In just a few short years, it has become increasingly apparent that humankind is fast approaching a technological tipping point. Particularly in the West – the First World, the Developed Nations, or whatever self-consciously superlative designation you prefer – a thoroughgoing dependence on “high technology” for life-sustaining essentials is evident in all spheres of modern society. The hardware of our lives, from food and energy to transportation and shelter, is entirely bound up with the workings of a highly mechanized and digitized global economy. And no less so, the software of our existence – communications, community, entertainment, education, media, politics, and the like – is equally entwined within that same technocratic system.
This is not a lamentation, just an observation. To describe this state of affairs as a fait accompli or to conspiratorially suggest an orchestrated inevitability misses the larger point that it merely constitutes what is at this point in history. The utter dependency of our collective lives on the intricate workings of a hypertechnical web makes the perpetuation and evolution of that network a survival strategy for a significant portion of the species. Simply put, we need it. And in that, we come to realize the double-edged meaning of “the web” as something that simultaneously interconnects and ensnares. Our habituation to this web traps us even as it brings us together.
Consider the implications from the perspective of a typical modern life. First and foremost, our entire financial being – and with it the capacity to procure everything else – exists almost exclusively due to a computer’s ability to recognize and recall our bona fides to transact. More and more of our work activities and labor energies are expended on digitally-based tasks that likewise rely upon computerized repositories and retrieval mechanisms of which we are scarcely knowledgeable. A substantial portion of our political, educational and healthcare opportunities are similarly enmeshed in remote databases and personal delivery devices. And, increasingly, our social interactions are coming to be dependent upon equivalent circuits of electronic exchange.
What would transpire if this web suddenly was to disappear? I’m not inclined to view humankind through a Hobbesian lens of aggression and ruthlessness. We might find surprising ways to reconnect to people and place that stave off the worst forms of behavioral descent, and even open up new pathways for sustainable and just living arrangements both among ourselves and with the balance of nature. There may be enough farmers, builders, teachers and artists among us with old-school skills sufficient to sustain communities, if not cultures, on some level. Perhaps there yet remains an atavistic thread of time-tested humanity still within us that devolves upon the basic ways that the species survived for the overwhelming majority of our existence.
Indeed, such an admittedly romantic vision could come to pass for some of us. But in a more incisive “realist” rendering, it might also be surmised that many will perish or otherwise suffer in the process of any such rapid digital demise. Similarly, it might be tempting to suppose that people in the Third World – the Global South, the Developing Nations, or whatever other pejorative pearl comes to mind – could somehow escape the worst outcomes should the “grid go down” precipitously. Yet their lives, too, are rapidly becoming conditioned upon the existence of the same system that binds us – even as they oftentimes will experience it from the “business end” of the machine, whereas we tend to see only ourselves in its polished surfaces.
Here, then, is the tipping point just up ahead. There is a threshold of dependency that, once crossed, may be irreversible in terms of our basic humanity. Essential survival skills are bred out and replaced with capacities suitable for application to the global web. Consciousness and desire likewise adapt to the pervasive technologies in our midst, as even emotions and sensations are approximately replicable. Our very identities become reflexively intertwined with this grid, just as our bodies are contingent upon its workings. At a certain point in time, if not already realized by now, there comes into existence a new line of humankind: homo technologicus.
We are potentially on the cusp of one of the most significant alterations in the fabric of the species. Instantiated concretely, we can easily envision a near future where everyone possesses (or has implanted, if you want to go there) a personal communications device that carries with it real-time GPS and RFID data-streaming capabilities in a fully wired world. Wherever we move in this landscape, our location is logged electronically and our economic credentials are verified biometrically. We can simply pick up items from store shelves and stroll out with them, with each purchase being automatically tabulated. Status updates of our movements and interactions will be uploaded instantaneously to our personal profiles for remote friends to share. And, in fact, whether in physical or virtual space, the likes and preferences of our circles of association will be with us, helping to guide our choices of real goods and focal points of information alike.
This is just around the next corner, technologically speaking. Even more compelling, however, will be the speed at which this brave new world moves. Microprocessors that mirror the capacity (even if not quite the efficacy) of the human brain will become part and parcel of the enterprise. Mere thought alone could activate the various nodes of consumption and communication that define the nexus of our lives. The texture of reality gradually begins to shift, as perception equally includes the tangible and intangible aspects of existence. Over time, with new evolutions of the paradigm introduced incrementally so as to allow seamless adaptation, the virtual comes to eclipse the physical as the dominant sphere of human interchange. We are not merely dependent upon the technological web that undergirds our lives – we have become symbiotic with it and, in a remarkable progression of interdependent fortunes, just as integral to its survival as it is to ours.
You use your own science-fiction allusions to speculate on where humanity is bound on its current path. Some will be tempted to opt imaginarily for a “Matrix”-like scenario in which our total enslavement is ensured by those who promulgate and profit from the baseline technological inputs that frame our lives. Others may see an almost spiritual deliverance in the experience of reality from a formless, transcendent viewpoint in which our minds live freed from the shackles of mundane existence. A few may indeed be seeking to craft a calculated and integrated vision of economy, theology and bureaucracy for less than altruistic purposes. A handful are striving to opt out in anticipation of an upheaval that seems perpetually in the offing. On some level, all of us are being and will be impacted by the rapid changes at hand. That thin line between utopia and dystopia, between autonomy and captivity, awaits us like a back-porch web in the breeze.
I sat for a while today and watched a flock of birds delicately pick seeds from the tenuous fruit of a majestic tree. Gazing down a vast green canopy that slowly yields to bustling prairies below, I watched in receptive stillness as wraithlike clouds skirted atop obsidian peaks, stoically rising behind rich vermillion cliffs on the unending horizon. In my mind’s eye, I could never imagine a system as elegant and enduring as that before me. Nor am I all that inclined even to try.
Randall Amster J.D., Ph.D., teaches peace studies at Prescott College and serves as the executive director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is the co-edited volume “Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action” (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).