monbiot instead found what he quickly came to see as “the Cambrian Desert,” an ecological disaster area with a severe paucity of wild animals and a much degraded diversity of plantlife. Where a variety of trees and flowering plants once grew, there was now mostly just heather. Few birds were to be seen; even insects were hardly present. The suburban cityscape Monbiot had left behind, he discovered, was in fact richer in wildlife than his new locale.

Why? Well, animal husbandry, by and large. The area had originally been cleared for crops and pasture lands. Sheep and cattle had replaced the previous fauna, and over time these domesticated ungulates grazed the land into a condition of enduring ecological impoverishment.

Monbiot is one of the chief proponents of ‘rewilding’ parts of our world, an intriguing concept which calls for the reforestation of large tracts of land and the reintroduction of now extinct megafauna—bison, elephants, wolves, etc. A number of rewilding projects have been successfully carried out in Europe, as well as in North America (the reintroduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park is a prominent example; here’s video on that success), but, as you can imagine, it remains controversial. Such efforts in the U.K., for instance, have been effectively curtailed by agricultural interests.

Living on Galiano, I know of what Monbiot speaks. The condition he describes in Wales begins as a result of our hunting the ‘apex predators’ in a region to extinction. Evidence suggests that, as we humans moved out of Africa and into all other areas of the world, millennia ago, we went about eliminating these predators at a prodigious rate, and not always for reasons of safety or the provision of food. We did it because we could.

As I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, on Galiano there are no wolves or cougars, and so the deer proliferate in great numbers. They seem to build up in number until some sort of plague breaks out, they die off in significant numbers, and then the cycle begins again. This because, on Galiano, there is no ‘trophic cascade,’ no predation from the apex on down.

The westcoast rainforest is too vigorous for the deer to degrade in the way sheep have the topography in Wales, but nevertheless, as a gardener on Galiano, I’m fully aware of how limited a vegetative palate can survive their constant grazing, at least not when those plants are small. Nothing like an introduced shrub or flowering plant (with the blessed exemption of daffodils) can survive their appetites, except within a tall fence.

And the native vegetation which survives them is indeed restricted. The leathery leaves and smothering underground creep of salal thrives. Ferns get a severe haircut but manage to persist. But there’s not a lot of variation in the undergrowth beyond that.

Rewilding Galiano with the reintroduction of wolves or cougars, thus to encourage the development of a more diverse ecology? ‘Not likely’ hardly begins to describe that prospect. Cougars have been known to hunt smaller children, of which there are a fair number running about on the Island.

One of the related phenomena Monbiot describes in his book Feral: Rewilding The Land, The Sea and Human Life is termed “The Shifting Baseline Syndrome.” It’s a process whereby we judge whatever condition we grew up with to be the norm, the original condition. But, as Monbiot points out, what we grew up with may well already have been seriously reduced. We just weren’t around to see that happen.

Certainly this would seem to be the case with the ocean waters which surround Galiano, where sea life is reportedly not nearly as rich or plentiful as it once was. Regardless, it’s a concept we should all be aware of and appreciate. The sad fact is that, because of our seemingly irresistible urge to meddle in the ecosystem which encompasses us, we are all now living with loss.

Interstellar Dreams

In a recent article in Aeon magazine, Elon Musk tells us that he figures it will take about a million people to properly colonize Mars. He has in mind a design for a giant spaceship, the “Mars Colonial Transporter,” to facilitate the task.

8577726421_2a363387c1And lest you think that Mr. Musk is just another techno-geek keener with a shaky grip on reality, no. This is the guy who sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion, then went on to successfully compete with corporate behemoth General Motors by designing and marketing the Tesla electric car. Currently he heads up SpaceX, a startup dedicated to said colonization of Mars, a company that has a contract with NASA to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. He’s the real deal.

Musk sees the colonization of the red planet as a stepping stone to exploration of the rest of our solar system, and ultimately interstellar space. He imagines the million colonists in place within a century, the first bunch taking up residence there around 2040.

As a species, we have been journeying out beyond the horizon for about as long as we’ve been mobile. Always willing, despite obvious dangers, to explore unknown territories, then ‘settle’ them, before allowing others to move on again, into the alien. This urge to migrate, to reconnoiter strange lands and then inhabit them is one of the true hallmarks of humankind. No other species has spread so far and wide on the planet, and done it with such aplomb.

And so, for us, outer space is of course “the next frontier.”

The obstacles this time are no less considerable than they were on terra firma. Mars once had an atmosphere; probably surface water too, but these days it’s a distinctly harsh environment; exposed to it you’d last less than 30 seconds. Colonist’s quarters there will be close, and extremely stress-inducing. It will be a bleak, constricted adventure, and very few will care to go, given that it’s a one-way ticket.

Getting there, however, is relatively easy, compared to interstellar space travel. The nearest star, called Alpha Centauri, is four light years away. Sounds encouraging—if we can even approach the speed of light the trip might take less than four years for the astronauts to arrive, if Einstein was right about speed shortening time. The problem is the energy needed for the journey; it seems it is physically impossible that the spaceship could carry enough onboard fuel. Scientists have imagined ‘solar sails’ which will capture the streaming energy of the sun, a solar wind, if you will. Then there’s the need for enough food for the trip, the immense psychological pressure of isolation lasting that long, the health problems that come with weightlessness, the difficulty of communication with home, exposure to hazardous radiation, and more. Again scientists have ideas to meet all these challenges, but they are highly theoretical. None of them are anywhere near practical realization.

And of course there is the possibility of robotic exploration of space, but that’s not the same is it. Where’s the adventure in that? No robot can ever be a hero, not without a lot of misplaced anthropomorphism.

No, for all intents and purposes, our days of exploration are over. There are no more truly wild places left upon Mother Earth, and our chances of sallying forth into outer space, at least for the very indefinite future, are essentially nil. As William Gibson has pointed out, no one will speak of ‘the twenty-second century’ the way we used to of the twenty-first.

It’s a necessary, perhaps mythic shift in consciousness with consequences yet to be determined. Obviously it behooves us to take good care of the planet, given that it’s the only abode any of us will ever have. But it also suggests that we should better appreciate the miraculous coincidence of life on ‘the pale blue dot.’ Just as interstellar travel may never happen, so too we may never discover life elsewhere in the universe.

This is it folks. We’re staying home tonight, and likely forever. Fate will find us where we are.

 

Let the Machines Decide

The GPS device in my car knows the speed limit for the road I’m driving on, and displays that information for me on its screen. Nice. Nobody needs another speeding ticket. But what if my ‘smart car’ refused to go over that limit, even if I wanted it to? You know, the wife shouting from the backseat, about to give birth, the hospital four blocks away, that sort of thing.

David Hilowitz photo
David Hilowitz photo

It’s a scenario not far removed from reality. Google’s robotic car has inspired many futurists to imagine a computer that controls not only the speed of your car, but also where it goes, diverting your car away from congestion points toward alternate routes to your destination. Evgeny Morozov is among these futurists, and in a recent article in The Observer, he suggests that computers may soon be in a position to usurp many functions that we have traditionally assigned to government. “Algorithmic regulation,” he calls it. We can imagine government bureaucrats joining the unemployment line to fill out a form that will allow a computer to judge whether they are worthy of benefits or no.

Examples of machines making decisions previously assigned to humans are already easily found. If the ebook downloaded to my Kobo has a hold placed on it, the Vancouver Public Library’s computer will unceremoniously retrieve it from my e-reader upon its due date, regardless of whether I have just 10 more pages to read, and would be willing to pay the overdue fine in order to do so.

But Morozov’s cautionary critique is about a wider phenomenon, and it’s largely the ‘internet of things’ which is fuelling his concern. The internet of things is most pointedly about the process which will see digital chips migrate out of electronic devices, into those things which we have until now tended to consider inanimate, non-electronic objects, things like your door, or your mattress. It may well be that in future a computer somewhere will be informed about it when you don’t spend the night at home.

Maybe you spent the night on a friend’s couch, after one too many. Maybe you ate some greasy fast food that night too. And maybe you haven’t worked out at your club’s gym for more than six months now. The data gathering upshot of this at least arguably unhealthy behavior is that you may be considered higher risk by a life insurance company, and so proffered a higher premium.

Presumably there is a human being at the end of this theoretical decision-making chain, but I think we’ve all learned that it’s never safe to assume that digital tech won’t take over any particular role, and certainly whatever the imagined final decision taken as to your insurance risk, certainly it will be informed by data collection done by digital machines.

The most chilling note struck in Morozov’s piece comes, for me, when he quotes Tim O’Reilly, technology publisher and venture capitalist, referring to precisely this industry: “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.”

Now isn’t that heartening. Corporate insurance as the business model of the near future.

The gist of what is alarming about the prospect of digital machines taking increasing control of our lives is that it suggests that the ‘depersonalization’ we have all been living through for the last three-plus decades is only the beginning. It’s “day one,” as Jeff Bezos likes to say about the digital revolution. It suggests that we can look forward to feeling like a true speck of dust in the infinite cosmic universe of corporate society, with absolutely no living being to talk to should we ever wish to take an unnecessary risk, diverge from the chosen route, or pay the fine instead.

For all the libertarian noise that folks from Silicon Valley make about efficiency and disruption, let no one be fooled: the slick algorithmic regulation that replaces decisions made by people, whether government bureaucrats or not, may be more objective, but it will not bring greater freedom.

The Age of Surveillance

“Today’s world would have disturbed and astonished George Orwell.”                                        —David Lyon, Director, Surveillance Studies Centre, Queen’s University

When Orwell wrote 1984, he imagined a world where pervasive surveillance was visual, achieved by camera. Today’s surveillance is of course much more about gathering information, but it is every bit as all-encompassing as that depicted by Orwell in his dystopian novel. Whereas individual monitoring in 1984 was at the behest of a superstate personified as ‘Big Brother,’ today’s omnipresent watching comes via an unholy alliance of business and the state.

Most of it occurs when we are online. In 2011, Max Schrems, an Austrian studying law in Silicon Valley, asked Facebook to send him all the data the company had collected on him. (Facebook was by no means keen to meet his request; as a European, Schrems was able to take advantage of the fact that Facebook’s European headquarters are in Dublin, and Ireland has far stricter privacy laws than we have on this side of the Atlantic.) He was shocked to receive a CD containing more than 1200 individual PDFs. The information tracked every login, chat message, ‘poke’ and post Schram had ever made on Facebook, including those he had deleted. Additionally, a map showed the precise locations of all the photos tagging Schrem that a friend had posted from her iPhone while they were on vacation together.

Facebook accumulates this dossier of information in order to sell your digital persona to advertisers, as does Google, Skype, Youtube, Yahoo! and just about every other major corporate entity operating online. If ever there was a time when we wondered how and if the web would become monetized, we now know the answer. The web is an advertising medium, just as are the television and radio; it’s just that the advertising is ‘targeted’ at you via a comprehensive individual profile that these companies have collected and happily offered to their advertising clients, in exchange for their money.

How did our governments become involved? Well, the 9/11 terrorist attacks kicked off their participation most definitively. Those horrific events provided rationale for governments everywhere to begin monitoring online communication, and to pass laws making it legal wherever necessary. And now it seems they routinely ask the Googles and Facebooks of the world to hand over the information they’re interested in, and the Googles and Facebooks comply, without ever telling us they have. In one infamous incidence, Yahoo! complied with a Chinese government request to provide information on two dissidents, Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao, and this complicity led directly to the imprisonment of both men. Sprint has now actually automated a system to handle requests from government agencies for information, one that charges a fee of course!

It’s all quite incredible, and we consent to it every time we toggle that “I agree” box under the “terms and conditions” of privacy policies we will never read. The terms of service you agree to on Skype, for instance, allow Skype to change those terms any time they wish to, without your notification or permission.

And here’s the real rub on today’s ‘culture of surveillance:’ we have no choice in the matter. Use of the internet is, for almost all of us, no longer a matter of socializing, or of seeking entertainment; it is where we work, where we carry out the myriad of tasks necessary to maintain the functioning of our daily life. The choice to not create an online profile that can then be sold by the corporations which happen to own the sites we operate within is about as realistic as is the choice to never leave home. Because here’s the other truly disturbing thing about surveillance in the coming days: it’s not going to remain within the digital domain.

Coming to a tree near you? BlackyShimSham photo
Coming to a tree near you?
BlackyShimSham photo

In May of this year Canadian Federal authorities used facial recognition software to bust a phony passport scheme being operated out of Quebec and BC by organized crime figures. It seems Passport Canada has been using the software since 2009, but it’s only become truly effective in the last few years. It’s not at all difficult to imagine that further advances in this software will soon have security cameras everywhere able to recognize you wherever you go. Already such cameras can read your car’s license plate number as you speed over a bridge, enabling the toll to be sent to your residence, for payment at your convenience. Thousands of these cameras continue to be installed in urban, suburban and yes, even rural areas every year.

Soon enough, evading surveillance will be nearly impossible, whether you’re online or walking in the woods. Big Brother meets Big Data.

What We Put Up With

The sky was new. It was a thick, uniform, misty grey, but I was told there were no clouds up there. I’d never seen this before, and was skeptical. How could this be? It was the humidity, I was told. It got like that around here on hot summer days.

The year was 1970; I was 17, part of a high school exchange program that had taken me and a fair number of my friends to the Trenton-Belleviille area of southern Ontario. We’d been squired about in buses for days, shuffling through various museums and historical sights, sometimes bored, sometimes behaving badly (my buddy Ken, blowing a spliff in the washroom cubicle at the back of the bus, would surely be considered bad form), sometimes, not often, left to our own devices. On this day we’d been driven to the sandy shores of Lake Ontario, where what was shockingly, appallingly new, much newer than the leaden sky, was out there in the shallow water.

Small signs were attached to stakes standing in the water, just offshore. They read, “Fish for Fun.”

I couldn’t believe it. How could this be allowed to happen? How could people put up with this? As a kid from a small town in northern Alberta, I’d never seen anything like it.

It was a kind of accelerated future shock, as if I had been suddenly propelled forward in time to a new, meta-industrialized world where this was the accepted reality. In this cowardly new world, lakes would be so polluted that eating fish caught in them was unsafe (at 17, I’d caught my share of fish, and always eaten them), and this was how people dealt with the problem. With a lame attempt at cheery acquiescence.

When I think about it, my 17-year-old self would have had a great deal of trouble believing numerous of the realities that we live with today. Setting aside all the literally incredible changes wrought by the digital revolution—where we walk around with tiny computers in our hand, able to instantly send and/or receive information from anywhere in the world—here are a few more mundane examples of contemporary realities that would have had me shaking my teenage head in utter disbelief:

  • Americans buy more than 200 bottles of water per person every year, spending more than $20 billion in the process.
  • People everywhere scoop up their dog’s excrement, deposit it into small plastic bags that they then carry with them to the nearest garbage receptacle. (Here’s a related—and very telling—factoid, first pointed out to me in a top-drawer piece by New York Times Columnist David Brooks: there are now more American homes with dogs than there are homes with children.)
  • On any given night in Canada, some 30,000 people are homeless. One in 50 of them is a child.

There are more examples I could give of current actualities my teen incarnation would scarcely have believed, but, to backtrack for a moment in the interests of fairness, pollution levels in Lake Ontario are in fact lower today than they were in 1970, although the lake can hardly be considered pristine. As the redoubtable Elizabeth May, head of Canada’s Green Party, points out in a recent statement, many of the worst environmental problems of the 70s have been effectively dealt with—toxic pesticides, acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer—but only because worthy activists like her fought long and hard for those solutions.

jronaldlee photo
jronaldlee photo

The fact is that we are a remarkably adaptable species, able to adjust to all manner of hardships, injustice and environmental degradation, so long as those changes come about slowly, and we are given to believe there’s not much we as individuals can do about it. Never has the metaphor of the frog in the slowly heating pot of water been more apropos than it is to the prospect of man-made climate change, for instance.

It’s not the cataclysmic changes that are going to get us. It’s the incremental ones.

 

Exponential End

Computers are now more than a million times faster than they were when the first hand calculator appeared back in the 1960s. (An engineer working at Texas Instruments, Jack Kilby, had invented the first integrated circuit, or semiconductor, in 1957.) This incredible, exponential increase was predicted via ‘Moore’s Law,’ first formulated in 1965: that is that the number of transistors in a semiconductor doubles approximately every two years.

Another way to state this Law (which is not a natural ‘law’ at all, but an observational prediction) is to say that each generation of transistors will be half the size of the last. This is obviously a finite process, with an end in sight.  Well, in our imaginations at least.

The implications of this end are not so small. As we all know, rapidly evolving digital technology has hugely impacted nearly every sector of our economy, and with those changes has come disruptive social change, but also rapid economic growth. The two largest arenas of economic growth in the U.S. in recent years have been Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and Wall Street has prospered on the manipulation of money, via computers, while Silicon Valley (Silicon is the ‘plate’ upon which a semiconductor is usually built.) has prospered upon the growing ubiquity of computers themselves.

Intel has predicted that the end of this exponential innovation will come anywhere between 2013 and 2018. Moore’s Law itself predicts the end at 2020. Gordon Moore himself—he who formulated the Law—said in a 2005 interview that, “In terms of size [of transistors] you can see that we’re approaching the size of atoms, which is a fundamental barrier.” Well, in 2012 a team working at the University of New South Wales announced the development of the first working transistor consisting of a single atom. That sounds a lot like the end of the line.

In November of last year, a group of eminent semiconductor experts met in Washington to discuss the current state of semiconductor innovation, as well as its worrisome future. These men (alas, yes, all men) are worried about the future of semiconductor innovation because it seems that there are a number of basic ideas about how innovation can continue past the coming ‘end,’ but none of these ideas has emerged as more promising than the others, and any one of them is going to be very expensive. We’re talking a kind of paradigm shift, from microelectronics to nanoelectronics, and, as is often the case, the early stages of a fundamentally new technology are much more costly than the later stages, when the new technology has been scaled up.

And of course research dollars are more difficult to secure these days than they have been in the past. Thus the additional worry that the U.S., which has for decades led the world in digital innovation, is going to be eclipsed by countries like China and Korea that are now investing more in R&D than is the U.S. The 2013 budget sequestration cuts have, for instance, directly impacted certain university research budgets, causing programs to be cancelled and researchers to be laid off.

Bell Labs 1934
Bell Labs 1934

One of the ironies of the situation, for all those of us who consider corporate monopoly to be abhorrent, is evident when a speaker at the conference mentioned working at the Bell Labs back in the day when Ma Bell (AT&T) operated as a monopoly and funds at the Labs were virtually unlimited. Among the technologies originating at the Bell Labs are the transistor, the laser, and the UNIX operating system.

It’s going to be interesting, because the need is not going away. The runaway train that is broadband appetite, for instance, is not slowing down; by 2015 it’s estimated that there will be 16 times the amount of video clamoring to get online than there is today.

It’s worth noting that predictions about Moore’s law lasting only about another decade have been made for the last 30 years. And futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Bruce Sterling believe that exponential innovation will continue on past the end of its current course due in large part to a ‘Law of Accelerating Technical Returns,’ leading ultimately to ‘The Singularity,’ where computers surpass human intelligence.

Someone should tell those anxious computer scientists who convened last November in Washington: not to worry. Computers will solve this problem for us.